We Lost A Warrior: Deborah Holmes, Journalist and Social Justice Leader

Deborah Holmes, journalist, activist, and social justice leader.

It is with sad heart that I write about the loss of Deborah Holmes. I had the privilege of working with Deborah in March of this year as I prepared to write about the history of women’s funding for progressive change. Deborah was tremendously devoted to her work, and was a fantastic collaborator in creating the ideas for my recent posts published on Inside Philanthropy and The Chronicle of Social Change.


Deborah Holmes will be honored at a memorial on June 14th at 2 pm at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Several people have written about Deborah’s legacy since her loss on April 27, 2018. I thought of trying to provide excerpts, but each of the statements about Deborah seems to have its own integrity, so I am providing them in full below.

Cynthia Nimmo, President and CEO of Women’s Funding Network, wrote:

This evening I am writing to you, our many sisters throughout the network, to share the devastating news that Deborah Holmes passed away this morning, April 27.

Deborah learned two weeks ago that she had cancer.  She was prepared to fight it with the tenacity she brought to everything.  Despite her and her doctors’ best efforts, this final battle was lost.  I know this comes as a shock and our team joins you in our grief and disbelief.  Deborah was a very private person and had not wanted to share her news while she was on her healing journey.  Just a week ago we talked about her wishes to get back to work as soon as possible, however, things turned very quickly and now she is gone. 

I spent much of the past 3 days in the ICU with Deborah.  It is important to me that you know that Deborah was at peace and she made sure to write that down so we knew.  She liked her doctors and knew they were making every attempt to heal her.  She was a long-time member of Grace Cathedral and they sent a Reverend over within minutes of her arrival at the ICU to pray with her.  This morning we prayed with her to send her on her way home.

In true Deborah fashion, she wanted nothing to do with flowers or cards or people crying over her.  When we asked her what her wishes were for her service, she said a service wasn’t important to her but we could all have one if we wanted.  Deborah’s brother, Greg Holmes, will plan a service with Grace Cathedral to be held in May. Women’s Funding Network will be honoring her in every way we can think of to reflect the force for good that she was.

Deborah’s focus has always been on helping others, and to right the injustices women face – in particular women of color. We at Women’s Funding Network, will continue this work.  For us, Deborah was far more than a Chief Communications Officer.  She was my confidante, our big picture thinker, and a voice that ensured the intersection of race and gender was at the forefront at all times.  She brought such vibrancy to our office, always playing music, bringing in home-made treats, and yelling out loud at the bad news of the day.  As a CEO, it is a gift to work with such a leader.  I speak for our team when I say we learned so much from Deborah.  I respected her deeply and will miss her always.

Deborah Holmes was a member of the Global Press Board of Directors, which also issued a statement:

It is with great sadness that we share the news that Deborah Holmes, a member of the Global Press Board of Directors, passed away on Friday.

She was diagnosed with cancer just two weeks ago. This has been a shock to all of us who knew and loved Deborah.  As we mourn her passing, we are also gratefully acknowledging Deborah’s legacy — her powerful commitment to justice and equality.

A former investigative journalist, Deborah spent the last decade at the Global Fund for Women and Women’s Funding Network where she worked to advance justice and equality for women around the world.

I first met Deborah in 2012 and she instantly became an advocate for the women of Global Press and their journalism. Deborah was always sharing Global Press Journal stories with friends and colleagues, passionately insisting that our journalism could change the world. And as a member of the Global Press board she co-created a strategic communication sub-committee and worked to advance our work in countless ways.

To honor her legacy, Global Press Journal will debut an award for exceptional coverage of racial justice in Deborah’s name. We’ll share more details about the award in the coming months. In the meantime, we extend our deepest condolences to Deborah’s family, friends and colleagues.

Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO, Global Fund for Women, also issued this statement:

It is with extreme sadness that I write to inform you that our courageous sister and friend Deborah Holmes died this morning peacefully. Deborah had breast cancer some years ago and it came back with force. Despite medical effort and Deborah’s own bold and good fight, the battle was lost to cancer this morning April 27, 2018. I write knowing that this news will come as a shock to many of you – it was Deborah’s wish that she fight this battle privately until the end, with the fortitude and resilience that all of us knew her for.

I was with Deborah for many hours of her last journey in the past few days. She knew everything  about her illness and the medical interventions offered to her. She collaborated to make things better, but once she knew that the course of nature could not be reversed, she was at peace. She motioned me to give her the writing pad we used to communicate with each other and she wrote on it, “ I am at peace”.  She died in the presence of her only brother, Gregory Holmes, and his wife Maria Holmes.

At the time of her death, Deborah was Chief Communication and Engagement Officer at the Women’s Funding Network (WFN)  and the CEO of WFN gave her every possible support to the last minute.

Deborah worked for the Global Fund for Women from 2008 – 2017, just over eight years. In her time at the Global Fund for Women, she served as the VP of Communications (2008-2014) and as Chief of Staff (2014 -2017).

Deborah was extremely loved and respected by Board, staff, and partners of Global Fund for Women. As VP of Communications, Deborah played a key role in developing and institutionalizing Global Fund for Women’s communications strategy. She positioned Global Fund for Women as a thought leader on women’s rights issues in major media, and she led creative and successful efforts for the 20th and 25th anniversary gala years. She acted as a liaison to the board during the CEO transition in 2009, was an integral part of the leadership team and in the founding of the Staff Council, as well as taking on responsibilities for Human Resources. During her tenure as Chief of Staff and also head of HR, Deborah led the revision of policies to ensure equity and justice in our internal systems.

As a co-leader, Deborah was invaluable: she was our biggest cheerleader and our toughest critic. Her strength was contagious. Nothing could stop Deborah on a mission. She pushed organizations and people to embrace change and think differently. She challenged and supported staff to do better and to see a better future. She cared deeply about justice issues between people and she was not diplomatic about calling out racial injustice in this country and elsewhere. She could not tolerate injustice.

Behind Deborah’s strength also lay deep compassion, thoughtfulness, and kindness. She always welcomed new employees, she baked bread and cakes for the whole staff, she was an ear of wisdom and advice whenever she was called upon. She was a tireless champion of those she managed, and deeply loved by the team she supervised.

As Kavita Ramdas, my predecessor as CEO who hired Deborah, has so movingly and aptly noted, Deborah was: “a small package exploding with warmth, generosity, intelligence, style, and a passionate commitment to fusing beauty with justice…she understood the power of story. The power of women’s voice. The power of lived experience. The power of rising from the ashes and telling others it was possible. And, still we rise.”

Deborah’s savvy and commitment to justice was coupled with flair and incredible personal style. The fun part of Deborah were her shoes. We all wanted Deborah’s chic style, including shoes that matched her attire!  She knew how to dress smart and travel light. Deborah never checked in luggage because she made good choices in what she selected and matched for travel.

Before coming to Global Fund for Women, Deborah was Senior Vice President of Fleishman Hillard and the Director of Public Relations & Marketing for the Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Missouri. An accomplished television news reporter and analyst for more than 30 years, Deborah worked for local and international news organizations and received numerous awards for investigative reporting and documentaries.

Throughout her life, Deborah was a passionate advocate for causes she cared about including racial and social justice and equity, political empowerment, and freedom of the press. She acted as Board President for Bridging the Gap and the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, and was the Chair of the Board of Wellesley Centers for Women. She also served on the boards of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Foundation, Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy, Association of Black Fundraising Executives, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of HIV/AIDS, Wesport Ministry in Housing, Global Press Institute, and many others.

To celebrate Deborah’s life, at her family’s request, please make a donation to a cancer organization of your choice in Deborah’s memory.

We have lost a sister and her life illuminates values that unite and inspire us all. As we all come together to mourn Deborah’s passing, let us remember and celebrate her remarkable, bold, and passionate life.

On May 3, The Women’s Funding Network announced a Women of Color Internship Fund which will honor the legacy of Deborah Holmes. You may contribute to the Deborah Holmes Internship for young women of color fund here.

I invite members of the community to share your remembrances of Deborah Holmes in the comments below.

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

2 thoughts on “We Lost A Warrior: Deborah Holmes, Journalist and Social Justice Leader”

  1. Thank you for this memorial about Deborah. She was a bright shining star in Kansas City before she continued her brilliance in San Francisco. While visiting my daughter, of all people, I randomly ran into Deborah, which was such a wonderful surprise! God Speed to an incredible and beautiful force for all that is good.

  2. Thank you for shedding some light on Deborah’s final moments. My mom was good friends with Deborah when she lived in KC, and we just found out about her passing. We are so relieved to hear that she wasn’t alone during her transition. She will be greatly missed!

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