"This is the work I need to do. That’s where I need to be: helping people, impacting lives and creating change."
Though it amounts to less than one percent of the population, Providence is home to one of the largest Liberian immigrant communities in the country. Henrietta White-Holder is among that population, having come to America in 1980 to escape a country about to be ravaged by two civil wars. “I just saw the unraveling of a place,” she recalls. “I almost felt helpless, like what can I do to make a difference?”
Higher Ground International, the nonprofit she founded in 2008, is her attempt to answer that nagging question. It’s a community rebuilding organization that owns over 100 acres of land in Liberia, on which it plans to build housing, a life skills center and manufacturing facilities in order to rehabilitate and reintegrate people whose lives were destroyed by the violence. “We can see a community rise from the ashes of war,” she asserts.
Holder believes her nonprofit is different, and better positioned to make a real impact than the countless well-meaning organizations that try – and fail – to help Africa each year. “The way we’ve been doing nonprofit work is no longer sustainable,” Holder says. “We’re always waiting for government funding, always chasing the dollars. It doesn’t work any more. We have to be forward-thinking and sustainable.”
To that end, Holder founded Higher Ground’s sister organization, Broken Pieces International, as a for-profit social enterprise producing apparel and accessories. It is already seeking a permanent, full-time manufacturing space right here in Providence to provide job opportunities and training to underserved communities. Those profits will fund Higher Ground’s work back in Liberia, focusing first on basic needs like installing hand pumps to provide clean water.
“I strongly and firmly believe that this is the new way of doing business,” Holder says. “We have to switch up the model. Be creative. People want jobs – they don’t want you making promises.”
• Attended Rhode Island College for nonprofit studies and Johnson and Wales for marketing.
• Works full time for Refocus, Inc., a nonprofit agency serving adults with physical and developmental disabilities.
• Has three children: Harriet, Hilary, Jr. and Sheldon.
• Most of her family calls her by her African name, Tonia.
• Has lived in Rhode Island the entire time since she left Liberia.
• Started off working in the travel and tourism industry in the ‘80s.