Community members and education leaders in Oakland are reeling from the loss of Dirk Tillotson, a prominent education activist who was killed in his home last week.
Tillotson, 52, led an organization called Great School Choices, wrote about education equity in Oakland on his blog Great School Voices, and spent his career helping to start and support schools in Oakland, New York City, New Orleans, and overseas in Qatar. He pushed schools and school leaders to improve educational outcomes, like literacy rates, standardized test scores, and graduation rates, for Black students and students of color. Tillotson was also a lawyer who volunteered as an advocate for families in discipline hearings and other legal issues.
He rejected categorizations such as “pro-charter school” or “anti-union” or “anti-public schools” and just wanted to fight for the best opportunities for children, his friends and colleagues said.
“Dirk just had a way of making sure families had power. He didn’t care what type of school it was, they all needed to serve Black kids better, and Dirk was never shy about that. That was his spirit,” said Tillotson’s friend and mentee Charles Cole III.
Equity and justice in education had been Tillotson’s ambitions since he was in law school at UC Berkeley in the 1990s. In 1995, when a racist letter was distributed to some students of color railing against affirmative action, 25-year-old Tillotson participated in a rally condemning the act. At a time when the debate over affirmative action in California’s institutions was heating up (Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action, was approved in 1996), Tillotson was defending Black students’ rights to be at Berkeley.
Some of his earliest involvement in the local education scene was with the West Oakland Community School, a middle school that opened in 1999 with an Afrocentric curriculum and culture. Tillotson was searching for a new school for a boy he had been working with, and learned about the school from a newspaper article. In his own words, Tillotson admired that “there were a bunch of Black folks and some honorary Black folks sitting around tables in West Oakland trying to figure out how we can save our kids in the face of a system that was failing them.”
“Dirk would come by the school and if I was working on a grant application and had 1,000 other things to do, he would say ‘Here Mama Marjorie, let me take that, I’ll finish that for you,’” said the Rev. Marjorie W. Matthews, a co-founder of the school. “If a child was struggling with something in study hall, he would sit down and help that child. He just did whatever the moment required.”
It was around that time that Tillotson met Jumoke Hinton, and the two began a deep friendship and working relationship that would last for the next 20 years. Several years ago, Tillotson, Hinton, Cole and Bennie Patterson launched the State of Black Education in Oakland, an organization that advocates on behalf of Black students and families to address some of the abysmal Black student achievement rates in Oakland. For example, prior to the pandemic, just one in three Black students in OUSD met or exceeded grade level standards in reading, and fewer than that met or exceeded math standards.
“He was an advocate for Black children learning how to read and compete, and that’s by any means necessary,” Hinton said.
The group championed policies like the Opportunity Ticket, which allows students whose schools are closing to have a priority in enrolling at the school of their choice in Oakland Unified School District, a housing for all policy that directs OUSD to consider using some of its vacant properties as housing for homeless youth, and a distance learning plan during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, Tillotson also began hosting Access Denied, a web series examining the digital divide and how to bring internet access to all youth in their homes.
Friends and colleagues praised Tillotson’s humble leadership and his efforts to hold leaders accountable for Black students’ success. For the last nine years until his death, he served on the board of Education for Change Public Schools, a charter school network that operates six schools in Oakland, and led the board’s student outcomes committee.
“One of the things I admired most about Dirk, as he was speaking truth to power and pushing people on these issues, he still managed to maintain positive relationships,” said Larissa Adam, the superintendent of Education for Change.
Last month, Tillotson became chair of the board when former chair Nick Driver became the interim chief financial officer for the network.
“He was always about shining a spotlight on the things that we weren’t doing well enough,” Driver said. “He did it with grace and with humor, but he was pointed and he was adamant that we needed to make more progress.”
Reverend Matthews, who now leads Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland, said Tillotson taught her how to lead with compassion and without raising one’s voice. She cherished his fidelity to his cause, and for relentlessly pushing schools and those with power to serve Black students better.
“Dirk embodied the spirit of hope. He passed that gift along to all of us, that we can’t ever stop imagining a better future for our kids,” she said. “At the point that we do that, change really is no longer possible.”
Several public officials, including OUSD superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Alameda County office of education superintendent L.K. Monroe, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and City Councilmember Loren Taylor, who represents the district where Tillotson lived, expressed similar sentiments upon his death.
Hinton, who served on OUSD’s school board from 2009 to 2020, is motivated by the Frederick Douglass quote that Tillotson kept in his email signature: “It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”
“Every time I read it I almost cry. That’s our work. What we’re left with is that we have to build strong children. Ultimately [Dirk] fell to a broken man,” she said.
Tillotson’s death was the 105th homicide in Oakland this year. On Oct. 1, Oakland police responded to reports of a shooting at Tillotson’s home in the Maxwell Park neighborhood. Tillotson and his wife were shot during a home invasion robbery, according to police. His wife was transported to a hospital and survived her injuries, but Tillotson was pronounced dead at the scene. The investigation is ongoing, and police have asked that anyone with information call the homicide division at (510) 238-3821.
Tillotson’s friends and colleagues are planning a private remembrance ceremony to honor him, and a public act at City Hall, to call attention to gun violence in Oakland, Hinton said. While more details about the public event haven’t been announced yet, Hinton said they want to take time to grieve their friend before moving to action.
For Cole, who helped to launch the State of Black Education in Oakland with Hinton and Tillotson, maintaining Tillotson’s legacy means continuing that work.
“We have to honor him through our work. These rates have to get better for Black kids, and there has to be more truth telling. That’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
A GoFundMe has been created to support Tillotson’s family, including his wife Amina and son Malcolm.