Remembering Dirk Tillotson

“Students who need the most and deserve the most, tend to get the least while the privileged magnify their advantages. That’s the system and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.”  – Dirk Tillotson

Force of Nature. A Movement. Leading Light. Unapologetic, Consistent Warrior for Justice. Brave Truth Teller. Always Laughing.

These are a handful of the countless phrases used this past week to describe the inimitable Dirk Tillotson, our Founder and Executive Director, who we all lost tragically last weekend following a home invasion.

Ann Arbor born, Albany and California educated, New York City and Oakland evolved, Dirk’s embracing of equity began quite early.  After college at SUNY Brockport, Dirk started working with children at the Northeast Parent and Child Society in Schenectady, a residential treatment facility for at-risk youth.  Then at Boalt Hall, he turned down full-time offers at prestigious law firms in the middle of a recession as well as finishing his doctorate to instead pursue community-focused work, even volunteering in his first year of law school as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster and emancipated youth.  His travels and experience led him directly to schools, where one would find him in Oakland, Qatar during the Second Gulf War, and New Orleans right after Katrina, supporting the creation of independent and charter schools on one hand, while advocating for students and families and challenging systemic racism in education on the other.

For those in New York, we would have known him for his roles as the interim CEO and COO of the New York City Charter Schools Center in 2007, and then the founder of the Charter School Incubator, which played a role in the opening of 19 community-based charter schools in Mount Vernon, Rochester, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.  Since that time, three of those schools have become networks.  So that Queens wasn’t neglected by his reach, the Incubator’s fundraising and grant-writing arm has secured over $30 million in state, federal, and philanthropic opportunities for schools, which funded lasting after school programs, facilities improvements, E-rate discounts, and professional coaching opportunities for special education students and English Language Learners, to name a few.  With his partner, Paul Le, Great School Choices, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was born, which in Dirk’s words, seeks to “work kind of on both sides of the issue.  We will help communities develop and continuously improve schools and ALSO support underserved families directly in getting access to better schools and full services and fair treatment.”

After leaving the Empire State and relocating to Oakland, CA, he incubated nearly as many initiatives focused on educational equity as he did schools. Most visibly, he published his advocacy blog Great School Voices, dedicated to amplifying the voices of students, and shining a spotlight on inequities and injustices in Oakland. Partnering with countless community organizations such as FIA Oakland and Educate78, Dirk’s muckraking resulted in tangible, lasting changes for the students of Oakland, where his State of Black Education in Oakland initiative attacked inequity from a multitude of fronts, by successfully demanding access for Black students in high performing schools, to the internet, and even public housing.

Since our pandemic-laden year, Dirk had taken his cause to the national stage, where his podcasts and web series pushed to desegregate the internet, highlighting how systemic racism has created internet deserts within cities and across swaths of rural areas across the country. Dirk’s awareness-raising and partnerships influenced the development of federal government programs that your schools and parents can still benefit from, including the Emergency Connectivity Fund and the Emergency Broadband Benefit as well as local, affordable internet initiatives in Oakland, New York City, and other areas. Great School Choices will still launch Ledbetter, a platform to provide low-cost, on-demand professional development to serve the teachers of America’s most needy students, and coaching for school leaders/communities to build great schools and to implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Even with all of these accolades and accomplishments that define his legacy, the stories that will forever remind us of Dirk’s bottomless well of love are when he stopped everything he was doing just to listen to a child, and remember the reason for his calling: 

  • In the mid-1990s, when he became a personal advocate for better options for his friend “Johnny” in West Oakland, thus starting his advocacy for high-quality charter schools; 
  • In 2010, in New Orleans, when in reviewing the schools subject for renewal following Katrina, he made it a point to check the student bathrooms to make sure that they were clean, and when he sat there, at recess, talking to a slew of children to ask them about their day; 
  • In 2017, when he sat with a young 9th grade and spent an hour listening to her, to learn what it meant to grow up Yemeni and Muslim in Oakland, because he wanted to know that story, and he wanted to know it, deeply.

This is who Dirk Tillotson is and why so many around the world are rocked to the core of our collective loss of one man: Dirk unwaveringly made it his life’s mission to assure that every Black, brown, and other students of color had access to a great school choice.

Dirk was a movement. This is where words and language have its limitations as they cannot even begin to adequately express the feelings of his family and his community.

“By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.” That is exactly what Dirk did – intensified, heightened, and improved the experience and world of education for our young minds. As many of us know, Dirk was the Founder and Executive Director of this incredible platform Great School Voices. For over thirty years, Dirk has been an educator, movement builder, and voice for making our school systems better, especially for Black students and other students of color. He has done this work in Oakland, New York City, Doha and New Orleans and places in between, always holding steadfast in his vision. He believed and fought for our kids because academically, high-quality education is an inherent right, not a luxury.

Despite being violently taken from us on Friday evening, his legacy will continue to live on, and with your readership, support, and commitment, it will. Please share and donate to the GoFundMe that was started for him and his family last night.  We encourage you to share and keep Dirk’s legacy alive.

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