Part II: Reflecting on the Man and Method behind the Madness: What is Great School Voices and What has been its Impact?

Today, March 31, is Dirk’s birthday.  There’s no better moment than now, as a tribute to all he’s done for us, to share why he brought Great School Voices to life.  

Dirk created this blog to fill an unmet need, beginning with Oakland. That need and purpose are fourfold. They are to:

  • Amplify the voices of the community, who we firmly believe are the truth-tellers and know best about what students’ needs are, what success looks like, and what students need from school to succeed;
  • Raise authentic and data-driven awareness of the issues facing public schools (and yes, that includes charters) and the solutions that the community has identified;
  • Build movements where the community at large holds it’s elected officials and schools accountable
  • Recognize and celebrate change for community-driven education reforms that create equity for our most underserved families, who historically have been Black, brown, and new immigrants.

For nearly seven years, Dirk played all of the instruments in this band. He wrote over 90% of the posts, drawing information and inspiration from just being present. Dirk was a permanent fixture at OUSD Board meetings and every education-related event in the East Bay. He was hard to miss with his tall, broad frame that most likely sported some Oakland A’s garb while carrying around his signature messenger bag.  He nodded deeply in affirmation when he agreed, and raised his hand and voice when he didn’t. His voice and laugh were unmistakable. You’d often find him at the local bar, drinking whatever IPA was on tap while digging deep into data and jotting notes on one of his many yellow legal pads. In fact, many met him at Degrees Plato, where he listened without judgment to the stories and perspectives of fellow education activists, and held space for them to be vulnerable about their work in service to Oakland’s children. Nearly everyone affiliated with this blog got to know Dirk in this way.

He was just…available. With Dirk, you were heard, and you were remembered.

Most of the time, Dirk was also a one-man band as a parent advocate. That work didn’t make the headlines. He answered cold calls from perfect strangers who were parents that needed his help. He’d take the time to represent a student at a disciplinary hearing that he didn’t even know. He’d secure funding for translation and other family engagement services for Yemeni families, for example, when he saw that the data highlighted their academic plight. To link the narrative to the data, he’d then showcase you and your story, right here at Great School Voices.

What made it to the page here at Great School Voices were the issues that he couldn’t solve on his own. They were the challenges that needed amplification, a plight that needed a voice, or data that showcased an opportunity or catastrophic failure. 

Without fail, the weaving of narrative and data gave us an authentic portrayal of the state of Black education in Oakland. Dirk made this blog equity-focused and met you where you were. He profiled and showcased guests that shared in common experience, who also told narratives that bounded in data, and that most certainly included students. For folx new to data or turned off by it, he showed the value of data to support your decisions for your children, whether you were Black or Latinx.  He made data understandable and centered it to a larger policy issue.  

And then he got you to act. In nearly every post, he asked you to join the conversation, however, you could. He pled for your help and helped you evaluate other ways to get involved in advocacy. From the page, he then turned to partnerships and in-person gatherings as further kindling for action. Dirk was egoless in his pursuit of educational justice, collaborating with well-established organizations with whom he had no qualms holding them with love-filled accountability to even creating other organizations with other reform leaders. Other times, he amplified others who continue to do the work, both in serving families and advocating for them

These convenings became the heart and soul of another signature initiative, the State of Black Education in Oakland (SOBEO) that he launched with other dedicated pioneers from The Town. SOBEO helped you, the reader, take the leap from the page you’re reading to connecting with other people invested in changing the educational outcomes for all of Oakland’s children. Through SOBEO, we followed you, the community, from converting conversation to action. 

Together, we elucidated a process in which you, the community, broke bread, shared conversation remotely and in-person, performed community research, presented findings, and created policy recommendations termed the Black Paper that you then turned into wins for the community. And certainly not least, we celebrated our wins and each other, providing recognition and gratitude in a space where it’s often rare. 

And holy crap, as Dirk would say, those wins were huge. The Black Paper secured unanimous adoption of the Opportunity Ticket, when, in partnership with the Oakland Reach, we expanded enrollment options for students in failing schools. With FIA Oakland and Energy Convertors, we brought much-needed attention to how the A-G graduation requirements disproportionately impact Black and brown students when schools issue out D grades. We shined a light on the intersectionality of education with other public crises facing Oaklanders, where our collective work on the issue of housing led to unanimous OUSD adoption of our Housing for All policy.  

And when the pandemic sent schooling home to inadequate equipment and services to families, we took Comcast to task, raising awareness and collective action on how it priced and restricted access.  Great School Voices called attention to initiatives like the Hub, in which some parents have bluntly stated that their children learned more there than in their schools. It’s no accident the accolades and the support that Oakland REACH’s work has received; to say it’s well-deserved is an understatement.

Through it, all, Great School Voices and SOBEO merely provided your stories and the inclusive space, focused on community ideas and strength, within which you identified your leaders and partners. From there, you created power, and exercised it in constructive ways to benefit every student, because we know that when Black Lives Matter, everyone wins. You built the capacity and led better from it.

As one man, he pioneered all of this, yet Dirk would never admit to his part in any of it. How did he accomplish these feats, and what role did Great School Voices play? 

By far, the most critical element to the work centered around his humanity, a humanity that breathes within each of us. Whether you realized it or not, he was that very student he fought for both here at Great School Voices and with the policies he championed through the State of Black Education.  He was a father, determined to provide his son Malcolm the responsibility and freedom to be his own man.  He wanted each child to either never experience the lives that nearly all underserved families face or when they invariably do to have someone who understands them, has their back, and fights for them.

Equally important, his humility – both in terms of his role in the work and his embrace of the work – created the space for collective action to happen. He knew he couldn’t do it alone and certainly did not have all of the answers, and he also knew the work would be tiring. The former always gave fuel for the latter though. He met everyone. He served on more boards than we have fingers. He partnered with anyone, even with those who disagreed. He listened and made sure you were heard. 

Dirk exuded authenticity. He had no fear of coarse language when it demanded it, showed his tears when he felt it, and freely hugged and celebrated because he knew your pain and your efforts. He spoke truth and built trust because his agenda was simple. You knew his core beliefs without him ever mentioning a single one, because deep down, you shared them too:

  • Power rests with the people.  We just have to rise when we are called. I’ve personally heard him say this many times, both to me and to dozens of parents or school leaders about making sure we all do right by our students: “No one can ever f*ck with a thousand parents beating down your door.”
  • Abundance over scarcity: Focus on the possibilities and the solutions. The rest is just noise designed to keep us in our corners
  • Above all also, students matter most: He built magic when you were aligned with the universal belief that every student matters, and that they need all hands on deck to receive the education they deserve.

Dirk built a groundswell of trust in his intentions and his actions because of these truths. By embodying them and seeing them in you, he helped you believe in yourself and the possibilities despite the Sisyphean trek ahead. 

Put together his humanity, humility, authenticity, solution-orientation, and unwavering belief in the power of community voice and the abundance available to our children (no matter what policymakers said to your face), and you have the core values of Great School Voices and SOBEO: building your trust by speaking your truth; honoring your truth through community engagement and action.

In all of this, Great School Voices has been providing you, the reader, the opportunity to make a community assessment of this one, essential question: “What is the state of Black education?” In this space, we share your answers, and what the data tell us.  With SOBEO, we change those answers together and bring your voice and your solutions to a table that belongs to you. There is so much more work in store.  As much as Dirk has been the face of it, it’s always been our work. 

Happy birthday, our Dirk. Your work has been our gift, and our gift to you in return is to honor your truth with action. We’ll fill your shoes and your messenger bag. Check-in tomorrow to see how we plan on doing that.

What do you think?

More Comments