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Education Activist Dirk Tillotson Was as Real as They Come

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Education Activist Dirk Tillotson Was as Real as They Come

Courtney E. Martin is an author and entrepreneur. Her latest book is “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School.” Courtney is the co-founder of The Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH Speakers Bureau. Courtney has authored/edited six books, including “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women.” Full profile →

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Last Friday, October 1, Oakland education activist Dirk Tillotson was murdered in his home. He was as real as they come, self-described as the “patron saint of lost causes.” His death is a massive loss for those who knew and loved him, especially his wife and son, but also Oakland families and children — writ large.

I met Dirk a few years ago, in the process of writing my book, and he became one of a few people who influenced me most deeply in how I think about education, but more importantly, how I want to live my life. We collaborated a bit. We exchanged emails last week about having a beer soon. He had just finished the book.

I quoted him in it and thanked him in the acknowledgments, but what he’ll never know is that this passage ended up on the cutting room floor. I re-read it after learning of his death and it struck me as weirdly appropriate for adding to people’s understanding of his life. No doubt there will be many testimonials from people who knew him far better and far longer. I will treasure every one.

Here it is…

I get to World Grounds Café in the Laurel District of Oakland, our usual meeting spot, an hour early and read some studies while eavesdropping on a few old ladies commiserating about getting older. Dirk Tilloston comes in at the agreed upon time and gives me a warm smile. He’s wearing his usual stubble and square black glasses, plus a t-shirt that says, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” — Benjamin Franklin.

“How are you?” he asks me, but in that way that is sort of disarming because you realize the person actually wants to know the answer. There are no empty formalities with Dirk. He’s all common sense and kindness.

I tell him the story of how I, a white mom, accidentally became the president of the school site council at our Black-majority school. In short, a newer white mom with very little humility and a potential conflict of interest self-nominated and no one else wanted the job; a Black teacher at the school nominated me, to my complete surprise, and I accepted assuming, at least in that split second, that it was the right thing to do. He listens nodding and nodding, saying “Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yup.”

I’m feeling conflicted about it: “My intention was to show up and listen for a lot longer,” I explain.

“You gotta dig in where you can,” he says. “Don’t overthink it. Especially if it’s what the teachers want. Just don’t be an asshole.”

And just like that, I feel the drama leak out of the thing. Dig in where you can, I write down in my unlined notebook.

We talk about approaches to literacy, as well. I bend his ear about the revived “reading wars,” telling him that I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the conflicting voices. I’m reading studies. I’m taking webinars. I’m listening to podcasts. I’m talking to the local NAACP rep and other parents and my neighbors, and everyone has a slightly different take and seems convinced they are right. “I feel like I need a Ph.D. in literacy to understand all this stuff,” I finally sputter to a close.

“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Naw, naw,” he says. “You don’t have to be an expert on literacy. You just have to care whether kids can read at your school and start to push in little, practical ways to make sure more of them do.”

Right. Of course. Dig in where you can. It’s so easy for me to get twisted up in knots. I forget that my job isn’t to resolve decades-old feuds within public education, but to show up. Again and again. To make people feel listened to and respected. To keep focusing on the kids and their basic human right to feel capable of and enjoy learning.

“Make sure the teachers know you’re not blaming anyone,” he goes on. “You’re there to help them get more support, more books, more partners.”

Then I ask him about a group of relatively privileged parents and teachers that has sprung up in Oakland in the wake of a controversial school merger, co-opting the language of marginalized communities who are the vast majority of victims of school closures and instability. His face clouds over. They’re taking over school board meetings. Unlike so many people involved in educational advocacy, Dirk’s anger isn’t cheap. I’m struck by how often he focuses on what’s possible rather than who’s wrong.

He’s one of the only Black education activists in Oakland that I speak with who appears to reserve the right to believe that white people might show up differently. He’s certainly not naïve, but he also refuses to vilify anyone when there is a slim chance that their redemption just might help some immigrant kid in Oakland. That’s his north star; in other words, he’d rather be wrong about a white person than let his own cynicism hurt a Black kid’s chances. He took a cold call from me, after all.

On the other hand, he’s nobody’s fool.

Case in point: Frick Academy, a middle school founded in 1909 with money from a successful lumberman, W.P. Frick, is, in 2020, a shadow of its former self — kids, who are bringing their own blankets to school because the heat had been broken all school year, have started taking to social media to publicize their predicament. There is no eighth grade math or science teacher. No gym teacher. No sixth grade teacher at all for two full months. Over half of the kids are Black, and another 42% are Latinx. Only 1% are white. The school, like Emerson, where my own kid goes, is a 1 out of 10 on GreatSchools.org. Dirk got wind of this the week prior and had a few things to say about it on his blog:

I am down for Frick, let me know how I can help, those are our babies, and we are throwing them to wolves. 

So, to y’all on the conspiracy tip, you got one here. No doubt, but keep fighting to recall a board member who ain’t even running, shutting down board meeting over philanathrocapitalistic plots and other 5 dollar words that our kids can’t read cuz we didn’t teach them.

That’s the system — 18% of Black kids in OUSD read on grade level; 72% of white kids do — and that gap has widened over the last 5 years — yeah that’s the billionaire plot — nothing that has to do with us or the system that can allow some schools (Frick) to not have the minimum of what a school should. 

Those kids are set up for failure — that WOULD NOT happen in the Hills.

But a fish doesn’t see the water it swims in, and it’s a lot easier to fight imagined enemies external to us, than those that live and breathe with and within us.

He never names the group, but there’s no question that this is who he is referring to: “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he tells me. “I mean I remember back at Cal when you had the BAMN folks who would yell at you about not being radical enough or authentic enough. They’d even threaten violence, trying to sort of test how down you really were.”

Dirk is talking about a moment in the mid-90s when a radical left group, By Any Means Necessary, was created in order to fight against anti-affirmative action policy like the infamous Prop 209 (which transformed the demographic of California universities). He was in graduate school at the time (Dirk has both a law degree and a Ph.D., though he never flaunts either), trying to wrap his mind around the system that had broken his heart many times. They yelled at him for being too interested in fixes when the whole house needed to be burned down. He heard them out, but didn’t let it derail his way of moving through the world. One school at a time, one kid at a time, one coalition at a time. Do a little good. Then do some more. It’s got to add up to something.

The phrase — “by any means necessary” — was popularized by Malcolm X, of course. In 1965, the last year of his life, he gave a speech in which he said, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Many people saw it as the ultimate endorsement of violence for virtuous ends. Malcolm may have gotten it from Sartre. In his play, Dirty Hands, published in 1963, he wrote: “I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.”

Each of us inherited lies when we were born. Is this what I’m trying to do? Pass on fewer lies? In a sense. That seems right. I felt hoodwinked by all the colorblind bullshit I was raised on. I feel repelled by the achievement-obsessed, histrionic culture of whiteness. I want something different for my daughters.

Maybe Sartre would think that was pathetically small, as goals go. Instead: Take the whole damn system down. Disrupt business as usual. Make the villains’ lives hell. That’s what so many progressive folks seem to think they are doing these days.

When I ask Dirk who he thinks the villains are, he doesn’t skip a beat: “The system is the villain. It’s built to serve some kids and leave other kids behind. It’s life or death, not to sound too dramatic, but it is. That’s what we should be talking about.”

That’s what I’ll keep talking about. I want so many more coffees and beers with him, so many more laughs and wandering, wide-ranging conversations, collaborations, and snapshots of his tomato harvests and his flower arrangements for his beloved wife.

What I learned from losing my friend and mentor, Courtney Everts Myktyn, a couple of years ago is that I have to settle for an ongoing relationship in my own head and heart. I have written her many letters. No doubt I will do the same with Dirk. I can imagine most of his cosmic replies will be pretty simple: Don’t be an asshole. Dig in where you can. I’ll try Dirk. I’ll try my best in honor of you.

You can read more about Dirk’s work on his blog, Great School Voices, and donate to a Go Fund Me to support his family here.

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