Prominent Oakland education-equality advocate Dirk Tillotson or his Maxwell Park residence may have been targeted in the Friday night home invasion that resulted in him being shot to death and his wife, Amina Assefa, wounded.
Assefa was treated at a local hospital for a gunshot wound and released, Oakland police said.
“It does appear to be a targeted incident,” said Oakland police spokeswoman Kim Armstead, adding that she could not specify whether the target was the East Oakland townhouse or a person.
The shooting was reported at 11:29 p.m. Friday at the couple’s home in the 2600 block of Monticello Avenue, which is a primarily residential area. Authorities said both victims were asleep when at least one person broke into the home. Tillotson, 52, was awakened by the noise and was shot after confronting the suspect, who also shot Assefa, authorities said. No arrests had been made as of Sunday at 3:45 p.m., Armstead said.
Tillotson’s career in education activism took him all over the globe, from helping to reform schools in Qatar, to working on educational equity issues in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to helping to incubate the first autism inclusion school in Harlem, New York, to expanding translation services for Oakland students.
“The world lost one of the best advocates for education in the world,” said Paul Le, who with Tillotson founded Great School Choices — a nonprofit that fights to give all students an equal shot at educational success. “Even though he never tooted his own horn, that’s what we lost last night.”
Tillotson graduated from UC Berkeley’s law school, Boalt Hall, and passed the California State Bar to become a lawyer but was not practicing law at the time of his death, according to the Bar association.
Tillotson wrote several op-ed articles for this news organization. In one 2015 article, he celebrated a new contract for Oakland Unified School District teachers, but added that “Oakland still has a ton of work to do in delivering quality education equitably.” The city, he wrote, had a long way to go to close achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color. He called for a “multi-year sustained focus on our most challenged schools,” and an improved, more equitable enrollment system to “help match our most challenged students with the best school options.”
On his blog, Tillotson wrote, “I have been called the patron saint of lost causes, the guy who will help do things when others won’t or think it’s too risky.”
Theo Oliphant, friends with Tillotson for 29 years, said the man’s dedication to activism impressed him from the start. By his second year of law school, Tillotson already was volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate, fighting for the educational rights of foster children, Oliphant said.
“He was a magnet for people because you could be vulnerable around him and he supported you in your vulnerability,” Oliphant said. “And there was no judgment.”
Tillotson and Le had been planning to launch a new initiative in the coming weeks to expand their activism nationwide, Le said. The project, Led Better, will still launch, Le said, in Tillotson’s name. “But it sucks that he won’t be able to see the fruits of that labor.”
Led Better will offer teachers remote, digital training in special education, English as a second language and other high-need areas. The goal is to make these services more accessible and more affordable to all educators. The project is set to start in California and New York, and then branch out to other states, Le said.
A GoFundMe page launched Saturday to help support Assefa and the couple’s son, Malcolm, had raised nearly $25,000 by Sunday afternoon.
Tillotson’s killing is the 105th death being investigated as a homicide this year by Oakland police. Last year at this time police had investigated 80 homicides in the city. Oakland police investigated a total of 109 homicides last year.
Staff writer Harry Harris contributed to this report.