SIT WITH Trish Millines Dziko, and you can still feel the passion that drove her to walk away from serious money to teach computer skills to minority children. It’s in her gaze, her candor, her words. Evolutionary. Revolutionary. Generational change.
Dziko has been at it since 1996, when she turned her back on more Microsoft stock options to create the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation. “We’ve been very lucky,” she said when she retired from Microsoft at 39, a millionaire. “And one of my first instincts as a person who grew up fairly poor is: You have it; you share it.”
An African American woman who rose from programming to prominence in Puget Sound’s largely white, male geekocracy, she has been anything but retiring. She remains committed to changing the world one kid at a time.
In her vision, that also means one teacher at a time, one principal, one superintendent, one school board, one PTSA and one archaic policy at a time. While she’s at it, why not try to transform the culture of philanthropy?
And do get her started on diversity. “The whole subject of diversity has become a multibillion-dollar industry with very little to show for it,” she says. The tech industry is still primarily male and white. And it’s hardly alone. Nonprofits whose constituents are mostly people of color tend to be run by white people.
“They don’t look like me,” Dziko says. “But they’re serving people like me.”
Her nonprofit, staffed mostly by women and minorities, started as an after-school program culminating in technology-related internships and $1,000 scholarships. It has morphed into a model for teaching in public schools. In its history, the foundation — TAF, as it’s known — reports that it has served some 19,000 students, resulting in a 95% high school graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate for those who applied.
Now, after two decades of challenges, frustrations and lessons, Dziko strides through the sixth-through-12th-grade public school that TAF runs in partnership with the Federal Way School District. Called TAF@Saghalie, it has adopted Dziko’s philosophy, which means weaving science, technology, engineering and math into child-centered and project-based learning. That, in turn, has led to variances in district policy to allow students to use the internet and email during school — and to read “The Hate U Give,” a best-selling young-adult novel about a 16-year-old girl who witnesses a police officer shooting her childhood friend.
Dziko, who played college basketball, still moves with the grace of an athlete. She stops to drape a friendly arm around a boy and exchange a few quiet words with a girl. Then she glides down a hall showcasing college acceptance letters, into a ninth-grade biology class, where students and their teacher, Brandon Carlisle, contrast the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and one of his contemporaries, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
The walls are decorated with student-made posters of science heroes. They’re not just the usual suspects, like Tesla and Einstein. There’s also Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist of Puerto Rican and African American descent, and Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist and the first African American woman awarded the National Medal of Science. Dziko is quick to credit teachers and others for TAF’s success. The foundation’s model has also been adapted by two public elementary schools in Tacoma, and TAF has a tentative agreement to bring its model to one of Seattle’s public schools. “We are the product of people who work here, and we wouldn’t be anything without them.” They’re people like Sherry Williams, who joined TAF when it was four months old as an administrative assistant. Williams now oversees its operations.
But as TAF’s executive director, Dziko is still the point guard, directing the team, guiding strategy, doing a bulk of the big fundraising, her raptor vision looking for opportunities for others. And she remains the public face of the foundation. It’s a role that’s somewhat uncomfortable for her.
“Sometimes, I feel the pressure of living up to the way people think I am,” she says. “People think I can solve anything. I really appreciate that people trust me. But the expectation is that I will always be on-point. But I’m not always. I’m just like everyone else. I have challenges like everyone else.”
She does promise this: “I am always who I am. No matter what the situation, you get Trish. I certainly know how to tailor my speech. But you will get the truth, no matter what.”
THERE IS NO QUESTION where Dziko got her drive, vision and selflessness.
“That comes directly from my mother,” she says. “Everything that I am as a person has to do with how she raised me and the things that I observed with her and the things she was able to accomplish as a woman who cleaned houses for a living. You can’t get any better of a role model than her.”
Pat Millines was born in 1906 in rural Georgia, then moved with her family to New Jersey and settled in Belmar, a small shore town just south of Asbury Park. She worked hard and was thrifty, which allowed her to buy her own house. And then another. She was a single woman in her early 50s and childless when she adopted Trish. “I knew I was adopted, but you don’t ask, ‘Why did you adopt me?’ I have no idea, but I know I’m grateful,” Dziko says. Millines raised Trish by herself. She also took in troubled relatives, led drives to start three local Baptist churches and paid all her bills promptly in cash.
Dziko’s mother stressed the importance of college. “Well, as a black woman on the East Coast, who grew up in the South,” Dziko says, “she didn’t have a choice, right? You do what you can to thrive to make sure the next generation gets something better than what you had.”
AT ASBURY PARK High School, Dziko took Swahili for three years and remembers reading a lot for English classes: Hemingway, Hesse, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn. Early on, she realized she was way ahead of her classmates in algebra. Her teachers got her into the honors track for math.
She was “kind of geeky” back then, she says. But there wasn’t much to explore in the way of technology, so she carted the film projector around to classes, threaded celluloid through sprockets inside the machine and onto a take-up reel, flipped the bulb on and watched the device entertain her peers.
In 1975, Dziko — then known as Pat Millines — appears in a Sports page photo in the Asbury Park Press, wearing high-top Converse All-Stars, shooting a layup in the state championship basketball game. She led her team to the title with a 57-37 victory.
“It was the sport you played if you liked sports,” she says about basketball in the 1970s. There weren’t many female role models in the sport then, so she emulated New York Knicks guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, copying his spin move. “I played at the playground in South Belmar. I always played with the boys.”
In her senior year, while studying and playing championship-caliber ball, she helped care for her mother, who was bedridden with cancer of the pancreas and liver. Pat Millines died a month before Dziko’s high-school graduation. Her will stipulated that her daughter would not get access to her modest estate until she turned 35. It was another effort to help Dziko make her own way.
Alone at 18, Dziko entered nearby Monmouth College that fall, the first woman to receive a full basketball scholarship to the school. She wanted to major in electrical engineering, but her prerequisite classes conflicted with basketball practice. She switched to computer science.
She was invited to try out for the fledgling Jersey Gems of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League. But her salary would’ve been in the neighborhood of $6,000. After graduating in 1979, she landed a job at the Computer Sciences Corporation in New Jersey.
Her job was writing software to test a new military radar system. “It was really cool,” she says. But then she learned that others had been hired in programming without a background in the field, and they were making thousands more than her. “I’m kind of sorry that I learned about how those things worked, because I was just happily going along,” she says.
AFTER LIVING AND working in Tucson, Arizona, and San Francisco, she visited Seattle over Thanksgiving 1984 and liked the mountains, the water and the neighborhoods, with their own parks and community centers. She liked that “nobody blinks an eye” at gay and lesbian people. It’s one reason she calls Seattle one of the country’s best places. “I like that we can go out as a family, and everybody already makes the assumption that we are a family, and they talk to us like they talk to the straight couple with kids standing next to us. I love it.”
She packed up a U-Haul and moved north in January 1985. She had savings to last six months. She had interviews lined up. She figured she’d work for Boeing, which offered her a job. Instead, she went to work for Telecalc, which offered her a better experience, as manager of its testing department. There, she was introduced to people who had worked at an upstart company called Microsoft.
She was successful at Microsoft. But one day in 1996, she and her partner, Jill Hull Dziko, a mental-health counselor, were walking their dogs and bemoaning the lack of opportunities for kids of color. In a society racing toward a high-tech future “while still mired in a racially divided past,” Dziko was now in a position to make a difference.
So she turned away from the financial security Microsoft offered and turned to the gap between technological haves and have-nots and the implications for children of color. She quit the company four months after the conversation in the park.
The duo created the Technology Access Foundation. “It seemed to happen overnight,” says Hull Dziko, who comanaged the program until she left to have the couple’s first child. (They adopted three more. They wanted their kids to have the same last name, and not a hyphenated one, so they chose “Dziko,” an African name meaning “of the world.” They were married in 2013.)
“It isn’t like Trish to dwell on problems,” Hull Dziko says. “She’s about action.”