His own story — having grown up in those same projects, a bright kid who found his way out of extreme poverty to education and a career he was passionate about — helped him bridge any skepticism.
“He had a very special way of connecting with young people, and encouraging them, and helping them get back on track,” she said, after fighting back tears. “He was really inspirational.”
Griffith was killed in the Amtrak train that derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia, one of the eight who died in a crash that injured more than 200 people.
Griffith was dean of student affairs and enrollment management at City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College, a role that had him tenaciously advocating for students, especially black men, fighting to keep them in college, said the school’s president, Rudolph Crew.
It hadn’t been easy to get there. And that, perhaps, helped him see how best to help others succeed.
“He was extraordinary,” Crew said of the 42-year-old dean. Griffith didn’t seem to get discouraged; he brought an easy sense of humor and a comedian’s timing to lighten up even the most difficult situations. He helped students through some extremely tight spots, like the single mom who didn’t have a home or enough money for food last fall.
“He would take on anybody if it meant helping a student get something they needed,” Crew said. “Whatever it took. I will remember him for being that strong, clear, constant voice of advocacy for students, to help them in those aspects of their lives. His willingness to be just without stop. Without fail.”
With all the national debate about improving access to higher education, Crew said, “you need great foot soldiers to make it happen. Derrick was one of those foot soldiers.”
Growing up was a struggle for him, to say the least, said Gordon, assistant executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit working with young people in poverty in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.
“He was a very bright guy, but as we all know, it’s not easy for young men of color growing up in poverty, in housing developments, going to public school, to excel,” she said. “He really persevered.”
They worked together at Hudson Guild, in city projects, where she saw Griffith, a slight man with a big personality, really push to help kids in trouble. “They really loved him,” she said, “as did the adults there.”
The connection was real, she said: “People can be charismatic and there’s nothing there. That wasn’t the case with him. He was an extremely articulate guy, passionate.”
She thinks that’s why a school he founded, the CUNY Preparatory Transitional High School, which helped students get high-school-equivalency diplomas, was successful, she said. “He was a real cheerleader.”
Several years ago, he led Groundwork, a group helping children in East New York, an agency which has since been absorbed into Good Shepherd. “That organization was a very grass-roots, community-based organization, right in the thick of high, high poverty, surrounded by housing developments,” Gordon said.
Griffith had a number of roles at Medgar Evers, a college in Brooklyn that grants both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, beginning as assistant provost.
And he raised a son, as a single father, a young man who himself got a good education. “He’s a very dedicated dad,” Gordon said. Griffith’s son did not immediately return messages left for comment Wednesday.
Griffith wasn’t just lifting others up. He was continuing his own education, as well: Last month, he successfully defended his dissertation about African-American boys for his Doctorate of Philosophy in Education from CUNY Graduate Center.
He had been expecting to take part in the commencement ceremony next month.
This evening, Medgar Evers College will host a candelight vigil in Griffith’s memory.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.