Carolyn Tillman Retires: Legacy of Community Outreach
By Dianne Anderson
Retirement beckons, and Carolyn Tillman is having a really good time reflecting on what life will be like with a little breather from her regular hustle and bustle about town.
She’s been sticking and moving for decades from one community project to the next.
But in her spare time, she’s known as a devoted mentor for many, and advises young women that are coming up the career ladder behind her. She considers the complexities of navigating the work world, particularly for Black women.
“It’s not an easy path, and there will be walls,” she said. “Somebody else might be experiencing a different kind of employment environment than you, but you have to strategize how to compensate. In an equitable world, you wouldn’t have to do that.
Carolyn Tillman is retiring as special assistant to Ted Alejandre, Superintendent of San Bernardino County Schools.
Among her numerous volunteerism and commitments, she has served as director of mentoring with the San Bernardino County Women’s Network Board. She’s also served on the San Bernardino Community Scholarship Board and the American Cancer Society Board, San Bernardino Chapter. She is a lifetime member and past president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Inland Empire Section, to name a few.
Tillman advises that young women entering professional fields to learn to recognize their own potential, and consider the value of the skills that they bring by degrees of experience. Her own expertise culminated in several unexpected ways.
She earned her bachelor’s of science degree in speech pathology and audiology, completely unrelated to her first stint in medical records registry, where she audited various types of cancer at Loma Linda Medical Center. From there, she worked in radiology oncology and data management for cancer trials.
That background led to diagnostics, lab work, and treatments and first-hand experience with the human impact of diseases. She followed up on records, caught up with doctors and interacted with patients.
It left a lasting impression on her life choices.
“Basically, my job was to follow them until they died,” she said. “It really took a toll on me, I’m a people person, and you get to know some of these people when you first sign them up.”
Later, she worked with the birth defect registry, abstracting charts across California, which laid the groundwork for her next stint where she served four years with San Bernardino Public Health on tobacco reduction and teen pregnancy prevention.
Throughout the process, she became passionate about community awareness.
“I had seen people dying of lung cancer, or had babies with birth defects. When I was doing this work, I was serious. My job was to help people see the disadvantage of using tobacco,” she said.
As a public health educator, her work frequently took her past regular hours to weekends and community fairs. She also promoted health awareness to government and city officials to help push for policy change for a healthier community.
Over time, the skills she gained led her to work as community liaison for San Bernardino County Schools, a position she attributes to the Westside Action Group and Wilbur Brown, who advocated to create the position because county schools lacked people of color within its ranks. There was a need to reach the Black and Brown community.
As liaison, Tillman went into community day schools where she taught sex education, informing kids and families of the dangers of smoking, teen pregnancy and birth defects. No doubt, she said some students are lost to the system in higher-risk communities.
This past year, although education has been bleak, she remains optimistic that Black students can rise above the fray.
“Go back in history. There was a time when we weren’t able to learn anything at all,” she said. “It was illegal to teach us to read, but we always had ability and intellect.”
For herself, math was her weakness in high school, although she eventually succeeded. As a youth, she had to stop and reassess her direction in life when she realized that hamburger flipping positions didn’t offer much promise. Along the way, she said that help came in planning for the future.
“This is where I give glory to God, I see where He was instructing me to make certain moves that I probably wouldn’t have strategically done, but that I was impressed upon to do this,” she said.
Tillman, who has worked since she was 13 years old, is now looking to kick back and acclimate to a space where she’s not rushing to prepare for her next project.
She’s happy to take some time being in the moment and focus on the family – genealogy and the family tree, that is. ‘
As a kid with all family folklore around the dinner table, conversations with grandfathers, great aunts and relatives provided a snapshot, but she craves the big picture.
“It occurred to me, I’m curious with all my history lessons, and being a Black person, the fact that I’ve been able to live a life that’s far different from my ancestors. I am here because of them, and I don’t even know who they are,” she said.