Youth Advocate and Champion of Esports, Gaming + STEM Education
New Orleans has lost a community leader. The esports, gaming, and youth empowerment communities have lost a champion. INNO and Revelry has lost a dear friend and partner. And most importantly his family and friends have lost a priceless gem.
Derek Thomas, co-founder and chief gaming officer of the Independent Gaming League, STEM educator to hundreds, passionate visionary, and advocate passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday August 14th. He will be terribly missed by those who knew him and were honored by his raspy voice, joyful laugh, and larger than life presence. Losing Derek is devastating to his family, to his friends, and to his charges – the youth gaming community of New Orleans, those left behind that loved him, that supported him, and believed in his mission. A mission that we need to ensure goes on, in his memory.
It’s so rare that you meet a person and immediately develop a strong bond, an instantaneous friendship and true connection – the type of person that you feel like you’ve known for years. Derek was that person for so many. He was warm, funny, compassionate, and beyond welcoming.
As the go-to-person in the State of Louisiana for esports and gaming, he was brought into the INNO family by Chris Schultz and Gerard Ramos. Gerard’s quick introductory email simply said “Derek is doing innovative work in the community through the IGL Foundation, he has an amazing story… get him up on stage to tell it.” And we did.
Derek and I first connected in early April 2019 as we were finalizing our speaker lineup for the inaugural INNO conference. In less than five minutes on the phone, hearing his story – one of perseverance, tragic setbacks, and love for his family and community – I knew that Derek was a visionary on a mission to change New Orleans and the State of Louisiana.
Our first conversation lasted nearly an hour and much like his life – it was far too brief.
IGL Foundation + NOLA Gaming Fest
At INNO, Derek took the stage for only 14 minutes. He had a nervous energy about him, he was excited and determined to shine a light on his gaming community and their needs. Derek took us on a journey, telling his unique and inspiring story, talking of his father (also taken far too early), his uncle (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas), about getting shot post-Katrina and most importantly his passion for education, gaming, and helping foster design and development skills in kids to give them an advantage in the modern workforce.
From the stage, Derek neglected to mention that his programs have been underfunded for years, but despite that he was undeterred. Without the appropriate levels of financial support he still moved mountains and changed hundreds of lives. For four years he brought people together through the NOLA Gaming Fest, funded in part by taking out payday loans from around the city the week before the event and returning the day after to use registration fees to repay those loans.
He also made far too many trips to pawn shops to buy used and second-hand computers and gaming equipment, refurbishing them so that his kids, some of whom as six graders still had never touched a computer, had the opportunity to do so and to play video games.
Derek’s Passion for Digital Arts
For the last four months Derek and I continued to stay in touch. He was determined to grow his business and foundation in a smart, strategic, and sustainable way – to ensure that the kids in his digital arts programs had opportunity to find meaningful work. He was unafraid to ask for help, show his vulnerabilities, and dream big.
That dream included working year round with New Orleans Recreation Development (NORD) Commission to provide youth ages 13 to 18, – those who are not engaged in athletics, have “aged out,” or are not participating in high school sports – greater opportunities for organized activities at NORDC recreation centers and playgrounds, including gaming.
He was so humbled and appreciative to have connected with Chris, Gerard, and INNO. In fact, in one of our last phone conversations he told me that “Gerard has already changed my life so much, he really has our back and I don’t know why, but I’m glad he does. And the funny thing about it is that I’ve still never met him in person.” Through an unfortunate set of circumstances they never met during the build up to and post INNO. I made him a promise, saying “Well man that is something that we can very easily fix in September.” “Let’s do it” was his reply. That’s a promise, like so many of Derek’s hopes and dreams, that will go unfulfilled.
I asked Derek why he loved what he did so much and he told me that gaming was a tool to change kids’ lives. Fostered, nurtured, and supported correctly, esports brings kids together online and in-person. It also brings parents and children together, shining a light on kids whose skills and gifts in gaming might be under-looked. That respect from player-to-player and parent-to-child, those connections, Derek’s passion, they were all making New Orleans a better place.
Derek showed time and time again that gaming could be translated into a passion for digital arts, bringing design and coding skills into the lives of children. He believed with all his heart that the opportunity to learn digital arts at any age would lead to kids to finding meaningful and engaging employment in the creative and technology industries and would offer them opportunities to continue and to expand their educational options.
When I asked how he got into gaming. Derek, in his oh-so-nonchalant way of dropping knowledge and sharing challenging life stories – he suffered from seizures, fearing that every-time he went to sleep he might not wake up – so he played video games into the early mornings, to stay awake, to keep himself alive. To live to see another day.
Reflections by Sloan Miller, Executive Director of INNO