By Sarah Rohrs, East Bay Times
As protesters took to streets in December over perceived lack of justice in police shooting deaths in Missouri and New York, Ying Lee was among the downtown Berkeley crowd, holding her “Black Lives Matter” sign.
And in response to possible closure and sale of the downtown Post Office, Lee, 83, has participated in rallies, spoken out, passed out pamphlets and taken other action.
Protesting and rallying are nothing new for the former Berkeley councilwoman.
To recognize her years of work, the entire California State Assembly will honor Lee on March 9 as a Woman of the Year for Assembly District 15, represented by Democrat Tony Thumond of Richmond.
One woman from each Assembly district will be honored with an official state resolution.
“She’s been a tireless advocate for social justice issues for years,” Thumond’s District Director Mary Nicely said of Lee. “It’s been nonstop for her.”
A former Berkeley Unified School District teacher, Lee also worked as an aide for East Bay congressional representatives Ron Dellums and Barbara Lee.
She has served as a Berkeley Public Library trustee, volunteered at KPFA radio and is most currently involved in Save Our Berkeley Post Office and Grandmothers Against War.
Her long history of activism has included work with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian-American Community Alliance, the Asian Law Caucus and as a Democratic Party delegate during the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern.
She has engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience and been arrested while taking part in protests around major issues over the years such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars, women’s liberation, and the ongoing threat of nuclear war.
Locally, her work has included a fight for rent control and greater racial diversity in Berkeley. And most recently there is her participation in the Black Lives Matter protests.
“It gives you a measure of how wrong things are when you even have to say black lives matter,” she said. “It’s embarrassing. Every life matters.”
Virtually all of Lee’s political activism has taken place within Berkeley, though her work with Dellums and Lee took her to Washington, D.C in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Besides standing up for social justice issues, Lee has also broken barriers, including being the only Asian elected to the Berkeley City Council, where she served from 1973-77.
Lee said she is flattered and honored by her award, particularly because she and Thurmond share similar values of peace and justice, and of building coalitions.
“The dignity of individuals is very important to me,” she said. “People need to be nurtured and taken care of. It’s a simple thought that goes back to my childhood.”
Lee was a child when her family fled war-torn China in 1944 following a Japanese invasion. She saw firsthand the consequences of war, including poverty, starvation, sickness and pain.
After arriving in San Francisco at age 13, Lee said she discovered the San Francisco Public Library and read voraciously, and also attended San Francisco City College following high school.
Her family moved to Berkeley in 1951 and she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1953 with a degree in political science. She taught junior high and high school for 21 years.
While Lee has done much in her life, she said she is not giving up the fight now, though age has slowed her down some.
She said she wants children and grandchildren who follow her to know that “not everybody just laid down.”
Each Thursday, you will find her and others in Grandmothers Against War passing out anti-war fliers at Union Square in San Francisco. She said she will continue fighting to keep the Berkeley post office from being sold and other post offices from becoming privatized.
Lee even continues to attend City Council meetings, often speaking on matters that interest her, including investigation of police behavior during the December protests.
Though the fight for peace and justice is endless, Lee said she remains energized by those she works with. She credited Berkeley for its numerous progressive, committed and energized activists.
Ying Lee’s story is captured in a 2012 oral history book called “Ying Lee, From Shanghai to Berkeley,” edited by Judith Scherr and available through the Berkeley Historical Society.