Maudelle Shirek, a former Berkeley City Council member known for her boundless energy and lifelong activism, died April 11 in a nursing home in Vallejo at the age of 101.
Shirek, who served as a council member from 1984 to 2004, was the oldest elected official in California. Shirek first came to Berkeley in the early 1940s from Jefferson, Ark., to escape racism in the South and became one of the city’s oldest and most influential social justice activists. As a granddaughter of slaves, Shirek supported movements for civil rights, local credit unions and health issues in the Bay Area.
“Shirek often told the story that she had witnessed the lynching of a relative and was highly motivated to live in California,” said close friend and former vice mayor Carole Kennerly. “She came to California thinking that it was roses, milk and honey, only to fight for social justice and civil rights.”
Shirek began her long career of activism at the Berkeley Consumers Co-op Credit Union. Kennerly, who served on the board of the credit union with Shirek, said she was instrumental in ensuring that people of color were allowed to receive housing loans from the credit union that other banks would never have given them at that time.
Shirek later helped found the New Light Senior Center and the city-run West Berkeley Senior Center, said close friend Barbara Lubin.
“She would cook a hot lunch with five other women,” Lubin said, “and at the end of the day, (Shirek) would pack all the stuff into the car and sometimes drag me to go around with her to all the homeless people who were too old or sick to go to the elderly center.”
Renee Kitchen, Shirek’s niece and primary care giver, added that the food Shirek served to the elderly was always healthy. Kitchen said that while she was a child, her aunt was the “health guru” who encouraged the family to eat fruits and vegetables.
“I believe that is why she lived for as long as she did,” Kitchen said. “She always believed in cooking fresh vegetables and eating fruit every day. That is what she loved.”
But Shirek was never one to be slowed down by old age. Michael Berkowitz, Shirek’s close friend and former campaign manager, said that by the time she turned 70, the city forced her to retire her position as a senior city director, causing her to turn around and run for City Council.
“The city had a discriminatory policy,” Berkowitz said. “They tried to phase her out when she was 70, so when she was 72, she ran for council and became the boss of the people who were trying to phase her out.”
Shirek served on City Council until 2004. According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, Shirek worked diligently during her tenure to move millions of dollars into affordable housing and programs to help Berkeley youth and seniors.
Shirek left behind a long and illustrious career in activism and civil service. In 2007, Old City Hall was renamed after her in honor of that career.
Shirek leaves behind her two sisters, Neodros Bridgeforth and Lennie Jean Draughan, along with many nieces, nephews and cousins. A public memorial service is being planned by friends and family.