UC Berkeley alumna, longtime activist honored at state capitol

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond's Office/Courtesy

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The California State Assembly honored a UC Berkeley alumna last week for her long history of activism in the Berkeley community.

Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, selected Ying Lee, a former Berkeley council member who served as the first and only Asian American on City Council, as the 15th Assembly District’s Women’s History Month awardee. A woman from each Assembly district was honored for her contributions to the local community.

“I had the pleasure of presenting this award to my friend and mentor Ying Lee to recognize her years of work. It was an honor to seat her at my desk on the floor of the Assembly with her children and grandchildren in attendance,” Thurmond said in a press release.

Lee has also worked as a trustee of the Berkeley Public Library, served on the national board of the community-supported radio station KPFA and participated in numerous protests in the Bay Area.

Now in her 80s, Lee continues to attend council meetings and has most recently been involved in the campaign to save the post office in Downtown Berkeley and with the nonprofit Grandmothers Against War.

Every Thursday, Lee and others from Grandmothers Against War pass out flyers at Union Square in San Francisco advocating peace and social justice.

“Most of us are in our 80s, but it doesn’t matter,” Lee said.

Lee’s dedication to anti-war advocacy stems from her own experience in war-torn China during World War II. Lee was only 13 when her family moved to the United States, after a series of relocations in China fleeing from invading Japanese troops.

“I’m very familiar and very frightened of war,” Lee said about her growing up during a turbulent period of history.

Her family first settled in San Francisco and then moved to Berkeley, where she later studied political science at UC Berkeley.

Her experience of Berkeley during the Vietnam War especially inspired a life fighting for peace and social justice.

“Initially, I got active in the Vietnam War because I was so appalled at all the civilian deaths,” Lee said. “I got really upset over how America treated Vietnamese lives.”

Lee took a break from teaching and became more involved in city politics and activism. Judith Scherr, a close friend of Lee and editor of her book “Ying Lee: from Shanghai to Berkeley,” spoke about Lee’s motivations to enter politics as a grassroots activist.

“The reason she got onto the city council was so that she could have a place where she could work against the Vietnam War,” Scherr said. “That was very important to her.”

Lee initially told her family that life would return to “normal” after the Vietnam War ended, but she realized issues like social justice did not disappear with the end of the war.

“There was no going back. There was no return to my civilian life. I just became more and more active,” Lee said.

Contact Frank Yu at [email protected].