‘Polite but persistent, fierce but friendly’: UC Berkeley alumna, activist Margy Wilkinson dies at 76

Mary Wilkinson
David Bacon/Courtesy

Longtime city activist and UC Berkeley alumna Margy Wilkinson died Saturday at the age of 76.

Wilkinson grew up in the Bay Area in a working-class household. People who knew Wilkinson and her family described her childhood home as a welcoming place where people were always coming and going, according to KPFA program host Brian Edwards-Tiekert.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1966, Wilkinson worked to organize workers on campus. Eventually, she helped build the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, a union of about 19,000 nonclassified workers in the UC system, Edwards-Tiekert said.

“You couldn’t walk across campus with her because she would keep getting stopped by people who would thank her and say, ‘You helped me save my job,’ ” Edwards-Tiekert said.

When she retired from UC Berkeley, Wilkinson began working at the KPFA radio station, pushing back against the station’s parent network Pacifica during a conflict-filled time within the foundation.

In 2014, Wilkinson became the chair of the network’s national board and worked on reconciliation between members of the organization. A lot of her organizing and how people remember Wilkinson is over her dining table with people meeting and eating in unity.

“She’s this rare combination of somebody who both cared about politics and cared about people,” said City Councilmember Kate Harrison. “That combination is not something you see every day.”

Wilkinson was also the co-founder of Friends of Adeline, an organization of diverse South Berkeley residents committed to building an inclusive community.

Friends of Adeline fought against defunding Black community-serving nonprofits, helped an elder resident from having his home taken and raised awareness on how policing and trusteeship can prey on vulnerable homeowners.

When a homeless encampment was put up in the neighborhood, Wilkinson ordered a port-a-potty and hand-washing station to be delivered and “all but dared the city to remove it,” Edwards-Tiekert said.

“She was small but powerful, polite but persistent, fierce but friendly,” said UC Berkeley alumna Moni Law in an email. “As a tireless justice warrior, she spoke truth to power and never backed down from arguing for what is right.”

This sentiment was echoed by many of Wilkinson’s friends and colleagues, who remember her for her overwhelming kindness. Harrison said while many people in politics are good at organizing people, Wilkinson was good at loving them.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilkinson continued to serve her community and organized a mutual aid network of 100 volunteers to help vulnerable neighbors. This “incredibly meaningful” service helped connect people during a time of isolation, Edwards-Tiekert said.

“She was a champion for those who did not have a voice, and advocated for them with compassion and sincerity,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in an email. “She frequently spoke at Council meetings, holding us accountable when it came to addressing homelessness, affordable housing, policing, or any other issue that she believed should not be ignored.”

Wilkinson is survived by her husband Tony, children and grandchildren.

Contact Zoe Chen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoe_chen820.