Not many people are as beloved or impactful as the guru of Washington’s anti-poverty advocates, Tony Lee. Lee was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC) at their 30th anniversary celebration on June 8 at Daybreak Star Native American Cultural Center.
“Tony Lee has had a profound impact on activists and activism in Seattle. His leadership has led to many successful campaigns to increase public investment in the people of Seattle and King County, including funding for affordable housing, seniors, veterans, children and youth, community health clinics, as well as emergency shelter and food,” stated Julia Sterkovsky, SHSC Executive Director.
“Tony helped found the Coalition and has served on its steering committee for the entire 30 years of its existence. He helped shape the policies for how members work together and how we decide what public policy positions to take in order to build a just and thriving community across King County,” stated Sterkovsky.
If you have ever spent much time in the corridors of power around Olympia, you’ve no doubt heard The Laugh. It is disarmingly loud, boisterous and endearing. When Tony Lee unleashes, his laughter cascades over and through everything in its way. Perhaps it’s a secret to his success.
For over three decades, including 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony has been the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting people living on low incomes. With his retirement in 2014, he stepped out of the limelight to spend more time with his family. But Tony remained an active leader in the Equity in Education Coalition, Seattle Human Services Coalition, and other local organizing efforts.
Well known for his affable manner, keen analytical mind, and passionate commitment, Tony has had his hand in the creation and protection of many state policies that promote equity and equal opportunity for people living on low incomes in Washington state.
For instance, he was a driving force behind the creation of the state’s Food Assistance Program, which extended food benefits to tens of thousands of legal immigrants who were excluded from food stamp eligibility.
“Tony Lee is a really special human being, with a huge laugh, and huge heart and brains to go along with it, all of which are put to the service of improving and saving the lives of the most vulnerable people in our state,” said Diane Narasaki, Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
An immigrant who earned a law degree, Tony abandoned the practice of law to spend the bulk of his career as an advocate, working to make laws more just.
“Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system,” Tony said. “Not intentional perhaps, but the impacts are there. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.”
“Tony Lee is the conscience of Washington state when it comes to helping poor people,” said Frank Chopp, Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives, and former Executive Director of Solid Ground’s forebear, the Fremont Public Association. Tony defers this praise, crediting the people he represents: “I speak with more credibility when I can say ‘Our agency sees people in need, and here are the needs we see.’ ”
Through his work with Evergreen Legal Services, the Washington Association of Churches and Solid Ground, Tony has been a leader in multi-racial organizing and advocacy that resulted in progress on issues spanning welfare reform, food security, housing and the achievement gap in education. He worked as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Director from August 1995 to September 2014. Tony was a founding member of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in 1996 and played an essential role in its development and direction.
Tony continues to serve as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Senior Fellow, supporting Solid Ground’s Board, CEO, Advocacy Department and the Statewide Poverty Action Network on public policy issues pertaining to education, basic needs programs, and funding for health and human services, including programs serving refugees and immigrants.
Tony, thank you for your commitment, your passion and your laugh. The world is a better place because of you.
For more on what “Tony Is…” please see this video. We prepared it for his 2014 retirement from Solid Ground. While some of the attributions are dated, the sentiments expressed are only sweeter for the intervening time.