All around Washington State, tears of grief are rolling up against memories of the booming, mountainous laugh of Tony Lee, who died on Thursday of complications from Primary Lateral Sclerosis. Tony will be remembered as many things: passionate, committed, smart, a man of integrity, a keen analyst, a tireless champion of racial justice, and the source of a wondrously infectious laugh.
For those who had the honor to know and work with him, he was simply one of the greats. As befits a legend who had such profound impact on our organization and our entire state, Tony’s exact age was unknown. While best estimates are mid-70s, documents that would confirm got lost when his family left China.
“Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.” ~Tony Lee
Many aspire to leave this world having made a positive difference. Tony fulfilled that aspiration many times over in his 30-plus years working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations in Washington State. Tony had a hand in the creation and protection of many state policies that promote equity and equal opportunity for people living on low incomes. For example, 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.
“Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done,” he said during a 2014 interview.
Moreover, Tony Lee inspired, informed, trained, mentored, cheered, and encouraged so many others to do the same. Leading by example, Tony motivated those around him to work harder, think more critically, and find joy in life. He made those around him better people. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was beloved, revered, and respected by colleagues, friends, and family. Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s past President & CEO, remembers Tony as “one of the wisest people I have had the privilege to know in my life.”
For over three decades, including 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony was the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting people living on low incomes.
Tony started his career as a lawyer with Evergreen Legal Services launching his work as a leader in the field of multi-racial organizing. In fairly short order, Tony shifted his focus to become a civil rights policy advocate. This was not an intentional career move; rather he explained that he “stumbled” into policy work “by luck.” Tony abandoned the practice of law to spend the bulk of his career as an advocate, focusing his efforts on how to make laws more just and equitable.
Tony readily took on the role of champion to those suffering inequities and injustices from poverty and racism. As Washington State House Representative and Former Executive Director of Solid Ground (Fremont Public Association) Frank Chopp describes him, “Tony Lee [was] the conscience of Washington State when it comes to helping poor people.”
In August of 1995, Tony joined Solid Ground (then the Fremont Public Association) where he worked as Advocacy Director until his semi-retirement in September 2014. During this time he was the driving force in shaping, informing, and directing Solid Ground’s advocacy work as a founding member of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in 1996. Under Tony’s direction, progress was made on issues including welfare reform, food security, affordable housing, and the achievement gap in education. From September 2014 to December 2018, Tony continued to serve as Solid Ground’s and Poverty Action’s Senior Fellow.
In addition to his work with Solid Ground, Tony served many other community organizations including:
- Board President and Co-founder of the Equity in Education Coalition
- Co-chair of the King County Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition
- Steering committee member of Front and Centered
- Founding member of the Asian-Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington
- Advocate for the Washington Association of Churches and the Catholic Archdiocese
Tony described the motivation behind his lifelong work as follows, “Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.”
Tony’s “huge laugh & huge heart”
Diane Narasaki, former Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), once described Tony this way: “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.”
Everyone who had the privilege of working with Tony seems to have a story about his booming laugh and joyous spirit. Tony’s signature laugh was distinctive, contagious, and uplifting. Upon hearing it you couldn’t help but break into a smile.
Though the work he did was hard and frequently discouraging and contentious, Tony brought joy, laughter, and passion to all that he did. As Lynn Livesely, former Solid Ground Volunteer Resources Director and former Literacy Source Executive Director, described him, “Tony worked so incredibly hard, but also had such a great time. He had such a great sprit about everything he did.”
Awards & acknowledgements of service
Tony was recognized for his contributions to the community during his lifetime by the following:
- Lifetime Achievement Award by the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC) at their 30th anniversary celebration on June 8, 2018 at Daybreak Star Native American Cultural Center (see Former Advocacy Director honored for lifetime achievement). Tony helped found the Coalition and served on its steering committee for the entire 30 years of its existence. According to Julia Sterkovsky, SHSC Executive Director, “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.”
- The Goldmark Award for exceptional leadership in social justice from the Washington Legal Foundation.
- The Tony Lee Apartments – The Low Income Housing Institute’s new low-income housing facility, located in the Lake City Way Village, is named in Tony’s honor and will provide housing for low -wage workers making minimum wage and those on a pension or disability.
The State of Washington, the civil rights community, friends, family, and especially those who are suffering from racial injustices have lost a special human being today, though the echoes of his laugh and the legacy of his work will live on.
For more on Tony and his many contributions:
- Read the Seattle Time’s story celebrating his life.
- Watch this video we prepared for Tony’s 2014 retirement from Solid Ground.
While some of the attributions are dated, the sentiments expressed are only sweeter for the intervening time.