Ying Lee, a refugee from Shanghai during World War II and the first Asian American person elected to the Berkeley City Council, died peacefully at home on Sept. 10, surrounded by her beloved family and friends.
She was committed to a world of peace and steadfastly opposed war, militarization and violence. Throughout her 90 years, she was an activist for social justice and a staunch progressive Democrat, public school teacher, congressional staffer, and an advocate for national and regional multiracial campaigns.
Ying’s early experiences of world war, military occupation, civil war, and famine in China shaped her life philosophy to identify and speak out for the vulnerable, and were the foundation of her lifelong commitment to oppose war, fight racism and advocate for the disadvantaged. She often expressed her love for and gratitude to America, displaying her patriotism through her belief in good government and her work for change from within the system, while appreciating the freedom to call for rights and equity for immigrants and those without a voice.
After years of Ying’s childhood spent fleeing upheavals in war-torn China, with her schooling constantly disrupted, her family found their way to San Francisco’s Panhandle. Ying attended the neighborhood school, Lowell High, then attended San Francisco Community College. She reveled in San Francisco’s bohemian scene, hanging out with Maya Angelou, Odetta, Gary Snyder (who pierced her ears), and the avant garde Phyllis Diller. She was crowned Miss Chinatown in the 1950s, before eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Berkeley.
In the city of Berkeley, Ying discovered an intentional community that was relatively welcoming to immigrants, many ethnicities and the non-conventional. She found kindred spirits amid its progressive political voices and made the city her home. In the 1960s, she married UC Professor John Kelley, and began a career as a teacher in the Berkeley public schools while raising a blended family of five children; Kelley’s three and her own two, Max and Sara.
During the 1960s and 1970s Ying was an active and respected voice in the civil rights movement and the peace movement calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. In 1971, after many years of organizing, the latter made national headlines by electing a slate of three out of four candidates to the Berkeley City Council. In 1973, that coalition enthusiastically drafted Ying to run for City Council. She won election and built a strong progressive record.
Ying was on the front lines for social change her entire life. After the Berkeley City Council, she was an aide to Congressman Ron Dellums for 10 years, in his Berkeley District Office and in Washington, DC. When Dellums retired from Congress, she joined Congresswoman Barbara Lee as her first legislative director in Washington, D.C. Ying spent years crafting and advocating for the Living Wage Jobs for All Act that evoked FDR’s approach to quality-of-life measures for all Americans. She was involved for decades in Asian American and multiracial movements, serving on the boards of the Asian Law Caucus, Asian Health Services, as well as in electoral politics as a national delegate for the George McGovern and Jesse Jackson Presidential campaigns. Her driving forces were fighting for peace and justice, and she saw poverty as a crime to be eradicated.
Ying’s active civic participation never ceased, in campaigns and groups ranging from ‘Grandmothers Against the War’ to the successful effort to save the Berkeley Post Office and many others. Along with her passion and drive to fight for justice, she often expressed her profound joy in spending time with her children and caring for her grandchildren.
She is survived by her children, Max and Sara; in-laws, Sallie and Mark, grandchildren, Max, Olivia and Kyle; brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Diane; sister Mary; nieces and nephews, Jena, Eric, Mimi, Lars, Anna, and Eva; and women’s group sisters Roberta, Loni, and Nancy. She is predeceased by sister Elinor; brother in-law John; and womens’ group sisters Sheila and Luanne; in addition to the many friends who were part of her extended chosen family.
Throughout her life, Ying Lee was a luminous person whose integrity and wisdom inspired those who knew her. A voracious reader and deep thinker with tremendous empathy, she faced the world honestly and never gave up. Ying helped shape Berkeley and the world. She will be deeply missed.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s Political Action Committee to elect progressive Democrats to Congress and the Ying Lee Unity Fund at Asian Health Services.