It is with heavy hearts that we report that former Poverty Action Policy Director Tony Lee passed away on November 12, 2020, after a long battle with Primary Lateral Sclerosis. Tony, who spent 19 years as the Policy Director of Poverty Action, will be remembered as many things: passionate, committed, smart, a man of integrity, a keen analyst, tireless champion of racial justice and the source of a wondrously infectious laugh.
For decades Tony was the dean of social justice advocates in Washington state. And he was as genuine and loving a human being as ever walked the planet, with a boisterous laugh to match his audacious intelligence. His brilliance and belief in a better future were infectious. The results of his good work are all across our community, from the activists he has trained to the victories he won for immigrants and other vulnerable people.
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.
As Frank Chopp, Washington State House Representative and Former Executive Director of Solid Ground (Fremont Public Association) describes him, “Tony Lee [was] the conscience of Washington State when it comes to helping poor people.”
In August of 1995, Tony joined our parent organization Solid Ground (then the Fremont Public Association) where he worked as Advocacy Director of Poverty Action 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/Poverty Action, 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; and advocate for the Washington Association of Churches and the Catholic Archdiocese.
Tony described the motivation behind his life-long 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.”
For over three decades, including 19 years at Poverty Action, Tony was 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.
In addition to his incredible legislative achievements, Tony was also incredibly generous with his time and vast knowledge. In response to a simple policy question, Tony might sit you down for a seminar on the history of that policy and the best strategies for changing it, all the while making you believe that change was possible. He was known to support his team far beyond the hours of the workday, opening his home for events (or for Marcy’s mom to stay after a major medical treatment!) and coming out of retirement to support the team during a short-staffed and busy legislative session.
His big laugh and bigger heart leave an impactful legacy here at Poverty Action and across our communities. For more on Tony and his many contributions, here is a video that was made in 2014 in honor of his retirement. It is an honor to have known him and his leadership.