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Pam Tau Lee puts her activism at the forefront of her work. She grew up in a diverse environment in San Francisco. Moreover, she was immersed in the free speech, anti-war, union, and black power movements – all of which influenced her greatly. Her parents, John and Mignon, taught Lee and her younger sister the value of hard work. Her mother was first employed as a draftswoman during World War II when women were needed for the war effort; she retired from the California state unemployment office. Her father began work in a storage room in an engineering plant in the 1940s, and by the time he retired, he was employed as an engineer.
Lee graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1969 from California State University, Hayward (now California State University, East Bay). She began work as a student teacher in inner-city Oakland schools with the Teacher Corps – a federally funded program begun in the 1960s to increase employment in underserved public school districts. As her awareness of the issues facing low-income communities grew, Lee began work as a community organizer. “There was so much activism then…” she says, “I became involved in the student and community movements.” In the 1970s, she worked for the Chinese Progressive Organization, in the days “before there were [many] non-profit social justice organizations. We were housed in the International Hotel and funded by members in the community, so it was as if I was part of a collective,” she says.
Lee remembers that Chinatown had high rates of tuberculosis because of the poor air quality, long working hours and lack of open air space. At the time, she did not realize that much of the work she was doing would later become identified as environmental justice work. The organization Lee worked for also helped workers who went on strike for better wages and working conditions. When she went to organize them, she realized that “ninety-five percent of the workers were of color – hotel workers – African American, Filipino and Chinese. I decided [then and there] to make the transition to become a union organizer.” Many of the workers Lee spoke with had experienced the unionization drives of the 1930s, and they advised her, “If you want to be a good organizer, you have to be a worker. So, I became a room cleaner to really understand the work.”
While working at a hotel, Lee was elected by her co-workers to a union position, then as a shop steward, and finally asked to join the staff of the union. I quit the job “after two years of cleaning rooms – and maybe I worked almost every job in the hotel, the last day I left my job in the hotel, I was a bartender.” Lee realized that even as a hotel worker, she had opportunities most of the people she was trying to unionize did not. She said, “I had that mobility [in the hotel] because I was American-born and was able to speak English. That’s not available to most immigrant hotel workers. I know that.” Lee worked as a union organizer for ten years, where she learned about the lives of immigrant and people of color workers, who she says, “were being hired into more backbreaking jobs and the jobs that exposed [them] to really unsafe working conditions” than their white counterparts. She also continued her volunteer work in the community. In the late 1980s, while working as the staff director of the union, Lee was approached by the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley to join their staff and work with laborers in a variety of areas, including farms, hotels, airlines, refineries and nail salons. “It was very hard to leave the union,” she says of that decision, “but I saw it as an opportunity to use the 20 years of experience” from the community and join the Labor Occupational Health Program.
Then in 1990, Lee received phone call from Dana Alston, a prominent activist of the environmental justice movement. Lee recalls, “She came to Berkeley, and we had a life-changing moment over a cup of tea! She explained to me that she had heard about the work I had been doing, and she wanted to put it into context for me—and that’s when she explained to me the concept of environmental racism.” Lee began working with others in the environmental movement, and attended the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C. The Asians attending the Summit caucused and pledged to bring the message from the meeting back to their various Asian communities, and identify the environmental justice impacts in those communities and organize them.
The United Church of Christ had commissioned a report Toxic Waste and Race that focused on minority and low-income communities being located close to toxic waste sites, “so we wanted to be able to understand it better,” Lee says. Lee was immediately drawn to the environmental justice framing. “The environmental justice framework can really raise the consciousness of a community to really address root causes of environmental, sociological, and economic conditions, and because this framework brings in multi-issue perspectives and can bridge multi-racial, multi-ethnic communities. We felt there was real power that could be generated – political power – by bringing these perspectives as a framework and a mission.”
In 1993, after a two-year dialogue and needs assessment information gathering, Lee helped to create the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). Lee’s role in APEN has been to provide programmatic guidance as a board member and Chair. In these roles, she has taken a special interest in bringing attention to workers of color and unsafe conditions while building bridges with other environmental groups. Lee stepped down as Chair of the Board in spring of 2005 because of term limits.
Lee participated in the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership in 2002. She collaborated with scores of other people attending the Summit to draft the “Principles on Working Together.” Lee is careful to mention the people around her who have been her mentors and colleagues, some of whom she says may not even know that she observes them and learns from them. “Dana Alston: we were good friends until she passed away. She lived in San Francisco for the last few months, and we would drive and look at the Bay and the water. She continued to mentor me until the last few weeks before she died.” Lee goes on to name, “Charles Lee, Baldemar Velasquez from Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Nilak Butler from Indigenous Environmental Network, Richard Moore from Southwest Network for Environmental Justice (SNEEJ), Anthony Thigpen at Action for Grassroots Economic and Neighborhood Development Alternatives, Peggy Saika from APEN, and—I know I am forgetting others! I call on them for help and advice,” she says. The lowest points of her career have been “the passing of wonderful women in the environmental justice movement: Jean Sindab, Dana Alston, Nilak Butler, Jeanne Guanna from SNEEJ, Patsy Ruth Oliver from Texas. [It is] all very, very sad – the loss of these women who were so young. It was not natural to lose them so young.”
The highlights of Lee’s career have been participating in the development of the “Principles on Working Together” at Summit II and in the successful organization of Culinary Workers Union 226 in Las Vegas, where she worked with the hotel workers for a year. “The end result of that effort…was that they won the power to make their work safer, and through their work as women and as room attendants they showed real leadership.” At the strike vote, Lee said thousands of people turned out and the vote passed with almost unanimous consent. “It was the voice of these women that prior to 2000 had no positions in union or leadership or power on the work-floor, and it was a highlight to be a part of it.” Thinking about the future of unions in this country, Lee says, “Out of struggle, there will be progress, so let’s hope there will be progress, instead of the opposite. [Do] something constructive rather than destructive.”
Lee enjoys being an optimist in a field that continually brings her face to face with social inequities. She says she sustains herself by “Making sure I do not stay behind my desk!” She continues with advice for others in her field: set aside time “…where you’re out there one-on-one engaged with people who want to learn. Stay connected.” Lee thinks, and then adds, “Also, I have to fight with myself all the time, in terms of, ‘OK, don’t let the grant or the money drive where your heart and soul needs to be.’ It’s much easier to say than to practice. It’s a constant, real tension,” but one in which she hopes to remain true to her values.
While she was a board member of APEN, Lee tried not to limit herself to board meetings, but to stay involved with the staff. Her mentoring style includes making sure her mentees’ needs are met through their work experience. When she works with interns, she says, “I make sure they are doing what they want to do and try to make it happen, whether it’s learning about organizing and working in the community or to try testing out their ideas, I work with them from where they’re coming from and make sure they understand how to respect and engage with the community and understand [that they’re] engaged in two-way learning…. You have to make sure you’re not just talking over a table [all the time], but [make it fun and] float down a river and spend some time together!”
To young minorities who are considering entering the environmental field, she says, “Make sure to combine the science with accountability…Find ways in which you can be held accountable to what you’re doing, to be able to test out what you’re doing and how it is contributing to [the] creation of more power for the community and information they can use and access so that it can be turned into action. Balance the need to fulfill professional criteria with empowering those who don’t have the same access.” Lee’s own work has improved living and working conditions of countless people; she is an inspiration to many.
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