State’s leading anti-poverty advocate retires

If you’ve 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 nearly three decades, the last 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony has been the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting poor people. With his retirement this week, he steps out of the limelight to spend more time with his family.

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,” says 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.

“Everyday people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system,” Tony says. “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,” says Frank Chopp, Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives.

Tony defers, 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 through 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 will continue 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, thanks for your commitment, your passion and your laugh. The world is a better place because of you.

For more on what Tony Is



Shifting perceptions on RACE

Kahla Bell-Kato is a Communications Intern with Solid Ground.

RACE: Are We So Different?  image

Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.

A major part of Solid Ground’s work involves understanding how concepts of race and racism affect our communities as well as our organization. In order to promote ongoing awareness and education about racism, members of the agency’s Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) attended the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. As the agency’s new Communications Intern, I was invited to attend with the group.

Developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? features interactive quizzes, multimedia presentations, images and artifacts designed to break down social, historical and scientifically flawed concepts about race.

One of the first aspects of the exhibit I came across brought me face to face with America’s modern race classifications presented through the United States Census. The display asks visitors to select between four choices of race classifications to be used for the Census. The first three options introduce various ways to obtain race statistics such as checking a box or filling in the blank – one being the race category question from the 2010 Census. The final option votes to remove the race question completely.

As a recent graduate, I appreciate statistics. At this point of my experience with the exhibit, I believed we weren’t quite ready to remove the race question from the Census. Statistics gained from the Census root out disparities within the system in order to provide equal employment opportunities, allocate funds for education, housing and medical services, as well as determine gaps in wages and financial inconsistencies such as meeting credit needs. I wondered how we could fight racism without having the numbers to prove race still plays a part in our policies.

With this in mind, I selected option three, which asks those filling out the Census to write in their race, ethnicity or ancestry in a blank rather than select from predetermined race categories. I was in the minority. Over 39,000 people who visited the exhibit voted to remove the race question completely from the Census. I would discover why, as I made my way around the rest of the exhibit.

Americans tend to believe that racial categories have remained unchanged throughout the centuries. However, after leaving the Census display, I was taken on a journey through the History of Race in the U.S.A. section of the exhibit that describes the changing perceptions of skin color throughout the implementation of the U.S. Census.

Image from RACE Exhibit of people wearing t-shirts describing their race classifications in the Census over time

Image from RACE Exhibit of people wearing t-shirts describing their race classifications in the Census over time. Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.

Classifications of race have been fluid throughout the history of the United States, clearly demonstrating how race is a cultural construct – rather than innate biological and genetic differences – designed by beliefs commonly held at the time of classification. These race classifications were created to justify the oppression and mistreatment of specific groups of people.

Race categories in the Census contain far more meaning than simply indicating the color of one’s skin; they denote a history of dominance, repression and racist stereotypes about who a person is or isn’t based solely on race. For example, the 2010 Census combined a total of 53 questions originally featured on the 2000 Census long form questionnaire to a mere 10 questions. Once questions regarding work, income, transportation and education are removed, one can assume that the race question – which constitutes one-fifth of the 2010 Census – becomes a catch-all for determining a person’s socioeconomic status.

I realize that the history of racism is too embedded within the Census and in each racial category to allow it to remain. While statistics can be beneficial, in my view the negative implications of racial categories hurt more than help. The Census does not create racism so much as it mirrors how we think about race. Race is cultural. We created it, and yet we continue to perpetuate the belief that race is a real thing that separates us and makes us different from each other. We are not so different.

If we continue to preserve this false notion by presenting race classifications in the Census or any other questionnaire, then we will continue to declare that we deserve different treatment and access to opportunity based on our skin color. However, if we change what we believe about race, then the policies will change along with it. Education is the key to understanding what race is, and more importantly, what race is not.

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