The goal of the Asian Community Fund is to increase the visibility of the Asian American community and expand resources for nonprofits that serve disadvantaged Asian Americans.Learn more
Paul Lee was born in Boston’s Chinatown, the son of Chinese immigrants. His father worked as a waiter in several Chinese restaurants and his mother was a garment worker. When he was young, they moved five times, as Chinatown went through a series of dramatic changes with the building of the Southeast Expressway, the Mass. Turnpike Extension and institutional expansion. Eventually, the family moved to Brookline when Lee was 11 because of the school system there. He attended Brookline High School and went to Columbia as an undergrad during the tumultuous years of the protests against the war in Vietnam.
His goal was to be a criminal lawyer, but after attending Cornell Law School, he followed friends to New York to work at a Wall Street law firm and, after meeting his wife, Dr. Mary Y. Lee, moved back to Boston. He joined Goodwin Procter LLP, where he was one of the first Asian Americans to make partner in a Boston law firm. He also became deeply involved in community work, co-founding a number of nonprofits, including the AsianCommunity Development Corporation (ACDC) in the early 1980s, which he now chairs. ACDC went on to build hundreds of units of affordable housing. Two of the developments were located on lots where Lee had lived as a young boy.
He spoke with Associate Vice President for Communications Barbara Hindley.
Do you think that if most people were asked to guess the fastest growing population in Greater Boston, they would answer the Asian population?
No, there is definitely a lack of awareness of the Asian community and its issues, which contributes to the invisibility Asians experience. And it extends to philanthropy. There have been studies that show the Asian community has received substantially less proportionately than other communities.
What do you think are the Asian community’s greatest strengths and challenges?
The folks who come here are immigrants and it takes a lot of drive for someone to leave their homeland to come to a new country in search of opportunity. There is a commitment and dedication to achieving economic success and stability—and adding to the quality of life in this country. Contrary to what we’ve been hearing for the last four years, immigrants are some of our most loyal residents. They have brought so much value to this country. Instead, they’ve been demonized and the target of so much xenophobia and abuse from people, especially now.
Xenophobia against Asian Americans has always existed, but it’s increased in recent years.
Yes. Harassment and violence against Asians increased dramatically when Trump blamed China for the pandemic. And now we know what that leads to—it was manifested in such a horrific and devastating way in the shooting and killing of six Asian women in Atlanta. It’s also true that there is a great lack of understanding about our community.
How did the Asian Community Fund at the Boston Foundation come about? I believe it was you and Helen Chin Schlichte, a longtime community leader, who launched it.
Yes, we thought it would be a good opportunity to have a fund that would focus on the needs of the Asian community. But we also wanted the ACF to be a focal point for the Asian community. Now, with so much xenophobia and racism directed toward Asian Americans, we need to let people know that we’re here, what our needs are and, hopefully, help organizations like the Boston Foundation understand our community better. The response to launching the ACF has been overwhelming and really gratifying. A number of people have been saying, “This is an idea I’ve been waiting for.”
Why focus on philanthropy?
Having served on the Boston Foundation’s Board of Directors for seven years now, it’s really been a wonderful education in how philanthropy works—and the difference it can make—particularly when you see the Boston Foundation model and the convening power that it has. It has an influence well beyond the dollars and the grants because of the advocacy power and the ability to bring together interested groups to act collaboratively.
Pulling back to a wider view, what do you see as the greatest challenges Greater Boston has over the next two decades?
I think because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd murder, there has been a lot more awareness of the plight of the African American community but also all communities of color. So that’s given many people and organizations more voice. The recent murders in Atlanta have drawn attention to the racism that exists against Asian Americans. The challenge is to bring everyone together to work collaboratively toward common goals, as opposed to each group and organization pursuing its own path. I think that’s going to be key.
What’s really exciting is the wide-open race for Mayor of Boston now. We’re seeing people from the community who are stepping forward, and they want to bring everyone together.
There’s no end to the problems that we have to solve and, while COVID has laid bare many of the problems, they have always been there and it’s shame on us for not really addressing them up to now. It’s great we have the opportunity and the attention and focus now.
Do you think the pandemic has given people the opportunity to step back and look at things in a systemic way?
It’s forced people to do it and I think that’s good. You always have this question in philanthropy: Do you seek out the narrow problems and try to solve them one at a time, or do you look at the broader issues and look for systemic solutions? I think this is a time for us to think boldly and think big. I hope the Boston Foundation will not only look forward, while being bold about the major issues, but also look back and ask, “What did we do right, up to now?” and “What are the things we should be doing differently?”
This first in a series of interviews with members of the Boston Foundation’s Board of Directors includes excerpts from a longer conversation. Click here to be able to read the full transcript.