Paul Lee Interview - Full Transcript

May 4, 2021

This is the full transcript of a conversation with Paul Lee, a member of the Boston Foundation’s Board of Directors and the co-founder of the Asian Community Fund. It is the first in a series of interviews with members of the Boston Foundation’s Board of Directors. An edited version of this interview appeared in the spring issue of TBF News. 

Did you grow up in Boston?

I did. I grew up in Chinatown. We lived there until I was 11. My father worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and my mother was a garment worker in sewing factories—they were immigrants. We had moved four times by the time I was six—within Chinatown. I went to the old Quincy School on Tyler Street, built in 1847, and then we finally bought a run-down house on Ash Street, right where the Orange Line came out from underground to the elevated track. We lived there for five years until Tufts Medical Center displaced us because they wanted the land for their expansion. By that time, all of Chinatown was really being broken up by the expressway and the medical center expansion. Everyone was moving out and most people moved to the South End, but we ended up moving to Brookline for the school system.

When did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?

I went to Brookline High School and then Columbia for undergrad and I was there during the revolutionary days, demonstrating against the War in Vietnam. I had originally gone to Columbia to major in engineering because that’s what my parents encouraged me to do. They said it would lead to a stable job. But when I got caught up in the revolution, I knew that I wanted to be an advocate, so I decided to be a lawyer. Originally, I was going to be a criminal lawyer to help reform the criminal justice system because I had read Ramsey Clark’s book Crime in America. But I became involved with a group of friends at Cornell Law School and they were all going to New York City to work at Wall Street firms and so I thought I would do that for a couple of years and then go back to my passion. But I never really left the law firm setting. I worked at a New York law firm for five years and then met my wife, who was here in Boston in medical school, and we decided we would live here. So, I moved up here and joined Goodwin Procter. 

My wife also grew up as part of the Chinese community. Her family had a hand laundry in Somerville in Davis Square. After graduating from Somerville High School she attended Tufts, where some of her professors recognized her from the laundry. She subsequently went to Tufts Medical School and later became the Dean for Education at the Medical School and then Associate Provost for the University under President Larry Bacow. 

Do you have children?

We have two children. Our son is in Portland, Oregon. He’s a software entrepreneur. And our daughter is staff attorney at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York City. 

I’m sure you were still interested in criminal justice even though you didn’t pursue that as a profession.

Yes, and when you think about it, that was 50 years ago and we’ve accomplished very little in the intervening years, with the current mass incarceration of men of color and the sentencing disparities for defendants of color. I ended up staying at the law firm, but it wasn’t my life’s goal.   I sort of expected them to tell me to leave at some point, because there were so few Asians at law firms at the time. But it never happened; I just kept going on and then eventually I was so close to making partner that I decided I may as well see if I could make it. I was actually in the first class of Asian Americans who made partner at the major law firms in Boston in 1984. There were three of us, including my law school classmate, Bill Lee from Wilmer Hale. 

So, you decided to do a lot of community work.

Yes, that was the bargain I made with myself. I was going to be active in the community and give back to my community as much as I could. I probably was much more community-oriented than most of my partners, although the law firm did have some strong pro bono programs.

You were one of the founders of the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), and now you chair that nonprofit’s board.

Yes, it was in the early ‘80s and I was still a senior associate at my firm, but beginning to get more active in the community. There was a group of people I was friendly with and first we started the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts. And then, from the connections there, I got to go back to Chinatown and be more active. There was a group of activists who wanted to start a community development corporation [Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC)], that was fully transparent. We wanted it to be clear that what we were doing was solely for the benefit of the community. We started it with some really good people, like Tunny Lee, Professor of Urban Planning at MIT, and life-long Chinatown activists Neil Chin and Caroline Chang. These were great people and they were my role models. I was lucky to be able to work with them and learn from them and, since I was a lawyer, I provided a lot of the technical help toward forming the organization and get it up and running. And my firm was good enough to provide resources. 

What were some of the early projects you did with ACDC?

When the elevated part of the Orange Line was coming down on Washington Street, the community had been invited to submit a proposal to build affordable housing on the site right next to the Tufts Medical Center building. I basically grew up right across the street from the site. We submitted a proposal to the City and were selected to build 88 units of housing, more than half of which were affordable. That was the beginning. And then, across the street, we built the Metropolitan on a site that the Medical Center had wanted to turn into a nine-story garage.  The community rose up to protest that and convinced the City to stop the approval process. So, that parcel became available and we were selected to build a 250-unit housing development, 40 percent of which is affordable rentals and affordable condos. That’s where ACDC has its office now. 

And then a few years later, the community organized and advocated to the state Department of Transportation that the section of Hudson Street that had been taken to build a ramp to the highway and had been empty for 50 years really belonged to the community and should be given back to the community to build affordable housing. After several years of community organizing, the state and the City authorized us to build 95 units of affordable housing to go with 200 units of market-rate rental units, some open space and then a 51-unit affordable condo project. 

ACDC has done a lot of work helping people apply for mortgages for the first time.

Yes, you can imagine being able to buy a new two-bedroom condo, if you qualify under the income guidelines, for under $300,000 in Boston within walking distance of the financial district, South Station and public transit. It’s amazing. So, we were really pleased. 

What was particularly meaningful to me was that two of ACDC’s projects—the 250-unit Metropolitan project and also this affordable condo project—were on sites where I used to live growing up. Very cool stuff…

What are other nonprofits you’ve been involved with?

I am a past president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and have served on the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, which along with the Boston Bar Association, have recognized me for my work promoting diversity in the legal profession.  Locally, I have been involved with the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and I’m currently serving on the boards of WGBH as well as the Conservation Law Foundation.  

The Boston Foundation has quite a history with those two organizations, WGBH and CLF. 

Yes, it has quite a history with most of the organizations in the city. 

On a broader level, do you think that if most people were asked what the fastest growing population is in Greater Boston, they would answer the Asian population?

No, there is definitely a lack of awareness of the Asian community and its issues and everything else that’s happening in the community. And it extends to philanthropy. There have been studies that show the Asian community has received substantially less proportionately than other communities.

When it comes to organizing the Asian community, is one of the problems the diversity within the community?

That’s true, but there’s a lot of diversity in the Latinx and Black communities too. So, it’s a challenge for all communities. When do you break down into smaller groups? When do you try to come together to have a bigger voice? We always have to be looking for commonalities.

When you think about the Asian community in Greater Boston, what do you think are the greatest strengths and challenges?

The greatest strengths are that 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. The strength is the commitment and dedication they have to achieving economic success and stability—thereby 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 in this country. They have brought so much value to this country. Instead, they’ve been demonized and the target of so much xenophobia and fear.

Xenophobia against Asian Americans has always existed, but it’s increased in recent years.

Yes. In the first year after President Trump was elected—and you were seeing more incidents of racism—my wife was just walking a street in our town and someone passing in a car, rolled down the window and yelled at her. Harassment and violence against Asians only increased 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 in March.  It’s also true that there is a great lack of understanding about our community. When the Governor this year decided not to extend the eviction moratorium, he said that the state would make available rental assistance and counseling services. It was immediately apparent that these services were not available in many languages. Asians had a lot of trouble accessing those services because they didn’t speak English well. So, one of the programs that ACDC has been involved with provides English language assistance. 

Are family connections another strength of the Asian community?

Yes, I think that’s true. I think there are strong family connections in a lot of cultures. In the Asian culture, fortunately, it’s particularly strong. And it’s not just the family connections. When I lived in Chinatown, I went to the old Quincy School and most of the student body was Chinese. So we had a lot in common and were very supportive of each other.

How did the Asian Community Fund come about? I believe it was you and Helen Chin Schlichte who launched it. 

Yes, Helen and I really hatched this together. Helen is, of course, a very well-known community advocate and a valued mentor to me.   We saw the success that the Latino Equity Fund at the Boston Foundation had as well as the Equality Fund [which focuses on the LGBTQ community], and I saw how much the Boston Foundation supported those efforts and thought it would be a good opportunity for the Asian community to have a fund that would focus on the needs of the Asian community. But I also wanted the ACF to be a focal point for the Asian Community. We are looking at our community and the needs of our community. In fact, in talking to a lot of Asian-American funders, the visibility of the ACF was key for them. This is during the current times—with so much xenophobia and racism directed toward Asian Americans. We need to have a fund to let people know that we’re here and let people know what our needs are and, hopefully, to help organizations like the Boston Foundation understand the needs in our community better.

The response to the Asian Community Fund from the community has been impressive, really gratifying—to see how many people care about the community. So far, many of the funders have been individuals. And these aren’t necessarily wealthy people, but for them to step up and write $25,000 checks or $50,000 checks or $100,000 checks; that’s been amazing to me. 

When Helen and I first talked about this, she said, “I hoped that we could have a fund like this for many, many years because it’s really important to our community.” And a number of people I’ve talked to have been saying, “This is an idea I’ve been waiting for.”

Why philanthropy specifically? Conceivably you could have started a community organizing initiative. Was it your relationship with the Boston Foundation?

Yes, 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 a power well beyond the dollars and grants because of the advocacy, because of its ability to bring together interested groups to act collaboratively. These are all things I would like to see the Asian Community Fund do. I’d like to be looking at our community from 20,000 feet to study all of the organizations and see which ones are particularly effective, who else is working in the same area and promote collaboration.  I would like to build on that strength that we have from working together. 

The Asian COVID Emergency Relief Fund that ACDC played a part in starting in the spring of last year, was a collaboration of five Asian American organizations. These organizations knew of each other, respected each other’s work and had worked together mainly on a project-by-project basis. But this was the first time when they each went out and raised money and put it into a common account and then sat down together to decide how to make grants from it. Much of the relief support was directed to undocumented immigrants and other low wage workers who could not receive safety-net benefits.  We’re now hearing a lot more about the importance of collaboration from some of the emerging leaders of our nonprofits.

Pulling back now, to a wider view, what do you see as the greatest challenges we have in Greater Boston 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. I think the challenge is to bring us together to work together as opposed to each group and organization pursuing its own path. I think that’s going to be key.

And then, it’s important to have organizations led by people of color working with mainstream organizations—whereas the old model was a bit of the old boys’ network. So, now it’s about overcoming that and working together so that philanthropy doesn’t have the historical paternalistic approach it had when the people with the money decided what the community needed. So, seeking out those community voices is really a process of coming together and then working together.

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 some of the problems, those problems have always been there and it’s shame on us for not really addressing them up to now. It’s great that now we have the opportunity and the attention and focus. But, honestly, we knew there was a 40-year discrepancy in life expectancy between those who live on Beacon Hill and some neighborhoods in Roxbury. Can we really say that we were addressing it effectively before the pandemic?

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?”