Othello Activist Mona Lee Helps Shape South Seattle

Othello Activist Mona Lee Helps Shape South Seattle

By Amber Campbell

Longtime Othello neighbor Mona Lee is a south-end fixture. An avid biker from Ferguson, Missouri, Mona has spent the better part of the last two decades working hard to make South Seattle a better place.

She was on the committee that developed the Othello neighborhood plan that was approved by the city council in 1998, helped found the Othello Park Alliance and the Othello Station Community Action Team, and currently serves on the board of the Othello Park Alliance which has helped transform the once-troubled green space.

“I first met Mona Lee in 1999 when she was looking for neighbors to help her host refugees in transition,” said South Seattle neighbor and Community & Business Development Manager for HomeSight Sarah Valenta. “Since then I have  witnessed her volunteer, organize, advocate and protest for the betterment of our community, our city and our country. Mona is a tireless activist for human rights and the most prominent booster for our culturally rich neighborhood Othello.”

In 2011, Mona and her husband Dick Burkhart opened the Whistle Stop Co-op–a community cafe and bicycle co-op at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and South Othello Street.

“Mona and Dick took a risk, but they did it for their neighborhood,” wrote wrote Tom Fucoloro on the Seattle Bike Blog back in 2012. “They started Whistle Stop Co-op near Othello Station because they saw two needs: A coffee shop for the neighborhood to gather and a place to go for affordable bicycle repairs. Bad ass founders Mona Lee and Dick Burkhart—who have been advocating for safe neighborhood cycling since before you were born—don’t expect the co-op to turn much of a profit, but they do need it to break even.”

Unfortunately, the Whistle Stop didn’t succeed in that endeavor, but there are many in the area who still hold fond memories of the cozy community gathering place.

This week, Mona was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for our People in Your Neighborhood column — a series of interviews with some of South Seattle’s most interesting and engaging people.

Mona Lee



How long in South Seattle?
20 years

Where from originally?
Ferguson (St. Louis County, Mo) when it was a white working class suburb with virtually no people of color; left in 1965 for graduate school at the University of Oregon.

  • Have also lived in Eastern, Oregon, (taught in a two-room school house in Imnaha, a little village in the northeast corner of Oregon.
  • Germany (worked as guidance counselor in an Army Education Center )
  • After that I moved over to south King County and started  my real career as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor in the mid 1980’s
  • I guess each of the above is a story that could easily fill a book.

Day job:
None. Retired Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Washington State, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

What do you like most about your day job?
I loved my VRC job because it made a huge difference in peoples’ lives and used many of my talents. But I retired in 2003 to become a full-time activist.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?  
The feeling that much needs to be done in the world, and that lying in bed is very bad for my health and would shorten my life.

Tell us about your work in the community.
I have been an activist in the Othello Neighborhood for nearly 20 years. I was on the committee that developed our neighborhood plan that was approved by the city council in 1998. Since then I helped found the Othello Park Alliance and the Othello Station Community Action Team. I serve on the board of the Othello Park Alliance which has advocated for millions of dollars-worth of improvements in the Park. The Park has art work, new entry ways, a permanent performing arts stage now with many improvements yet to come. The playground will be rebuilt and the meandering pathways totally refurbished. Every year in August, we put on the Othello International Festival which brings together the various cultures in the neighborhood to share their art and dance.

The Othello Station Community Action Team makes sure neighborhood plan’s vision of pedestrian friendly town center around Othello Station is realized. We advocate for development that is attractive, just, equitable and in keeping with the neighborhood character.

What motivates you to do this work?
I think I have been interested in neighborhood planning ever since the 1970’s when I lived in Germany. That is a country whose collective consciousness seems to assume the attractiveness, vibrancy, and pedestrian friendliness of its towns and village centers which have a distinct sense of community. I need to live in this kind of place. I could not live in an homogenized suburban environment.

What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about making the world a better place. That’s the purpose of each person’s life: to improve the world around them in whatever way fits their talents and vision.

Besides neighborhood planning, I have always been involved in progressive politics. My vision for the country was expressed in the simple straight forward recommendations of Bernie Sanders. Just like the Scandinavian countries, the people of the US should have universal health care, free college education and economic equality. I have been devastated that the antithesis of that has taken over the political scene in America. The elements that we have now in the White House and Congress will accelerate our soaring economic inequality. It is disheartening that the hopes and dreams I have worked for throughout my entire life have come to this. This Trump/Bannon fascist take-over of our country is one of the greatest sorrows of my life.

I am also passionate about alternative transportation. I do not drive a car but rather, at my age of 78, get around by bike, bus, light rail and ferries. With that combination you can get almost anywhere almost as fast and for a fraction of the cost if you figure in the lack of parking fees. Besides it’s a lot more fun than riding around in a motorized wheel cage where you can’t see people or talk to your neighbors.

What are your hobbies?
Besides neighborhood work, my hobby is politics. I also like to write and have published  two books, Alien Child and Humbler than Dust, a Retired Couple Visits the Real India by tandem bicycle. You can get them from Amazon.com.

Mona with her husband Dick Burkhart. Photo/Joanne Acheson.

Tell us about your family:
I have a good-hearted, generous, and brilliant husband, Dick Burkhart. Between us we have five middle-aged off spring, all of whom are bright, generous, and loyal. My son, and daughter-in-law live with us. My daughter who is an IT manager for a biotech firm, lives in Cambridge, MA. Dick’s youngest daughter is a college professor in Ohio and has given us two delightful little grandsons whose life-sized photo graces the wall above our fire place.  I don’t have any biological grandchildren, but that’s okay. My real family is the human family. We are all related, and we are all important to one another.

What’s your most favorite thing about South Seattle?
Othello, the light rail station area, Othello Park and the Chief Sealth Trail. Mostly, I like the diversity. Most other places seem so homogenously white with everyone dressing the same. In our neighborhood there is always a lovely array of hijab costuming and colors and all sorts of interesting people where ever you go. Other places are so boring.

What’s your least favorite thing about South Seattle?
The speed and number of cars on Rainier Avenue and MLK. Both of these arterials should be put on serious road diets with bicycle paths along both sides. This would slow the traffic and invite more people to use bicycles, thus reducing the number of cars. Cars disturb the peace. I think of them as huge lethal cannon balls which I always have to duck and fear. Nothing threatens my chances of reaching my goal of living to be a hundred, more than cars.

Where is your favorite place to go in South Seattle?
Othello Park. I have an acronym for my favorite kind of day. I call it a LIP day, one where weather and time permit me to have lunch in the park. I sit on the Matt Broze Memorial Bench, looking across and worshipping the goddess Tahoma while I eat lunch which consists of a little packet of rice and vegetables from Tammy’s Bakery washed down with Vietnamese coffee.

If you could live anywhere besides South Seattle, where would it be?
Samoa. It’s warm, and there is no winter.

If there was one thing you could change about South Seattle, what would it be?
The weather.

Who inspires you?
Bernie Sanders inspires me for the reasons stated above. Elizabeth Warren also inspires me. She is forthright in speaking truth to power and tries to use her political power for good.

What was the last thing you read?
Songs of Willow Frost by James Ford. Besides the Nation Magazine, my favorite type of reading is good literary fiction. Besides being great stories of precious endings, Ford’s books have the added perk of being set in Seattle’s Chinatown in the early 1900’s. You can imagine what it was like here back then.

Tell us something about you that not many people know
I already told you that I once taught grades 1-4 in a two-room school house in in a place called Imnaha in a bottom of a deep walled canyon of eastern Oregon. There were 8 kids in my class. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. You can really teach if you have only 8 students.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
There is no such thing as perfect happiness. But the most important requisite for happiness is to love and be loved.

What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is that Trump and Bannon will destroy all that is good in the world even before I die.

Another thing, I don’t know whether to be afraid of this or not because it is certain to happen: Civilization as we know it is unsustainable and therefore will not exist as we know it in 200 years. Lots of people fear civilization will be destroyed by climate change, but my greatest fear is that nuclear weapons, the worst evil ever invented, will get us first and with so much unimaginable suffering.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Sometimes I take things for granted and don’t appreciate enough my loved ones and what I have.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Intolerance and stupidity.

What is your greatest regret?
By some horrible sequence of events, Trump was inaugurated into the office President of the United States. I don’t say elected because I don’t think his road to the presidency was a free and fair democratic process.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My children and my husband.

What is your current state of mind?
I am normally a steadfastly happy person, but since November 8 when we were told Trump would be inaugurated as President of the United States, I have been awash in sadness.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I managed to earn a living and a modest retirement by doing my job as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, work that used my talents and created good in the world.

What is your most treasured possession?
Our home on Othello Street.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their companionship, the feeling that I can just be myself with them, talk to them about whatever is on my mind, and they will accept me as I am.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Wella DeGornia, the hero of my novel, Alien Child. She comes from a planet called Gallata where women run the government and there is no word for war in any language.  During her stay on the planet Earth, she is curious and nonjudgmental even though this society is strange and fearful to her. Because she can read minds, she fully sees and understands the world view of others.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

What is it that you most dislike?
Stupidity, shortsightedness, and intolerance.

What else should we know about you?
When I was a child, my dad had a little saying taped to the dash board of his car. It said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  I have never forgotten that, and I try to keep it in mind at every moment of my life.

Is there a South Seattle neighbor you’d like to know more about? Nominate them for our People in Your Neighborhood column — a series of interviews with some of South Seattle’s most interesting and engaging people. Send your suggestions to gosouthseattle@gmail.com. Feature photo/Dana Seehale Croteau


One Comment

  1. Daphne Schneider says:

    What a great story about Mona! She really is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Her commitment and energy inspire me. Good choice of subject!