By Millie Olson
There was a moment in a recent Zoom call with VP Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen when the camera caught Lee Pierce, President of the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce, deep in thought and unsmiling. He posted a few frames on his Facebook page, and watched the responses pour in. “Real serious!” “You need to turn that frown upside down, Mista Pierce.” They were teasing comments from some of his 2,657 Facebook friends, but reminded him of the cultural expectations he still deals with every day. “You feel you’re not ever able to completely relax.”
Lee was born and raised in St. Helena, where his mother worked as a domestic and his father as a laborer in nearby vineyards. Neither had the opportunity for much education. There were only two or three Black families in the community, and home and school felt like two different worlds. “I learned early to do my best to assimilate in any environment and make people feel more comfortable.” At St. Helena High School, he was gregarious and popular, an honors student, and teachers quickly recognized his leadership potential. They pushed him to run for Student Body President, and when he won, his friends insisted on celebrating with a car parade featuring three black Cadillacs and a motorcycle escort.
Eager to start college, he moved in with his Aunt near the campus of Merritt College in Oakland. “I’d never seen so many African Americans in one place in my life.” During his first day on campus, Lee stopped to watch a Black man passionately address a crowd. “I was mesmerized.” Afterwards, as the speaker and his entourage passed by, “I stepped up with my usual aplomb and said: ‘Nice speech!’ He looked at me and said, ‘Brutha, what kinda accent is that?'” He later learned it was Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. “Once again, I had some assimilation work to do.”
More cultural challenges awaited him. Lee was drafted into the Army and spent two years in Germany as a military policeman, a clerk, and even a DJ. He then plunged back into college life at Sonoma State University and the University of San Francisco, where he earned a BS in Human Relations and Organizational Behavior.
He started on a career path that would span the private and public sectors, taking him from big business to entrepreneurship, from hi-tech to health care, with many leadership positions along the way. He moved to Sonoma County and got involved in civic life, serving on the Santa Rosa Planning Commission.
Finally, he decided to run for office. “I’d watched a lot of council meetings on TV and thought, ‘I can do this.” He bought a book called How To Run For Office and followed its advice to assemble a steering committee. He pulled in people from different walks of life, races, genders, and ages. He lost the first time but got enough votes to grab the attention of serious consultants. The second time, he won. In 2004 he became the first person of color ever to win a seat on the Santa Rosa City Council, and eventually served as vice-mayor. After losing a bid for re-election, and a race for State Assembly, he stepped away. “Progressives sometimes didn’t care for me, and centrists got upset when I took positions considered too progressive. I was just being me. People want to lock you down and it’s a difficult place to be.”
In recent years, Lee has refocused. He cherishes time with his wife Dianne and their blended family of three adult children and five grandchildren. He volunteers for many organizations and causes he believes in. A lifelong Democrat, he’s a member of the Santa Rosa Democratic Club, and played Frederick Douglass and other roles in last summer’s re-enactment of the story of Women’s Suffrage. He’s an active member of the League of Women Voters. Recently he was recruited to head the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce. His new Board is all female, and his focus is on initiatives for the next generation. “When they see something that’s wrong, they know how to ignite the globe.”
About to celebrate his 74th birthday, Lee is eager to get back out there and see people outside a Zoom screen. “I want to allow enough time to finish my book, travel with my wife and meet more people. Just to step back and look at what all cultures have to give.”