Grassroots organizer Daniel Lee draws inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement to empower others
By Regan Kibbee
Driven by a passion for social justice and helping others, filmmaker and grassroots organizer Daniel Lee is passing lessons from his childhood on to today’s youth.
A volunteer mentor at El Rincon Elementary School who developed a Civil Rights curriculum for the Culver City Teen Center, Lee credits his grandmother — who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the Montgomery bus boycott — as an inspiration.
When Lee was growing up in the South, she used to bring him along on trips to feed the hungry and offer support to prisoners in jail. Lee’s mother and grandmother also made sure he and his siblings knew about the black community’s historic struggles for equal rights and how that movement carried into the present.
At 18, Lee moved cross-country to get his B.A. in Cinematic Arts at USC. While in college, he volunteered at assisted living facilities and participated in union and environmental justice rallies.
Greater involvement with activism would come later, but first he had to begin paying off his extensive student debt. Lee put aside any philosophical objections and joined the U.S. Air Force in 2002, working on satellite communications, and later served in the Air National Guard.
Following active duty, Lee settled in Culver City and was working at a research company when the financial crisis hit in 2008. As he learned about how many people had been taken advantage of and lost their homes, Lee became deeply motivated to create social change.
Lee joined the Occupy movement, visiting the encampment at L.A. City Hall multiple times a week and even becoming one of nearly 300 people arrested when police raided the camp in November 2011. Through the movement, he learned about organizing and got to know others working on behalf of the poor and people of color.
Lee also worked with Move to Amend, a grassroots advocacy group to overturn the Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate money in politics. He was a key organizer behind the group’s advocacy efforts in Los Angeles and served on its national board.
Lee also returned to school and earned a master’s degree in Social Welfare from UCLA.
For the past five years, he’s served on the Culver City Martin Luther King Celebration Committee, helping to organize the annual celebration.
“Growing up in Alabama and in Florida, Dr. King was a constant source of hope and inspiration, even when my family would experience difficult times,” he says.
Lee developed his Civil Rights curriculum at the Culver City Teen Center to share that legacy with local youth. Each week, he helped lead a discussion that delved deeper into the struggle of Dr. King, Malcolm X, athletes, entertainers and everyday people in the movement, with a particular focus on the contributions of women and children.
“I felt there was a huge disconnect for some kids of color who grew up in the era of our first black president and talk of America being a post-racial society,” he says.
Lee hopes the program will empower students and help them better process emotions raised by the police killings of unarmed black people and racist fervor expressed by some against immigrants.
“I thought it was important they knew that a lot of the Civil Rights leaders were actively hated and criticized,” he says, “and to be realistic about the struggles faced on a daily basis due to one’s race, gender or sexual preference.”
Lee recently completed “Eyes off the Prize,” a documentary examining persistent segregation and barriers to education. He hopes to bring his Civil Rights program to local schools.
His film training carries over into his work since 2005 as a volunteer mentor and actor with kids in the Young Storytellers program at El Rincon Elementary School.
“I have watched with joy as their eyes lit up when professional actors came in to bring their words to life,” he says.
In April, Lee ran for the Culver City Council, his platform emphasizing the environment, accountability and fairness. Chief among his concerns were the Inglewood Oil Field, a Los Angeles city fracking ban and statewide environmental legislation. The only renter among the candidates, he also focused on housing affordability, homelessness and enacting a citywide minimum wage.
Lee lost the election — by less than 250 votes — and would consider running again.
“As our city continues to develop and become more diverse,” he says, “we must take proactive steps to make sure we develop sustainability and that our government is open, accessible and responsive to all of our residents.”
Connect with Daniel Lee at facebook.com/danielleeculver.