In Remembrance.

In Remembrance

Ron Carne
Lila Gosch
Jessica Holland
Jim Saxe
Larry Thatcher

Lee Swenson

November 21, 1939 – January 27, 2024

Lee Swenson passed away on January 27 at 84 years old. Born to a dairy farmer in the village of Tyler, Minnesota, he moved to the Bay Area with his family for the WWII shipyards in 1942 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Lee was a dedicated peace activist and community organizer who held his conviction that a better world was possible throughout all his life's journeys. A draft resister of the early '60s, Lee left Stanford University to join the anti-fallout shelter, atomic testing ban, and blossoming civil rights movements. In 1969, after teaching at the Peninsula School in Menlo Park and directing preschools with Head Start in East Palo Alto, he became director of Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, a great crossroads of draft and war tax resistance, AWOL soldiers seeking refuge, farmworker boycott staff, and Buddhist monks and nuns. At the end of the Vietnam War, from 1975 to 1978, Lee edited the Simple Living newsletter for the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco and subsequently became the executive director of the Farallones Institute until the early '80s.

Lee met his life partner, Vijaya, in Berkeley in 1982 through the philosopher Ivan Illich, and together they began two volunteer-run grassroots organizations, The Recovery of the Commons Project and the Institute for the Study of Natural & Cultural Resources. They worked with innovative projects to restore the commons through art, language, culture, study groups, and "writing nonviolence" workshops, and they co-organized powerful gatherings at various scales in Northern California, Santa Fe, Montana, Mexico, Europe, and South India.

Above all, Lee was a catalytic storyteller with a generous heart for knowledge, friendship, and movement-building. Over the past four decades, he created and shared his slide-lecture "Praise Song: 150 years of American Indian Art," and for the past three, he wrote with the Vietnam Veterans Writing Group led by Maxine Hong Kingston. Recently, he was a co-producer on "The Boys Who Said NO!," a documentary on the Vietnam War draft resistance movement.

Lee loved to say he was "swimming in a sea of friends," and what a sea it was. He was a loving husband and father, and a beloved friend to many. Swenson is survived by his wife, Vijaya, and their children, Jaya and Uma; his children Mwosi and Tai, and his grandchildren Casey, Talia, and Bria, from his previous marriage.

Published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 16, 2024

I worked with Lee in the early 70s on a project called Stop the Five-Gallon Flush. We traveled together to northern Sonoma County in that venture, and he warned me that Covelo was full of over-educated people.

I saw his house in East Palo Alto, though I was never inside. Very small, very inspiring. Of course, most of those small houses are gone now.

He had a strong life force. I'm sorry he's gone.

Brian Good


Lee Swenson, San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2024.