Jean Siri: Wild Woman of the West County By SUSAN PRATHER Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Jean Siri told it like it is and had a vision of how it should be. Former El Cerrito City Manager Pokorny said that Siri “had the courage to tell those who elected her and those who served with her, what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.” Unfortunately, those abilities are so rare these days they are described as “refreshing.”  

Siri was not politically correct or careful about anyone’s feelings. She did not waste her time “being nice to be nice.” Instead, she was effective; and she was effective until she died of a heart attack, in her car on the morning of Friday, Jan. 20, about to drive off to yet another meeting.  

Years ago Siri fought long and hard to monitor toxic emissions in minority communities, often taking busloads of people who suffered from Chevron’s emissions in their neighborhoods, to the neighborhoods of those who served on the Chevron corporate board. Of course, they were “uninvited” and not very welcome in the safe, comfortable neighborhoods of the CEO and board members. Siri once ran a “smell school” to teach people in the impacted neighborhoods to identify pollutants by smell, so they could report it by name to the Air Board.  

This battle, still being waged, is now described as the battle against environmental racism. Dr. Wendel Brunner, director of public health for Contra Costa County, told me that when he became public health director in 1983, “It was Siri’s personal pushing and public advocacy that was essential to my efforts to try to figure out how to address the toxic issues rampant in the county, and especially in the low income and minority communities.” Siri was a founding member of Contra Costa’s Public and Environmental Health Advisory Board (PEHAB) and also helped found the West County Toxics Coalition.  

Siri’s life was a lesson in public service. She was instrumental in founding Save the Bay. She served as an elected official on three boards: The STEGE Sanitary District Board; the El Cerrito City Council, twice serving as mayor; and finally, her greatest joy, as a director for Ward 1 on the East Bay Regional Parks District Board. 

Women from every generation and every walk of life think they are the “first” to do everything and do it all, but every generation has women of courage who lead the way for the next. As we honor Jean Siri, we must recall her work with Lucretia Edwards and Barbara Vincent to save our shoreline and open it up to public access. Without the work of Siri, Edwards and Vincent, the East Bay shoreline would be crowded with industry, housing and dump-sites. Instead we all enjoy their legacy of beautiful shoreline parks, including Point Pinole and others. 

Siri also served on the board of directors of the organization I founded and run, a respite and service center for those among the working poor and homeless in the Walnut Creek area, Fresh Start. She visited once a month, talking to everyone, always remembering names and stories, as she cheered people on. 

Jean, Fancheon Christner and I were members of the West County Gray Panthers. In the mid-1980s, along with Gray Panther Convener Art Schroeder, we began to work on the issue of homelessness. Due to our passion, persistence, humor, and always “in your face” attitude, an editor at the Oakland Tribune named the three of us “The Wild Women of West County.” Soon the name was striking fear in the hearts of politicos and bureaucrats across Contra Costa County. We were “Wild Women” and we proudly lived up to the name.  

People like Jean Siri are important to our lives. In my life Jean Siri was my friend and the mother I should have had. She called herself my “mother, mentor and confidant.” I met Jean when I was 22 and she told me that she thought I “might have some potential as a trouble-maker!”  

Because of Jean, my life is not what it might have been. For that I am grateful because anything else would have been too damned dull! She helped me see life and the truth from many different angles as she pushed me to be more of an activist, to talk back, speak truth to power and, as she liked to say, “make trouble.”  

Jean Siri helped me to understand better the true nature of how we are supposed to treat and care for each other, simply because of our membership in the community, and that we share a responsibility to make the world a better place because we live in it. As Jean taught her daughters, she taught me “Don’t wait for someone else to fix a problem or do the right thing. Do it yourself and do it first.” 

Jean Siri leaves two daughters, Ann Siri of Philo, in Mendocino County, and Lynn Siri Kimsey, of Davis, California. Lynn’s husband, Bob Kimsey, once told me how empty their house was after a visit from Jean. She filled up the space, not with size, but with her booming voice. Jean and Will Siri were both very proud of their daughters, of son-in-law Bob Kimsey and their many abilities and accomplishments. Their grandchildren, Erin and Ben Kimsey, were a particular joy. Will Siri died in 2004. Jean’s beloved dog, Babe, died in 2004 as well. 

Jean Siri was in my life for 33 years and it was not long enough. I have a quote hanging above my desk that reminds me of Jean: “Live your life so at the end you're the one who is smiling and everyone around you is crying.” She did that, although I’m sure, as we joked many times, there are some who are not sorry to see Jean go!  

When we vote to replace Siri on the East Bay Parks Board of Directors we have an obligation to remember her legacy and choose someone with similar passions, not only for the outdoors, the environment and conservation, but for people. The person who represents Ward 1 must have a vision of how things can be and an eye on the future. Perhaps we can find a young person with a fresh outlook and new ideas about parks and open space. Jean would like that.  

There is no better way to celebrate Jean Siri than with activism, laughter and tears. Mother Jones, another “trouble maker,” said: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” We will Jean. You can count on it. 

A memorial for Jean Siri will be held at Miller Knox Regional Shoreline Park in Pt. Richmond on Friday, Feb. 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The public is welcome. The family suggests donations be made in Jean Siri's name to Fresh Start, 1924 Trinity Ave., Walnut Creek, CA 94596 or the Regional Parks Foundation, P.O. Box 21074, Crestmont Station, Oakland, CA 94620