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Jamil Suleman has fought for almost five years to create a community garden on the University of Washington’s campus commemorating minority contributions.

The self-described social activist has faced skepticism from the school’s administration. He’s changed the garden’s focus from a memorial to actor Bruce Lee to a garden promoting the teachings of Lee and the Duwamish Tribe.

Now he faces one more hurdle: raising the money for it.

“There is never going to be a true unification of people” as long as certain peoples and histories are ignored, said Suleman, who graduated from the UW in 2007 and now works as a freelance artist and tutor. “This garden is kind of a holistic effort to shine light” on those contributions.

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The idea for the project originated during a class on the comparative history of ideas the 28-year-old Suleman taught at UW the fall after he graduated. Since its inception, the idea has gained support from the Bruce Lee Foundation, Lee’s family, community members and UW students.

The school, though now supportive of the effort, has declined to fund it.

Supporters hope to raise $100,000 by March; they say that would be enough to build and maintain the 2.5-acre Community Peace Garden on an untouched patch of land that houses native plants and animals, just south of Drumheller Fountain.

Initially, the UW resisted the effort to create a memorial to Lee, an action-movie star and martial-arts instructor who attended the UW and was buried in Seattle after his death in 1973.

A university spokesman questioned why this memorial should be on the UW campus, and why now. The official pointed out that Lee attended the UW for three years but did not graduate.

Supporters, however, argued that the school doesn’t adequately recognize its minorities. They maintained that Lee was one of its most famous students, so the school should honor his teachings and also that Lee had met his wife at the UW.

Suleman wanted to publicize Lee’s philosophical side as well. Lee preached unity and acceptance, teaching “under sky, under leaves, but one family.”

The garden’s organizers found a similar philosophy in Duwamish teachings, and incorporated the tribe into the plans. University officials began supporting the project, and landscape architect Katherine Kenney worked with Suleman to select a location.

During Suleman’s 2007 class, students originally wanted to honor Lee with a statue, but they decided Lee’s teachings would be better served through a meditative garden for students. They planned a garden that would intrude as little as possible on the native soil.

Shannon Lee, of California, the youngest of Bruce Lee’s two children, said she is happy about the choice to create a garden, saying it reflects her father’s lifestyle and teachings.

“I’m passionate about the depth and meaning of my father’s legacy, above and beyond the fact that he starred in a few films,” said Lee, who runs many companies and charities dedicated to her father. “This project speaks to that.”

Suleman approached Duwamish Chair Cecile Hansen last fall, wanting to provide a memorial to the region’s original occupants. While Hansen didn’t see exactly how her tribe fit into a Bruce Lee memorial, she was happy to accept Suleman’s offer.

“It doesn’t fit together, but any time they remember the tribe we love it,” Hansen said.

Suleman’s efforts have supporters outside the UW community. Stefan Grunkemeier, who works at Simply Rocks landscaping in Seattle, volunteered to design the garden, wanting to encourage his friend’s efforts.

“Jamil brings people together who normally wouldn’t be together,” Grunkemeier said. “That’s his persona. That’s the theme behind this project, and that was Bruce Lee’s philosophy.”

Sarah Freishtat: 206-464-2373 or

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