A 45-year resident of Berkeley, Helen moved here with her former husband John in 1971. She immediately became active in the Sierra Club and served in leadership roles at the local, state and eventually the national level. She was elected to the national Board of Directors of the Sierra Club in 1977.
In 1974 Helen was elected to four terms (16 years) on the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) Board of Directors, representing Ward 4, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and parts of No. Oakland. Helen was the first woman and environmentalist to be elected. Although initially outvoted 6-1, over the years Helen successfully pushed for an inclining block rate structure which encouraged conservation, establishing a lifeline rate and eliminating subsidies to developers for new development (which in the past ratepayers had paid).
In 1986 Ms. Burke began a 16 year career in environmental planning at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 9, where she served in different positions. She coordinated community relations at Superfund hazardous waste sites; she developed a plan for waste minimization efforts at a State agency regional office; she developed and implemented an enforcement program to reduce exposure of young children to lead- based paint; and she managed a successful stakeholder consensus building process to reduce sediment in run off from going into Coyote Creek in the South Bay. She retired from EPA in 2003.
Helen has had an active retirement. She co-founded a networking group for newly retired women called “Free Agents of Berkeley,” who put on an annual tea and create subgroups organized by common interests, like birding, threatre-going, movies and memoir writing. She continued her passion for planning and community service by serving on the Berkeley Planning Commission (one year as Chair) and Downtown Area Planning Committee. She also chaired the Creeks Task Force for two years to develop revisions to the 1989 Berkeley Creeks Ordinance which were ultimately adopted by the City Council.
Retirement also afforded Helen the opportunity to get into painting, a lifelong interest. She took watercolor courses at Albany senior center and joined El Cerrito Art Association’s en plein air section. She now uses the immediacy of sumi ink and watercolor with color pencil accents to create paintings that express her joy in nature scenes, including animals. Most recently she was accepted into the Oakland Art Association and will have a solo show at First Federal Bank in Oakland. Her paintings have won awards.