Alice Lee: Al­ways look­ing out for com­mu­nity

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­

With de­grees in ac­count­ing and psy­chol­ogy, Alice Lee was work­ing at MetLife when Martha Wong asked her to help her cam­paign for a seat on the Hous­ton City Coun­cil in late 1993.

Lee took a tem­po­rary leave of absence from work to help Wong as her sched­uler. Lit­tle did she know, that tem­po­rary leave would be­come per­ma­nent and put her on a path of pub­lic ser­vice for more than three decades.

“Martha won and be­came the first Chi­nese Amer­i­can elected to the Hous­ton City Coun­cil. She asked me to be her chief of staff, and I said yes,” said Lee. The de­ci­sion led to Lee work­ing at City Hall for the next 10 years.

It was a new path for Lee, who im­mi­grated to the United States as a child with her par­ents from Tai­wan in 1973.

“Martha was sworn in Jan­uary 1994. Three months later, the city started bud­get plan­ning. It was a big learn­ing process for me. I learned how re­sources are al­lo­cated, how to ad­vo­cate for peo­ple who don’t have a voice, how to give a com­mu­nity in need a li­brary, a com­mu­nity cen­ter and such,” Lee said.

As the first elected Asian of­fi­cial, Martha Wong’s of­fice got many re­quests for help from the com­mu­nity.

“Martha was rep­re­sent­ing District C, and we have to care­fully bal­ance the need be­tween her district and the Asian com­mu­nity. We did a lot to pro­mote the trade with Asia, in­clud­ing China, to show up at Asian events. I learned that it’s very im­por­tant for the Asian com­mu­nity to have that rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the City Hall.”

When Chris Bell won a City Coun­cil seat in 1997, Lee was asked to head up his of­fice. “Martha gra­ciously agreed to let me go, to give me room to grow. I worked as chief of staff for Bell for five years.”

When Gor­don Quan be­came the mayor pro-tem in 2002, he ap­pointed Lee as ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer and di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Mayor Pro-Tem. Her new po­si­tion in­volved han­dling doc­u­ments, mail, travel and salaries for all City Coun­cil mem­bers. Lee helped stream­line the of­fice and man­aged to re­turn $50,000 to the city’s gen­eral fund in 2003.

Lee con­tin­ued to work un­der suc­ceed­ing Mayor Pro-Tem Carol Al­varado in 2004 and her duty ex­panded to pro­cess­ing all pay­roll and per­son­nel needs for all 14 coun­cil mem­bers and their staff. She was also in­volved in mon­i­tor­ing the city’s bud­get and helped to ad­dress bud­get con­cerns.

Lee lost her po­si­tion at City Hall when she took a leave of absence due to the loss of a fam­ily mem­ber in 2005. She went to work for the Chi­nese Com­mu­nity Cen­ter (CCC) and then Asia So­ci­ety Texas Cen­ter (ASTC), two non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Lee or­ga­nized ma­jor events for CCC dur­ing her two years there, such as a visit from Elaine Chao, US sec­re­tary of la­bor; the an­nual Lu­nar New Year fes­ti­vals, which at­tracted 10,000 vis­i­tors; and a build­ing ded­i­ca­tion in 2005 that fea­tured Kay Bai­ley Hutchi­son, US se­na­tor from Texas.

At ASTC, Lee planned and im­ple­mented goals and strate­gies to in­crease aware­ness, sup­port and giv­ing by the com­mu­nity at large. She helped its cap­i­tal cam­paign, with a spe­cial em­pha­sis on the Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

“I found it’s very chal­leng­ing to run pro­grams while con­stantly need­ing fundrais­ing,” Lee said.

In 2009, Lee left ASTC to join Hawes Hill Calderon LLP, a firm that spe­cial­izes in the cre­ation of spe­cial pur­pose dis­tricts, such as mu­nic­i­pal man­age­ment dis­tricts and tax in­cre­ment rein­vest­ment zones (TRIZ). Last year, she be­came a part­ner at the firm.

Through her firm, Lee con­tin­ues to serve the com­mu­nity by man­ag­ing TRIZ South­west Man­age­ment District (SMD), which is un­der the Texas leg­is­la­ture and in­cludes Hous­ton’s Chi­na­town. As ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at SMD, Lee de­vel­ops and over­sees pro­grams that im­prove the district’s en­vi­ron­ment, safety and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment.

When three pedes­tri­ans were killed in Chi­na­town in one month dur­ing a road im­prove­ment project in early 2015, Lee’s of­fice helped to ad­dress the prob­lem by bring­ing the com­mu­nity, city govern­ment and Hous­ton Po­lice De­part­ment (HPD) to­gether.

“We asked the city to re­duce the speed limit; we re­quested the HPD put of­fi­cers on the street to en­force the law around Chi­na­town; and we ed­u­cated the com­mu­nity about safety,” said Lee. Pedes­trian traf­fic deaths were pre­vented af­ter those ac­tions.

In re­cent months, rob­beries in the Chi­na­town area have height­ened con­cern among the busi­ness peo­ple and shop­pers. Along with other com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions, Lee or­ga­nized lec­tures and events where HPD of­fi­cers gave tips on safety and crime pre­ven­tion.

Lee just com­pleted de­sign of a pam­phlet in four lan­guages dis­trib­uted to lo­cal banks to warn res­i­dents of “jug­ging”. Jug­ging is when per­pe­tra­tors fol­low vic­tims who had gone to an ATM ma­chine and ei­ther try to steal money from their ve­hi­cles or rob them.

“We want to give the tools to peo­ple to stay safe. I en­cour­age busi­nesses to take credit cards in­stead of prac­tic­ing cash-only pol­icy, use ar­mored cars to col­lect and de­posit cash in­come. It’s mostly about ed­u­ca­tion,” Lee said.

Lee said she also plans to ask HPD to trans­late its safety videos into Chi­nese and Viet­namese.

“We are also work­ing with HPD to pro­vide bi­cy­cle pa­trols in the Chi­na­town area. That will in­crease the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween po­lice of­fi­cers and lo­cal busi­ness own­ers. It will make the Chi­na­town safer.”

On busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, Lee said that the SMD, Chi­nese Com­mu­nity Cen­ter and Greater Hous­ton Vis­i­tors and Con­ven­tion Bureau are work­ing to­gether to de­velop a Chi­na­town bus tour pack­age.

“Hous­ton Chi­na­town is beau­ti­ful and has a lot to of­fer. On one street, you can en­joy al­most any kind of cui­sine from Asia. We want to at­tract peo­ple around Hous­ton to visit this area, to have tea, to eat, to shop and to visit the tem­ples,” Lee said.

Early this year, Lee won the Busi­ness Fe­male award at the an­nual gala of Asian Cham­ber of Com­merce. This was not the first time that Lee was hon­ored for her com­mu­nity in­volve­ment. Hav­ing served in more than a dozen com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions over the years, she won a Bank of Amer­ica 2008 Neigh­bor­hood Ex­cel­lence Lo­cal Hero Award and des­ig­nated the $5,000 in award money to the Chi­nese Com­mu­nity Cen­ter.

“I am very for­tu­nate to have a job I en­joy do­ing. It all goes back to hav­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion and a voice for the com­mu­nity,” said Lee.

I am very for­tu­nate to have a job I en­joy do­ing. It all goes back to... the com­mu­nity.”


Alice Lee ac­cepts the Busi­ness Fe­male Award at the an­nual gala of Asian Cham­ber of Com­merce, an event at­tended by Hous­ton Mayor Sylvester Turner (right) in Septem­ber in Hous­ton.

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