Alice Lee: Always looking out for community
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.