CBI Members Make the City a Better Place through Civic Engagement
Two members of Congregation Beth Israel were recently recognized for their local efforts to improve life in Austin. Alison Alter was elected to Austin City Council in the District 10 runoff election in December, and Dr. Kenneth Shine was named a 2016 Austinite of the Year by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Concerned about special interests’ influence at City Hall, especially over development decisions and the future of our parks, Alter ran for City Council believing that government can solve problems and should help everyone.
“I really felt that I offered an alternative, that I would be able to listen to the people of District 10 and be able to ask the hard questions and not be beholden to special interests,” said Alter.
Alter defeated incumbent Sheri Gallo in the Austin City Council District 10 runoff election on December 13 and was sworn in on January 6.
Alter believes that her Jewish values influence her desire to be involved in her local community on this level.
“I’ve always taken the route of choosing career moves where I’m able to give back and have an impact on society. I've never been motivated by making money,” she said.
A philanthropic consultant, Alter founded Alter Advising LLC in 2013. She previously served as managing director of the Global Initiative for Education and Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin; the Dell Social Innovation Challenge’s director of strategic planning; development director for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for World Affairs and the Global Economy’s associate director; an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and a lecturer in international policy studies, political science and public policy at Stanford University.
Alter holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford and a doctorate in political economy and government from Harvard University.
“I’ve always been animated by tikkun olam,” she said, adding that another idea that is important to her comes from Pirkei Avot, that one is not required to complete the work of improving the world, but neither is one free to desist from it.
“It may not be that one person can solve everything but if each person does their part we can make a lot of difference in the world,” Alter said, adding, “I hope others will join me so that we can improve Austin.”
Alter, her husband, and their two children, joined Congregation Beth Israel shortly after moving to Austin in 2011. She has also been involved in Tikkun Austin.
Alter’s next step is to dive into issues already in the city’s pipeline, including CodeNEXT, the land development code rewrite.
“It's a really important set of decisions that's going to shape our city for many, many years to come,” Alter said, adding that she also wants to look into whether plan unit development ordinances can be revised in order to achieve superior development.
She also plans to work on implementing the recently passed mobility bond, looking at regional transport decisions, strengthening partnerships with local school districts, and making government more transparent and effective.
Alter is hoping her role in City Council will trigger greater engagement in city politics by the Jewish community, and to leverage the talent and experience and resources in District 10, which includes Congregation Beth Israel and the Dell Jewish Community Campus, where she hopes to hold events.
“I’d love for people to reflect upon, as they’re thinking about their volunteer time for the year, what are some of the ways that they can engage locally, whether it's with a nonprofit or whether it's with city-run organizations. And just being engaged politically and understanding that what we do at the local level really affects people in their daily lives and that it's worth paying attention to,” Alter said.
To contact the District 10 office, email District10@austintexas.gov.
Dr. Kenneth Shine
In December, the Austin Chamber of Commerce named Shine a 2016 Austinite of the Year for working to create the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
The Chamber is also honoring Dr. Clay Johnston with the award, which will be presented at an annual meeting on February 10. Johnston is the Dell Medical School’s first dean.
The Chamber’s highest honor, the award was created in 1984 “to recognize significant leaders in the local community who were instrumental in making Austin an even better place to live, work and do business,” according to the organization’s website.
Shine, a professor of medicine at the Dell Medical School, said a medical school is long overdue in Austin.
The school will train physicians who will potentially stay in rapidly growing Austin. With a medical school in town, it will be easier and more efficient to transfer scientific research done at UT to medical applications; previously researchers had to work with medical schools in other parts of the country. Interaction between the university as a whole and the medical school will expand teaching and research opportunities. And the school’s research enterprise will generate local economic activity.
Shine moved to Austin in November 2003 to serve as executive vice chancellor for the UT System. He began working to create the medical school in 2004 and made substantial progress until 2008 when the recession hit and the project was put on hold.
When Austin recovered, many in the community – including the hospital district, which needed medical students, residents and faculty to help care for patients without health insurance and others who cannot afford healthcare expressed renewed interest in the project, and Senator Kirk Watson championed the medical school.
In November 2012, the school became a reality when voters passed Proposition 1, which increased Travis County property taxes to support the school and other healthcare initiatives, and the University of Texas System and the Seton Healthcare Family made significant financial commitments to the school.
"There was a constellation of events which occurred, in which many, many people participated – particularly, the leadership of Senator Watson – that allowed it all to happen at this time," Shine said.
Shine, whose family has belonged to Congregation Beth Israel since moving to Austin, said Jewish values lie at the heart of his work. Motivated to become a physician by a tradition of intellectual activity and the opportunity to try to reach out to help people, throughout his career he has continued to teach, especially in situations involving the care of uninsured and medically indigent people.
“I think that those kinds of values in which we place enormous emphasis on the condition of each human being, and the notion that they should have the opportunity to grow, and develop, and succeed in whatever aspect of life they confront, is really important,” said Shine.
While Shine is deeply honored by the Chamber of Commerce’s recognition, he is also somewhat embarrassed because so many key players made the school happen. "‑e medical school, I think, is a tribute to the people of Travis County who wanted to see medical education, care of patients, particularly medically indigent patients, and economic development occur in a meaningful way. I think they deserve great credit," said Shine.