Karessa Acosta Lee

UAH alumna Karessa Acosta Lee

Michael Mercier | UAH

In a year that has people all over the world feeling apprehensive and vulnerable, it's hard to blame anyone who wants to pull the covers back over their head and wake up in 2021. For some, however, 2020 has been a call to service. Alumna Karessa Acosta Lee (2007 BA Communication Arts, 2020 MA Professional Communications) has chosen to answer that call by accepting an appointment by the Huntsville City Council to the Housing Board of Adjustments and Appeals.

Lee is Coordinator for Inclusive Programs & Student Leadership in the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (ODEI) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System. She is responsible for creating, planning and executing program initiatives for UAH students that advance diversity and inclusivity.

To hear her describe her new role on the City board, the decision to serve was one she felt she had to make.

"Doing the work we do helps drive me to want to do more to help others," Lee says. "I used to be pretty involved in the community in the past, and now that my daughter is graduating high school, I figured it was time to start getting involved again. I really feel driven to do more to help make the world a better place. Especially this year that has been so tumultuous."

Much of that spark is thanks due to her daughter and the UAH students who Lee says have inspired her to look for her own personal best fit to giving back and leading by example.

"I reached out to Jennie Robinson [Huntsville City Council, District 3], whom I got to know from my time working with the Chamber of Commerce, to see where I can make the most impact," she explains. "Dr. Robinson was able to identify some of the areas I could serve based on things I was passionate about, opportunities to create change. She and Councilman [Bill] Kling from District 4 put my name up for the nomination."

Lee has already settled into her new role, and her responsibilities primarily include acting as a go-between for homeowners facing potential citations for code violations flagged by the city.

"We act as a check and balance for the Community Development Office's code enforcements," she says. "A lot of time citizens and property owners are issued citations, safety hazards, complaints, based on the code from the city. Our job is to review the appeals from citizens that are requesting additional time to meet their obligations. There can be a lot of different reasons for this, especially in the middle of a pandemic, that can be very hard for people. Sometimes it can be a very heartbreaking case, such as an elderly person who cannot do the labor themselves. That's why we are there, to help the members of the community. Many are under financial hardship or have physical disabilities or limitations. We really try to figure out how we can help them without it being a conflict, so we hope to get more community involvement for situations like these."

Though she's now the youngest member on the board, the UAH alumna has not been shy about digging in and voicing her thoughts.

"We meet monthly," she says. "They send all the cases to us in a nice packet before the meeting so we have a chance to review them. I like to go through everything pretty diligently to make sure I'm making the right decision. They've all been really nice and encourage me to make sure I'm comfortable with speaking up, that there's no problem with that at all. You can tell that everybody really cares about each individual."

In addition to her experience at UAH, Lee brings solid qualifications to her position on the board.

"I've worked in a law office before, worked with policy issues. I'm very detail-oriented," she says. "That's something I like doing, to really dig through things, see how we can reword things to make them more clear, for example. These are people's lives! There are so many different cases that we've come across that can really make you wish you could do more. Hopefully some good change can come out of it, so those people can get the resources they need."

Lee's letter of appointment notes she will be serving on the board through 2025.

"It's a pretty big commitment, but I'm okay with that," she says. "It's not too stressful. I kind of live in organized chaos, but I'm getting better with the time management and delegating side of things! It may not be sexy work, but there are a lot of people who fall into the gap and can be overlooked. If I can help in any way, I'm very happy to be able to do that, to give somebody a little more time, a little more relief. We all need to do more! You never really know what a person is going through."

Not to worry. As long as there are people like Karessa Acosta Lee around, rest assured people will always remember this: you don't have to be a fireman to run to the fire.