In order to highlight Austin Tech Alliance’s growing membership of individuals who support our mission to promote civic engagement in Austin’s tech sector, this is a regular feature profiling members of ATA.

Up now: Ainee Athar. In addition to being a member of ATA, Ainee is also on our Advisory Board.

Introduce yourself and where you work in Austin’s tech sector.

My name is Ainee! I’ve lived in Austin for seven years, navigating the intersection of tech and policy. I’ve been highly involved in the immigrant rights’ movement and local politics. I got involved in the startup scene through my last job as the Texas Coalitions Director for FWD.us, an immigration reform group started by Mark Zuckerberg. Now I work on civic tech projects at the City of Austin.  

If you want to talk to me, you should Tweet @aineewrites.

What do you love about Austin?

Growing up in the Houston sprawl, the size of Austin is great! You can easily explore the whole city and build new relationships. I also find that if you live here long enough, lots of your friends from around the country will make their way here somehow.

As an activist, I appreciate the can-do attitude a lot of Austinites have towards community change and social innovation. There’s a lot of energy around important social causes. Leaders across Austin are often willing to take risks and a lot of cities look to us as an example.

Lastly, I love how many places you can go for a hike right by the city.

What do you think are the community’s biggest challenges?

Transit and affordability are the obvious ones. We can’t be a world class city if we’re stuck in traffic or neighborhoods in the urban core don’t want to allow denser development. But like the rest of Texas, big pockets of Austinites aren’t civically engaged on important issues affecting the future of the city. Enough people in the city support denser development but they aren’t mobilized to tell policymakers they want a compact and connected city.

This is an equity issue too. My family fled religious persecution from Pakistan when I was a child. As an immigrant, I feel strongly that the zip code you’re born into shouldn’t determine whether you get a good education, access to healthcare, or your life expectancy.

Unfortunately that is the case in Austin. Even the tech community’s challenges around diversity and inclusion are symptoms of our historical segregation and economic disparities. Having worked in sleek tech offices while doing outreach to some of the most vulnerable communities, there are two worlds in Austin and we all have to do our best to close the gulf.

Why is it important for the tech community to become more civically engaged?

I’ll give you a shrewd answer and an idealistic one.

First, a big lesson I’ve learned through nearly a decade of advocacy and lobbying is that elected officials can’t be expected to support your interests unless you talk to them and build relationships. Whether you’re a multi-billion dollar corporation or a resident concerned about a neighborhood park, talking to government makes all the difference. It may seem daunting but from the inside, I can tell you that your elected officials are eager to hear from you. They’re expected to be experts on all policy areas and so they rely on the community contacting their staff to understand what’s important to their constituents, what isn’t working, and how to fix it.  

If you have any level of self-interest, it’s a matter of practicality to be on good terms with people who fund schools and roads, set taxes, and write laws that can dismantle entire industries. There’s no way around this because the government we get depends on the work we put in. Luckily, it doesn’t take a lot of extra effort to be civically informed and active – especially if you’re involved with an organization like ATA.

Now for the idealism: as a city, Austin faces the same problems that most other growing metros face. But we’re uniquely positioned to solve them because we’re a well-networked community of entrepreneurial, creative, and hospitable people.

I recently learned about how the public-private partnership between Austin Pets Alive and the city Animal Center helped make Austin the biggest no-kill city in America. When the idea was first proposed, no one had seen something like this work but a group of bold residents created a model that saved thousands of animals. The local tech community is already open to taking risks and testing new, exciting ideas. It’s going to take that kind of thinking to get our city out of a lot of the sticky situations we’re facing.