By Jackie Bong-Wright
The Asian Pacific American (APA) community in Virginia has in recent years gotten a new champion. Eric Jensen is the founder and chairman of CAPAVA, the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia, since 2001, he has been making government officials and legislators alike pay attention to APA accomplishments and concerns.
Jenson starts with the facts: the Virginia APA community is growing and contributing, but is underrepresented politically. “All that,” he asserts, “is about to change.”
To make that happen, and draw attention to APA concerns, CAPAVA has undertaken a series of initiatives. In 2004, CAPAVA sponsored a Virginia Asian Advisory Board public hearing in Northern Virginia, where over 25 APA witnesses addressed specific issues and complaints. The same year, it held the first annual Pan-Asian Heritage Month celebration at Café Asia in Arlington.
In 2005, the Coalition organized the first-ever APA Legislative Forum in Richmond, giving the APA community information on how to access state programs and services and participate in the state legislative process. CAPAVA also joined the Commonwealth trade mission to China and took part in the DC area’s APA roundtable.
An Activist from the Start
Eric Liang Jensen was born in Taiwan, and came to the U.S. in 1959. When his mother passed the citizenship test in Baltimore, he, too, became a citizen. He has “never gotten over how random life can be,” and counts himself fortunate to have grown up in America.
Jensen got into advocacy early. After college in Minnesota and Antioch law school in Washington, he went to work at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Today, he serves both the APA community in Virginia and the American Indian community across the United States while running two consulting companies that focus on assisting tribal communities with their telecommunications and regulatory needs.
In between, this soft-spoken activist worked in a number of capacities in the federal government. He was Staff Director for two congressional subcommittees, an APA appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and, at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a telecommunications business promoter who helped open up access to telecommunications on the part of American Indians.
Government service gave Jenson experience with an impressive array of service-oriented programs. In the Congress, he gained expertise with job training, employment discrimination, the Americorps program, the employment portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation banning the use of polygraph lie detectors for employment screening, the Older Americans Act, the Head Start program, the Community Services Block Grant program, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention program, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program.
At the Commerce Department, he headed the Congressional Affairs Office of the Minority Business Development Agency and was Acting Director of the Agency’s public affairs office. At the FCC, he promoted opportunity for small businesses, advised the FCC Chairman on the Digital Divide, and became the FCC’s first Tribal Liaison Officer. He led a historic effort to investigate why the country’s 563 Indian tribes were the worst-served communities in telecommunications access.
Jensen Starts CAPAVA
By the time Jensen turned his attention to the APA community and joined with other talented APA activists to found CAPAVA in 2001, he had the experience needed to diagnose its problems. He believed communities like APA needed to put aside partisan politics and focus instead on procuring local and federal assistance – an uphill battle for APA organizations since their communities were fragmented and officials tended to ignore them.
As evidence, he notes that APA’s “do not have a single APA elected official to represent us. We have been silent, with the state knowing little about our communities or our needs.”
“Now,” he says, “the Virginia APA community is on the verge of an exciting future. The face of Virginia has changed dramatically, with APAs having increased almost 95% from 1990 to 2000 and comprising 350,000 people. APA communities contribute over $4.4 billion to the state’s economy and account for over 47,000 jobs.”
Jensen believes it is time, therefore, to press for greater recognition. “There is an under-representation of APA’s in public service, in public education, and in leadership positions in the public and private sectors. Fourteen percent of our APA families live in poverty, and many communities have insufficient access to key state and local services since states know little about our communities. The communities in turn lack knowledge of the state bureaucracy. Language is an important barrier among the more traditional and newer families, although they may be legal residents.”
Educating public officials, Jensen believes, is one solution. He was the force behind the first APA Candidates’ Forum, where 21 candidates for state office addressed an APA audience and talked about the issues important to APA members. Similarly, CAPAVA and 18 other groups organized the first APA Educational Issues Forum in Virginia and, along with the Virginia Business Assistance Office, held the first APA state business procurement seminar.
And Jensen made sure of an APA presence at the inauguration in Richmond earlier this year of newly-elected Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. On that occasion, CAPAVA and 12 other APA groups hosted the first APA inaugural reception – showing again that, when the power-brokers congregate, CAPAVA means to be there.
Jensen has another initiative – perhaps his most important. As a private citizen, he has proposed that the state of Virginia create an APA office to serve as a point of reference for APA issues and to encourage APA groups and individuals to participate in policymaking. Such an office would represent a leap forward, he believes, in the effort to assure APAs their rightful place in the Commonwealth.
Cora Yamamoto, D.C. Area Coordinator, Internship and Fellowship Program, the Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard (CPIC), has this to say about Jensen, “Eric works tirelessly and effectively to make APA voices heard in Virginia government and politics. He uses his organization and political skills, combined with knowledge of policy issues, to bring APA activists, leaders and members of the communities together. Eric’s efforts, which are often unheralded, are building a foundation for action.”
Printed in Asian Fortune, April 2006 edition