Jay Chen is a small business owner who grew up in my hometown of Hacienda Heights, graduating from my rival high school across town and going on to study at Harvard. He won a seat on the local Hacienda la Puente School District Board, a public school district that he is a proud product of. Aside from being on the cast of the Vincent Who? documentary of Asian American Empowerment, Chen is most known for his appearance on John Stewart’s Daily Show in the special segment “Socialism Studies” highlighting the controversy in Chen’s district over the Chinese funded Confucius Classroom. I went to a number of district board meetings and witnessed first-hand as Chen and the other school board members, majority Asian Pacific Islander Americans, who had to fight off vitriolic racist attacks in the form of verbal abuse, attacks on their moral character and reputation, and groundless accusations of mismanagement of funds.
Now with the newly drawn 39th Congressional District that encompasses heavily Asian American communities such as Chino Hills, Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, Walnut, and Fullerton, Chen’s name is on the primaries ticket for June 5th running for a seat in the House of Representatives. I’m a big supporter of Chen, mainly because I have witnessed first hand that he truly does have the interest of the American people at heart, but since not everyone can personally see Chen in action, I thought 8Questions with him might help, after the jump.
What made you decide to become a civic leader?
Just seeing the lack of representation that we had in this field motivated me to want to do something about it. We’ve got plenty of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. What our community needs more of are people on the front lines shaping discourse. We can achieve that through two fields we are really underrepresented in, politics and entertainment.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
I owe my parents everything. They’ve taken risks, worked hard, and built a life for themselves and a foundation for me that I am lucky to have. I owe it to them to do something meaningful with my opportunities and to give back where I can.
What will be your number one priority as a representative of the 39th Congressional District?
Job creation is top of mind, but to create jobs, you need to increase educational opportunities. The two are closely intertwined. Education is the R&D of our country, and if we stop investment in R&D we will lose our competitive edge. We will no longer have the innovators and entrepreneurs who end up creating products and jobs for everyone else. We’ve got to make college more accessible and bring down the cost of student loans, otherwise we are crippling future innovation and job creation in this country.
What has been the greatest challenge of being on the School District Board?
Trying to provide an excellent educational experience while the state continues to cut into our budget, has been the greatest challenge of my school board career. I entered school board right after our economy cratered and it has been nonstop budget cuts ever since. Nevertheless, our district has been fiscally responsible and we’ve not only avoided any layoffs or furloughs, we’ve increased test scores each year. Our district is lucky to have very talented teachers and staff.
Another challenge has been dealing with some xenophobic mindsets that are still prevalent in our community. Tea Party members still come to our board meetings, angry about our Chinese language program, and tell board members to go back to China. What they don’t realize is that only validates my decision to be in public office.
Where do you see the Asian Pacific Islander American community in 10 years?
We’re making great strides and I see several more Congressmembers and maybe a Senator or two in office in 10 years time. I expect we’ll see more APIAs in regular movie roles since we are now getting so many talented APIAs behind the camera with a community conscience, such as Justin Lin. The internet has also allowed incredibly talented APIAs to break out on their own, and that is very exciting to see!
What advice would you give the next generation of Americans?
First, pursue your dreams! It worked out quite well for Jeremy Lin didn’t it? He got to call Harvard a safety school as a result and is now making waves in the NBA.
Second, make it a habit to vote. APIAs have poor voter registration rates and very poor turnout rates. It only takes a minute to register to vote, and the act of voting does not take much time either. And if you’re worried about jury duty, they’re going to get your info from the DMV anyway so might as well register to vote. It’s your civic duty!
Third, give back to your community. None of us have succeeded on our own; we’ve all benefited from the blood, sweat, and tears of previous generations. Give a helping hand to others as you are on your way up.
What is the greatest challenge that America faces today?
The amount of partisanship and divisiveness in our country has never been worse, and there is a lack of political will to get the big things done. The Supreme Court has allowed limitless sums of money to drive the political process. Those with the means are taking advantage of this new playing field, while the rest of us are relegated to the sidelines. It’s not a pretty picture, but standing by and not getting involved will only make things worse. That’s why I decided to run for Congress.
What is your favorite Asian comfort food?
I am a huge, HUGE fan of Hainanese Chicken Rice. I also love Stone Bowl Bi Bim Bap.
Chen has just succeeded in advancing past the primaries in the June 5th vote. He’s got a long way to go with opponent 20-year incumbent Republican Ed Royce still in the lead, but his strategy was to start with core supporters first and then reach out to independent and Republican voters next. Hopefully this newly drawn district will agree with me in deciding that it’s about time we have a representative that understands the diversity of our community from the inside out. Fluent in Chinese and Spanish, Chen is qualified to do this even from a simple linguistic perspective, as language encompasses the essence of the cultural life and heritage of people. Not to mention that as a country we are in dire need of more APIA representation!