Erika Hagensen '97 A Wider View of Humanity
By LeeAnn Kriegh '94
Every life has its share of pivotal moments. For Erika Hagensen ’97, one of the most important occurred at a board meeting for the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington, when a man with a disability was asked a question.
“He was asked if he could articulate what it was like to live with a disability,” Hagensen recalled. “And he responded by carving the word ‘oppression’ onto a piece of paper and holding it up.”
As a person with a disability herself, Hagensen’s emotional response was immediate: “I burst into tears, and I walked up to him afterward and said, ‘I’m not doing nearly enough.’” Hagensen’s practical response began soon after: “I took that as my cue to quit my job, rent out my house and go to grad school so I could focus my career on working within the disability community.”
Fast-forward just three years, and Hagensen is the 32-year-old executive director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which supports the development of federal policies and programs that empower people with intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome and autism, as well as their families and communities.
Now living in Washington, D.C. and working closely with luminaries like the foundation’s Executive Vice-President, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Hagensen often recalls that life-changing moment and the simple message scrawled on a piece of paper. “I still have that image in my mind every day when I go to work.” she said.
Although Hagensen described her rapid rise to her current position as unexpected, in retrospect it reflects a steady progression from her days at Pacific, when her initial interest in physical therapy shifted to a desire to serve people with disabilities in the larger context of family systems. That was one of many steps in the gradual broadening of her perspective on disability issues.
After graduating from Pacific with a bachelor of arts in Japanese and psychology, Hagensen volunteered at the UCP of Oregon and Southwest Washington, where she crafted workshops to educate and support parents of newly diagnosed children. Soon – while still in her mid-20s – she was on the UCP’s board. And then, she said, “Things just snowballed.”
From family systems, she moved to an interest in policy. “Family systems are really important,” she said, “but I realized that without understanding policy and affecting change at the state and national level, the resources available to families and individuals with disabilities would remain limited.”
Through the University of Washington’s graduate program in social work and public health, she gained clinical and policy experience. But before she could even finish her thesis in public health, she was named the executive director of the Kennedy Foundation.
Already, Hagensen’s work has gained national recognition. Last year, she was named an Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation Scholar, one of five recipients in the nation chosen to “change the face of disability on the planet.” It’s high praise – and, some would say, intense pressure – for a young woman in her early 30s, but Hagensen continues to embrace the opportunities that come her way.
“When I identify myself as a woman with a disability, I think a lot of people say, ‘You’re not disabled.’ Their view of disability is one of deficit,” she said. “And I say, ‘I am disabled and that gives me insight, that gives me creativity, that gives me life experience that I think in many ways can be enviable in terms of what I learn and how I operate.’”
Hagensen doesn’t shy away from ambitious goals, noting, “Individuals with disabilities are often considered recipients of goodwill – do they receive Social Security, do they receive these other benefits? I think we need to shift the focus from what’s often viewed as a special interest to everyone’s interest. I think we need to recognize people with disabilities as a voting block, a political entity, an untapped workforce.
“I would like,” she added – perhaps in response to that painful word scrawled on a piece of paper – “to see us shift away from viewing disability through pity or charity toward a powerful and enduring part of being human.”