New Breath, New Leaf, New Life – An American Story of Perseverance and Triumph
Eddy Zheng 49, is nationally recognized leader in the policy battle for prison reform and youth violence prevention. He is Co-Director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, serves as Alameda County Juvenile Justice Delinquent Prevention Commissioner and Southeast Facility Community Commissioner, Board Member for Chinese for Affirmative Action, Oversight Advisory Committee Member of San Francisco’s Children, Youth and their Families, and Founder and President of the New Breath Foundation. In recognition of his work, Zheng was also recently selected for “The Frederick Douglas 200,” a group of 200 Americans who best embody the spirit and work of Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the abolitionist’s bicentennial. While Eddy Zheng’s string of accomplishments makes him a highly decorated community champion, his start in life was anything but auspicious.
Seeking greater opportunities, on November 7th, 1982 – a wiry 12-year-old Eddy and his family immigrated to the United States from China, settling in Oakland’s Chinatown. Like many American cities in the 1980s, Oakland had its share of problems. With the decline in manufacturing jobs decimating much of the area, crime and drugs began to flourish. To make ends meet, the Zheng Family found themselves working longer hours. Eddy’s mom took care of other parents’ children during the week, leaving little time to spend with Eddy. Without a stable environment, teenaged Eddy Zheng grappled with his new status as a poor, immigrant, latchkey kid often ridiculed for his inability to speak the language. To cope, he found a kinship among other troubled youths like himself. Just four short years removed from living happily in China, at the tender age of 16, Eddy committed a crime he long regrets. He and two friends robbed a house at gunpoint. Eddy was charged as an adult and sentenced to life in San Quentin.
In prison, Eddy began to take classes and became known as a kind of peacemaker. There, he learned English, obtained a college degree and became an advocate for prison reform and youth violence prevention. After serving 20 years in California prisons and fulfilling his debt to society, upon his release, he was transferred to immigration authorities and faced deportation to China – a country he no longer knew, nor considered home. On the strength of his rehabilitation and extraordinary community work, in April 2015, Eddy received a gubernatorial pardon, enabling him to successfully challenge his deportation – ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen.
EBCF recently spoke with Eddy about his work in Immigration and Criminal Justice Reform. The following excerpts were taken from an interview with Eddy during which he shared his extraordinary life experience.
EBCF – The news headlines this year have been dominated by stories of immigrant children and families arriving in the United States. Like you, many have come to the East Bay to settle or reunite with family. Do you see yourself in these children? What do you remember about your experience arriving to the United States as a 12-year-old boy?
Eddy – You know, I remember everything about coming to the U.S. It was the first time I’d ever flown on a plane, but I was so sick that I did not have a chance to enjoy the excitement of the experience. I remember arriving and thinking everything was so big and grand. As a child, I thought we lived comfortably in China, but my grandparents and parents said we were coming to the U.S. for a better education and economic opportunities. But when we arrived, everything was so hard and very different than what I was accustomed to. I remember thinking to myself “we left China for this?” [laughs]. We were strangers in a strange land. We did not speak the language — seven of us moved into a cramped, two-bedroom apartment, and my parents, who had always provided structure and guidance, suddenly had to work long hours and weekends to just make ends meet. So, I was left unsupervised — a lot. At school, it was hard to make friends because of the cultural gaps. I remember many moments of shame and embarrassment when I was asked questions in front of class. I couldn’t participate because I didn’t speak the language. I remember needing to use food stamps and feeling embarrassed. Even though that was a long time ago, immigrants arriving today still face many of these same challenges.
EBCF – What do you think we can do to support immigrant communities in the East Bay?
Eddy – It does not matter your age nor your ethnicity, but providing culturally competent therapeutic services are vital because migration itself is so traumatizing. Whether you came as a child, teenager, or adult, the impact is significant for different reasons. Engaging families around social services and helping to create structure and integrate individuals into our communities is key. Not knowing the language and not being able to communicate was very isolating – it lowered my self-esteem and frankly, drew me to make poor decisions as I struggled to find my place. One of those decisions landed me in the prison system.
EBCF – You spent two decades in prison for a crime that occurred when you were a teenager. How were you able to come out on the other side from that experience intact, and also want to give so much back to your community?
Eddy – Education literally saved my life. Specifically, ‘critical thinking education’ saved me. My priority in the prison system was about surviving a violent environment. But once my time was over, I knew that without understanding how to read or write that I would never be eligible for good jobs. So, I cultivated that. Once I was exposed to it, I achieved what I call ‘mental freedom.’ This motivated me to continually seek new learning opportunities. Developing a higher level of critical thinking allowed me to reflect on my life and take responsibility for my actions. I also began to understand that my incarceration was not just about my individual actions. Everything that happens occurs within a large set of laws and policies. The rules aren’t always the same for everyone. People of color are disproportionately represented in the prison system. The knowledge of this is what motivated me to fight not just for myself but also for others. I was also very blessed to have strong family, and community support. Without both, I would not have been able to fight for my freedom or against my deportation.
EBCF – In many ways, your desire to learn to read and write is self-serving — for all the right reasons. But what inspired you to undertake the fight for criminal justice reform? Is there a specific point in time where you recall deciding to become an activist?
Eddy – Absolutely. There are two things that come to mind. After my arrest, my family’s deep feelings of shame meant I was left to navigate the criminal justice system all alone. Even though I knew I broke the law, as a teenager I had no support or direction and didn’t comprehend the justice system. And even though Chinese translators would translate the legal jargon for me, I still didn’t understand it. My court appointed attorney was also supposed to file a relief to prevent me from being deported after I served my time, but the attorney never did. So, after my release, I had an immigration hold. I was detained by ICE and scheduled for deportation. This can be a traumatic experience for anyone, but especially painful for a young person without any meaningful assistance, education or financial resources.
Also, after I learned to read and write, I put my newfound literacy and critical thinking skills to use by advocating for an Ethnic studies curriculum and prisoners’ rights. As a result, I was put into solitary confinement for 11 months — just for using my voice. This injustice reinforced my resolve to fight for people who are being oppressed and marginalized every day in our barbaric criminal justice system.
EBCF – What led you to open the New Breath Fund at the East Bay Community Foundation?
Eddy – I felt it was my responsibility to create my own opportunities by obtaining a seat at the table to help educate and raise awareness about the need to support marginalized Asian communities; specifically, around criminal justice and deportation issues. EBCF had been a longtime supporter of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and has helped us advocate for funding on important issues. They are committed to supporting and empowering the marginalized and have a deep relationship of trust with the community. When I was advocating for funding for grassroots organizations, I felt like we were constantly having to justify the need to invest in marginalized communities. EBCF understood the lack of direct community representation at decision-making tables and the need within the philanthropic sector to make space at those tables.
EBCF – What inspired the name ‘New Breath’ Fund?
Eddy – I named my daughter Abella because that name has its origins in Hebrew and means breath. Having the ability to recognize that each breath gives new beginning and brings new life is transformative. That realization helped me survive inside the prison and deportation systems. After coming out, I have continued to be mindful of the power of breath. As long as I am breathing, I don’t have to be living in the past or in stress. If I take that breath knowing that I am alive, I can change things — my destiny and my future. So Abella is my breath, my hope, and am very grateful to have her in my life.
EBCF – What impact has the fund had so far?
Eddy – The fund has focused on providing grants to grassroots and advocacy organizations that challenge systemic issues. So far, we have supported people impacted by deportation by providing legal representation to keep families together, supported ‘know your rights’ education for immigrant families, and facilitated healing opportunities for survivors of trauma and their families who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Cross-cultural healing, engagement, and education are the foundation of how we can humanize each other and become better people.
EBCF – EBCF has a vision to create an inclusive, fair and just East Bay. What does that mean to you?
Eddy – A just East Bay must be rooted in healing and equity. If we continue to be impacted for generations by institutional racism we will continue to be separated as a community. There is no justice without inclusion — that’s why the work of cross-cultural engagement is critical.
EBCF – What keeps you hopeful during these times?
Eddy – The positive impact that I am able to create though my service of people. We minimize our impact as an individual, but I think it is important to build community power and to know that there is power in helping people. Once I discovered that, I felt I had a purpose. Finding my purpose and helping others find theirs is what keeps me hopeful.
The United States incarcerates its residents at rate higher than any other major country in the world. Changes to local, state, and federal policies however, can significantly reduce the use of both incarceration and eradicate racialized sentencing as communities of color are disproportionately impacted. Immigrants in particular face a “pipeline” of migration-to-school-to-prison-to-deportation. Reforms to our antiquated justice system can both avert substantial human and economic costs, while at the same time, make communities safer. Eddy’s goals within the reform movement include decreasing the U.S. prison population, reducing sentence length, which are often overly harsh for minor infractions – stopping criminalization, and juvenile justice reform to bring about the abolition of the prison system. Ultimately, a fair and just society is one that welcomes and sees the value of all impacted citizens upon their return home.