The Prison-Industrial Complex and Asians: A Conversation with Eddy Zheng
Eddy Zheng has a lifelong commitment in serving the children, youth and families in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Eddy immigrated to the United States from China with his family when he was 12 years old. Eddy’s mission is to use his experiences to inspire and motivate young people to invest in their education, raise awareness about the detrimental impact that the Prison Industrial Complex has on the Asian and Pacific Islander population, and promote racial harmony among people of color. Eddy is the Co-Director for the Oakland based Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC.) APSC provides support to Asian & Pacific Islander prisoners and educates the broader community about the growing number of Asians & Pacific Islanders in the United States being imprisoned, detained, and deported. It seeks to address and challenge root causes of this crisis such as the deterioration of our educational system, the criminalization of our youth, and the lack of access to resources for low-income immigrants and communities. Eddy is the 2015 Soros Justice Fellow. In 2007, he led a book project which culminated in the publication of “Other: An Asian and Pacific Islander Prisoners’ Anthology.” Eddy is the subject of the award winning documentary, “Breathin’ The Eddy Zheng Story.”
In conversation with Eddy is Eva Song Margolis, a Korean American adoptee from Minneapolis. She is a writer, organizer, and advocate for racial and economic justice. Writing has been an essential tool for her to explore, heal and question. Eva is a recipient of Intermedia Art’s 2015 Beyond The Pure Fellowship and The Loftʼs 2013 In Roads Program.
Eva: Thank you for taking the time out of your Sunday afternoon to do this interview for Unmargin! I’m really honored to be able to interview you. To share briefly about myself so that you know a little about who I am, I grew up in the Twin Cities. I’m a Korean American adoptee. I went to college and lived in Los Angeles for a while so I’m very familiar with California have a lot of love for Cali. I’m a poet and I’ve been doing work organizing and work on reforms towards means of the abolition of the prison industrial complex –within Asian American communities and broadly. So, I am absolutely honored to be connected to you through Unmargin, as I’ve been a long-time admirer of all of your work.
Eddy, you work tirelessly to raise awareness of the detrimental effects the prison industrial complex has especially on APIA communities. When raising awareness, when your outreach and sharing your story and all of the work that you do is successful (especially in the APIA communities) what does that look like?
Eddy: Specifically for the Asian American community, you know, when I see immigrant populations there’s a sense that they understand some of the challenges but don’t necessarily have a voice for themselves. So when I speak about it then people can relate to it and they try to really embrace the idea of me being someone that was formerly incarcerated, to talk about some of the issues that they are dealing with -but they don’t necessarily have the voice, right. So that’s for a lot of Asian Americans, especially when it comes to more immigrant populations. But when it comes to more conservative populations, I think, you know for them to hear my story, they somewhat feel as it’s a success story, but at the same time I think they don’t really understand the context and the challenges of being incarcerated and having to come out and trying to survive. Because it’s not a story that they normally hear, so therefore, I think it’s a little different.
Also, my experience working in some of the Asian communities that have higher education levels is that they have many of the similar struggles whether it’s dealing with mental health challenges or LGBTQ challenges, and criminalization and deportation issues - they also find themselves voiceless, but they also embrace the fact that I have the courage to talk about it and raise awareness around those types of issues -that’s the intersectionality of things that the API community has to deal with but don’t necessarily have the platform. That’s something that I find across the country and also for some of the people who are not from the Bay Area or California, they don’t necessarily understand the impact when it comes to dealing with mass incarceration and mass deportation issues with the API community. So they find it refreshing in some ways. But for other POC communities, especially folks who are not from California, I would say that a lot of time they don’t understand because they’re dealing with the model minority myth and don’t see that we’re also dealing with mass incarceration and deportation issues -that’s something new to them.
Eva: In speaking with other communities of color, especially outside of California about Asian Americans directly struggling under the prison industrial complex, right, which encompasses mass incarceration, as well as deportation, have you found that there are specific questions or specific stories that you might call up that help other communities of color in their own organizing to understand and necessarily see how Asian American struggles are a part of the larger struggle?
Eddy: Yes, so that’s one of the most challenging parts, because of the historical systemic racism that is impacting the African American communities, I think people don’t necessarily see that there’s an urgency or that there’s an opportunity to build allyship with the Asian American community. So, it’s more having to raise awareness. The reason that I raise awareness about some of the impact that mass incarceration and deportation has on the API community is, number one, to find equitable resources to address some of the issues so that people who are impacted have the opportunity not to recidivate, and the opportunity to heal. But when it comes to other POC communities or even whites, it’s more so about helping them understand missing the opportunity to build solidarity: understand some of the challenges, then we can find a lot of similarities. Then they can create the opportunity to build solidarity around some of the challenges, which are impacted by poverty and violence.
The model minority myth and the lack of understanding for other POC communities of APIA challenges, they may not see or have the foresight or vision to see the value of building racial solidarity. That’s a missed opportunity. So therefore, I think, Yuri Kochiyama, Richard Aoki, Grace Lee Boggs, and other folks that really have been leading that effort into engaging other POC communities and their own communities for all of us should be raised up.
So for me, in my last decade, I’ve been out here in the so called free world, that’s what I always try to promote, is to try to not only engage the API population –even our progressive and conservative communities- but also in engage other People of Color communities to really understand the value of racial solidarity and cross cultural engagement. The way that I’m trying to promote that is through idea of Chi, right. When we talk about Chi, in the Chinese sense, we talk about the energy. When we are aligned, when our energy is aligned, when we are healthy, we tap into our centered-selves. But when we’re not aligned, when there’s ill-alignment, there’s something that’s wrong in the body and psyche that’s preventing us from living fully. But the Chi that I’m talkin’ about is more focused on our Culture, History and Identity. Because, see, when I was incarcerated, when I first entered the system, I didn’t know much English, I didn’t understand the culture, and so I had low self-esteem and low self-confidence and I could not even think about other people’s challenges and liberation let alone mine. I was still trying to find myself in that way.
It was through the process of education and then critical thinking and becoming socially and politically conscious that I was really understanding, by learning about people’s current history, and then learning my own culture and history, that I was able to really align that to understand the process of healing. It’s about reclaiming the trauma that I have experienced from displacement from leaving China, coming to the United States, and then going to that migration-to-school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. So through CHI, I was able to find myself and really understand that my liberation is truly tied into everyone else’s liberation, right. That’s why the center of my work, is how do we promote racial harmony, how do we do cross cultural engagement through really focusing on this idea of CHI. So, that’s what I find more efficient when we’re talking about solidarity.
Eva: When you were incarcerated and leading up this work, leading up ethnic studies work and all of the movements around education and rights for incarcerated people broadly, did you find that on the inside the kinds of conversations you and others were having with regards to cross cultural engagement and racial solidarity were different from conversations in the outside so-call free world?
Eddy: Yes, there were differences, but not everybody that’s incarcerated, or the majority of people who are incarcerated, don’t necessarily have that consciousness. They can’t see the intersectionality, and the connection that we have with each other. So the few who are, our conversation is more so about how to tie our struggles with other POC struggles, and then what can we do through action using our privileges to be able to be the conduit of raising awareness or building alliance. I think that’s where the conversation takes place.
For a long time, I had about 100 books in my property (cell) because I was internalizing my politics, and I would share those messages with other people, especially some of the young people who were involved in gangs, who were doing time. So, the whole concept about me writing poetry and cultural engagement were foreign to them in a way. Even in the African American community or Latinx communities, they didn’t necessarily understand the political context of the oppression that was happening within themselves, let alone with other people. They didn’t have the language to articulate that, even though they lived that. So immediately the reaction of some of the people when they saw me and heard me talk and the way that I carried myself, was more so like “Oh man, this guy, he’s a square, you know! He’s talkin’ about politics. He’s talkin’ about all this reading and poetry and all this other stuff.” That’s how it began, but then the more that I was able to be true to what I’m doing and lead by example, then the more they started to gravitate towards me and what I do. So, in turn, it became a learning process, it became a little infectious in some ways.
So I remember Ishle Yi Park. She was still in New York, she came out to the Bay to visit, she had a CD and a book, she was all in her zone, right! Ishle came to prison to visit me because of my friend, so I got her CD and her poetry book. So I just remember me and some of the guys who were gang affiliated, they were affiliated with the Crips and the Southeast Asians: two Southeast Asians, one Filipino, and one Japanese/Korean. We was just out in the yard with our boom box just playing Ishle’s Yi Park’s CD -you know poetry on the yard! And through that process and through a lot of reading, they started writing their own poems to express how they feel, their relationship with their parents, about coming to the United States as refugees, you know through that they found liberation. They found the literacy process. That’s why the culture and history part is very important as a way of finding chi.
Eva: As you were saying that I was thinking about how when I first read one of your poems in Critical Resistance’s “Abolition Now!”anthology. There’s a line in your poem,“I called myself a poet to motivate me to write/ because I knew poets would set us free.” I was recalling that upon your talking about Ishle and her craft and beautiful words that came into you as well as others. It’s such a powerful image of sitting in the yard with her poems. In times of solitude, melancholy or hope, are there songs or musicians or poets/writers that you turn to?
Eddy: Yes, that’s very interesting because some of my gifts are really through living through other people’s experiences and words, you know. So for songs: Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Many of Bob Marley’s songs really resonate. Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, is always another reflection. I really enjoy Langston Hughes, Hafiz, Rumi, the Chinese poet Li Po, some of the Slam poets. There were a couple of slam poets I remember hearing first, one was D-Knowledge/Derrick Gilbert. When I first met him, he was teaching at UCLA, he graduated from UC-Berkeley then he taught at UCLA. He actually went on the road to perform and open up for Earth Wind and Fire. And then I met him and I read his book called The Henna Man. I met him in San Quentin State Prison. I started the first poetry slam in San Quintin because of D-Knowledge. And then I was introduced to Saul Williams – he had a film that came out called Slam, that was another influence. Because before, I went through the phases of learning about Shakespeare and a lot of European poets, and other well-known poets. But later on some of the poets like Maya Angelou, folks that really speak to their lived experience and the way it put it in poetry, that’s how it resonated with me. I remember when I first wrote my poems, I’d write very short poems like Haikus, until I met one of my friends, who I met inside, who’s a professor, who introduced me to Saul Williams. She was like “Man, Eddy, when are you going to write a long poem?” You know like 4 lines and you know like 10 lined poems! What about 4-5 minute poems! So I was like “Alright!” I just started writing. Yeah, it was pretty cool!
Eva: How did you feel when you wrote your first longer poem? Did you show it to her?
Eddy: Yeah, it was nice. You know I dedicated myself to it. I was capable of writing longer poems. I didn’t, you know, at first it felt very restricted, some of the forms, the beats and all that stuff. But then later on when I was engaged in slam poetry, I just figured out, yeah, I could do whatever. It’s not about grammar and you know, it’s just about expression!
Eva: Can you share your thoughts on what it could look like when, within the Asian American community, dealing with interpersonal violence and dealing with the myriads of trauma that can lead to interpersonal violence upon other people or ourselves, how can we collectively work together to foster our own responses - for us to acknowledge that we can sustain ourselves and heal ourselves, and also as a way to decrease our reliance on a police state/justice system?
Eddy: That’s like trying to find a solution in an institution where violence is normalized. There’s never a solution. Whenever the revolution may be, whether individual or groups of people, or communities, it’s up to those people to determine whatever that revolution may be. But the most violent revolution is the self-revolution, to really be able to internalize and reflect on who you are as in individual and our relationships with our family and our community -whether that community is local, national or global. That’s the most important part of changing the paradigm in terms of how to address violence -that’s number one. Because if we are able to have honest self-evaluation and internalization, then we will be able to have the single mindedness of purpose. If you don’t have the single-mindedness of purpose, then you’re distracted and deviate from the opportunities to create something that actually address the violence and the systemic racism that creates much of the violence that we see today. When we learn about our culture and history it informs who we are as individuals.
Use CHI as a platform to be able to really look at the different aspects between cultural competency and cultural humility. When you talk about cultural competency, you’re talking about our traditions, you’re talking about our culture and issues- the same thing that we all have, where we come from, where our ancestors and families are from. That is also a life-learning process –to learn about our cultural history and our traditions and how do we pass those traditions down. Then there’s the idea of cultural humility where it’s also a life learning process about being open, being accepting of other people’s cultural history, but it’s also a life-learned, self-evaluation, self-critique of our indoctrinated colonization, right, or indoctrinated cultural norm. We have to have cultural humility to be able to embrace the idea of our relationship with anyone –with all of humankind. When we see each other we can recognize each other’s humanity, that’s the way that we can address the issue of violence. If not, then what we’re gonna have continued violence, whether domestic violence, general violence, interpersonal violence, and even when dealing with society or dealing with a male-dominated narrative, through this indoctrinated culture and ideology that we live in. So therefore, we must be able to engage that personal revolution to be able to really engage that process of addressing those types of trauma, to start the process of healing. Then we can have alternatives to the band aid strategies that we’ve been utilizing to address the institution of violence.
Eva: Is there anything that is important for this interview that you’d like to make sure is included?
Eddy: One of the things that I’ve been really pushing for and through the work that I do is really try to do more cross cultural engagement, as a way to create solidarity. Let me say this, I’m always trying to use cross cultural engagement, using a social justice narrative to be able to build, to really build awareness and alliance. When we talk about multi-culturalism, whites are always missing in this conversation, whenever we talk about racial inclusion or equity, racial justice, it’s always about from POCs perspective. Whenever we talk about First Nations, Native people whose land this is, who had their land taken by the U.S., by the colonizers, they are oftentimes excluded also. Because of a tendency to exclude others. We have to re-evaluate our language, we have to reevaluate actions, even to an international perspective. We have to be able to identify and evaluate how we engage all people. We have to do this so that we don’t miss the essence of racial inclusion.
One of the fundamental guiding forces of our identity, through work and making productive lives, is to really appreciate the breath that is sustaining our lives. We often take that breath for granted. It’s very important for us to do things with breath, because with each breath there is hope. With each breath, we have hope!
Eva: I really appreciated in your emails to me and Bao setting up the interview, it was like a gift to me even just seeing how you address in the email “happy new breath.” I see it emulating from you, thank you brother.
Eddy: Well, I appreciate doing this interview from afar. Wish we could do it in person, but we do what we have to do. The most important thing is about taking care of yourself. Don’t get overwhelmed. The most important thing in our lives is being, having a healthy wellbeing, your family and your community.
Eva: We cannot lose sight of that!
Eddy: Yes, but sometimes we can, because it can feel that everything else is more important. And when we take on a leadership role, it’s like people come to you, they see you as a leader, they want you to do more- everything is important. Then people don’t know how to say “no”, don’t know how to really focus. But this fight for equity is a lifelong struggle, right.