For the past three years a group of Asian American inmates at San Quentin State Prison have been working with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee to create a program designed to address the unique needs of Asian Pacific Islander prisoners. The program is called ROOTS: Restoring Our Original True Selves. After three years of meetings, curriculum building, and getting tangled in webs of red tape and prison bureaucracy, the day of our first class had finally arrived.
To kick off the program we brought in the Heiwa Taiko drummers, a group of five Asian American grandmothers who play enormous drums made out of old wine barrels. The average age of the group members is 82. For many of the class participants it was their first time seeing a Taiko performance, and they later said they were completely blown away by the power of the drums and the strength the grandmothers displayed as they played. The first song was called Korekara, a Japanese term that loosely translated means “from now on.” The song signified the beginning of the journey we would be embarking on together over the next 20 weeks as we learn about each other’s histories, cultures, and our collective struggles to find our way back home.
The guest speaker for our first class session was Molly Kitajima, a 90 year old survivor of the Japanese Canadian internment camps in the 1940’s. While many of the inmates view their incarceration as the result of their individual actions and decisions, we wanted to also bring a level of awareness to the institutions and policies that throughout history have made the mass incarceration of Asians and Pacific Islanders possible. One of the earliest and well known examples of this is the incarceration of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during World War II.
Molly spoke about what it was like as a young girl to be forced to leave her home and family farm. Her family was separated and she and her siblings were made to work in a labor camp farming beets. Even after they were freed, they were never able to regain possession of their land which had been seized by the Canadian government. She spoke about the importance of Asians, who are often viewed as quiet and complacent, to always speak out against injustice and cruelty, no matter whom it is happening to.
We closed the first ROOTS class with one last Taiko song called Nakama, the Japanese word for friendship. In our closing circle the inmates and guests expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of the ROOTS experience and excitement for what the rest of the class will bring.
We invite you to follow the journey and be a part of this project with us as we build community through the sharing of our stories, cultures, and struggles, to find our way back to our ROOTS.