“To See Hope Survive…” – A Reflection Between the Co-founders of the San Quentin ROOTS Program

Restoring Our Original True Selves (ROOTS) is a program of Asian Prisoner Support Committee that seeks to increase knowledge about API culture, history, community issues, and healing practices among San Quentin inmates. Through guest speakers, group discussion, personal sharing, and leadership opportunities, ROOTS enhances opportunities for transformation and reentry. Recently the program’s co-facilitators, Kasi Chakravartula and Ben Wang, recorded a conversation upon the completion of the first season.

Kasi Chakravartula (KC): Hello!

Ben Wang (BW): Welcome to our show.

KC: I’m Kasi. I am one of the co-facilitators of the ROOTS program at San Quentin, which stands for Restoring Our Original True Selves.

BW: I’m Ben Wang, the other co-facilitator of the group, and we’re here today.  We wanted to reflect a little bit on the program, which just finished its first cycle. For the past seven months, we’ve been going in every Monday to participate in the program.

KC: We had a class of about 25, mostly Southeast Asian, but predominantly Asian/Pacific Islander prisoners who would come. Every week we would try to bring in a guest speaker from the community to talk about different experiences, and their work on the outside. We had a pretty good mix of activists, academics, artists, and healing people. Maybe, Ben, you can talk about the “lead up”.

BW: We met some of these guys at least 3 years ago at a health fair at San Quentin. And they talked to us about the lack of programs at the prison that specifically address the API community there. And after many proposals and kind of just struggling through the bureaucracy to get inside, we were finally able to start the program in 2013. But it goes back even further, back when Eddy Zheng, Mike Ngo, and Rico Riemedio were at San Quentin in the early 2000s. They had advocated for ethnic studies and Asian American studies to be taught in the prison. They got a very harsh reaction, and were sent to solitary confinement for almost a year and transferred out of that prison. But in many ways, the original vision for having a program geared towards the Asian/Pacific Islander prisoners goes back to them.

KC: Want to talk about your most memorable ROOTS moment?

BW: Kind of hard to narrow it down but the first, the first class when we brought the Taiko drummers in, the Heiwa Taiko Group of grandmas who performed Taiko for the group, pretty much blew everyone’s minds. And just to have the performance, in a prison like that, where it could be heard across the yard, across the whole prison. They’re such powerful and loud drums. I think that was one of those moments that will stick with me forever.

KC: I remember taking the grandmothers out to eat later on, and they were really moved by the experience. I think a couple of them were moved to tears and just talking about how the participants of the program reminded them so much of their sons, and of their brothers. They hadn’t ever been in a prison, aside from Molly Kitajima who was incarcerated during World War II. But they hadn’t been in a California state prison. And they were really impacted by seeing what they realized were their community members locked up; I think before they didn’t really connect between who was in there and their own lives and own families. They talked about the experience quite often. And we were able to bring one of the drummers, Vera Leo, back in on the last day of class. And she spent a lot of time with the guys, just talking with them. They would come up and introduce themselves. She was deeply impacted by being able to meet people. I actually talked with her yesterday about it, and she felt really sorrowful about the waste of all these really bright lives that are in there. She felt like everyone she talked to was so smart and so kind, and that she feels like those interactions are very rare for her on the outside. And so to have that happen so much in one day was very eye opening.

BW: Yeah, I think that was a huge part of the program to be able to see the reaction from the volunteers and guest speakers from the outside, who participated as speakers or as guests. I think seeing their transformation in some ways…people would say, “Oh, this has been life-changing,” or “this has been a totally new perspective,” or, “this has really just changed me in different ways,”—I think is one of the reasons why we wanted to start the program in the beginning, was having that kind of that connection built between the community and the guys inside. It’s not just for the benefit of the guys inside, but also for our community on the outside.

KC: I think there were so many amazing moments in the ROOTS class, but the ones that really stand out for me would be the moments where we would forget that we were in a prison. Like with the Taiko drumming, where we could have been at an Obon festival or something happening in the community. And another moment I remember feeling like the prison just melted away for a couple of hours, was when we had Seng So, who works with Khmer Girls in Action in Long Beach. He came in and led a restorative justice community-building circle. So, we switched all the chairs around into a circle, and we had a talking piece, and we just passed it around, and everybody got a chance to share a little bit. And we ended up talking about what he had called an epidemic where young men, young Southeast Asian men were just hungry for leadership and mentoring from their older generation, which was either physically absent or emotionally absent from their lives. And I saw so clearly where they all were—incarcerated. Can we somehow reconnect these generations so that they’re not isolated from each other because they really need to be a part of each other’s lives. It was really beautiful to see, to just to be in the circle, to see everybody share. And then, to build from there and hopefully work with Seng’s group to try to repair these relationships that have been so damaged, not just from prison, but from generations of war and poverty – all the trauma that goes with that.

And then just when we would forget we were in prison, then something would happen, like an officer would come in and have to count everyone in the class and struggle through (pronouncing) 25 Asian names, stuff like that. But they did really well, the officers, eventually.

BW: And then, this past Sunday we had the big graduation ceremony for all the participants – the 25 plus participants who completed the program. And we had about 16 community members come in and also do some performances. We had Taiko again. We had some poetry performance, and a B-Boy battle with Roger Chung.

KC: That was so amazing because the breakdancing, like for the folks that had been locked up for a really long time, I don’t think their moves have really evolved. So, it was like a time capsule breakdance. And then, you could see kind of like how things have changed over time. It was like breakdancing through the years. It was pretty impressive.

BW: And even the hula performance, by Siu, and the Native Hawaiian group, Pacific Islander group, did a few Haka performances. Those were really powerful and intense. They did a great job. And a lot of speeches…the guys shared a lot. One of the guys came up to me, and said, “This is the best day I’ve had since I’ve been here at San Quentin.” Just great to be able to see, at least a little bit of light for some of those guys who have been down for a long time. But I think that’s kind of the bittersweet part of it, some of those guys, hopefully, they’ll be able to go to the parole board soon and get released soon, but there’s a number of guys in our program who are doing 30, 40, 50, even 70 plus years just with their sentences. And how to maintain any hope of being released is an ongoing struggle.

Kasi: Yeah, it was amazing to see how happy everyone was at graduation day. People just couldn’t stop smiling, like ear-to-ear smiles. The feeling of festivity was infectious. It can be difficult to go into prison, to go through security, and to just be like in a place that’s pretty like energetically devoid of joy and hope. But then, to see that yeah, hope survives. And the part that culture and community can play in that. Just bringing people in and sharing. We don’t even have to share words, but just share forms of beautiful artwork that have survived hundreds and thousands of years. It was really amazing to see just how that could brighten the heart a little bit. I just feel like the learning experience has been amazing. And also, I’ve noticed that I really feel the lack of the guys out here, I feel that they’re missing from our community. I didn’t feel that before because I didn’t know them, or I didn’t know they were there, but now I’m like, “Yeah, where are they?” Like if I’m at a noodle shop or something, I kind of just expect to see one of them there…someday.

BW: Yeah, one of the highlights was the sharing circles, where each participant shared a part of their life, either sharing about how their childhood experiences and stories or other challenges they had or a little bit of family history. Sometimes, sharing old family photographs and yeah, that was definitely one way we all bonded and grew together as a group. Anything else, from the graduation, that was memorable for you?

KC: Oh yeah, I cooked 50 lbs. of rice into fried rice. Okay, well, I didn’t do any of the cooking, but I supervised it. I got to see the San Quentin kitchen, which is designed to feed like 2000 people or something. They had gotten special permission to cook fried rice for the graduation. And so, they had a 50-pound bag of rice that they had cooked, and they had this huge grill, just a flat stove – they had 3 of them. And then they would dump the rice out, and then they would use the lid of the bins—these big rectangular, like maybe the size of a cookie sheet or something. They would use that to break up the rice and use it as a spatula. They would use just like scoopfuls of salt and spices and stuff and pour it on top. There were 5 guys working on it, and each one was a fried rice connoisseur; so, they were like, “No, do the eggs first,” or “Cook the eggs separately,” “Cook the eggs at the end,” or “Add the eggs separately,” “Do the meat first,” or “Mix it later.” I think it was funny that everybody had a different way to make fried rice. They wanted to keep track of which bin was theirs for the taste-testing later.

BW: So, what about the future? What do you foresee for the future for ROOTS?

KC: I’m really excited for Round 2. I’m learning so much just from the classes and from the experience. I would love to just strengthen what we have.

BW: I think we can do a lot more. We can do maybe more creative projects with them, maybe make a zine or something or get permission to do an audio interview or things like that.

KC: Yeah, I think we were really conservative with what to bring in the first round because a lot of the times, we just didn’t have enough time to get things cleared. Now that we know, we actually brought in so much stuff. Actually, the brown card training when we had a little section on what you’re allowed to bring in, Steve pointed out that our group had brought in drums and flutes, and we were cleared to bring in a dragon and a lion, stuff like that. I think I would love to try to bring and use more things to demonstrate our culture and our history, the vibrancy and diversity that we have, because we’ve been able to do a lot with that. And I think that’s been the most memorable—just stuff that their eyes haven’t seen in so long.