When Eddy Zheng arrived at San Quentin 22 years ago, he couldn’t speak a word of English. Today, thanks to prison education programs, he is a free man and a respected motivational speaker.
Zheng’s life-changing journey included an A.A. degree from Patten College. Now he is a youth center manager teaching conflict resolution and life skills.
He will turn 40 on May 29. In a telephone interview Zheng, says his birthday will be an “opportunity to gather people together” and the theme will be “celebrating life” and not forgetting those in prison and those in the community who need hope and help.
Five weeks earlier, Zheng, a prisoner from ages 16 to 37, took another step in his journey, accompanied by 35 Asian, Latino and African-American kids from San Francisco. These high-risk youth, who had never seen snow, were on a bus headed to Lake Tahoe. They would spend two days with Eddy and 15 fellow staff members from the Community Youth Center (CYC) of San Francisco, learning conflict resolution and how to get along with each other. On top of that, as Eddy said, they would also “get to see snow for the first time.”
Zheng’s education and qualifications to teach conflict resolution and other skills needed by these young people were acquired largely in San Quentin where he served part of his seven-years-to-life sentence for kidnapping.
Eddie Xiao Fei left China with his family at age 12, moving to Oakland in November of 1982. Unable to speak English, unable to fit in, he stopped going to school and began hanging out in Oakland’s Chinatown. He befriended people involved in organized crime and gangs. Yielding to his desire for money to get clothes better than the ones from Goodwill that he was wearing, he began committing crimes.
In his poem entitled Autobiography @ 33, Zheng describes the crime that earned him a life sentence in his poem:
At 16 “I violated an innocent family of four and scarred them for life. Money superseded human suffering. I was charged as an adult and sentenced to life with-a-possibility No hables ingles. I wish I could start things over. I was completely lost”
A guilty plea to a charge of kidnapping to commit robbery sent Zheng to the reception center in Vacaville in 1987 and from there to San Quentin, then a maximum-security prison. In an interview with S. Q. News, he described his early years in prison: “I couldn’t speak English. There were not many Asian-Pacific Islanders in San Quentin back then.
A Samoan brother took me under his wing. Prison was a hostile, violent environment. There were many lifers and respect was a very important thing. At age 18, I was in an environment where guards and prisoners were stabbed. I worked in the laundry for two or three years and learned how to survive.”
“In 1987 I turned 18 and went to the ‘pen’ from youth authority.
The youngest prisoner in San Quentin’s maximum security prison. I was lucky people thought I knew kung fu.”
When S.Q. became a reception center in 1989, Zheng was transferred to Solano where he took ESL classes and in 1992 earned his GED.
Education Saved My Life
In the interview he spoke to us about the importance of education. “Education saved my life. Education transformed my life. Education helped me gain confidence and self-esteem,” Zheng said.
After returning to San Quentin in 1993, he participated in Hooked on Phonics, college classes and Toastmasters, a public speaking program. At San Quentin, he began to take the foundational steps toward becoming a mentor and counselor to at-risk youth. He was a member of S.Q.U.I.R.E.S., a group which seeks to deter at- risk youth from continuing on a path that can lead to prison.
Although he had never had a drug or alcohol abuse problem, he went to A.A. and N.A. meetings so “I could learn from other people’s stories and understand their struggle.”
His interests led him to begin an intense project of education and transformation that helped him to “clear his identity crisis.”
“Education,” said Zheng, “helped me gain confidence and self-esteem.” Education was the means to hope and freedom for him, and he received an A.A. degree through the Patten College Program. He described it as a “critical thinking education.”
Positive Self – Alternatives to Violence
The drive to better himself led to his participation in conflict mediation classes, Alternatives to Violence and Self-Esteem. He concedes that at first he took programs “because of necessity,” but later he continued in order “to invest in my future. I needed to understand the harm I have done to my victims.”
He credits the programs he took at San Quentin with providing him the tools to be able to speak before hundreds of people, something he does regularly since his release from detention for an immigration hold on Feb. 27, 2007. Zheng has been applying what he has learned to help at-risk youth in the Bay Area. “I know I have an appreciation of life” and want to “maximize my potential in the community from what I have learned,” he said.
“I can’t think of a more concrete representation of hopelessness than prison bars. Yet, it was in prison that I discovered my passion to serve the youth and the community,” Zheng said. “It was also in prison that I realized mental freedom is more important than physical freedom. I found this freedom though the education I received in prison.” He expressed these sentiments to the audience at U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law on Feb. 23, 2008 upon receiving the Outstanding Leadership Award.
Zheng began working for the Community Response Network (CYC) on April 16, 2007. Since then he has received three promotions, most recently to Project Manager. He now supervises nine staff members.
He described his struggle for acceptance in the Chinese community upon his release because of the media attention given to his fight against deportation to China. He was given the Chinese World Journal’s Community Hero Award in 2007.
When Zheng was first hired by CYC, some of the program’s financial backers “pulled out because I was an ex-con.” Zheng adds that he was later “embraced because of my actions.”He has pursued his dream of helping young people avoid the mistakes he made at age 16, as an advocate for at-risk youth, prisoners and minorities who often lack access to the legal system.
Zheng quoted Margaret Mead in accepting the Outstanding Leadership Award from the Bay Area Asian Pacific American Law Students Association Conference. Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever works.” He urged future lawyers to stay connected to the community. “When you’re disconnected from the community, you’re disconnected from your soul,” he said.
“You are a miracle,” he added. “When you are a miracle, you need to maximize your potential as an individual to make a difference in society. You have a responsibility to yourself, to your family, to society, and to this world because you are living and embarking on this finite journey called life.”
“In order for us to impact the community, to make it one filled with peace and harmony, one where we can claim to be a democracy, where we can claim that we love our neighbors, our family, our children (because they are the future) you have to make a personal sacrifice. You have to dedicate yourself to serving the community and doing good work. Don’t just do what is easy; do what is difficult…The community will always sustain you. And when you are right, nothing will overcome that.”
Words of Hope
His message of hope and community service has taken Zheng to law schools, colleges and grade schools throughout the Bay Area. He is a peacemaker who has advocated for troubled youth facing expulsion from their schools, and has successfully mediated disputes between Chinese and African-American students in order to avert violence. Zheng is fluent in Cantonese and often volunteers to speak to groups of Chinese students and mediate conflicts among youth in Chinatown. He is often interviewed by mainland Chinese media and other news organizations regarding such diverse community issues as immigration reform, prison reform and effective means of reaching at-risk youth Zheng has been interviewed often by local Chinese media and other national media as well, regarding community issues including immigration reform, prison reform and how to reach at-risk youth.
Realizing His Dream
Also a published author, Zheng was most recently featured at a book reading and signing at the Southeast Campus of the City College of San Francisco on May 12, 2009 in order to promote the compilation of his writings, “Other: An Asian and Pacific Islander Prisoner’s Anthology”. His book was published by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). He encourages Asian and Pacific Islander inmates to share their experiences in the form of written submissions to APSC. They will be published in a magazine form targeting at-risk youth.
No Threat to Society
He still faces possible deportation to China and is gathering support for a U.S. Senate bill to stop his deportation. He is undeterred by the possibility of having to leave his family and friends. “Each time he speaks, he gives a message of hope and inspiration to youth who seek change and alternatives from a life of crime,” said KQED spokesperson. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that, “Eddy poses no threat to society and should be allowed to remain in the United States to continue the work he has started with high risk youth.”
Meanwhile, he has been studying Tai Chi with a Wu Shu and Tai Chi champion from Beijing as a part of his training for his work. In addition, he is preparing to enroll in a community college as preparation for eventual enrollment next year at U.C. Berkeley.
“A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout. A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.”
Lao Tzu, “The Tao Teh Ching.”