The shy and unassuming inmate Sa Tran told a packed room of spectators that he couldn’t believe he was standing before them and giving a speech.
“My parents taught me very well; they never once taught me to hate or dislike any person, let alone another race/ethnicity.”
Nevertheless, Tran told the audience the environment in which he grew up made him prejudiced and narrow-minded.
“These tendencies correlate directly from a lack of sociality with other races/ethnicities,” he said.
Tran joined (Restoring Our Original True Selves) ROOTS last year along with someone he knew of another race, Nick Lopez.
“In ROOTS, we shared our life stories, and when I heard his life story, it completely changed me as a person,” Tran said. “It touched me so much because it hit home. I, too, experienced pretty much the very same thing.”
Tran is serving a sentence of 23 years to life for attempted murder and has been incarcerated for two decades.
The guiding principal of ROOTS, “No History; No Self; Know History; Know Self,” is “toward developing self-awareness and understanding how to be a productive member of one’s community,” said Chairman Phoeun You.
In 2003, Eddy Zheng, Mike Ngo and Rico Riemedio (then lifers at San Quentin), wanted to develop Asian American Ethnic Studies at San Quentin. Their vision was to provide the fast-growing Asian community inside prison with education about Asian history.
After 10 years of struggling, the ROOTS program was established. It is a collaboration of concerned community members geared to help people identify their history and understand themselves.
“I requested to get in the class to learn more about Asian culture,” said Joe Hancock, the only African-American in the class. “In general African-Americans don’t have an authentic culture.”
Hancock has been incarcerated for more than 18 years and has been at San Quentin for eight years. He works in the vocational machine shop, participates in Restorative Justice, Non-Violent Communications and Alliance for Change. He also regularly attends NA/AA. He is currently enrolled in Addiction Recovery Counseling. He has graduated from Coastline College with a business certificate. Hancock qualifies for pending legislation that would allow him to appear before the parole board, since he committed his offense before age 23.
Historically,California prisons have been divided by race. San Quentin is no different.
On the day of the graduation from the 10-month program, the Asian community invited all races to meet with them to break bread as a community. Everyone was given a plate of food.
“In all my years of incarceration, I never witnessed the black population doing something like that,” said Hancock. “It was good to see all the races come together. More stuff like that needs to take place.”
ROOTS participant Reggie Hola said, “We want people to feel at home. We want everyone to feel that ROOTS is for everyone.”
Hola explained that this sentiment of opening up comes from mana, which is “the spirit of welcome from our ancestors,” he said. “It’s something that we all carry, it’s in our character, and mannerism. It comes from bonding.”
Pakistani Adnan Khan said that his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1980. Khan regularly visits the Asian Area on the Lower Yard.
Explaining the area, Khan said, “There’s no label; it’s the spot; the neighborhood.” Adding, “There’s Indian, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodian, Vietnam, Japanese, Philippines, Samoan, Tongan, Fiji, Hawaiian, Hmong, Mien, China, there’s so many more.”
“There’s a lot of support there, laughing and joking, sharing of material things, and self. I see a lot of selfless acts,” Khan said.
Khan said in ROOTS he learned about intergenerational trauma.
“It’s like PTSD that goes to the childhood. I grew up in a large family who has been through a lot of war. The rage that my family suffers, I can now understand what they went through.”
The ROOTS curriculum include classes on Asian-Pacific Islander history and culture, healing practices, intergenerational trauma, cultural masculinity and stigmas, immigration and reentry, sharing circles, and the nonviolence practices of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In addition, the students of ROOTS learn about discrimination and racism, LGBTQ awareness and public speaking. Graduates of the program are encouraged to stay on as teachers and facilitators for the newcomers to ROOTS.
ROOTS 2015 Graduates:
- Upumoni Ama
- Quoc Chau
- Damon Cooke
- Rafael Cuevas
- Eduardo Delapena
- Elijah Fejeran
- Eusebio Gonzalez
- Joseph Hancock
- Syyen Hong
- Chnug Kao
- Zhuo Liu
- Philip Melendez
- Juan Meza
- Benjamin Obsuna
- Anouthinh Pangthong
- Satinder Singh
- Kamsan Suon
- Somsak Uppasay
- Vong Vue
- Romeo Bacos
- Jason Lile
- Jose Segura
- Armando Garcia
- Minh Tran
- Lam Le