The San Quentin self-help group that puts emphasis on reconnecting to one’s cultural heritage held a graduation for more than 40 people that included 30 inmates and about a dozen Bay Area community members.
The guiding principle of ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves) “No History; No Self. Know History; Know Self” is “to develop self-awareness and understanding how to be a productive member of one’s community,” said Chairman Phoeun You.
“The philosophy of ROOTS is a collaborative effort between inmates and all the other co-facilitators of the program,” You said.
“We all have a shared experience,” said facilitator Simranjit Kaur. “We go home and want to share what we learned from this class,” she added, “We always remain eternal optimists. There’s a little bit of us in you.”
The six-month course provides education about Asian/ Pacific Islander and other minority communities in order to build awareness, empathy, and understanding of the struggles faced by all people and promote giving back to one’s community in productive ways.
“We always remain eternal optimists. There’s a little bit of us in you”
ROOTS workshops include anger management, acceptance of responsibility for one’s crimes and re-entry to the community.
Elijah Fejeran, 27, has been at San Quentin for more than two years. He said, “This is the best prison. There are a lot of programs.” As each person arrived at the graduation, Fejeran handed him or her wristbands as a tribute. Fejeran said he expects to return to Sacramento after being paroled in 2018.
Before the event, each person struck a drum set center-stage in honor of Molly Kitajima, who recently passed away.
The graduation began with Kasi Chakravartula and Vera Leo beating drums to the rhythmic sounds of Peter Yung playing a Japanese handmade bamboo windpipe. The three performed for the community members and inmates who joined the drumming with handclaps and chants. After the performance, Yung gave a lecture about the origin of the instruments.
Facilitator Kasi Chakravartula addressed the audience and talked about the connection between Japanese internment camps during World War II and mass incarceration. She said she wanted to incorporate the Filipino and Pacific Island experiences into the ROOTS program.
“We cannot do this without all the help from the volunteers,” said keynote speaker Eddy Zheng. “But more importantly, we cannot do it without the brothers who are locked up. Be proud, be brave, be empowered, because you are beautiful; be a change from within.”
Zheng paroled from San Quentin after serving a total of 21 years behind bars. “We are encouraged by your presence,” he told the graduates.
Sikhs, Simranjit Kaur and Winty Singh talked about the connection with their community and relationships to the tenets of ROOTS.
San Quentin conducts an annual Health Fair on its Lower Yard where Bay Area health-related organizations provide on-the-spot services for the inmates. At the fair, ROOTS facilitator Ben Wang staffed a station called the Asian-Pacific Support Committee.
David Lee gave a powerful speech about the importance of each person taking responsibility for his actions and doing all he could do in making a difference in the world.
Facilitator Roger Chung and inmates Nghiep “Ke” Lam and Pangthong Anouthinh were asked to do something entertaining for the audience. The three went out of the room to brainstorm. When they came back, they performed a dance-off to beating drums. The audience clapped and laughed for about five minutes at the robot, break dancing, mixture of modern dance and an old-school kick-worm performance.
The event closed with the Hawaiian Cultural Group performing a Polynesian dance that received cheers as the audience joined with clapping.