Northern California

“It is only through learning about one’s own history that we are able to appreciate the history and culture of others, and humanize them in a way that they’d want to be humanized in return.”

Eddy Zheng is the president and founder of New Breath Foundation. In this Here to Lead Q&A, he discusses the importance of reimagining the criminal justice system, how philanthropy has an opportunity to better support AAPI communities and the importance of healing, learning one’s personal history and cross-cultural engagement.

Tell us about your work and why you do what you do?

From the age of 16, I was impacted by the criminal “injustice” and immigration systems. This experience solidified my political and social consciousness, allowing me to take responsibility for my actions, and dedicate my life to helping people and communities in similar situations to transform and heal themselves.

What drives me is to use my lived experience to empower marginalized communities and create an equitable, inclusive society. Ultimately, I want all movements and nonprofits to be less reliant on philanthropy and government. By providing support to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities who have been harmed by the immigration and criminal justice systems, my goal is to promote racial solidarity through healing, shift the narrative and keep families together.

How did the idea for New Breath Foundation come about, and what do you think its role is in the philanthropic space?

Through my experience as a nonprofit leader, organizer and formerly incarcerated individual, I saw time and time again that AAPI communities are not at the table when it comes to funding. With less than one percent of philanthropic dollars going to support Asian-led organizations, these communities are not only left out of the conversation, but overlooked when foundations are speaking about equity and the criminal justice movement. This happens for a variety of reasons: lack of disaggregated data (AAPI individuals are often considered part of an “other” category in the prison system); the “model minority” myth that is often associated with Asian communities; and only talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, not the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. With that in mind, I knew that I couldn’t wait for a magic moment to create a table for our community. I started the New Breath Foundation with the goal of mobilizing resources to support AAPIs harmed by the unjust immigration and criminal justice systems to heal, keep families together, and build movements that shift narratives and policies.

What does anti-racist solidarity look like in practice and in your work?

To me, racial solidarity starts with education and creating opportunities for cross-cultural engagement to counter the idea of the “other”. Even in the Asian community, there are different rituals, issues and cultural practices. When it comes to creating solidarity across African American, Latinx and AAPI communities, we need to focus on tapping in to our CHI – our culture, history, and identity. It is only through learning about one’s own history that we are able to appreciate the history and culture of others, and humanize them in a way that they’d want to be humanized in return. I live and breathe that vision–how to create a space and opportunity to do cross cultural healing and produce racial solidarity by addressing anti-Blackness that is prevalent in the Asian community. 

What is the call to philanthropy in this moment, and beyond?

The larger vision is not only about equity in addressing some of the injustices our communities face, but equity in funding: how can we get funders to increase their giving from the mandated five percent to 20 percent or more, or ensure that they divest from harmful practices and corporations that are causing these inequities in the first place?

What is the impact that COVID has had on AAPI communities?

As we see the federal government characterize the pandemic as the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu”, we are seeing an increase in racial violence and hatred toward Asians and Asian Americans, and a re-emergence of Anti-Asian sentiment. Across the U.S., the most marginalized Asian and Asian Americans, especially the elderly and women, are targets of verbal abuse, threats and physical violence. Additionally, due to historical economic and health disparities, we see Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities disproportionately impacted by the health crisis. The lack of political analysis on the impact of this health pandemic continues to deepen the racial chasm among people of color. Our communities are being further used as wedges and scapegoats for the government’s inefficiency and perpetuation of institutional racism. 

What do you think is the opportunity in this moment to reimagine the criminal justice system?

In this moment in particular, we have an opportunity to reimagine the criminal justice system by focusing on transformative justice. It’s only now, in the time of COVID-19, that we are seeing people beginning to come around to the idea of abolition, but we have yet to see investment in the healing, education and power of boys and men of color and communities of color. Letting people out of prison in response to COVID is not nearly enough because society still believes in crime and punishment rather than investing in healing within those communities. This is one of the reasons our funding strategies and programs are built to support cultural education spaces that translate historical policies and narratives of how institutions and systems have perpetuated racism and injustice among African American and Chinese communities. We must not only reimagine criminal justice, but invest in policy change, mental health and solutions like ethnic studies to empower people to learn their true history and culture. It is not enough to simply “better” our prisons or push for easy fixes.

Finally, just as we center boys and men of color when we talk about criminal justice reform, we have to center girls and women of color. They are not only as impacted, but actually face harsher treatments and are often times overlooked in this conversation.

How do you define civic engagement and why, particularly in this moment, is it so important?

Civic engagement has to be a priority in communities of color who, every day, are being stripped of their voting rights as a result of racist policies. While we want certain freedoms now, like voting rights for those who have been impacted by mass incarceration, the long-term goal is to empower boys and men of color to be civically engaged so they can understand not only the importance of their vote, but how to participate and actually vote more consciously. It’s up to us to change the way in which people in this country, whether they are citizens or not, are treated and end the impact of white supremacy.