Choose Hope, Not Fear

Eddy Zheng

Eddy doing a tai chi pose with San Quentin State Prison in the background.
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I want to embrace the New Year with an open mind and heart. The year will bring me my freedom! May I be free. – Eddy Zheng, 2002

I wrote these words on December 31, 2002, while in solitary confinement, or “the Hole.” This was my second time in the Hole, where I stayed for 11 months in a tiny, roach-infested cell with very limited chances to go outside or shower. Looking back at the journal I kept during that period, I’m struck by a deep sense of optimism and hope, despite the bleak circumstances and repeated setbacks. I remember year after year, I would go to the parole board with the expectation to do my best to get my parole date. Year after year, I would get denied.

Hope in Solitary Confinement

I look back and wonder how I survived that period – the crushing despair that so easily sets in for folks in the same position of so badly wanting their freedom. When I was denied parole again and again, I was disappointed, but I used those experiences to think about what I could do better next time. I would go in with the same mentality the next year and tell myself, “I’m going to get this parole date.” I had established a practice of choosing hope over fear, not letting external circumstances affect my inner peace. I stayed focused on creating opportunities for myself rather than focusing on negative circumstances.

In my journal in 2003, I wrote down these words that a brother had shared with me: “Don’t base your happiness and peace on things changing, saying “If this happens, I’ll be happy.” Be thankful every day no matter where you are.” Even in solitary confinement, I felt like one of the wealthiest people on earth. This was part of my survival mantra. I had “embrace, internalize, let go” on repeat in my head all the time. I didn’t allow triggers to trigger me. I remember folks visiting me in prison, afraid for me after so many setbacks and disappointments related to my release. They were afraid I would blow up one day. But they were projecting their fears onto me. I had already committed to choosing hope.

Hope in the Storm

Like so many lessons I learned in prison, I carry the lesson of hope with me into all I do. After I got out of prison, I worked as an outreach worker and case manager at Community Youth Center in San Francisco. During that time, I learned of Bruce W. Tuckman’s group development model, which we used as a framework for youth development: Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing. I now apply this same framework when thinking about the growth and development of New Breath Foundation (NBF).

As we approach the end of our 6th year as NBF, I remind my team that we are nearing the end of the Storming stage and approaching the Norming stage. We’ve done a lot of good work weathering the turbulent storms of the past few years, knowing that we were still very much in startup mode amidst a pandemic and ongoing anti-Asian violence. Some of the turbulence has been external, beyond our control. Though the increase in attention around anti-Asian violence, along with the ongoing pandemic, initially brought an influx of funding, we were unable to sustain the same levels of fundraising as anti-Asian violence ceased to be a hot-button issue.

Eddy and NBF staff at their retreat in 2022

We’ve also faced internal hurdles and growing pains, stabilizing as a team and learning how to practice what we preach. As a relatively new organization, part of our work has been to collectively discuss and agree upon the organizational philosophy charter based on the values and life experiences that we each bring. We actively co-create a workspace that is safe, transparent, and minimizes harm. As much as we aspire to be a foundation that practices trust-based philanthropy, we also seek to create and practice this trust internally and to commit to trusting one another. We consider things like conflict resolution, how to resolve diverse work styles and communication methods, and bring ourselves to this space with care, grace, and compassion. We acknowledge that as Founder and President, as well as the only cis male on the team, I am part of a clear power dynamic that leads to hierarchical tensions that need to be examined and addressed. We navigate this dynamic together, knowing this internal work is necessary to create a lasting culture and infrastructure that will set us up well for the long haul.

A Healthy Dose of Fear

As much as I tell the team, the funders, the grantees, the supporters – to be fearless and to reach high, of course, I am still scared, because I don’t actually know what’s going to happen. In this world of philanthropy, where people think I don’t belong and even tell me so directly, where people block me from being here, I face a lot of setbacks, and I’m scared that I will end up failing a lot of people. I’m scared that I will let people down. I think of Rev. Norman Fong, who came to visit me while I was locked up. After all these years, he spoke these words to me: “Eddy, you followed through on your promise that you were going to serve the community.” I don’t want to let down the people who believed in me.

As somebody who is formerly incarcerated, I feel a sense of pressure knowing that I don’t belong. Those of us who have been formerly incarcerated know the challenge of always feeling like we have to prove ourselves after getting out. But just as I experienced in prison, these challenges motivate me. I brush off the naysayers who are gatekeeping and trying to deny my seat at the table. I turn it into motivation to be fearless, continue to do the work, stay focused, and know that this is lifelong work interconnected with greater movements for collective liberation.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, with Hope

We have hope that we are nearing the end of the Storming period and are moving on to the Norming period of development at NBF. This does not mean storms won’t come or that we won’t experience setbacks and disappointments along the way. I try to infuse this attitude within my team and those around me at NBF – to have hope no matter the circumstances.

Eddy pointing to a sign on the wall that says “Believe – Si Se Puede”

After Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing, I tell my team to add “Transforming” at the end. Ultimately, we want to work towards collective liberation, which necessarily requires transformation.  As we close out 2023, let’s continue to aim high fearlessly and give it our all, to accept hardships and disappointments, to have grace, and to stay focused on our north star.