Honoring the Elders Among Us

Eddy Zheng

Eddy sitting next to Yuri Kochiyama
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May is a significant month for many. This month is a time to recognize and honor the heritage of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. It’s when we commemorate international workers and the labor movement on May Day and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And it’s a time to observe the birthdays of several important elders and ancestors in the movement: Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X.

In honor of the many significant community celebrations this month, New Breath Foundation hosts our annual fundraiser every May. And as I approach my 54th birthday (which also happens to be in May), I reflect on the elders and ancestors who have been my biggest champions and supporters, who have shaped me to be the person I am today, and who in turn have shaped the New Breath Foundation journey. As a foundation, we are guided by the example that was set by elders and pioneers – the people who came before us, as well as the living legends who walk among us.

“Will Be Watching As You Continue to Assist Others”

Note to Eddy from Yuri Kochiyama


My last blog post reflection was, I’m not supposed to be here. Now, as I reflect on turning 54, I ask myself, How did I get here? From everything I have experienced, including a life sentence at age 16, how did I make it out of prison while still retaining a sense of hope and humanity? In asking myself how I got here, I recognize the elders and role models who helped me get to where I am now.

Meeting and working with Yuri Kochiyama altered the course of my life and played a major role in helping me maintain my humanity both during and after prison. Yuri is my shero. While I was in prison, Yuri co-founded the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), whose primary aim was to support me and my fellow inmates who were trying to get ethnic studies in the prison curriculum. Yuri not only worked tirelessly to support me and the “San Quentin Three,” she fought for the rights of many people and communities impacted by white supremacy and racism. She was a selfless, humble individual, dearly loved by many, especially movement folks. She’s one of the most influential persons in my life, for as long as I’ve been doing the work, and I continue to try to follow her footsteps and example.

Though Yuri is no longer with us, I am confident that she is watching over those of us who have committed to carry the torch and pass it on. I only wish I had told her more often how much she is appreciated, how influential she was to so many of us.

New Breath Elders

It’s important to honor and celebrate the elders among us, while they are still with us, even as humble leaders like Yuri shy away from recognition and spotlight.

As we celebrate 5 years of grantmaking at our annual fundraiser, we have the privilege of honoring three living heroes who have been champions and supporters of New Breath Foundation from the beginning. We recognize the following women who, like Yuri, show up and lead in authentic, powerful, yet humble ways, and who model for us what kind of impact their leadership can make in people’s lives and in society. All of these leaders teach us the importance of building movements based on trust and community – this is the only way to break the cycles of injustice and violence.

Peggy Saika

Peggy Saika is a beloved leader, trailblazer, and a guiding light and role model for many. She has decades of experience working to empower women, fight for environmental justice, and support immigrant and workers’ rights. For many years she served as Executive Director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and is highly respected for her ideas and fearless leadership in the philanthropic sector. On a personal note, Peggy’s husband has been my mother’s family doctor ever since we immigrated to the United States, and Peggy’s son Kori Chen was a volunteer at APSC while I was the co-chair. Peggy has been a stalwart advisor and supporter to New Breath Foundation from the beginning.




Karen Perkins with husband, Arnold Perkins

Karen Perkins, also of Japanese descent like Peggy, has been with us since the beginning, helping me develop ideas, listening, feeding me delicious food, and supporting me. I met Karen in the community through her husband, Arnold Perkins, another community elder. Karen is extremely talented as a graphic designer, facilitator, and consultant. She supports the younger generation like myself with no questions asked, often working pro bono. She is a core member of Hella Heart Oakland, a multigenerational giving circle with a mission to strengthen and improve the health and wellness of API women and girls in Oakland – particularly refugees and new immigrants. I admire Karen’s nurturing, behind-the-scenes consistency in always showing up and holding space for our work at NBF.





Lateefah Simon and Eddy Zheng

Finally, I got to know and work with Lateefah Simon through my friend Jane Kim. In 2010, while anti-Asian violence was sweeping across the city and throughout the Bay Area, I worked with Lateefah, Jane, the current Mayor London Breed, and Kendra Fox-Davis, who currently works at the Rosenberg Foundation, to brainstorm curriculum and create a concept paper to address anti-Blackness and anti-Asian violence. This was long before the most recent racial reckoning of 2020. I learned a lot from these women while working together on the ground.

Since then, Lateefah has served as President at Akonadi Foundation, and now President at Meadow Fund. All along the way, Lateefah has been a trailblazer and a visionary. She is a single mother, a public servant, a lawyer, a poet, a MacArthur “Genius,” and leads on multiple fronts. She is paving the way and creating spaces to nurture and inspire leaders in the movement. She was an inspiration to me when I was starting New Breath Foundation, and I am honored to call her a supporter and friend.

All of these women are powerful leaders who have influenced me as an individual and have been crucial champions on our journey as a Foundation. As they lead in social justice and civil rights, they teach me the importance of nurturing trust and relationships, and of showing up no matter what space or profession we are in. New Breath Foundation would not be where we are without them.

Who Are the Heroes Among Us?

I recently had the privilege of sharing my story with Dr. Clarence B. Jones – professor, former personal counsel, advisor, speechwriter, and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After hearing my story, he said to me these words of affirmation: “The strongest steel is tempered by the hottest fire.” To hear those words from a living movement elder was humbling and motivating. I only hope I can continue to live up to these words. How powerful would it be to speak words of affirmation back to our elders while they are still with us?

I’m grateful for the accountability from these legends with whom we have the privilege of being in community – both those who still walk among us, and those, like Yuri, who have passed on to another dimension, but who still watch over us.

For those who still consider themselves in the younger generation: who are the elders and leaders in our midst that we may have overlooked? Let’s celebrate the elders among us, hear their stories, and honor their legacies.