Every story has a beginning and an end, but for me, I like to think that the end of a story begins a new one.
This past Friday (1/14) as we began the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, a family member, William, passed away unexpectedly. As he gasped for air in those last moments, he didn’t want anyone to worry about him. Incarcerated at the age of 17 (prosecuted and sentenced as an adult), he spent the majority of his adult life within prison walls until he was released at the age of 50. I remember those years of visiting him at various prisons throughout the state, alongside a sea of families of color (including other Asian Americans). We used careful tones to address the exclusively white officers who might deny our visitation and waited patiently through a multi-staged exiting process which included prisoner counts. It was a system designed to punish and degrade inmates as well as those who came to visit.
For those who think that criminal justice is not an issue for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, or Pacific Islanders, this may come as a surprise. But my purpose at this moment isn’t to process this particular issue which deserves a much deeper look than what this brief written piece allows for.
William was an ever-present reminder of the true meaning of philanthropy that has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with humanity and the love of humanity, found sometimes in the darkest of places. He was generous in spirit, always ready with a good story or encouraging words, especially for his little nephews that came to visit. It was hard for him to watch them grow up and live the lives he never had. William stayed productive by engaging in crafts like woodwork and earned a degree through taking courses offered in prison. He taught me the depths of resilience and hope through his approach to life, from the inside out, despite institutions that were designed to defeat.
We are grateful that he had the opportunity to live out the last few years of his life exploring a new world outside 33 years of prison walls. And eager as he was to start anew, William took time to support other inmates on the inside and when they came out, becoming a sort of older brother to lean on. It was not an easy adjustment for him to make after so many years and there is more that we learned about his connectedness with others in just these few days after his passing that continue to inspire me. I share this story with you to honor his life and those whose lives have been scarred, stunted, or cut short by the injustices of multiple systems that rob rather than contribute to our collective humanity. Every life has deep value, even in a system designed to discard them.
And while William took his last breath on Friday, his story does not end there. He will indeed live on in those of us who were privileged to know him. It turns out that in 2017, the year he was released from prison, a new foundation was started called the New Breath Foundation. This new philanthropic initiative naturally breathes racial equity and solidarity in its authentic grounding. Founded and led by Eddy Zheng, himself a formerly incarcerated Asian American “juvenile lifer”, New Breath Foundation – born from experiences like William’s – begins a new chapter in a shared story – finding light at the end of a long journey to transform individuals, communities, and philanthropy.
And as I rushed to write this story, I tuned into the W.K Kellogg Foundation’s National Day of Racial Healing with John Legend and Reyes performing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (hint: 41 minutes in from the beginning of the recording). Here are the words to the first few bars of the song:
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear
I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free
I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew
Rest in power William.