Jun 01, 2021 | Share Your Beautiful
Hope, healing, and new beginnings for the AAPI community
Hope fuels the New Breath Foundation's philanthropic giving: Hope that individuals on the wrong path can turn their lives around; hope that those individuals can then contribute to the greater communal good, and hope that local institutions and philanthropies can be catalysts for these positive changes.
The dream of building a better future is at the core of many philanthropic organizations, but with its focus on helping prisoners, refugees, deportees, and survivors of violence in the Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, the Oakland-based New Breath Foundation is a rarity. And it is headed by an improbable founder—a Chinese immigrant who spent over 20 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16.
“During my incarceration, hope was one of the few things that kept me alive and sane,” said Eddy Zheng, the now 52-year-old President who founded the New Breath Foundation in 2017. “It’s what I am now working to spark and keep alive in others who may only see reasons for despair.”
One cannot fully understand the mission of New Breath without a rundown of Zheng’s trajectory from a teenage prisoner to youth counselor to the head of a philanthropic foundation.
In 1986, four years after arriving in the United States from China, Zheng and two friends broke into the home of a Chinese family who owned several shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown and robbed them at gunpoint. Caught that same evening, Zheng was charged as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. Eventually incarcerated in San Quentin, he learned English, got an education, and became a “model prisoner” despite suffering numerous injustices that drew public attention to his case. This included being put in solitary confinement for 11 months after circulating a petition to set up courses in Asian American studies—which prison officials used to accuse him of organizing an escape attempt. After 19 years behind bars, he was paroled—only to face deportation. He then spent two years in immigration detention. Thanks to a push from the larger AAPI community, which believed in his full rehabilitation, Zheng won his case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, received an unconditional gubernatorial pardon, and became a US citizen.
Zheng was able to put his freedom to good use: publishing a collection of writings of AAPI prisoners in an anthology, working at nonprofits counseling at-risk youth, advocating for currently and formerly incarcerated people, building racial solidarity, and serving on several racial equity boards and commissions, including the San Francisco Central Police Station Citizen Advisory Board, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Alameda Juvenile Justice, and Delinquency Prevention Commission.
After several years working at nonprofits, in 2016, Zheng began thinking of establishing a foundation. “I wanted to create a seat at the table and give access to a marginalized part of the Asian American community,” he said. “The AAPI community gets less than one-half of 1% of philanthropic dollars nationwide. When I learned that, I thought to myself, ‘One day I will start my own foundation to support the marginalized AAPI community.’"
Zheng also knew he needed this foundation to be a channel for shoring up and expanding the wider philanthropic ecosystem. “Pre-pandemic, many nonprofits were being pushed out,” he said. “Our goal is to generate funding that supports organizations doing racial solidarity work and to help them build power and long-term capacity and sustainability.”
Zheng’s own search for funding, however, was anything but smooth.
“People like me aren’t supposed to be in the philanthropy space. It takes a lot for me to convince funders to fund us,” he said.
First, Zheng ran into the common perception of Asian Americans as a “model minority:” law-abiding, highly educated, successful—esteemed achievers of the American Dream. “The AAPI community has certainly been impacted by crime, the prison and deportation system, and violence,” Zheng said. “But it’s not seen. Funders are always telling me, ‘Based on our data, we don't see the AAPI community as having those types of needs.’"
While his pitches often fell on deaf ears, he says there is a Chinese saying that there are “fortuitous people” in our lives—they show up when you least expect it and support and inspire us.
“I've been surrounded by those fortuitous people,” he said.
Zheng became the focus of a documentary about his life, and one day, a friend of Zheng’s sister, a Chinese venture capitalist, saw the documentary and reached out. He told her about his idea of starting a foundation.
“Talk about fortuitous people,” he said. “She gave me $200,000 to help start the foundation. And anything else I raised in the first year, she matched it. Then I was very fortunate again; I was nominated for the Leading Edge Fellowship that provided $250,000 over three years.”
From there, he did some private fundraisers in San Francisco and Hong Kong and had enough funding to launch New Breath.
To date, New Breath has disbursed more than $300,000 in grants to organizations including AAPI Women Lead, Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), and Survived and Punished.
Above all, New Breath is about hope, connections, community, and purpose. For people to maintain hope, they have to have a purpose, Zheng says. And it is that which motivates Zheng to keep doing what he’s doing.
“Some of the young people I helped many years ago, they're professionals and business people now, and when I see them they're just grateful. That's what we're doing this for. I needed a hand, and people showed up for me. This is my purpose now, and I’m trying to pass that along.”
A sense of community led Zheng to Beneficial State Bank, where he is now a client.
Zheng considers New Breath’s alliance with Beneficial State to be an example of how institutions can create community by supporting and investing in each other. “Instead of investing in corporations, we are investing in each other — here, where we live, and work, and can see the results of our investments.” Anyone can support New Breath Foundation by donating to help them support the healing and transformation of AAPI communities impacted by violence, incarceration, and deportation.
Learn more, and get involved: new-breath.org/donate