From San Quentin Radio:
ROOTS — or Restoring Our Original True Selves — is a restorative justice program that helps Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at San Quentin Prison address that intergenerational trauma. One incarcerated man shares his family’s story, and how the program helped him learn more about himself.
Before Kevin Neang came to San Quentin Prison, he didn't know much about his family’s history. When he enrolled in the Restoring Our Original True Selves (ROOTS) program, he started learning about the experiences of other older Cambodian men. He realized he knew almost nothing about his mother's life. On one visit, she told him about a day that's burned into her memory.
“She remembers kid soldiers forcing her out of the house,” Kevin says. “And when she came out it was utter chaos. She’s seen neighbors getting killed, little kids riding motorcycles wearing black and red bandanas and shooting everyone.”
In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia, they began to target and kill people they perceived as a threat; people who had served in the military, people who were educated, and even people who wore eye glasses. Kevin's mother was a victim and survivor of the violence.
“My grandpa - her dad - was executed cold blooded in front of everyone,” Kevin says. “And not only that, they found out that he was connected to the military; so they slit his throat, cut off his hands and his feet, and cut his chest open and left him there. And my mom’s mom and her siblings were all dead next to them.”
During that one day, Kevin's mother lost most everyone in her family. Her experience wasn't unique.
Professor Roger Chung is a leading facilitator in the ROOTS program, and says there a lot of reasons why the war affects people who might have never been in the country that was impacted by the war - places like Cambodia or Vietnam.
He’s watched as a growing population of Southeast Asian youth are imprisoned for violent or abusive crimes. Roger says this kind of behavior is often linked to their families’ experiences.
“Some of the things that we have see from our Southeast Asian folks both inside prison and outside of prison is the trauma that the war that is often carried through refugee camps re-settlement,” Roger says. “And a lot of relationships that we are seeing as a product of those wars are still impacting people, from a police level. And, it’s also trickled down all the way down to the personal level.”
Roger says facilitating the program for the past 5 years has also helped build community within San Quentin; participants are helping each other explore and heal from their inherited trauma.
Through his participation in the program, Kevin now realizes how strongly his mothers trauma affected him.
“ROOTS taught me that it is important to know where you came from, know your history, know how you came to excellence and to this world,” Kevin says. “And to start to do that I had to connect the dots moving backwards, not forward, so that’s what I did.”
By connecting the dots, moving backwards, ROOTS participants can move forward with their lives.