Pictured: Members of ALOFA, an organization spreading the word on Prop. 47 to API’s in Long Beach.
By Michael Lozano, VoiceWaves Long Beach
LONG BEACH, Calif. — In middle school, Nicole Bennett-Pote was an honor roll standout even as the walls around her appeared to be crumbling. Her brother was a gang member and her mother was an addict.
Bennett-Pote, who is part Japanese, made a vow then that she would never fall into that life. She stuck to softball and stayed at school everyday until the sun went down to avoid trouble at home.
But when her brother got into a fight in high school, Bennett-Pote was implicated and was kicked out for being “gang-affiliated.”
“It seemed at that point, nothing I could do was going to get me away from it,” recalls Bennett-Pote, now 33. “I just followed right in.”
She would spend the next several years in and out of jail.
Today the mother of four says for years after she got out of prison her lengthy record was a major obstacle in moving her life and that of her family forward. But thanks to a new law, she may now be able to change her felony convictions, opening the door to opportunities previously out of reach.
Proposition 47, which passed in November 2014, allows California residents who have been convicted of simple drug possession, property crime under $950, or other nonviolent offenses to change their felonies to misdemeanors. Doing so will provide access to jobs, educational loans and housing assistance otherwise denied to individuals with a felony on their record.
“I may be able to get a job where I can provide for my family and give my kids little luxuries,” says Bennett-Pote, who is among the relatively few Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) to try and take advantage of the law.
Advocates say cultural barriers are part of the reason so few APIs have come forward.
“In the API community, specifically, there is a lot of stigma against having a criminal background,” says Michael Maiko, a case manager at Long Beach’s Asian Pacific Counseling Services. “Your family’s unhappy with you, your parents, your elders … It creates anxiety and repression.”
Feeding into that stigma, community advocates say, are the stereotypes surrounding APIs as the “model minority,” creating pressure to maintain an image of success even when the reality may be far from it.
In her own family, Bennett-Pote was seen as “a disgrace for a long time” after she had her first daughter at 17 and run-ins with the law because of a drug addiction.
“My grandma loved us but it went against everything she believed,” says Bennett-Pote, whose upbringing was heavily shaped by her maternal grandmother’s Japanese tradition. “It’s not what you do in Japanese culture.”
Paul Jung is a staff attorney with the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ). He says the “model minority” stereotype works both ways in terms of ignoring the API community when it comes to conversations around criminal justice reform.
“Generally speaking, API’s are left out of the conversation,” he says, adding that organizations in the field “typically don’t have the capacity to provide culturally relevant services for the API community.”
Jung’s organization holds free legal clinics in Los Angeles for the API community and has translated Proposition 47 materials into five languages — Chinese, Korean, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Samoan.
AAAJ promotes their Proposition 47 clinics through referral services such as work centers, but Jung says fear of shaming families prevents many from engaging available services.
“They’re not really inclined to talk to other people about it … They’ll say they came back from the army, or from overseas visiting family” instead of admitting they were in jail, Jung said.
That silence prevents information about Proposition 47 from getting to API’s who could benefit from the law.
Updated incarceration figures on API’s are hard to come by. They are classified as “other” in prison data, a grouping that accounts for 9 percent of all state and federal prisoners, according to a 2015 report entitled Asian American and Pacific Islanders Behind Bars.
A fact sheet put out by the Yes on Prop. 47 campaign noted that California’s API prison population quadrupled between 2000 and 2010. Roughly 65 percent are immigrants and refugees, it said.
According to AAAJ, about 18,000 API’s may qualify for Proposition 47 relief, a third of them in Los Angeles County.
Bennett-Pote learned about Prop. 47 through a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. To help spread the word, she joined ALOFA, a community group which works with formerly incarcerated LGBTQ and API residents of Long Beach to help them reintegrate and build self-confidence. The name, which stands for Another Loving Opportunity for All, translates as “love” in Polynesian.
“It started with a lot of hurt, a lot of shame and the struggles of being incarcerated,” says ALOFA founder Tanuomaaleu Ah You, a Hawaiian-born Samoan American.
Long Beach’s Gay and Lesbian Center provided space for the group’s initial meetings and members have since volunteered for monthly Proposition 47 clinics and outreach. Advocates say they are hurrying to spread the word, knowing the law expires in 2017.
Bennett-Pote is Member Chair for ALOFA and is one of the group’s ambassadors. Four years sober, she has turned her life around, but she says things are still tough and that she is tired of cycling between minimum wage work and unemployment.
“I don’t want to go back into that lifestyle. But getting a job, it’s really hard,” she says. “We’re not living comfortably.”
With Proposition 47, she’s hoping to land stable work to send her oldest daughter to college and coach her younger daughter’s softball team.
“I’m an open book. Everything I’ve been through has got me where I am today,” she says. “If I keep my story to myself how am I gong to help others?”