"To envision art is probably the most powerful tool to envision a new future. Artists can imagine a new future that we can't even fathom"
Niko Galvez collaborated with Andre Irv, who's currently serving a 15 year sentence in a California State Prison, for her pages featured in the "that's [not] all s/he wrote..." series. It would do you well to take some time to read their correspondence here. Niko is a community and social justice advocate in Long Beach, and Andre is an artist and thinker also from Long Beach. Below is the chat I had with Niko about prison reform, tequila and vitamins, and the road to the American woman.
Coat[e]rak: Hey Niko, how’s it been?
Niko Galvez: Good. Figuring out health stuff lately, which is good and also overwhelming.
CR: I bet.
NG: Yeah, but one thing is that the two alcohols I can have with all my complications is tequila and gin. Which is great because I hate vodka. If it was just vodka and gin I’d be done.
CR: I also hear there’s a lot of healing properties in tequila.
NG: Yeah, so now I take my vitamins with a shot of tequila. I used to take it with IPA because my ex drank beer. There’s just something about taking vitamins with beer versus water that made me so much better at it.
CR: That’s certainly a motivator.
NG: Yeah. And last week I saw an article on the healing properties of tequila and I was like, there’s my new beer. Because I’m not supposed to do IPAs because of the wheat.
CR: Makes sense. So you told me that you wanted to share a new project that you were working on currently.
NG: Yes! My friend Alyssandra, who’s a musician, and I are going to drive across country to the Million Women March on DC in January on the day when Trump’s inaugurated.
CR: Oh yeah.
NG: There’s an effort to gather a million women on Capitol Hill. So we’re going to drive - we’re leaving on January 8 and going across the lower states and stopping with people we know and also where there are people we don’t know. We’ll be doing gigs, free performances, and interviewing women.
NG: Informally, like on a phone camera. Neither of us are “filmmakers”. But she’s a really really good musician. So we’re going to do an IndieGoGo campaign with a kick-off concert, and then a sayonara concert. So we have to raise about $4,000. Depending on if she gets a radio show, we might stop in Chicago around January 24. We’re going to list all the dates. So if you know any community centers for women or places where she can do a gig.
CR: Yeah, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open. I could definitely try to hook you up somewhere.
NG: We’re looking for a mixture of women-owned businesses, traditional music venues, community spaces.
CR: You’re still working the construction job, right?
NG: Yeah, when I can. I’ll do more once my health is up. I’ve been sleeping a lot. Going out and sleeping a lot. Those are my two priorities.
CR: Do you have your eye on anything other than the construction job?
NG: Yeah. I just met with this person who’s a part of the Molina family [an influential philanthropic family in Long Beach], and they have this foundation that’s for art and music and they fund artists and musicians to visit local schools. It’s been a board operated foundation up until now and they’re considered hiring a part time staff person to be that liason between schools and artists. So I’m going to contact a family friend who does that kind of thing to figure out logistics because they contacted me because they wanted to know how to go about it.
CR: What’s something else you’ve been thinking about lately?
NG: Well, one thing, and it has to do with the project, which we’re calling “The Road to the American Woman”, is how to not make it just “white women tears”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and care about and I’ve read articles about “being an ally”, but they all just seem so ethereal and abstract like - “Don’t make it up about you” and “stand up in the face of oppression”. But it’s like - What does that look like? You know? And what does that look like in light of this project?
CR: It is a really sticky question. Because a lot of the time, well-intentioned people end up making the situation about themselves anyways and emotions take over and it becomes not helpful. But I also have come to accept my own vulnerability in that and be like, well, sometimes my voice will be helpful, and sometimes it will be just noise. It’s good to always be aware of the question, but also to not be obsessed with it, because that’s another problem in itself.
NG: True. Oh, I’m supposed to brain storm an art project as well to do on the trip. Alyssandra’s going to write music along the way and we’re going to interview women along the way. I don’t want to make a quilt, but something like a quilt that everyone who wants to can contribute to along the way.
CR: I like that idea. So, I want to rewind a bit and start from how you got to this place - taking community art roadtrips and writing letters with an inmate. How you became passionate about social justice and art. What is the “title” you would put on yourself? If you were to self-label.
NG: Like a job title?
CR: Yeah, well, kind of your “vocation” in the world, if you will.
NG: Well Something I’ve planned around with is a creativity curator and advocate. Or, I don’t know, I’m still struggling to figure out what that is. But that’s kind of what I’ve been using, but it still doesn’t resonate as the answer. Currently, my mission statement, which is still a work in progress, but it’s: “Joy manifesting...With authenticity...Rooted in diversity...My mission is to curate shared spaces for counter-cultures to creatively address our community's most pressing issues.” It’s kind of lofty, so I still have to hone it down.
CR: What did you get your undergrad in?
NG: Latin American History and Politics. When I say I have an interest in crime, it’s because as a small child I was a victim of crime. A repetitive victim. There was no where for me to go. It always involved villifying the perpetrator. Which, being the victim of sexual abuse with someone that you care about is complicated. If it’s a stranger, you can be angry and want them locked up forever. When it’s someone who’s a caretaker, it makes it really complicated. And so, I never saw prison or incarceration as a solution. I would get really frustrated because, I think as a victim, especially of molestation when you’re little, you don’t have the skill set to process what happened. So I think I just internalized being a victim and then just had this red beacon that would attract people that would somehow say, “She’ll take it”, or “She’ll keep a secret”. I just wore that so consciously. Where were these prosecutors, where were these judges, where were these police officers who we all spend all this money on locking up people but that had no prevention in my life. Nothing the government did spending all those millions of dollars on the “justice system” did anything to prevent me from being a victim of these crimes. So I think I was always, ever since elementary school, trying to figure it out. My first research paper was on the death penalty.
CR: How old were you?
NG: I would have to say that was in third grade.
NG: I still have it somewhere. It’s somewhere written in pencil and comparing and contrasting the different forms of the death penalty and how they don’t exactly work. So I think that was always my interest in crime, mostly coming from being really frustrated with our criminal justice system. I thought I wanted to be a judge. I wanted to be the first female Supreme Court Chief Justice. I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be in politics. But then I realized those people have to - by the nature of the way society has designed those roles - once you become a politician or judge or Supreme Court justice - you have to play the “game”. And not that I criticize them for that, necessarily. I guess that’s a different conversation, but I personally am not good at the bullshit part of it, or the “charming” thing. I think i wear my emotions on my face. I just wouldn’t be able to hush up during a meeting. I would just get all riled up. So I thought, I got to figure out something else. And I’m still trying to figure that out, what my role is or what my role could be. But I’ve always been drawn to those issues.
CR: So you got your undergrad in Latin American History and Politics, and then…
NG: I wrote my thesis on Afro-Brazilian street kids. So it was looking at race and crime and the historical aspects. The street kid problem in Brazil is crazy. That was my undergrad. And then my graduate program had a weird name but it’s basically Social Justice and Education. So there are people that see education in the classroom and there’s those of us that see education in the community. And I was one of those community people. That program is clear about that - you don’t have to be a classroom educator to study education. So my research there was on graffiti not as a crime but as a tool for communication and the development of agency and identity in youth, especially youth of color. And the prison industrial complex and art as a tool for social change.
CR: Throughout all this time are you still focused on prison reform? Is that what you’re concerned about?
NG: Yeah, so graffiti was asking the question of why are we criminalizing our youth when there’s no public spaces for expression? That was the angle there. I spend a heavy amount of research looking at the racism behind incarceration rates in the United States and comparing them to other countries. I ended with “What’s the solution?”. I looked at the problems for most of my research. What’s something, in theory, I can do now to address the problem? So that was the artistic aspect. Art in the community facilitated by artists in the community. You know, my research wasn’t focused on art after-school programs. It was focused on how we can support artists of color so they could draw sustenance from their heritage and their lineage and contend their current status. And also to envision art as probably the most powerful tool to envision a new future. Artists can imagine a new future that we can’t even fathom. So that was where I ended my graduate experience, which was - in theory, what can I do right now to address prison reform and community activism. I haven’t necessarily found out how to fully do that. I’ve done things here and there. But I have the paper to prove that it’s possible.
CR: And it seems to be on your mind a lot, obviously.
NG: Because of the way prisons are structured, they do have art and music classes, but it’s really hard to get in and you can drive two hours to the prisons that are in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden it will be on lockdown and you can’t teach class. You have to go through all these things to get in. So I wanted to do a mail-order type of art exchange. When you were younger, did you ever see those drawing classes where they send you a lesson and you draw it and send it back?
CR: No, I can’t say I have.
NG: Maybe that was more of an 80s child thing…So I wanted to do some type of mail-order art education program that helped them stay connected to the community and also develop their skills and eliminate the barriers. Like maybe their warden isn’t ok with outside artists coming to the prison or maybe there’s a lot of lockdowns or maybe they’re in solitary confinement. So doing the mail-order art education program, it would remove those barriers and give them a connection to the community and also access to their other skills. A lot of prisons focus on vocational skills, which isn’t a bad thing, but they also need to have that other kind of expression.
CR: Well yeah, it’s something that makes you feel more human - self-expression, not just being a tool for the labor force. So, how did you first meet Andre?
NG: …An online dating site.
CR: No way. That is the best answer you could have given.
NG: I wish I would have saved our first couple of messages because I didn’t realize they deleted them after 30 days. So when we were doing this project I was like, oh let’s go back to the first couple messages…
CR: When did you meet each other?
NG: It was July. So he had messaged me on [name of dating site not mentioned because as Niko puts it “it is the worst site to meet guys”] I usually never respond on there. I usually look because it’s interesting and they got some characters on there. But in Andre’s profile, he was very upfront and very intelligent. The message he sent me, you could tell he was reaching out for a genuine connection. Of course, his approach was a dating connection, but it wasn’t just that. So I messaged him back - and I don’t usually message people back - but he was so genuine in his profile and his initial message to me. So I told him, you know, it’s funny you should write me, and I told him about my research and how we couldn’t date because it would compromise my research and what I do, it’s not something I want to consider. But as far as friends or colleagues, I’m all for it. And in his profile, he mentioned he was from Long Beach. So after I sent him that, we came offline pretty quick to be like, just so we’re really clear about the not dating part, we shouldn’t only communicate through a dating site. I gave him my cellphone number and we’ve been texting here and there, not that much. We had planned to talk on the phone, but it wasn’t a huge priority. And then when you had reached out to me about this project, I was thinking about how I’m really public on Facebook and I always post about random stuff and meanderings or deep thoughts. I mean, I’m super public. So i thought - what am I going to say in this two day project that I don’t already talk about all day? I did some practice days and i was like, this is no different than what I usually post. So Andre came to my mind. We had been talking about how to try to collaborate creatively. So I message him and he was down. The first time we talked was the night before the two days started. There were some things we couldn’t figure out in text and we had to talk.
CR: So he has a phone in prison. But you’re not allowed to, right?
NG: I guess that’s a new thing. You’re not allowed to but it’s fairly common nowadays. It’s still hidden, but as he says, there’s a price for everything. So a couple people have it, and he lets other people use it. He calls his mom everyday. He buys data, so he doesn’t have unlimited data. He has that Instagram account [@sc_stimui] and he’s trying to figure out how he can use that time in there wisely. He’s gone through the self-reflection and working on himself and now he wants to start preparing. He told me, when you’re in there, you work the program. You get wrapped up in being in prison because you need to survive. He told me the project he’s trying to work on is preparing him for being out. Two years to you may seem like a long time, but to us in here, we’re here 15, 25, 25 years, two years is like nothing. So he wants to start preparing.
CR: He’s been in there how long now?
NG: Thirteen. He took a plea deal on an armed robbery where no one was shot, the gun didn’t even go off. He was 26 and he got 15 years.
NG: Yeah. In Long Beach, he was on his way to be a professional skateboarder. He just sent me some pages from a book his friend published and included him in the story. It’s crazy because I didn’t even know, I mean we’re just getting to know each other. So he had hurt his knee, which ended a lot of his sponsorships. So he had just started selling drugs and the person he was selling drugs with got arrested and was incarcerated. So he started doing low level robberies and got caught.
CR: Well, I’m so grateful that you both used your creative minds to include him in this project. Because you took my project and made it 2.0 version. Which is great. That’s how art and ideas are supposed to work. It was so cool to see your pages side by side. At first, it was kind of confusing in the order you sent them to me, but then I realized what you were doing and it really was the way to read them - like letters to each other. And as you were reading you could figure out who was who, sometimes just due to lighting and background because sometimes it seemed like you both could have just been in the same place. I like leaving that for other readers, as well. How did you communicate with Andre what the project was and what you were doing?
NG: So I copy and pasted your instructions from your email that you sent me to him. The ones that said, everything is handwritten, include details in your day to day as well as meandering thoughts. I also sent him the link to your website. I told him to look at it, but not study it, because it’s not about replicating what people have done, it’s just to give a context for what has been done. As we were talking and brainstorming, I had said that I wanted to show that we’re both from Long Beach and how are our lives, or our days parallel. How can we write to each other? So we set those three checkpoint times where we ask the same questions. We included random checkins and then a free write. Because it was only two days, in the original design, we were not going to send each other our pages until right before we did the free write. So we had our 8 o’clock check in…
CR: Because you were texting each other, right?
NG: Yeah, but our checkins would just be on the paper. Like, at 7 am I would wake up and answer those questions on paper. And then throughout the day, if I had wanted to tell him something, as if we were sitting in the car together or whatever, I would write that down. In my mind I tried treating it as if he was there in person.
CR: What were the 6 questions you had for the check ins?
NG: It was…1) What are you doing right now? 2) What are you feeling right now?…there’s always one I forget…
CR: What’s challenging you seemed to be one.
NG: Yeah, 3) What is challenging you?, 4) How do you overcome those challenges? and 5) What are you savoring? But there’s one more…there’s six questions…
CR: We can figure it out. To send the pages, did you text them to each other?
NG: We took pictures of the pages and texted them, yeah. We ended up texting the pages to each other throughout the day just to make sure we could figure it out.
CR: That’s why sometimes you’re responding to what the other is saying and sometimes you haven’t read it yet. But I like that.
NG: So then at the end of the day, sometimes for him the next day at 5 am, we’d do a “free-write”. A combination of responding to the other person’s day and talking about our day.
CR: I thought that was really great.
NG: Yeah, so we’d just text back and forth. It was a part of the process of us getting to know each other, which is cool.
CR: You were talking in the pages about wanting to continue in some way. What have you thought of?
NG: Not anything just yet. He wants to get into the production end of filmmaking and sharing voices that aren’t heard. Now that he has a phone, he’s trying to do a little bit in there. But we haven’t thought of the next thing yet. But he’s shared this project with a couple of the guys in there. He has this one friend who’s getting out soon in the next couple of months and he lives in Orange County. They want to do a kind of reality show with what their life is like in there and leading up to getting out and then what their life is once they get out. That’s something he’s working on that I’ll try to support him in whatever way I can. He really wants us to document our trip to DC - our “Road to the American Woman” - so he can experiment with that. But I do want to keep him connected to the Long Beach art community. He had invited me to a friend’s art opening who had taken the pictures he had taken and posted on Instagram, it was an underground art show. But he didn’t tell me about it until that night and then I didn’t get the address until the show was already over.
CR: Well, that’s cool, exchanging art communities already.
NG: He’s a super smart guy. He told me he’s finishing up Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] and I’m like - they let you read that in there? Isn’t that not allowed for you to read that in there?
CR: Yeah, don’t they want to keep that kind of reading away from them? You’d think they’d burn those books. Keep people in the dark.
NG: I guess, in a sense, they may not have it in the prison library, but there’s ways to get contraband in there.
CR: Well Andre’s super reflective and seems like a really cool person.
NG: The funny thing is, the last couple of months, well - the last year has been tough for me. But the last couple of months I’ve known him has also been tough, but he always checks in on me and asks me how I’m doing. Like if I’m complaining about some stupid thing in my day, which when I compare it to what he’s going through I’m like, this is really stupid, he has no judgment or comparison. That’s been interesting me to receive that and I’m not used to receiving that. And it seems more genuine coming from him because he has all this shit to deal with, but he can listen and check in with me. It takes a lot of consciousness on his part. I can tell if someone’s sleazy, I mean, I’m pretty good...But he’s never like “What are you wearing tonight?” or anything like that. You know how guys can be. It’s just a genuine appreciation of another person.
CR: That’s refreshing. Well, I’m so glad to have talked with you, and I know we both would have like Andre to be a part of this interview as well, but from what I understand he’s lost the hiding space for his phone. So hopefully when he gets out I can meet him and we’ll be able to revisit this.
NG: That would be great. Thank you.