Ask me how to make an impact

Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center hands out awards to exceptional activists and organizers

Courtesy of \'Do You Know Who I Am?\'

Victor Galvan is an undocumented immigrant and he wants you to know it. He’s in a play about it.

“People who are undocumented are starting to represent themselves,” Galvan says. “That’s the biggest reason why Do You Know Who I Am? has become such a big success in Boulder County. It’s undocumented people telling their own stories.”

The play Do You Know Who I Am? is the product of five 20-ish immigrants, here in the U.S. illegally, who stand on stage and tell true stories of their experiences. And it is the reason why Galvan and his four counterparts — Ana Temu, Hugo Juarez, Juan Juarez and Oscar Juarez-Luna — will be given the Youth Peacemakers of the Year Award by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center at their annual awards ceremony on Nov. 15.

Galvan, who now works as a Western Slope organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, says the play was born out of the lack of accurate representation of immigrant issues in the media — representations that differed greatly from his own experiences after coming to the U.S. with his mother and brothers at eight months old.

“I lived in a single-parent household in pretty much urban Denver,” Galvan says. “Just seeing a lot of the injustices that [my mother] went through, losing her job for no particular reason sometimes, always finding a way to pay the rent despite not having documents, not having papers, and I think the media definitely had the biggest impact on the way that people looked at us. The use of the world ‘illegal,’ [and] always really generalizing all these people in this category of criminals. Criminal aliens or illegal aliens.

Nothing ever really good about immigrants in the media and I definitely saw that reflected with students in my school. I’d hear comments from some of the students in school and I never felt comfortable being myself, always having to lie about being myself, because I knew there would be consequences — social or legal consequences.”

Galvan says it was in high school that he started paying attention to immigration related issues, including legislation like the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. 

He soon joined North High School’s debate team.

It was an opportunity for Galvan to explore those issues, to become comfortable with himself and to coagulate his life experience into something that could be productive in the future.

“I’d always speak my mind at school and even though I never outted myself and told people I was undocumented, I kind of had to stand up for myself as sort of a third party. [As] captain of speech and debate, I stood up in class to talk about the DREAM Act and it became really natural for me to speak up for my friends and my family.

“It stems from a necessity to survive,” Galvan says. It was these experiences that helped form Galvan’s part of Do You Know Who I Am? The play, directed by award-winner Kirsten Wilson, opened in November 2013 and has since enjoyed a string of sold-out performances throughout Boulder, Longmont and Denver.

“It started off kind of as a simple way to tell our story in a theatrical narrative but it evolved into something so much greater than that,” Galvan says. “Our goal was to tell our story and channel some of the things we were feeling. It was more at the moment a way to heal, a way to share our experiences, and as a group we decided it would be better as a collaborative piece.”

Galvan says the power of the piece, which has had a “profound impact” on audiences so far, comes from the fact that it very clearly restores identity to a group of immigrants who are so routinely and flippantly cast aside as less-than.

“It doesn’t just show undocumented people struggling and surviving, but it showed us as human beings and I think that’s why the play is so powerful,” Galvan says.

The play is currently being staged sporadically throughout Boulder County, and there are plans for a Spanish-language version of the performance soon.

The group is also working with a local school administration to develop a curriculum about immigration based in part on the experiences described in the play.

Galvan talks a lot of “rising to the occasion,” and says audience members have done so by participating in the conversation with cast members and bringing the issue of immigrant rights into their homes, social circles and workplaces.

That spirit is what Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center Co-Administrator Betty Ball says sticks out about the group, but also unites all the award winners.

“These kids are just undeterred,” Ball says. “These young people are stunningly courageous and willing to speak out on not only behalf of themselves and their peers but future generations of people who want to come and live in this country.

“What courage to come out in the open and say, ‘Yes, I’m undocumented, this is what it’s like, and we’re going to fight against it. It’s just remarkable,” Ball says.

The Peacemaker awards were born in 1996, Ball says, to honor the legacy of Elise Boulding, a prominent local activist and University of Colorado Boulder professor.

“Elise was just really an amazing figure and is such an inspiration to so many people that we chose to name the award for her,” Ball says.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center convenes every year and nominates local and national people who best live up to the group’s mission of “unconditional nonviolence” in a multitude of issues.

The winner of the overall Peacemaker of the Year Award is Matt Nicodemus, a local community organizer and educator who Ball says exemplifies the group’s mission.

The son of two investigative journalists, Nicodemus has worked since the mid-1970s to support and foster social change in a variety of ways. As a student at Stanford University in 1978, he says he caught the activism bug from an anti-draft rally.

“One day when I was on the way to a dental appointment, I stopped at a rally and David Harris was speaking. He had spent time in prison for his refusal of the draft, and he spoke and one of our faculty members also spoke and a number of other people. Then there was a young woman who said she was with Stanford Against Conscription and a number of them decided they were going to make a public statement,” Nicodemus says.

“Within what seemed like a minute or two, there were 110 other people lined up behind this podium, including me, so we all signed this anti-conscription statement and it was sent off to the attorney general. As I then bicycled off to my dentist appointment I felt an enormous rush of a sense of empowerment and joy because I felt like I was doing something that was completely in line with my beliefs. It was an important decision but I just immediately … I was just getting angry with the concept the government could force somebody to kill another person.”

After graduating from Stanford, Nicodemus went on to teach at Humboldt State University in Northern California, including a class he created about the military presence in major academic research institutions.

Nicodemus says the infiltration of military influence in higher education was bad, but that the peace and social activism movement (especially here in Boulder) could learn from their tactics, including the point that it’s important to cast a wide net when tackling social change.

“When you get involved with things like this you say, ‘What is real peace?’ It’s not just the absence of war,” Nicodemus says. “There are a lot of different aspects of what creates the world as it is and what’s needed to create a better world and it involves worker’s issues, women’s issues … All the oppressions are tied together and all the solutions are tied together. So over the years, I’ve been in so many issues, but they’re all part of the same quest for world peace.”

Nicodemus says one of the keys to his success as an activist was the inquisitive nature of his journalist parents.

It’s no surprise then the winner of the Peacemakers Lifetime Achievement Award is local radio host and author David Barsamian.

Famous for his interviews with Noam Chomsky, Barsamian has directed a fascinating career, diving into major national and international social issues over the last three decades. He hosts a weekly radio show on KGNU in Boulder featuring interviews with progressive thinkers like Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Robert McChesney and Glenn Greenwald.

“What he has done to make sure truth is spoken to power and people have information they need to be change makers is just remarkable. It’s groundbreaking and his voice reaches far and wide,” Ball says.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center Peacemakers of the Year Awards will be held at 5 p.m. on Nov. 15, and will feature an abridged performance of Do You Know Who I Am? and live music. Tickets are $30 per person and $15 for students.