Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Topics: Volunteering, Aid, Culture, African-American, Education
Quote: “I’m big on one particular hashtag that I use – #ShowUp – you know that’s what it’s all about! Whether it’s for class or for a neighbor or for yourself, everything in life is just about showing up. Be that person you know that can be counted on to show up.”
My name is Van Overton. I was born and raised in Burque. I went to Albuquerque High. I grew up in a couple, really different places. I grew up on Chellewood and Constitution at the beginning parts of my life, where I was one of three black kids at my school, the only black male. Went to a fairly good school, you know, started getting a great education. Got picked on a lot, so I spent a lot of time by myself. My best friends were books, until fifth grade, where I became the tallest kid in school, and I got kind of popular all of the sudden; by the time I hit middle school, more diversity, more opportunities for trouble, then moved to the South Broadway area, freshman year of high school, where things were completely different. surrounded by most of my family, my cousins, my aunt, were all drug dealers. To this day, they have spent more than half of their lives in correctional facilities.
Something about my father and myself was a little bit different and they wouldn’t let me get into trouble as much as I wanted to be one of the cool guys that sold drugs, they wouldn’t let me. As much as I wanted to be a gangbanger, they wouldn’t let me. And so I was kind of forced to focus my attention elsewhere. One of those places happened to be theater. And so that’s where I spent most of my time. I wasn’t the best student. It took me 5 years to get through high school. I ditched almost every day, except for English and Drama; those were the only classes I didn’t ditch. I’d go off campus and come back to campus and go to those classes. Or if I didn’t leave campus, I would just ditch class and go to the library or the drama room and hang out there. But it was interesting that theater was the only place that allowed me to be myself. Which is weird because when you think about acting, you’re pretending to be somebody else. But you know that’s the truth, and [the] vulnerability that comes out of acting, I think, was something that I needed to keep me out of the trouble that I could have potentially gotten into. And then after high school, I was over it, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to do the school thing so I decided to party and that’s what I did. I partied and hung out and moved to Santa Fe. And then moved from Santa Fe to L.A. and then moved back and you know floated for the longest time. And then, I had a long time girlfriend and that broke up and after that I started drinking a lot. And that was kind of my answer to everything. That was my answer to everything, drinking.
After the course of time, I met my wife and shortly thereafter, my father died. Then everything went nutty. You know my dad was my number one person in my life. He basically died because he took some bad drugs, basically. He was keeping closet to everybody. He would put cocaine inside of a little nose saline solution and he had allergies. And I guess he had gotten some bad stuff and got put in a coma and had a seizure that put him in a coma. And I had, being the oldest son, had to make the decision to take him off of life support. And already having issues, what I call mental health issues, struggling with alcohol and what not. I went off the deep end, because something inside of me told me that I killed my dad. And so things went crazy and slowly over the course of time, I had went through life in a haze but something inside of me started setting stuff up. All of a sudden, I got arrested for a DUI and I came out of it and somewhere to shut my wife up, I had agreed to do some marriage counseling. Right when I had gotten sober, that counseling came up and that happened [laughter]. And I was like, “Oh that was in place?” And one day she wanted to go back to school for her teaching degree. And I went with her to CNM and she was like, “Maybe you should take some classes.” And I was like, “OK,” and I went and they were like, “Yeah, so you’ve already taken your Accuplacer and you’ve passed everything,” and they’re like, “You’re ready to go. Here’s your student ID number, you can start classes on Tuesday.”
Somewhere in that haze, I had went in and taken all of the tests I needed to. And part of that, something tells me there was something more to it. We had already moved back to Albuquerque at that time and our daughter was about to start school and I started sending out emails and saying, “Hey, my daughter just started kindergarten. Can I help?” That was in like September, and I got an opportunity to volunteer and it was with the amazing Susan Bowden. It was just stamping books. It was these big boxes of books would come in and they were brand new and it was just stamping the school name and address in them and that was my first foray into volunteering. Now here we are, six, seven years later and running an organization, and a part of other organizations. So you know that was my life in a nutshell.
You know now that I think about it, those were the most formative years. I got in trouble a lot. I did stuff that I wasn’t supposed to. But what sticks with me now, is my education and what it could have been. Growing up at the time that I did and the environment that I did, education wasn’t talked about. School was a place where I could be safe when my parents went to work. College wasn’t talked about. I knew that my dad went to college briefly and then stopped. My mom went to college briefly and then stopped, I think that maybe subconsciously, that it could’ve told me, “Ok, so college isn’t that important, and you could see it in my grades.” I was lucky that I was always bright. I graduated or passed my classes end of my teeth, because I could go in on test day and take the test and pass it. But I wouldn’t do the homework; I wouldn’t show up to any of the classes. And so I passed with D minuses across the board because I did the very bare minimum and if I didn’t like the class, then I just wouldn’t go and then I’d fail it and I’d take a different one. You know my last year in high school, were like 3 drama classes, an English 10 first semester, an English 9 2nd semester and [laughs] it was all these random classes that I had just said, “Oh well, whatever with.” By the time, I got out of there it was nothing. And then most of my childhood ended up being that there’s nothing to do in Albuquerque. And when there’s nothing to do in whatever small town or whatever you live in, you tend to do what you’re not supposed to. Which is, you know, promiscuity and drinking or drugs or whatever to kind of pass the time. And that’s what I did for years and years. So my childhood… I think, my childhood needed to be what it was, because of the work that I have to do now. I don’t know if that was what you were looking for, but yeah childhood was just childhood. Youth is wasted on the young [laughter] and I was the prime example of that.
My father moved to Albuquerque when he was 8 years old. He came with my aunt who died at 104 years old. She walked here from Austin, Texas with 9 kids. Just her and nine kids. Her husband was already here working, so they walked here. My father’s grandfather was the brother of Richard Overton, who is known as the world’s oldest World War II vet. You might see pictures of an old black man floating around Facebook every Veteran’s and Memorial Day. So that’s my dad’s grandfather’s brother. And he came here, graduated from old Albuquerque High and was very much where I got all my lessons on misogyny. You know growing up hearing, “Oh, you’re an Overton. You’re supposed to have lots of girlfriends.” Or you know all of the things that young men hear is where I got most of it was from him. But at the same time, you could talk to anybody that ever knew him and he was the nicest guy they ever met. He was just an all around great guy. Never knew his mother. She died before I passed and his sister, I’m still in close contact with. She’s one of the ones that spent most of her life in correctional facilities. My mother’s side, a little bit different. My grandmother, her name was Satoye Ruth Yamada Hashimoto. She was born in Seattle. Her name, Satoye, means light of Seattle. she was first generation born in the United States…went back to Japan for schooling and became the first Shinto priestess. Her father was a Shinto priest, owned a store at the start of WWII and the government bought his store for, I want to say, about 2.7 cents on the dollar, so really gave them nothing. And herded them up, and first sent them to Hart Mountain in North Dakota. She did spend some time in San Jose before that. And then married my aunt’s father. So Ada Mae and Ada Jane both have the same father and then she met an airman while she was a civilian working for the military, who became my mother’s father. She was illegitimate and there was only one person in his family that ever knew that my side of the family existed. And she was his youngest daughter.
I didn’t meet my grandfather until I was 16, and it was at a dinner at Red Lobster and he tried to give me two 100 dollar bills and I crumbled them up and dropped them on the table and walked home. And so that was my first experience with him, I did later get a chance to talk with him as my grandmother, after having received reparations from the United States government for having been interned, took the entire family on a cruise and he went on it as well. I had the opportunity to talk with him a little bit and find out about him but there were questions he either didn’t want to answer or didn’t… I don’t know. And I did get the chance to reconcile with him a little, as much as I wanted to. And then… and so I think dealing with that too, led my mother through some hard times which in turn, led me through some hard times. And then I have a younger sister who runs the accounting department at CNM and she also teaches like a million classes at CNM, accounting classes. And I have a younger brother who is an amazing glass blower who lives in Maui with my youngest sister. My youngest brother and my youngest sister both come from my dad’s second wife. And yeah that’s my immediate family.
You know, I think that a lot of it were seeds that were planted by my grandmother. My grandmother had a whole lecture series where she would travel the world, literally travel the world and do her talk which was called, “Remembering with Gratitude,” where she talked about her life in internment camps and as a civilian working for the United States government and shared this wonderful quote, “It’s war that I’m mad at, the people have been wonderful.” You know and then growing up with pictures of her and Eleanor Roosevelt who if you look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s history, did so many things for Civil Rights movements across the country. She was definitely a proponent for good, and my grandmother always spoke with such humility and with such care. And I think I took it for granted for so long and that’s where the initial seeds were planted.
Through the volunteering that I started doing, at my daughter’s old school, we, my wife and I joined the parent group there and then we decided to set aside the group that was there which was just a bunch of parents getting together and making it more formal. So, we became an unofficial PTA organization. Parent Teacher Association Organization. and in doing so, I was able to meet members of the New Mexico State PTA which governed all of the local PTA at different schools and was able to become a part of their male engagement committee. And so I was on this committee of men who talked about ways to get other men involved in schools and in doing so, the male participation chair person, at the time, had just stepped down and I got asked if I wanted the position and I said sure. So I became the new male participation chair for the New Mexico PTA. And that meant that I had a little more credibility in going around and telling people why it was important for men to get into schools and make a difference. Slowly, things had started to come together and I was doing a lot of work, had started thinking about creating an after-school program where kids could go and get supplemental education. At the time I was thinking more STEM based where I would get four different teachers and get them together for two hours and plan a six month curriculum or 3 month curriculum or whatever and each of those teachers after that have to volunteer one week a month. But they’re on the same page and so there’s this teacher that’s volunteering one hour a month, but these kids are getting weekly supplemental programming and so I was starting to put all this together because these kids needed so much, because so much is being taken out.
An acquaintance at the time who I had met doing a 48-hour film festival, and we did a comedy night at a club I used to run downtown. We ran into each other at Summerfest. It was the summer where Arrested Development was here. My favorite group, by the way [laughter]. He was talking about he had just lost his position at YDI’s theatric and sale, Which was the theater counsel program that he needed to start something right away because there was kids that are going to be left with nothing. And I was telling him the project that I was thinking about and we both said, “Yeah, if you hear of anything, let me know.” And I saw a post from him saying, with a picture, that said, Duke City Dream Lab, I want to start this. Let’s meet up and talk about what it is. So we showed up and there was like eight of us, and we talked about this and what it could be or what it was. And the next meeting, there was only like 4 of us and finally it came down to just me and him and I never felt a particular way about anything, than I did about what we were about to start. And it was one of those things you know, you just know, you know that moment before you did your first interview for Humans of New Mexico. You know that this is going to be really big and you can just feel it and you know it. And so we sat down and I did all, but get down on one knee and say will you take me in this partnership. And that was a couple years ago. Following that, he had just finished a TED talk for TEDxABQ and he was like, “Yo, their education one is coming up, you should apply.” And so I did. And I applied on the premise of volunteerism, particularly, the importance of men volunteering and so I submitted my application and I made it. So that lent me a little bit more credibility.
Now I have these three magical three letters behind me. People will listen to me a little bit more. And so that happened and now here I am, a past TED speaker and starting this new organization, and a member of the New Mexico PTA. And then I started working with TEDxABQ and became the TEDxYouth curator or co-curator so I helped put together that event and am currently co-curator TEDxABQ Education. So as far as organizations, I have TEDxABQ, New Mexico PTA, Duke City Dream Lab and I’m starting a new project that probably won’t go the route of non- profit or anything but it is just a social movement called Spread Love ABQ. Which is just the movement to do just that, to do whatever it takes to instill a little bit more love in the world. Whether it’s handing everybody pieces of chalk, and going out and drawing hearts on the sidewalk. Or making picket signs that say, “Spread Love” and standing on San Mateo and Montgomery, the busiest intersection, and holding them with no other agenda but getting love out. I’m planning an event for November 11, which will be put together by Duke City Dream Lab and Warehouse 508, and it will be a Spread Love event and will try to do some kind of drive, whether its food or clothing. I have a calling now that Albuquerque Public Schools Title I homeless program. Everything that I do, I want to directly benefit children. So that’s important to me. I look at everything I do through the filter of, “Is what I’m doing right now, helping or hurting children?” Every single thing that I do.
Every single thing that I do, even when I am standing behind a bar, [chuckles] you know, late at night, I ask myself that question and the answer is typically, “It’s helping,” because it’s allowing me to eat and feed my family, and so it’s definitely helping and right now it’s just a means to an end but the number of organizations I’ve yet to join, I don’t know. But I know that there is more out there, there’s more that needs to be started. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done and so I hope to join more organizations or start more organizations or whatever that will eventually change the lives of all the children in our world, you know, and how I’m doing that is starting locally, and knowing that if everybody can think first about children that it will change the way we do everything. If somebody says I want A.R.T to happen, you know downtown they want that Albuquerque Rapid Transit, that’s fine, but I would like them to say that A.R.T is a good thing because it will affect children positively in this way, you know. I want people to say we’re going to put a new addition onto the jail because it will positively affect children in this way, and going into every aspect of their lives, of our lives saying I want to do this because it will positively affect children in this way.
You know, I saw a quote. I think it was by Anonymous which meant that it was probably by a woman [laughs]. I don’t know, I saw a quote recently that said that up until recently that all anonymous quotes were quotes by women, but uh, sorry I digress. A quote recently that I stole and adopted was something to the effect of, “Volunteering is how you vote for the world that you want to live in.” You know, and I think that’s important. We get so caught up in this capitalist society, that tells us how important it is to have things, to own things, to go to things, that we forget the ultimate part of it which is the connection. Like this [grabs phone]. This phone is definitely something I don’t need, and I understand that and I respect that. But it allows me to communicate in ways that I was never able to and that’s how I look at it, like, “This is a great tool.” So, with volunteering, sorry I got way off track now, volunteering is important because it says hey this is important to me and it’s not that hard, you know. I think that if people realized the benefits they can get by volunteering, more people would do it.
TEDx youth event that we had last year we had a lady who, her talk was on volunteering and how she loved collecting t-shirts and she came out with a wardrobe rack. It was just full like a hundred t-shirts that she had gotten from events from, you know, from film events, theater events, Popejoy this or the zoo and all of this stuff. The connections that you make with people, the things that it allows you to feel about yourself. You know volunteering is definitely… I think can be one of the most important things to everybody. It’s not, it’s not as accessible as, as to people because they don’t understand it. I said it in my TED talk, but you know I had a guy come up to me and ask me what I was gonna do for the weekend and I was like, “Oh there is gonna be event at my daughter’s school that you can help me out with,” and he asked me how he can get involved at his kids school. I was like, “Talk to the teacher, ask her what she needs, you know, go in and read with kids, go in and staple papers.” And he said, “How is stapling papers gonna help me? How is stapling papers gonna help anything?” And I was like, “Well, if you can take an hour of a teacher’s busy work, that hour is gonna go to one of three things. It’s gonna go to their personal lives, to their planning, or directly to the kids.
And whichever the teacher chooses, is gonna directly benefit the kids, because if it goes to her planning then she is able to do more with the kids. If it goes to the kids then it goes to the kids. If it goes to her personal life then she’s happier, and kids can sense that, you know. Kids can sense when their teacher comes in and had a bad day, you know. So why not try to help them have a little bit, a few more good days, you know. I know that I am married to a teacher and I see her come in and how much time is taken away from the time we can have together because she has stacks of notebooks to grade or grades that she has to get in and if I can go, and I can make that little bit of difference then these kids get a better education and I typically work in elementary schools… but if I can give these elementary school kids a better education and get them more prepared for middle school, then they will be more prepared for high school and then my wife won’t have as much to do. You know, I believe that everything needs to be this great balance of selflessness and selfishness. You know I posted today on Facebook that I take pride in my humility, and because there so counter intuitive but they shouldn’t be because you need to do stuff for yourself and you need to do stuff for the world so why not put them together, why not do stuff for others that makes you feel good about yourself. Yeah did I answer the question [laughs]?
You know, it’s interesting to me, because I’m mixed heritage. You know I have my mother who is half Japanese and half Irish and my father who is Black, and you know people talk about it and I heard about it a lot when I was a kid, but never really thought about it until you know with hindsight being 20/20 and all, but I definitely was on offense and things were very, very different for me. You know, my sister who we also share the same mother and father, grew up and she looked very Japanese and I grew up and I looked very Black and so when we’re with my mother I looked out of place, and when we were with my father my sister looked out of place, and you never really thought of things like that.
And now you know I’m married to a white woman and we have two kids together and our kids look completely different from each other. My daughter’s complexion is a little bit lighter than mine and my son is very, very pale, very, very fair skin, as you saw him… he was walking in front of us and so, you know, I’m, being black, Irish, and Asian. But looking Black, that’s how I’ve always identified. I don’t have any choice but to, you know… I walk into a clan meeting and say my grandfather was Irish and they’d be like, “Bring him on in and we’ll hang him too,” you know. But, so it was very clear of how I was perceived. It was very clear how I was perceived and, you know I, have I looked more like my sister I wouldn’t have had some of the experiences I’ve had, you know, being an elementary school and being assaulted by three other kids who love dropping N bombs.
But now I’m in this precarious position where, seeing people who look like me dying on the nightly news is very, very disheartening and very, troubling. But there is this weird kind of relief that I get, knowing that if my son gets pulled over, he will probably still make it home and that’s a weird feeling you know because part of who I am comes from the way other people perceive me. Part of who I am came from how other people have perceived me, so I tend to speak very clearly and eloquently depending on the people I’m around because I could be their first experience with a person of color and I don’t want them saying that person is what I see on t.v. or that person is what the media tells me he is, you know. I want them to say, you know, even if it’s just, “Oh, I met a really nice Black man today.” If that happens then they don’t have it in their head that all Black people are that way and so that’s, that lends a lot to how I’ve… to my lens as you said. I tend for the longest time… I tended to be as possibly non-threatening as possible, you know and then it would shake people up when did I get angry because they have never seen that, you know.
When finally, I think it was the Charleston massacre that I just lost it. I just couldn’t do life anymore, it was hard, this is, you know we’re in the 2000s and this is still happening you know. That was just a different type of explosive device in a church that was similar to one that four little girls had died in decades prior and I was like, “How is this stuff still happening?” And then with these murders being broadcast in television, you know every other week, it just got harder and harder and I started standing up and people were like, “Whoa, this is weird.” The rally, that was the first time I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I have to you know stand up, I just can’t be that nice guy, you know. I have to make my voice heard, you know. I’m still a nice guy [laughs], but I have to make my voice heard and I have to make people know that this where is stand. I try not to, you know, the past four years, I’ve tried not to post anything political, anything hateful, anything that can be perceived as me looking down upon anybody else and I hold that space for myself and so when I did finally people didn’t know what to expect, you know, and it’s, it’s, it was kind of empowering and cathartic, to say, “Yes, I do have voice and this is really, really upsetting me,” and that’s where I, you know, I think in that is kind of where my Spread Love movement was born. And then between that and children being hurt, I almost shut down for a little while you know after little baby Victoria I couldn’t understand how everyone else could do life, like, I would be just walking through and see people working and driving and I couldn’t understand it ‘cause I had to consciously think about taking, going left to right, left right, don’t forget to breathe, don’t forget to blink, you know.
I had to like consciously think about doing all this stuff and I couldn’t understand why everyone was just not you know, or sitting at a barn and people just wanting to talk about this, then on the news, and I was just like, “No, I can’t do that.” I was like, “We’re in a public place.” I was like, “I cant even, I can’t function.” I would just sit down on the floor if I’m forced to think about that right now and, and I think it’s because there’s this environment that’s being created.
I don’t have any other thing to say but by capitalism that is keeping the people in power and are doing something to not just people of color but to poor people. Again, this comes from the lens I’m looking through, so when you have this segment of society that is downtrodden and disenfranchised and starts to lose hope then here comes an influx of small town problems like what we were talking about with alcohol and drugs and trying to escape or trying to make things look a little bit different or trying to find some way to just do life, to the point where you can’t think anymore and you allow somebody to hurt your baby, you know that’s… it all ties in together and so if even drug dealers went into the world and said, “Is what I’m doing right now helping or hurting children?” If we can instill that in kids now then things would be better, you know. Things would… things would start to clear up, you know. I think one of the most magical things about Burque, about New Mexico, is that we are truly a state of color that has people who are not of color in it and I think that comes…that that’s what brings some of the magic. You know, we are surrounded by reservations that believe and bring healing. We have you know like these Indigenous Mexicans, Mexican-Americans who have come up and built communities even… you know even when you look like the gangsters, the veteranos, they’re even like the love they have for their communities you know there’s something to be said about that and here we come and we let capitalism change the way that we inherently want to operate and it corrupts things and it makes things not what they should be and well this was a question about heritage [laughs].
I did poetry for so long, I actually got accepted to the San Jose Slam Team the year that the national slams were in Albuquerque. So, I was an Albuquerque poet in San Jose that got accepted to that slam team to come here but then I couldn’t make it. But I always got in trouble at slams because I always went over in time. Especially freestyle slams because I can go on forever, but I don’t have the time to write like I did before. I still call myself a poet. My best friend since 7th grade is Manny. I just had coffee with him the other day and I just got him to agree to come and do a project here because Susan had saw him in a library at this conference I was like, “Oh yeah ,I’ll talk to him,” good friends with Hakim. I talk to Carlos weekly. So yeah, I definitely have a poet soul I just don’t get the opportunity to put pen to paper as much as I would like to, but I try to speak every word very deliberately because words have power and I believe that so much and I instill that in my children. If you were to hear them talk.. like my daughter you know she’s 11, and the way that she speaks is… would just blow your mind, but I think that’s because I taught them the importance of loving to read and to be enable, and the true meaning of literacy which isn’t just knowing how to read but it’s the ability to know how to write your own story and I think that’s important.
You know there’s, there’s so much that, she’s currently the director of innovation for APS and I would steal a little bit from her. Her name is Debbie Elder but she was the principle at the school where I started volunteering at Zuni and everyday after announcements she would say, “Don’t forget to read, read, read.” I think that’s first and foremost, would be read, read, read, write, write, write. You know, reading and writing and then to say everyday, or every hour, or every night, at least once a day. Sometime is what I’m doing helping or hurting, and realizing that they will always be the one that they’re looking for, you know. Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you exactly where I first heard it, I know that it was a native American proverb, I believe. But it was, “We are the ones we’re looking for.” You know, I tried to live my life as someone who was what I needed when I was a child when I could’ve just been that for myself, you know. But the thing is it comes with, with self-awareness and I think the only way that you’re gonna figure that out is by reading everything you can get your hands on and just writing, “What do I feel like today? What do I want to happen today?” Whatever, just write! I wish, you know, I should probably take my own advice now but, yes. Read, write, and ask yourself daily, “Am I doing something that’s helping or hurting the world.”
One particular hashtag that I use more than everything, that goes towards everything, and that’s hashtag Show Pp(#showup). You know, that’s what it’s all about whether it’s for class or for a neighbor or for yourself. Everything in life is just about showing up. Be that person, you know, that can be counted on to show up.