I met Alyssandra Nighswonger almost 9 years ago when I moved to California and began playing open mic nights. She ran (and continues to run) a popular open mic night at a small coffee shop in Long Beach, Viento y Agua. The shop and her open mic are community-focused, diverse, and welcoming. In addition to running that event, Alyssandra plays music anywhere and brings her open spirit to each gig.
So I was excited to hear that Alyssandra and arts activist Nicolassa Galvez had launched a documentary / activist / arts project called The Road to the American Woman. The project is a positive reaction to a year in which poisonous attitudes and rhetoric towards women were fueled in no small part by a major party candidate in a divisive presidential campaign. This month, Alyssandra and Nicolassa start a three week tour of the country to capture and share the stories of American women.
(They’re still short of their fundraising goals so pitch in if you can.)
This — and every other project she undertakes — exudes the earnest, positive ethos of the best DIY efforts. So I asked Alyssandra if I could interview her as part of the DIY Spotlight series.
Let’s start simply: tell me about the Road to the American Woman project. What are you doing?
Road to the American Woman is a 3 week travel blog plus documentary project by arts activist, Nicolassa Galvez, and myself. We will be traveling from Long Beach, California to Washington D.C. and we will be marching in the Women’s March on Washington the day after the presidential inauguration. We’ll be stopping in over a dozen cities on the way there and back and I’ll be playing shows and we’ll be hosting events and interviewing women about what it means to be an American Woman today.
What spurred you to put this unique project together?
A combination of things. During and following the election, I felt a heavy sense of divide, and distress in my community and in the media. What makes me uneasy is seeing so many people dismiss, hate, or fear each other. Even though we all have our differences, we all have values, and things that we hold dear. Some women I really look up to invited me to march with them in the Million Women March (now re-titled the Women’s March on Washington), and the march felt to me like something that could be really electric, and inspiring, and powerful. Even though there are more issues to tackle than only women’s rights, but what struck me is that women’s rights are people’s rights. Every community has women, and every woman has a story, and if I could capture these stories, then maybe I could shine some light on where people who think they are so different overlap more than they think.
Who got involved and what does each of you bring to the project?
Primarily the project is myself and Nicolassa Galvez. I come from a music and event coordinating background. I’ve been hosting an open mic at the Viento y Agua coffeehouse for almost 10 years, and that has been a chance for me to open up space for musicians every week to get their voice heard, so this project felt natural to me because it’s another avenue for me to give more people a stage for their voice.
Nicolassa comes from a social justice background. She’s super driven and very passionate about giving a voice to those who are discriminated against, and is not afraid to speak up, which I really admire. She brings a quiet ferocity that brings the project an even deeper purpose, that I really admire. She also works crazy hard and has been really organized, which rules.
How successful have your efforts been to raise money and awareness of the project before your road trip?
Promoting and fundraising for this project has been SO humbling. We’re a week away from the date where we hit the road, and we’re about 60% of our goal, which is amazing. I feel like I got this wild idea only about a month and a half ago, and when I talk to people about it, it just makes sense. I keep hearing things like “Wow, this is such an important project.” “Thank you so much for doing what you’re doing.” and seeing how much people believe in us, makes me want to really step up and make something worthy.
How will you judge the success of the project itself? Or is it its own reward?
For projects like this, if I can do this, and still have a job to come back to, and live the dream and pay my bills, then it’s all worth it, and it’s all looking up! Knowing that I’m doing something that affects people like it has so far before we’ve even hit the road, really makes the whole thing worth it, to me.
I responded so enthusiastically to the project, not just because it is a positive project, but because it is so grand an idea that is also so simple. How do you stay focused on the goal and execution of this project?
I think one thing that helps us stay focused is to be talking about it, a lot as we’re gaining momentum with our crowdfunding campaign. Because I mean, there are a lot of things involved, music, multimedia presentation of the interviews, the tour, the march, coming back and compiling it all into a short documentary, there IS so much. But for me, I’ve done music tours before, I have a bit of a multi-media background, I’ve been hosting my open mic for so long, and I really believe in these causes, so when I wake up and get to work on the planning, it’s all very clear what I need to do.
What do you think the role of music is in political or social action? How do you see yourself as a musician when thinking of these larger issues and ideas?
Music changes the world! For me, music has been so huge in my life for everything. It’s how I connect with people, it’s how I meet a lot of friends, it’s how I communicate the things in my heart that have no words…
Political/Social Action is all about vocalizing the need for change, and the ideas and institutions in our society that are clashing. Music is an avenue to communicate these needs for change and different points of view in a way that people can relate to and feel. In a world where so many people view “the other” so harshly, it’s integral to communicate the humanness of it all through something so relatable as music.
You personally play music in a bigger variety of places than anyone I know. Where is the most interesting place you have ever played? How has that experience playing music to audiences in a variety of venues prepared you for the Road to the American Woman project?
A few years ago, I played in a repurposed old-school fire station in Downtown LA. What had been a really neat looking station was being used as a community center for a lot of different groups of people in the community and they were doing a fundraiser to get the proper permits. It was a DIY 3 day festival with bands and art shows on every level. Walking upstairs to check out the space felt like being in the Winchester Mystery house, it just kept going. We played on the floor level in this giant room with wood and tile all over it that would have kept the fire truck. The acoustics were swirly and wonderful, and it felt good to be a part of a great cause.
Personally, what inspires you to create all these DIY projects? What keeps you going?
Oh man, for me part of it is the compulsion to make things come to be. I get this wild idea, then I break it down into manageable doable steps, and then I realize that it’s something that can actually be done. I feel really lucky to have the skillset and really supportive friends that I do. And honestly, one day I wanna be a neat old lady with a bunch of wild stories and solid advice — if I want that I better collect ’em one by one!
Thank you, Alyssandra!