Thursday, March 6, 2014

First person: Meet TAVP alum Gabriel Solis

Gabriel Solis setting up an oral history for TAVP

First Person: Gabriel Solis

Gabriel Solis is a former TAVP volunteer and staff member. We recently uploaded his oral history interview with Scott Atlas, which he conducted for his master's thesis in Mexican American studies, and donated to the TAVP collection. On that occasion, we had the opportunity to talk to Gabriel about the story behind the interview, which can read in this post.

We also asked Gabe if he would answer a few questions about what he's up to now and how his oral history work has influenced his career trajectory.

TAVP: Tell us a little bit about your career trajectory after you left TAVP.

Gabriel Solis: Well, I became involved with TAVP just as I was completing a BA in philosophy at UT-Austin. I left TAVP when I decided to study for my master's in Mexican American studies at UT. After that, I moved to New York City, where I first worked as the project coordinator of the Rule of Law Oral History Project at Columbia University's Center for Oral History, and then as a Research Associate in the criminal justice program at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. I returned to Texas, and beginning in January 2014, I started work as a Post-Conviction Investigator at the Office of Capital Writs.

TAVP: What is the Office of Capital Writs?

GS: The Office of Capital Writs is a state agency charged with representing indigent people who have been sentenced to death in their post-conviction habeas appeals.

TAVP: Has your training in and exposure to oral history influenced your work?

GS: My oral history work and training has contributed greatly to my current work as a post-conviction investigator. In fact, I'd say that my oral history training and the work I did on my thesis contributed to securing this position. Often, the OCW will hire people with a background in law or a degree in social work to do this job: I had neither. But, my master's thesis demonstrated that I could take a vast array of sources and voices and weave a compelling narrative that can tell someone's story. That's what I must do when I working on a case as a post-conviction investigator. 

The key to a habeas appeal is that you can bring in information from outside the record to challenge the person's sentence. So, we try to talk to as many people as we can to get an honest story about the client: we are asking questions about the person's background, history, upbringing, interpersonal relationships, mental health history. We are trying to paint a picture of the person's journey to conviction: what happened in his or her life that led him or her to this place? Oral history has a lot to recommend it as a training ground for mitigators. 

Deep listening is one of the primary skills an oral historian must cultivate; listening is something that is key, too, to a post-conviction investigator. Having a sense of narrative, of the nuances of memory: all of that is also central to my work. 

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