Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Cristien Storm, Author of Empowered Boundaries: Speaking Truth, Setting Boundaries, and Inspiring Social Change
You, as an individual, exist in a small bubble, separate from the seven billion other humans on this planet. You are distinct—physically, emotionally, intellectually—because you have constructed territorial boundaries to reinforce your sense of self. Even so, the you that is you changes constantly as family, friends, lovers, strangers, perceived enemies, and others come at you with their own competing interests. To stay strong and whole often requires that you defend your you-ness.
How good are you at defending your you-ness from the bad actors in your life?
This week’s Face Off interview is with Cristien Storm, a social activist and expert in boundary setting. She has empowered numerous communities and thousands of individuals to defend themselves against rapists, white supremacists, and other agents of oppression. Cristien is also the author of Empowered Boundaries: Speaking Truth, Setting Boundaries, and Inspiring Social Change, a hugely important project reviewed by Kristine Morris in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews.
With the help of North Atlantic Books, we put Kristine in touch with Cristien for this thoughtful conversation.
Your book, Empowered Boundaries: Speaking Truth, Setting Boundaries, and Inspiring Social Change, makes a strong statement that boundary-setting is essential for individuals, families, and communities if we are to stand firm against the disrespect and violence that is so pervasive in American society today. For those who may not yet have read your book, how do you define boundaries?
I think of boundaries as a negotiation of who and how we are in the world. Negotiation does not imply it is bad or wrong to set a clear line or that someone must compromise. In some contexts, people may compromise and in others they will not. Boundaries are how we navigate the world and our relationships with ourselves and with others.
Our boundaries are constantly growing, changing, expanding and contracting, adapting, flexing, bending, and shaping as we evolve. These changes occur over weeks, months, years, and even day-to-day depending on how resourced we are, who we have (or have not) interacted with, our physical, social, emotional environments, how much we have slept, whether we have watched the news or been on Facebook, pet our dog or cat, or received physical affection from a loved one that morning. These changes are also informed by the world we live in, the social, political and economic contexts, the historical and present systems we navigate and the personal, social and political power and/or privilege we have or do not have. There are so many factors that inform the context (both internal and external) in which boundary setting occurs.
And how can we learn to recognize our own boundaries and those of others who may not yet be able to articulate them?
I am a therapist who does counseling with and from a politicized somatic and social systems framework. This means I believe we have to widen our lens of recognition to include embodied experiences—ours and other peoples. So much emphasis is placed on verbal communication as being the model for “good” “clear” and “articulate” boundaries. This kind of boundary setting is important, but it is one kind. There are so many ways people set boundaries. Verbal boundaries can be helpful, but the expectation that the best boundaries use this type of communication is rooted in white middle class assumptions about what “good” communication looks like.
It can also blame and shame people who do not, cannot, or choose not to set boundaries this way. People set all kinds of fierce and fabulous boundaries with all kinds of different communications including tone, intonations, porosity, body language, movements, humor, energy, sarcasm, and silence. There is not a kind of boundary setting that is more empowered than others and unfortunately, people can and do choose to disrespect and cross all different kinds of boundaries despite how well or clearly they are communicated.
How do you suggest we respect the boundaries of others when they may be very different from our own?
Boundaries are social, interpersonal, and relational. Having different boundaries does not necessarily make them difficult to respect. It can, but it doesn’t have to. Context is critical. So is curiosity: What is making a boundary difficult to respect? Are there power differences (social, political, historical, interpersonal) that are important to consider? Are there target and agent memberships that inform the conditions in which the boundaries are being set? What is making the difference challenging to both or all people/parties? What does respect (and disrespect) mean and look like to the various people or parties involved? Are there skills and tools that need to be nurtured and developed in order to engage in the differences respectfully? Are there safety concerns?
I also think pushing back against an “expert” culture with an expectation of one right way to do things, including setting boundaries. There is no one right way to set or defend a boundary, and no one right way to respond to someone crossing or ignoring a boundary.
Many Americans are living in fear and confusion regarding boundaries—fear of speaking up for themselves or others when boundaries have been breached; fear that holding to one’s boundaries and refusing to comply with demands from lovers, family, bosses, or government will result in the loss of relationships, jobs, positions, or personal freedom; and confusion over what constitutes a true boundary, maybe even confusion over whether or not they even have a right to set boundaries in a particular relationship or with a particular person.
How do you help people clear up the confusion, believe they have a right to their boundaries, stand for them without guilt, and deal with the very real fear they may have about asserting their boundaries?
Context is critical when thinking about boundaries. Fear of losing a job, for example, is wildly different for people with different access to different kinds of resources and support networks. For some people setting a boundary at work may be about never working more than what they are getting paid for, other times it may be about confronting a boss or supervisor directly, organizing a union, developing policies, quitting, engaging in work slow downs, getting support from or developing safety plans with coworkers, engaging in verbal aikido with customers, using humor, or making radical self and community care plans. Boundaries will look very different for different people in different contexts at different times. If we have an idea of what a boundary should look like, it can be easy to judge, dismiss, ignore, minimize or not understand someone else’s boundary. An empowered boundary is one where the person/people/group/community feels empowered, not a boundary that looks the same for everyone.
The idea of having a right to a boundary comes up a lot. For some people the notion of having a right to set a boundary can be extraordinarily healing and empowering. And, the concept of having a right to something is a very particular, individualist and legalistic framework that does not always resonate with some folks. The idea of rights tends to be about individuals, about the law, and the state. For a lot of people, safety, connection, support, healing, and liberation are not so much about rights, or looking to the state, as they are about how to create different kinds of relationships. For some people an empowered boundary may not be grounded in having “a right to a boundary” so much as an ability to connect with their own body, connect with resilient and supportive relationships, or a deep connection with faith or spirituality—all of which support rich, creative, fierce, and flexible boundaries. For more about shifting from a focus on strategy, in this case about individual rights and boundary setting, to centering relationships, check out anything and everything written by adrienne maree brown.
When I taught self-defense classes, I got asked about fear and guilt a lot. “How can you learn to fight back without being afraid?” Or, “How can you set a boundary without feeling guilty?” The assumption is that feelings are the problem. They are not. People can do incredible things while feeling depressed, anxious, guilty, jealous, insecure, bitter, resentful, joyful, loving, compassionate, manic, agitated. Feelings are not the problem, getting consumed by them, or stuck in them, can be. The more spaciousness we have for all kinds of feelings the more we can appreciate them (imagine a world without feelings!) and not get stuck, frozen, or reactive.
Compassionate curiosity can be very helpful. If guilt is making a boundary seem impossible, rather than pin all the blame on feelings, we could be curious about all the various factors that make asking for what we need or want, or saying no to what we don’t want, seem impossible. Mindfulness and somatic practices of all kinds (prayer, poetry, art, music, meditation, spirituality, faith, martial arts, physical practices, animals, nature, play, science fiction, plants, the stars and sky, relationships…) can be helpful. There is a great book about cultural somatics by Resmaa Menakem called My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies that explores emotions from an embodied framework.
You wrote that your first experience with community boundary-setting came as a young adult when you had to keep an organized nazi group from crashing the punk rock community you were part of. Were you afraid? How did you handle the nazis’ insistence that they had a “right” to be there, even though their presence was seen as threatening by the punk rockers? What was said or done that made them leave?
Often when I talk about my work fighting white nationalism, people bring up or ask about fear. This focus on fear creates a particular lens that ignores so many other things that are happening. For example, the connection to the love of music that created a collective spirit; the commitment to protecting our spaces grounded in a dedication to one another; the friendships and relationships that were nurtured in the punk rock ethos of doing things with and for each other; the fun and joy of feeling a sense of agency over a collective space; the empowerment of saying No and the rush of competency that comes from collectively kicking people who are espousing genocidal visions of ethnic nationalism out of a show; the joy of dancing all night after kicking them out; the satisfaction of going to the next show knowing that if someone tried to flash a swastika or push a white nationalist agenda, they would be confronted. It is important to not let fear, or the fear of fear, take over—there are so many other feelings.
Just as there is not one kind of white nationalists, there is not one right strategy in countering white nationalism. White nationalism is a social movement with a variety of groups, organizations, and affiliations. There were different white nationalist and white supremacist groups within the punk rock subculture that we were resisting, which meant we had to use a variety of strategies. Sometimes it was a physical fight, locking the door, shutting the show down, moving to another space, or letting security folks know to refuse entry to a group of people. Sometimes bands refused to play until all the skinheads left, or the club posted flyers with pictures of known nazis. Some people worked with business in the area, and others got involved in campus or electoral organizing. Organizing is also about all the things that happen outside of saying No!.
We worked, for example, on making our spaces more aware of gender bias, more queer friendly, and more politicized in other ways. We were also committed to having fun! It is important to remember that we say No! so that we can say Yes! Anti-racist and anti-fascist boundaries help create space to be able to work together to have more vibrant, awesome, accessible, spaces and communities. You can’t do that if you are fighting white nationalists trying to organize in your space. And if you are not fighting them, drawing a line that says in some kind of way that they are not welcome, then the space becomes inhospitable and no longer accessible to a whole lot of people.
Helpers, the spiritual or religious, and healer-type people may feel it’s hurtful or wrong to exclude others, even if the beliefs of those others may lead them to intend, or actually cause, disruption or even harm were they to be admitted.
How do you respond to the “kind folks” who say that “everyone is welcome” at the table regardless of their beliefs, even if those beliefs are known to jeopardize the right of others to live freely and safely? How might this relate to countries, such as Germany and other European nations that are trying to deal with large numbers of refugees whose cultural norms and attitudes are vastly different from those of the countries they are entering? Can you envision a way to resolve the issue? Should there be barriers to their entry? And what about Trump’s proposed wall? Is this appropriate boundary setting?
I am a healer and I know a lot of healers and helpers who are clear that when you allow anyone and everyone, including those who believe and espouse genocide, fascism, and white nationalism, you are actually excluding anyone and everyone who doesn’t agree with that ideology. This is not about feeling uncomfortable with different opinions, or espousing that everyone has to have the exact same values. This is about recognizing that the playing field is not level. Power, privilege, systems of oppression, exclusion, and marginalization are all very real and shape and inform context. The more a space becomes hospitable to fascism or white nationalism, the more inhospitable it is to a whole lot of other people including women, people of color, GLBTQI folks, and differently abled people. The reality is that we exclude people from spaces all the time. There are women only groups, Men’s gyms, bookstores make decisions about what books they will and won’t sell, clubs have codes of conduct, there are queer softball leagues, and all kinds of groups and businesses have policies about the focus of the work and who can participate. There are many contexts in which choices are made about who can be included. Demands that everyone must be allowed at the table can actually take seats away from other folks. Which is, in fact, a form of boundary setting. There is a great talk called “When “Free Speech” is Actually Its Opposite,” by Shon Meck, that anyone interested in this should check out.
I don’t see the proposed wall or any xenophobic nation state territorializing as a boundary, I see them as the legacy of intergenerational colonialism, capitalism, white nationalisms, and the ascendancy of right wing authoritarian movements all around the world.
You are one of the founders of Home Alive, a group addressing the fact that many friends and community members were either not making it home alive, or had to face domestic violence when they did. The assault, rape, and murder of young musician Mia Zapata became a catalyst for action. Please tell our readers a little about the work of Home Alive and the changes you’ve seen as a result of its work.
Home Alive started after the rape and murder of a friend of ours, Mia Zapata. Her murder turned our world upside down. We began meeting to figure out what to do with all the pain, fear, and rage we were feeling. One idea was to learn self-defense. At first we raised money to offer self-defense classes for our friends and ourselves and then it grew to offering free and low cost self-defense for the larger community. Through organizing events we started conversations about how to make sure we all got home alive and were safe once we got home. These events, shows, and conversations happened where we hung out, at clubs, bars, house parties, and cafes. People generated all kinds of ideas. There was so much creativity, energy, commitment, and intensity. It was energizing and liberating to see all the ways people refused to collapse into fear and instead become galvanized into various actions.
People organized cab fare at bars, put on art shows, organized music and spoken word events, put up photo instillations, hosted an awareness week of art and theater events, did pop up chalking dates, got involved in local politics, and hosted film screenings and various classes for different groups. These events evolved as we began meeting collectively and formed the core founding members of Home Alive. They became not just a way to raise money for classes, but also important ways to generate conversations and dialogues about naming and responding to violence and abuse in tons of different ways.
One really dynamic thing about Home Alive, in addition to the self-defense and boundary setting curricula that we developed, was that there was never this mandate that there is one right way to defend yourself, respond to domestic violence, or survive sexual assault. From the beginning, we saw the need to support wildly different and at times even opposing or contradictory ways of defending ourselves. Some people felt comfortable with guns for example, other people did not. Some people wanted to involve organizations like domestic violence shelters while other people recognized the need to create alternatives that exist adjacent to nonprofits and the state. In this way Home Alive was a catalyst for mobilization, organizing, and healing in a lot of ways for a lot of people. Through the self-defense and boundary setting classes for sure, but also through community conversations about how to identify and interrupt violence and abuse; through the process and relationship building of putting on events and classes; and through imagining possibilities for how communities and relationships could be.
We had people stop by the office saying my friend was just raped and I want to do something (organize a show, go chalking in the neighborhood where it happened, organize a class at my school/work/bar/café/collective/house, host an open mic night, bring Home Alive merch on tour with me…) And our response was always, “okay, great—how can we support you?” Not do it for you, but support you. The ripples of that sensibility, I think are fantastic—really grounded in relationships and individual and community empowerment.
In that spirit of accessibility, sharing, and community empowerment, the Home Alive curricula is available online at Teach Home Alive. There is also a great documentary, “Rock, Rage & Self Defense: An Oral History of Seattle’s Home Alive,” by Leah Michaels and Rozz Therrien.
Why is it that the vast majority of those who commit acts of violence are male, and so many of their victims are female? We don’t usually hear people say that they are afraid to walk in the streets of their town at night for fear that a WOMAN might attack them! What might it take to keep women safe, at home and in their communities? How can men be brought to see the need for change so that no woman need fear assault in her home or community? What can, and should, a woman do when her “no” is not respected?
I think it depends on the definition of violence. Women have always been able to engage in violence and abuse of all kinds. One very real aspect of heternormativity and patriarchy, not to mention white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism, is that the ways women engage in violence and abuse is minimized, ignored, or pathologized (criminalized for poor white women, women of color, and gender queer folks). The idea of women being nonviolent has been so normalized that it seems “unnatural” for women to engage in violence and abuse. To be real, we live awash in sexism and male domination. Men are in positions of power and utilize power in really violent and horrific ways. But it’s not like women don’t misuse power, abuse their partners, or even engage in sexualized forms of violence. When that is invisible, it is harder to work collectively towards liberation.
I think we need to hold a lot of complexity and not get stuck in a binary where men are violent and women are victims. That said, we do live in a world where gendered violence takes myriad forms designed to keep all kinds of women in their place, including sexualized forms of violence, domestic violence, queer and transphobia, as well as structural and institutional violence. In order for radical transformation, we need all kinds of men to engage in vision making and world building. Recognizing all the ways that colonialism, capitalism, and white nationalism, uphold heterpatriarchy and gendered forms of violence is a necessary part of building vibrant solidarities. We all have to have some skin in the game, and that means dealing with racism, white supremacy, transphobia, abelism, and class divides. Solidarity means being intersectional, being able to work across, and be in relationship across, lots of different kinds of differences.
You mentioned how boundaries can help us say “yes” to life, to healing, to increased capacity for intimacy, to community-building, and more. What needs to happen in a person’s life to make empowered boundaries possible? How can women make sure their boundaries are honored?
Empowered boundaries are almost always possible. People can survive horrific situations with a sense of agency and fierceness that is often invisible. If we only equate an empowered boundary with one that doesn’t get crossed, we miss out on a lot. People can set kick ass boundaries that get crossed. In addition, people can be confused about what they want or don’t want, feel very unempowered and set a boundary that is respected. Sometimes boundary setting is about seeing the awesome ways we survive bad things. Sometimes it is developing new skills and tools and thinking about how we would like to be able to handle situations differently.
There is no way to set a boundary that guarantees how someone will respond. We can only respond to how people react to a boundary. Boundaries are interpersonal and relational (even if it is a relationship with ourselves). There is no way we can predict exactly how someone will respond, and we can’t make someone respect our boundary. We can, however, respond to how they react. For example, escalate if they ignore our boundary, use the broken record if they try to talk us out of it, rephrase our boundary if they are unclear, leave if someone mocks our boundary, get support if we don’t know what to do when someone dismisses a boundary. Just as there is not one way to set a boundary, there is not one right way to respond to someone’s reaction to a boundary. There is no formula, only a whole bunch of skills, tools, and resources that different people will use differently.
Please tell us about If You Don’t, They Will, and the Seattle-based partnership you co-founded to provide trainings on issues of white nationalism and organized hate groups. How does the partnership work, and what results have you seen so far?
If You Don’t They Will is a long time Seattle-based collaboration with Cristien Storm and Kate Boyd that provides concrete and creative strategies to counter white nationalism through a cultural lens. In addition to workshops and trainings on cultural organizing, If You Don’t They Will began working with feminist filmmaker and curator Molly Mac to create a touring interactive oral history installation entitled no. NOT EVER.
no. NOT EVER. combines video footage from archival interviews, interactive research stations, and a community resource guide. This dynamic “living archive” functions as a participatory teaching tool and as an intergenerational bridge to support ongoing efforts to say no. NOT EVER. to white nationalism in a wide range of communities and contexts.
If You Don’t They Will is committed to organizing projects that engage in practices that activate bodies through art, music, storytelling, pleasure, and fun as a way to (hopefully) make people feel like they can join in the movement to say no. NOT EVER. to white nationalism.
This is a link to our recent show in NYC: http://interferencearchive.org/no-not-ever/
This is a short piece about cultural organizing in music communities: http://www.seattleweekly.com/music/seattles-music-scene-is-coming-together-to-block-white-nationalist-bands/
Molly Mac is a video installation artist, writer, educator, former curator at The Alice Gallery, and current professor and curator at Seattle University. In addition to working in leadership positions, Mac regularly works behind-the-scenes with numerous Seattle artists and curators to support multimedia exhibition productions and creative technical support for video and sound installations.
Kate Boyd is a public scholar whose teaching, research, and service is informed by over two decades of anti-racist grassroots community organizing experience. Kate currently teaches cultural studies-based writing and literature at Shoreline Community College.
Cristien Storm is a mental health therapist and co-founder and former director of Home Alive, where she developed and facilitated self-defense and boundary setting curricula rooted in social justice and progressive liberation theory.