Meet Christa Hillstrom, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and journalist learning about recovery from a joint-lock ninja in Fargo
Christa Hillstrom (@HumanGoods), one of ivoh’s four Restorative Narrative fellows, is a senior editor at YES! Magazine, where she covers women’s leadership, human rights and community economic development. Her work has been featured in publications including Marie Claire, Narrative Magazine and NBC.com. Additionally, Hillstrom runs Human Goods, a news and resource site about human trafficking.
Hillstrom brings her strengths as an editor and solutions-oriented reporter to the fellowship. She has traveled throughout the United States, India and the Philippines to cover stories about human trafficking, migration and violence against women. Throughout her time as a Restorative Narrative fellow, Hillstrom is exploring how Native American women who are survivors of trauma and abuse reclaim their narratives and bodies through martial arts. We recently asked Hillstrom to share some thoughts on her experience as a Restorative Narrative fellow so far.
Gloria Muñoz: What initially drew you to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative fellowship?
Christa Hillstrom: When I first heard about Restorative Narrative, I felt an immediate resonance. ivoh managed to articulate a framework for an approach to storytelling that had always made a kind of intuitive sense to me.
Right before I first went to journalism school, I spent a few months volunteering in a rehabilitation center outside of Delhi, India. Most of the patients there were destitute, living on the street with no support system at the time they became ill with tuberculosis or injuries they were unable to tend to. The Center was staffed largely by former patients who had healed and become active members of the community. Many decided to stay and extend their empathy to new patients. One day, we found an old man sitting outside one of the Delhi hospital, a bone sticking out from the open wound in his foot. One after another, people passed by him — and indeed, especially since he was developmentally challenged, it was easy to believe he was long past saving. But his story didn’t end there. After a few weeks at the Center he began to come back. Through body language, he was able to connect with people and participate in the community. Months later, he’d become a community fixture. He was particularly gifted with the children — sitting with them, keeping them calm, being a companion. I remember thinking how much it mattered to acknowledge his coming back, healing, and being part of something. Active recognition of the transformative power of these long, deep, and complicated processes changes your worldview, and I think that is what Restorative Narrative is all about.
Muñoz: Tell us about your story and where you’re at in your reporting process.
Hillstrom: I am writing about a joint-lock ninja from North Dakota, Patty Stonefish, and the self-defense workshops she leads with her husband, Dereck. Patty is of Lakota heritage, and her workshops were initially designed for other Native American women, many of whom have experienced sexual violence. She lived in Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising, where she originally got her idea for self-defense workshops at home. Native American women experience an intolerable rate of sexual violence, she thought, so why don’t I go home and teach this to them there? She developed a program that emphasized empowerment rather than defense. I was really fascinated hearing about it, and curious about what it would really feel like.
Over the last month, I’ve gotten to spend some time with the Stonefishes in Fargo, North Dakota, where they live, and I’ve gotten to take the classes myself. All of the context and history about Native American genocide and present-day oppression was important to learn, but when the classes got physical it really blew my mind. I don’t really consider myself that strong, and initially felt the need to qualify my efforts by saying, “I probably won’t really be able to do this,” before learning the Hapkido joint-lock moves. But when Patty showed me how to bend her finger back, using voice and force, I really was startled by my own ability to do it. A month later, while taking the class again with a group of Native women in Fargo, I started wondering, “But would a 4-hour class really be enough to spark big changes in someone’s life?” As soon as the break came, Dacia, a woman who was sitting next to me, turned to me with this beautiful openness and started talking about how this was exactly the message she needed to hear: that you have the power to change your own life.
Muñoz: How is the fellowship helping you develop and tell this story?
Hillstrom: Reporting this story in the context of the Restorative Narrative fellowship has been perfect for me. I found that I really had been looking for a cohort of like-minded storytellers who were struggling through the same questions I was in tackling a genre like this. We meet every month to talk about where we’re going with our stories and some of the struggles we’ve come up against, like the intricacies of reporting on extremely traumatic experiences, and the weight of trying to render those experiences into stories with sensitivity and nuance. I’m really grateful to have the other fellows as well as our story coach as a sounding board, and I’m also really inspired from getting an inside look at their stories and processes. It’s fun to be part of the conversation shaping this genre.
Muñoz: What have you learned so far about Restorative Narrative?
Hillstrom: In the months I’ve been reporting in the context of Restorative Narrative, explaining it to sources and other journalists and potential readers, one of the things I’ve been struck by is how much it seems to be an approach people are really yearning for. It’s also something all kinds of people can relate to.
During one of Patty’s workshops, she asked a group of women, “How many times have you read a story about healing from rape?” None had. And it’s true, most of what we hear about sexual violence in the media is about terrible things happening, but very little is about the human capacity to heal, move on, and reclaim power. Traumatic events usually happen for a period of time, while we wrestle with the repercussions for years or decades. When this very key part of the journey isn’t reflected in the media or considered newsworthy, we miss something.
Talking about healing has a restorative quality in itself. It helps subjects see themselves as active and powerful agents in their own stories; and it helps readers—and reporters—see the world not as a place full of victims but as a place full of survivors, many of whom are leading the rest of us in promising directions.
Muñoz: What advice do you have for other media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives?
Hillstrom: Restorative narratives are actually everywhere. And they often offer story angles that are more poignant and original than narratives that focus and end on points of trauma.
I think it might also be a genre that is really suited to journalists who, like me, tend to be attracted to a slower reporting pace and real immersion with characters and place. You might not be the type of reporter who’s the first on the ground in a crisis, aggressive in collecting sources and first to break headlines. If you’re more of a quiet observer with a gift for listening and a tendency toward contemplation, Restorative Narrative might be a good fit.
Related ivoh stories: Meet Dan Archer, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and a pioneer of Virtual Reality journalism | Meet Heidi Shin, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and multi-media journalist sharing the stories of refugees