An Interview with Nurjahan Boulden
Hi Nurjahan! Thank you so much for your time today and for your invaluable work for and with survivors of gun violence.
Feminists Act! focuses on helping people determine how they can take action on issues that affect people who identify as women and girls in the United States. What are some of the ways you recommend folks take action on feminist issues?
That’s a great question. I think it’s important for all of us to recognize that there’s no one way to impact change in our country or world. Sometimes we get stuck thinking within the confines of what’s already out there, and it’s hard to see the many ways we can take action that might not already be in place right now. If there’s something already happening that drives and excites you, that’s amazing! Sign up, show up, and look out for a mentor (or mentors) who can guide you along the way. Use your voice, and approach it with an open mind. It can be disheartening at first to realize that no organization is perfect, but if you recognize that it’s all part of your growth and education, you’ll be able to take whatever you need to inform your next steps. I worked as a teacher, a non-profit leader, and a fundraiser before I figured out how I ultimately wanted to make my impact. In all of those careers, there were things that I loved and things that were frustrating and disappointing. I did my best to stay true to my values and not allow any imperfections to chip away at my spirit. I learned so much from all of these organizations, and they’ve all helped me create the work I do with survivors today. As a gun violence survivor myself, it took me a while before I finally got the courage and support to take action. Everything I saw and heard about was political, and while to this day I appreciate the mentorships and encouragement I received from survivors in political activism, I knew that ultimately the political route wasn’t for me. But if I wanted to create change and it wasn’t through politics, what was it? I had to dig deep to figure out how I could make my impact, and at first, I didn’t have the big picture. There were no other organizations that I knew about who were doing the kind of work I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to share my story so that other people didn’t feel alone, and I wanted to bring survivors together to create a safe space to connect and recover in community, no matter their political views. The foundation of my work is that everyone deserves access to resources and community to support their recovery in the aftermath of gun violence. I started with small local workshops in Downtown Los Angeles, and my vision grew from there. Now I travel around the country conducting trainings, workshops, and public speaking, spreading hope - something I lost sight of for so long. My best advice to you is to just start. Start scared, start confused, start without knowing where you’re going, start without resources, start somewhere. Just start. All you need is one step at a time; it’s ok if it changes along the way, and everything will unfold from there.
One issue that we know affects many women and girls – and folks of all gender identities- is gun violence. As a survivor of gun violence and an expert on gun violence prevention and recovery, how would you recommend that people get involved to help make our communities safer?
That’s an important question for everyone in America right now, and we all have roles to play. One of my biggest learnings along the way is that there’s no wrong way. Whether you choose a political path, community-based programs, gang intervention, mental health, or just shifting your interactions in your everyday life, we can all do our part to make a difference. In fact, we need every single one of us to participate in some way in order to make the kind of change we all want to see. The best place to start is to take care of yourself first, and to take steps toward the impact you want to make during your lifetime, whatever that might look like. I believe that if all of us had access to the support and guidance we need in order to open up about our pain and discover happiness on the other side, that in itself would make a huge shift.
I think about the impact that would’ve made in my own experience. When three of us were shot with an assault rifle on a rooftop bar in 2006, they never caught the shooter. The man next to me, who was killed, had been accused of shooting an 18 year old and paralyzing him, so the detectives suspected that it was a retaliation shooting. I think about my shooter all the time when I’m working with other survivors, and I wonder: if he had access to the support and compassion he needed after he experienced gun violence, would he have made a different decision that night? I know the kind of anger he felt when he decided to pull that trigger. Anyone whose life has been impacted by violence in that way knows his pain. Some of us channel it differently, turning it into self-hate, rage at our loved ones, overwhelming guilt, self-harm, abuse, etc. We can break that cycle by caring for ourselves first, reaching out for help when we need it the most, and moving forward with a greater purpose on the other side. It’s only after we give ourselves the compassion we deserve that we can truly open ourselves up to compassion for others, no matter their circumstances. That’s one way (of many) we can make our communities safer.
What are your thoughts on turning anger or fear into action?
I love this question because it’s been a huge part of my journey. After my shooting, I suffered for almost a decade before I found a path to recovery that worked for me. The more I pushed down my emotions, trying to suck it up and pretend everything was ok, the more they overwhelmed me and took over my everyday life. Even though things looked fine from the outside - I got married, had three kids, a decent career, no one knew anything was really wrong - the increasing guilt, anger, and fear made even the most basic parts of my day feel impossible. I often describe it like climbing a mountain with a backpack filled with rocks, and each time something bad happens in life, you add another rock (or boulder) to your pack. I smiled and climbed, cringed, smiled, and climbed. Without a way to process those intense emotions, I was carrying them with me everywhere I went. I tried traditional therapy 7 different times throughout those years, and it didn’t seem to work for me. Every time I had a failed attempt, I would give up and feel completely broken. What I didn’t realize was that there were so many different healing modalities available to me in this world, I just needed to be willing to look outside of traditional structures to find the ones that worked for me. Once I figured out ways to process my emotions, my pack got lighter. I learned how to actively shift my mindset from a fear-based approach to one of love and trust, and built a supportive community to help carry me along the way. For me, only working from a place of fear or anger was painful, and it didn’t require any growth on my part. I wasn’t able to do this work in the way I wanted to until I was able to process those emotions as they came up in the moment, and approach each challenge or trigger from a place of love. I want to be clear that anger and fear are not bad emotions. They can be beautiful drivers when used as a source of creation. When you channel anger from a place of openness and love, it comes out as compelling passion and is received that way. When you turn toward fear from that same source, it comes out as courage - an opportunity to overcome anything that life throws your way. If you look at these feelings as invitations to create change either in the world or in your own life from a place of love, they can be some of the most powerful drivers of impact for you.
Any recommendations for how people can best engage in self-care while also participating in activism to address systemic injustice?
The first step is to share openly and vulnerably with someone you trust. It’s not always easy, but there are ways to talk through your pain instead of just about it that can be so healing. When you do this regularly with those around you, you’ll start to deepen and broaden your support system. If you don’t have anyone in your life that you can trust in that way, don’t be shy about investing in yourself or finding well-established communities that can serve in that role (think religious groups, clubs, meet-ups, AA, martial arts, support groups, coaching programs, etc). Those communities will only be as helpful as you allow them to be - vulnerability is key. Then start to notice triggers and recognize them as opportunities to grow. Those triggers have been inside you this whole time, and you don’t have to carry them with you anymore. Find a way to process the emotions in your body that works well for you (a few examples are EMDR, mediation, prayer, etc). Finally, allow yourself to reprogram any negative or limiting thoughts that are no longer serving you. Learn to let go of guilt and that feeling of “never good enough” and start to anchor yourself in what you can and are doing to help, instead of dwelling on what you aren’t able to do. There are a number of practices you can use to address these (for example, gratitude practices, faith, letting go exercises, forgiveness practices, etc.) When you address your own needs first, you can then show up to your work with love, compassion, and peace. Other people will sense that in you and are more likely to hear what you have to say. I hear from survivors from all political views and experiences every day who say that my work has changed their lives. I couldn’t make that kind of difference if I didn’t take time to do my own internal work first. If you already have a way to process your emotions, shift your mindset, and build community, that’s perfect! All you have to do is designate the time a space to implement it on a regular basis. My rule of thumb is that you get one day to wallow before it’s time to reach out for help. That doesn’t mean you have to “get over it” in a day, it just means that it’s time to reach out for help if it lasts longer than that.
When I hear about a mass shooting (which unfortunately happens more than I would like) I often get floods of messages and calls asking for support. The first thing I do is turn off all of the noise and spend time addressing my own emotions. Only then can I start to respond to all of the outreach. You’ve heard it, you know it, but we all forget it sometimes: You have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others. Let go of the guilt, and give yourself all of the time you need. You (and they) will be better for it. If you don’t already have strategies for self-care that work for you, I recommend downloading my free Release Anxiety Today Guide, which walks you through 3 steps you can use to find your path forward. You can access it at www.releaseanxietytoday.com.
Something we always try to do well at Feminists Act! is to amplify existing voices, organizations, and resources, especially from and by folks who are underrepresented, oppressed, or marginalized. What are your recommendations for people to follow on social media, articles to read, organizations to know, etc.?
This is hugely important, especially in the gun violence world where people of color are disproportionately impacted, and the organizations that receive the most funds and media coverage are largely White, with a strong focus on mass shootings. A lot of movements against gun violence that come from communities of color are seen as racial or “sub-group” issues instead of national issues. For example, Black Lives Matter began as a movement against gun violence, but didn’t get the same traction and funding as March For Our Lives. The Community Justice Reform Coalition is an organization that sets out to remedy the lack of Black and Brown voices by addressing the intersection of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform in communities of color. It also provides young people with opportunities to speak up and take action. An organization that has a strong focus on ending gender-based violence is Justice for My Sister Collective, which provides public arts and video production training for women of color and LGBTQ young adults.
It’s heartening to see new organizations popping up, and it’s also important to recognize that injured survivors are still often left out of the conversations. I follow a few fellow injured survivors because I know how hard it can be to deal with the physical and emotional impact of recovery, especially when long-term disability is involved. Some that I recommend following are:
- Patience Carter (@paecarter), who was injured during the Pulse Nightclub shooting
- Megan Hobson (@_itsmegannn), who was injured in a gang-related shooting in Miami, FL
- Jose Solorzano, who has less of a social media presence, but is an incredible public speaker in Chicago. He was injured in a gang-related shooting 22 years ago, and is a C1, C2 quadriplegic
- Jessie Chin (@mrchinnn_), who is a comedian and model. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down
Any parting words for the Feminists Act! community?
Stepping out and taking action in any form can feel scary and overwhelming at times, and you may never feel fully ready for it. Just remember that it’s never too early, and it’s never too late. I started this work when I was 32 years old, and I’m so grateful that I finally found the courage to do it. I don’t regret the fact that I spent all of those years struggling, because they give me the perspective and compassion I have today. I also couldn’t have done it alone (trust me, I tried and failed many times!) I’ve had so many mentors, coaches, and guides along the way, I wouldn’t be able to name them all right now if I tried. Whenever I want to make a change in my life, I ask for guidance and support, and somehow, some way, it shows up. No one can or should do this work on their own. I didn’t; the people you admire and respect the most didn’t; and you don’t have to either. So, if you take nothing else from this, know that we’re always stronger together. Lifting each other up, we can make the changes we all want to see in this world.
Thank you so much again!
Nurjahan Boulden grew up with dreams of becoming a dancer. When she was shot in the leg with an assault rifle in a random attack at age 21, those dreams were destroyed. She suffered in silence physically and emotionally for almost a decade before she met another survivor who inspired her to share her story. She’s now a dancer, survivor, and storyteller, inspiring audiences across the country to reach out for help when they’re struggling, face their greatest fears, and rise in the face of adversity.
Follow Nurjahan on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube for straight-forward tips and strategies on how to build a life you love, no matter what you’ve survived. And if your life has been impacted by gun violence in any way, you can join the Feel Safe Again: Support Community for Survivors of Gun Violence, and know that you don’t have to do this alone.
All views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author.