From left to right: JoAnn Leppink (HJC Leader), Ivory Taylor (HJC Associate Director), and Heidi Storm (HJC Leader).

At Housing Justice Center, we believe in amplifying renter voices by sharing powerful stories of tenant leadership and advocacy. Our first-ever leader spotlight features Heidi Storm, an artist, disability justice and fat activist, and St. Paul renter. 

During the 2023 and 2024 state legislative sessions, Heidi testified in support of HJC’s top-priority bill, source of income protection (also called the Housing Stability Act). This policy would prohibit Minnesota landlords from discriminating against tenants who use rental assistance. In their powerful testimony, Heidi spoke about losing access to stable housing when landlords refused to accept their Housing Choice Voucher. 

Through their activism and art, Heidi has a gift for creating inclusive, accessible spaces where they and others can show up safely and authentically. Ellie Benson, HJC’s Office Manager and Communications Associate, sat down with Heidi earlier this year to talk leadership, community-building, and disability justice.

What motivated you to share your story publicly?

I’ve always been involved in community service or politics in some way. There have been different groups I’ve been a part of that were important to me. When I was younger, it was Girl Scouts. When I was living in St. Peter in 2016, it was a group called Indivisible, formed almost overnight by a bunch of regulars from a coffee shop where I worked. 

The decision to testify stemmed from a pretty normal conversation with my friend, Ivory Taylor, who works at HJC. We talk a lot about disability and community organizing since we both have a personal investment. With Ivory’s encouragement, I decided to testify about my personal story. Knowing somebody who could coach me through it made a big difference.

If you’re new to the legislative process and thinking about sharing your own story, find someone who can support you. Someone you can be vulnerable with and who you trust to help shape your testimony. 

How did it feel to testify?

Because timing from hearings can be unpredictable, last year I only got to testify via video. I didn’t have the interactive element of being in a room full of people and answering questions—that removed some of the pressure. It also made it a little bit less exciting. Getting to testify this year in-person was more fulfilling. 

What does leadership mean to you?

I was taught that leadership is standing at the front of the room. That was also very gender-specific at the time. But leadership can also be sitting on the floor in the back, hanging out with people who need to sit on the floor. Leadership can mean providing someone with awesome research to help them communicate well. And sometimes leadership means just staying home. Leadership can be a practice within our own lives to make us less easily swayed by all the demands that are put on us today. 

By learning more about my disabilities and experiencing people wanting to support me well, I’ve seen that leadership can happen in multiple ways. Leadership can mean directing yourself. For instance: “Today I’m going to focus on providing awesome support. Tomorrow I’m going to work on this project that I will get some credit for. The next day I will take the whole day off.”

HJC’s new disability justice project, Radical Belonging, launched late last year. What made you want to join this project team as a co-leader?

I’ve become pretty cautious about what groups and what organizations I volunteer and work with. I have seen a few disabled friends get pulled into volunteer and board work, and they are expected to dedicate all their time to it. I’m more drawn to project-based work that has an outline or contract, especially if the organization helps participants with transportation, reimbursements, or access needs beyond just printing a flier. I feel the Radical Belonging project works to meet the needs of each team leader and has clear goals. It’s cool being a part of something new that I get to build that has a housing justice focus merged with disability justice. 

Sometimes discovering access needs takes relationship-building. Mental health access needs, and specifically autistic access needs as an adult, can be really hard to identify and ask for. That’s something I’m looking forward to leading around. I want to see a world where asking for accommodations to participate in trainings and groups becomes more collaborative. 

What does authentic relationship-building look like?

Let’s say you’re working with a service provider as a disabled person. The service provider must understand that they are stepping into their client’s culture. This is critical. The first time you meet people, you might not even talk about the problem. You might just sit and drink tea. Since our mental health programs and nonprofits are so goal- and solution-oriented, we’ve forgotten how to do this.

Strangers want to come to my house and ask me all these invasive questions and spend that time writing a plan. Yet they refuse to eat or drink anything in my house, and they can’t meet me in a coffee shop because of privacy. These mental health workers are being directed to violate my basic ideas of safety and comfort in my home before we get to know each other at all. And then they want to talk about how trauma-informed their organizations are. It’s not okay. 

My home is not just a community-based workplace for them; it is my home. When you come into my home, you are my guest. This is important to me. Folks who are trying to support disabled people in their jobs could do better by thinking about power and the personal autonomy of their clients as they try to build a working partnership. It’s more than just asking me so-called “person-centered” questions. I can’t answer those authentically if we haven’t built an authentic relationship first. 

What is the connection between your art and advocacy?

Art and dance have kept me going for a long time. I used to be worried I had to be good at it, but I had a friend prove me wrong. I’m so thankful for that. Art is for everyone. And art is all about non-verbal communication or extra-verbal communication. 

As an example: there’s a painting of a red pepper and knife behind you. We look at the pepper, and we all have a different internal experience. Do we see the pepper or knife first? Does the painting make us want to tell a story? Does it remind us of a story that we heard? Does it make us want to curl up in a ball or roll around on the floor? It gives us that other space.

I’ve been learning more about brain development since I discovered I’m autistic. How do we create opportunities to connect with people who don’t want to come to meetings and have big discussions? Those who don’t conveniently write long explanations of what they’re thinking on social media? That’s where art comes in. 

Art can also reconnect us to the body. In our working cultures, now that work and school have officially invaded our homes, we are losing personal spaces in our lives. How do we find those generative spaces for ourselves? If we have to gamify and promote self-care as this external checklist, how deep can that self-relationship or self-connection be?

What kind of future do you want to see for yourself and your communities?

I’m amazed that I’m still alive. There hasn’t been a lot of room in my life for imagination or considering possible futures. It’s still hard to make space for that when our systems have yet to prioritize respecting the personal lives and time of disabled people.

When I think about both a personal future and a broader collective future, I remember that life is cyclical. The things that might not happen for me are still possible. It’s exciting how young people are being raised to have higher standards and to raise the baseline for what treatment they will accept. That’s something worth supporting.

Watch Heidi’s powerful testimony video here.