The Most

Woman in the World


Amanda Nguyen

Founder and president of Rise, sexual assault survivor, former deputy White House liaison for the U.S. Department of State, astrophysics nerd

The Most

Woman in the World

In 2013, when Amanda Nguyen was a student at Harvard, she was sexually assaulted. She then found herself between a rock and an impossibly hard place: According to Massachusetts law, she could either file rape charges immediately and endure a potentially long, time-consuming, and expensive trial, or she’d have to go through an elaborate (and costly) process every six months just to keep her rape kit in the state’s criminal justice system. She wasn’t ready to go to court, but she also didn’t want the evidence of her rape to be destroyed. Instead, she decided to change the law itself. In 2014, Amanda founded Rise, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of sexual assault and rape survivors. With the help of her fellow organizers, she wrote the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, a federal bill that was passed unanimously by both chambers of Congress and signed into law in October 2016. Among other things, the new law protects the right to have the evidence of a rape kit preserved without charge for the duration of the statute of limitations. Amanda is currently working to expand and protect the rights of sexual assault survivors worldwide.

ON SELF-DEFINITION: I studied government and astrophysics in college. The question I wake up with every day is, “What is my place in the universe, and what can I do about it?” I think both of those fields seek answers to that question in their own way.

I still want to be an astronaut in the future. Some people have this concern that if you stand up for something, particularly involving advocacy or sexual assault, it will define you for the rest of your life. But I want people to know that speaking up won’t diminish your other accomplishments or ambitions. Things that happen in people’s lives are intersectional. For me, that means being a civil rights activist, rewriting laws, and then also discovering an exoplanet and going into space. The astronaut Scott Kelly was in his fifties during his last mission; there’s still time for me to pursue my dream. Space is always going to be there.

That being said, a lot of people who have survived rape or sexual violence are concerned about the stigma of sharing their story. The stigma is definitely there—even though I hope it will diminish—and it’s horrible. It’s a person’s choice to share anything about their life, especially moments of trauma.

I still want to be an astronaut in the future. Some people have this concern that if you stand up for something, particularly involving advocacy or sexual assault, it will define you for the rest of your life. But I want people to know that speaking up won’t diminish your other accomplishments or ambitions.

ON FOUNDING RISE: I made the decision to start Rise at a very specific moment. It was November 1, 2014, and I remember the exact date because it was when I chose to “go public” about my own story. I had been struggling to understand a labyrinth of laws, and felt as though the Massachusetts criminal justice system had designed a Kafka-esque game just for me. But when I walked into my local rape crisis center and watched the waiting room fill up, I realized that this experience wasn’t mine alone. In some states, like Texas and Colorado, they don’t destroy rape kits after a certain period of time, but in Massachusetts, of all places, they do—justice was a matter of geography, not equality under the law. Trying to understand the system was so difficult, even with the resources that I had. My attorney is one of the best in the nation on this issue, and I still struggled. I also had no idea how prevalent this issue was. It was very clear to me that I had a choice: I could either accept the injustice, or rewrite the law. I chose the latter.

Going public about my rape was terrifying. I did so for the first time via Facebook when it became clear that in order to create change, I needed to be able to tell and show people what was at stake, authentically and on a human level. After I put that post up, so many people reached out privately, via message or email or phone, and told me that they were rape survivors themselves. It was alarming, but it proved so clearly why the problem needed to be addressed. Every time somebody new shares their story with me, it’s like a coal that I carry. It’s certainly a weight, but it also keeps my fire alive, and reminds me why I have chosen to continue fighting.

I started Rise because of a deep, fundamental belief in our democracy and collective ability to create change. That belief helped me get these laws through Congress. There were senators and politicians who straight-up told me that they were only considering my civil rights because it would be politically advantageous to them. Then I watched them debate the political feasibility of my own human rights in front of me. That was not easy to swallow, nor was it easy to will such a polarized Congress to unanimously agree on a bill. But I believe in people using their voices for something good, and I was brought up believing that this is what America is about.

Amanda Nguyen

ON PASSING THE SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVORS’ RIGHTS ACT: On the day that the Survivors’ Bill of Rights was passed, I was actually at Camp David. I was there for my previous job [as deputy White House liaison for the U.S. Department of State], which involved conducting leadership training and workshops for political appointees in the Obama administration. At Camp David, you’re supposed to unplug—they take away your phone—but the timing was terrible, because the Senate was about to close and we didn’t know what the vote on the bill was going to be. After I finished my workshop, I needed to contact my team immediately to find out what was going on, and I knew that Camp David’s chaplain had a phone. So I commandeered one of the camp’s golf carts—affectionately known as Golf Cart 1—but I don’t know how to drive. When I pressed the gas, it was in reverse. So I was in Golf Cart 1 trying to get to Camp David’s chapel, screaming my head off, because I can’t drive and it was terrifying going backwards, albeit very slowly. All the Navy SEALs were looking at me like, “Who is this girl?” But I was able to get on the phone and talk to my team, and I watched Congress pass the law on my way back from Camp David to Washington, D.C.

The night the law was passed, I celebrated with the team, and we went out to drinks. But after that, I went by myself to the Lincoln Memorial, which is my favorite place in Washington. I stood where Martin Luther King made his speech and looked out at the Capitol. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more wholesome, in-body experience as I did in that moment, understanding the feeling of democracy winning. It was such a different place from being in my apartment in Cambridge just a few years earlier, crying because I felt so diminished and devastated.

Right now, at Rise, we’re building a vehicle to launch a copy of our federal law into space. One of the reasons we’re doing it is to send a message that anybody and everyone can care about this issue and make a difference, across international borders as well.

Going public about my rape was terrifying. I did so for the first time via Facebook when it became clear that in order to create change, I needed to be able to tell and show people what was at stake, authentically and on a human level.

 

ON THE ‘OVERVIEW EFFECT’: I have a telescope, and if I get stressed out, I planet-hunt. That means astrophysics is how I engage in self-care, which sounds super nerdy. But looking at the stars reminds me to take a breath. There’s something called the “overview effect,” which is a cognitive psychological shift that’s been documented in many astronauts when they see Earth from space for the first time. Astronauts have said that when they see Earth like this, many things become trivial—man-made borders, for instance, usually cannot be seen in space. Seeing our home planet as a pale blue dot in the vast darkness creates a sense of awe—there’s this fragile marble that holds all of humanity and its history. It makes you remember that we’re all in this together. Astronauts who leave as technicians often come back as humanitarians, with a renewed or greater sense of a global community. Looking through my telescope helps put me in that mindset.

ON EMPATHY: In order to create change, we have to engage with people who disagree with us. That means confronting people who may make us feel uneasy. There is no wrong or right way to do so, but in order to persuade somebody, I believe we cannot convince them to break their own moral judgment and faith. What’s effective is to work with their existing morality framework. How do we find the common ground to engage in meaningful conversation? We worked about a year and a half before we introduced the federal bill, and that time was spent coalition building. It’s important to make sure that the system is fair for all stakeholders at the table, and in our case, one of those stakeholders was law enforcement. It required a lot of tactfulness and negotiating, especially since it was so charged with personal trauma. But it was really important to us to hear everybody’s side, and not villainize anyone.

Amanda Nguyen


I had been struggling to understand a labyrinth of laws, and felt as though the Massachusetts criminal justice system had designed a Kafka-esque game just for me. But when I walked into my local rape crisis center and watched the waiting room fill up, I realized that this experience wasn’t mine alone.

ON NEXT STEPS IN ACTIVISM: What I’m focused on now is creating a model of millennial advocacy. One of the most powerful things that came out of the federal campaign was hope. That’s why I left my job with the Obama administration early—I wanted to work on civil rights full-time. Since October of last year, Rise has helped to write and create 11 laws, in different states and countries—that’s an average of one bill per month. It’s been so incredible to see people be inspired by the work that Rise is doing, and be empowered to make the changes that their local communities need. Obviously, we wouldn’t be successful without the decades upon decades of work that previous activists have done. I believe that there is never a more convenient season to create change, but I think we’re in an unprecedented time for activism, and that’s not particular to any political party. In this age of social media, I believe that people—especially young people—have a greater sense of the global community. I often describe myself as pathologically optimistic.

The vision for Rise is to pass the Survivors’ Bill of Rights in all 50 states, in the next five years, which we’re well on our way to doing. But more importantly, as we’re bringing about this model of hope, we’ve seen how millennials can scale change and incubate civil rights campaigns. That’s democracy-building. I think that right now, the character of our country is worth fighting for, and that’s one of the things that makes America powerful.

Amanda Nguyen


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