How Newtown Parents Are Building A Long-Term Legacy And A Model For Cause Groups

Watch parents of Sandy Hook Elementary school students explain the evolution of a social movement on the one-year anniversary of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, we encourage you to watch “Newtown and Silicon Valley: The Search for Solutions.” This video, part of our series of stories presented live on stage at Fast Company events, chronicles the remarkable journey of a group of parents in Newtown, Connecticut.


In the days following the incident, they came together, traumatized by the murder of 20 first-graders and six teachers, but determined to make sense of what made absolutely no sense. They vowed to take strategic and meaningful action. One night, at 2:30 in the morning, one parent, Lee Shull, emailed a call to action. “There’s been a lot of talk,” he wrote his friends and neighbors. “We need to do something.”

Thus began an extraordinary year, in which Sandy Hook Promise, their nonprofit, accomplished far more than survivor groups typically do. “We don’t want to do what every other group has done and then expect a different result,” Nicole Hockley, whose younger son Dylan was killed at the school, told me.

Sandy Hook Promise, which includes a former marketer at Proctor & Gamble, an IT executive at Dell, and a therapist, avoided the facile anti-gun positions and blame-blanketing that many on both sides of the debate expected of them. These parents had experienced unthinkable gun violence, but they sought out gun owners. Specifically, Republican gun owners who were also parents. “We decided to speak to the toughest group, which is demonized by the gun debate,” she says. “They’re the same as me. They want to find solutions. They want to protect their children.”

Sandy Hook Promise went further, exploring new ground with the Tech Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, a Silicon Valley group started by the prolific angel investor Ron Conway after the Newtown shooting. Last March, the two organizations launched the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative. It directs venture capital to companies working on potential solutions in smart guns, school safety, big data, and mental illness.

That effort, in turn, inspired an X-Prize-like endeavor, the Smart Tech Firearms Challenge, an open call for ideas that the Smart Tech Foundation announced last month at Fast Company‘s Innovation Uncensored conference. The foundation is giving grants totaling at least $1 million to inventors and entrepreneurs working on breakthroughs in safe gun technology. The submission process starts in January.

In mid-November, Sandy Hook Promise kicked off Parent Together, a grassroots campaign to rally community groups like their own and address ways to reduce gun violence at the local level. Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, and other social media companies are helping get the word out.


Have these Newtown parents dramatically changed the gun debate? Or overhauled laws throughout the country with the highest rate of gun ownership in the world? Or curtailed gun violence? No–in fact, there was another school shooting Friday in Colorado–but that’s an unrealistic expectation for their first year. (They did, however, lobby successfully for tougher new laws in Connecticut.) Social movements–and that’s what they’re studying and emulating–take time. What they’ve done, in ways both thoughtful and surprising, is build a foundation for innovation and community organizing around reducing gun violence. It’s a promising start.

“We’re coming up to the edge of a cliff–the one-year mark,” Hockley says in the video. “There’s a surge of interest as you approach the day, and then it fades away. I can’t let this fade away. After 12/14, we came together as a nation. It’s our job to make sure we keep this conversation alive until we find the solutions.”


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.