Amanda Nguyen was 24 years old when the civil rights bill she created–the Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights–unanimously passed the Senate and House and became law in 2016. Nguyen, who survived rape as a student at Harvard, has now helped organizers pass similar laws in 22 states. In a new accelerator called Rise Justice Labs, she’s now supporting activists who want to pass laws about other issues, beginning with a coalition of gun control advocates led by the brother of one of the victims of the Parkland shooting.
A few years ago, her own legislative success might have seemed unlikely. “When we first set out to pass our original law, people thought we were a joke,” she says. “We had no money. We were–and still are–in our twenties. No connections. And then we just organized and did the impossible. We won, and we won in a historic fashion,” she says. “We became the 21st bill in modern history to pass unanimously, in an on-the-record vote, in both chambers of Congress.”
The law, designed as a model for states, establishes rights for rape victims, including the right to have the evidence of their rape kit preserved for the length of the statute of limitations (in Massachusetts, at the time of Nguyen’s assault, her kit could have been destroyed after six months even though the statute of limitations was 15 years). After the bill became law, Nguyen heard from a flood of people who wanted to replicate her success, both to pass state laws and to work on other issues. Robert Schentrup, whose younger sister was killed in Parkland shooting, reached out nine months ago.
Nguyen saw an opportunity to create an accelerator as an extension of the state work she was already supporting; Schentrup team, which has an organization called ZeroUSA, became the first to pilot the program. “In cities across America, entrepreneurs can apply to accelerators like Y Combinator or 500 Startups and get seed funding and mentorship to cover the opportunity cost of their startup,” she says. “That doesn’t exist for civil rights.”
Over the last nine months, Rise Justice Labs has shared its approach with ZeroUSA. Nguyen’s model, which also led to the 22 state laws for sexual assault survivors, gives people who typically have no experience with lawmaking a clear roadmap for the process. Organizers who have successfully passed laws through Rise are paired with new “Risers” trying to do the same thing. The process emphasizes diplomacy–to be successful, organizers need to set aside political differences when meeting with lawmakers. “Perhaps the biggest criticism that we receive, that we work across the aisle and the change that we make may not be as radical as some people may like it, but we make that change and it builds over time,” she says. It also emphasizes strategy. “We’re really data-driven, and that data doesn’t only inform facts of the issue. It informs the facts of the political viability of the member of Congress that we’re talking to. When our organizers go into a room, it’s not only, ‘Do it because it’s the right thing, and do it because it is fact,’ It’s also, ‘Do it because you might lose your seat and we’re going to tell you exactly how.”
This month, a law that ZeroUSA championed in Colorado–an “extreme risk protection order” law that allows a court to temporarily remove firearms from people who show signs that they pose a risk to themselves or others–successfully passed. ZeroUSA is now actively working in 15 states.
Rise Justice Labs is accepting applications for other activists to join the accelerator. “Our mission is to help everyday people pass their first law,” Nguyen says. The accelerator is carefully vetting the applications to find “people who can pass a law,” she says. They want to find people who can set aside political differences, show that they have the discipline to run a campaign, and who come directly from the community that’s affected by the law. It’s a fundamentally different model than most lobbyists take, since the motivation isn’t profit, but creating change. It’s broader, she says, than only implementing solutions for each specific issue. “When I go into work and when the team goes into work, we don’t think of ourselves as only changing the laws on the issues we care about. It’s a bigger picture for us. We think we’re fundamentally bringing democracy into the 21st century by making it accessible. We’re trying to help you find your place in a democracy that, after all, belongs to you.”