Amanda Nguyen, Civil Rights Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee
Every 6 months, Amanda Nguyen had to fight to make sure her rape kit wasn’t destroyed. She wrote the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights so that no other person would have to live through the same trauma. Now, as the founder of Rise and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she’s sparking a global movement that’s recognizing the epidemic of sexual violence and empowering women and men to step up.
Founder of Rise
From rape survivor to Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Here’s how Amanda Nguyen’s fight for her civil rights inspired a global movement.
Amanda Nguyen, Civil Rights Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee
Why She’s a MAKER: She’s an aspiring astronaut, civil rights leader, and she’s teaching others how to raise their voice. After being raped at Harvard and fighting for her dignity as a survivor, she knew she had to fight for justice. After creating the first-ever bill of rights for sexual assault survivors, she has sparked a global movement. In 2018, Nguyen was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, signifying that her work is crucial to the progress of humanity.
Fighting for Justice: Nguyen dedicated her life to ensuring that fellow sexual abuse survivors wouldn’t have to live through the same trauma that she did. “The worst thing that happened to me wasn't being raped it was being betrayed by my country's criminal justice system.” With the massive backlog of rape kits in the U.S., it was nearly impossible in some states to ensure that a kit was tested, let alone even track down its location. New York City alone reportedly has an estimated 17,000 untested rape kits. Under Massachusetts law, Nguyen had to locate her own rape kit and file an extension to preserve the evidence in the hopes that, one day, it would be tested and her case would be brought to justice. If she didn't take matters in her own hands, there was a chance her kit would be lost or worse—destroyed.
Rewriting the Law: “I knew that I had a choice, I could accept injustice or rewrite the law and I chose to rewrite it.” In 2015, she wrote the first-ever federal protections for sexual assault survivors, called the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. In a feat that has only happened 21 times in modern history, the bill passed Congress unanimously.
Building a Movement: "We're penning our civil rights into existence." What started as one story turned into a global movement that’s reaching all corners of the world—and its 1 billion survivors of sexual violence.
Putting Marginalized Stories in the Spotlight: Nguyen’s fighting to make sure that those most impacted by sexual violence, especially women of color, are put at the center of the discussion. "The most important and most powerful tool we have is our voices. Everyone can use theirs to fight for what they believe in," says Nguyen. "No one is powerless when we come together and no one is invisible when we demand to be seen."
Running on Hope: “The difference between dreams and hope is that hope means you have a plan to achieve what it is that you want to achieve… and movements are sustained on hope.” Nguyen says. “At the end of the day, you're fighting for something bigger than yourself, for millions of people that you will never meet. Having a deep belief in the civil rights you are fighting for—that's what will get you through the finish line.”
AMANDA NGUYEN: People ask me, well, why is the system so broken? And the honest answer to that is that the law has a gender. And that gender isn't female. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: When I was a kid, I loved space. I wanted to be an astronaut. People would often joke that I'd run into things because I was too busy looking up at the sky. My parents were refugees from Vietnam. And so I grew up understanding quite viscerally, the cost of freedom and what that means, and to never take that for granted. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: I have never fully understood the definition of lonely, as much as I did when I walked out of that hospital after having my rape kit done. And when I started researching my rights, I found that I was faced with these obstacles to pursue justice. That route takes years on average. And what was very evident to me is that I had to make a choice, justice or my career. Leland was like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I joked, I want to be president astronaut. I remember talking to Leland about whether or not I would still be able to pursue my astronaut dreams if I decided to fight for my own civil rights. And Leland says to me, space is going to be there. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: The Survivor Bill of Rights includes the right for your rape kit to not be destroyed before the statute of limitations-- the right to have a copy of your police report-- and the right to have access to your own patient medical records. When I first started, it was hours upon hours of me telling my personal story to politicians, who did not care. I mean, some people straight up told me that they had a re-election to worry about. I went home and I cried because it was so tough. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: I remember standing on the balcony overseeing the floor of the House when the votes were cast. The speaker called in a roll call vote to prove that our country could stand together on something. It was an incredible moment. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: In some countries, when a survivor becomes pregnant as a result of her rape, she is forced out of the education system. In some countries, there's a bribery fee to report your rape. I mean, imagine a 14-year-old who has to do that. That's not feasible. And that's not right. [MUSIC PLAYING] AMANDA NGUYEN: We are but a blink of an eye in the universe, so what are we going to do with our flicker on Earth? I'm going to use mine to fight for rights, and go to space. [MUSIC PLAYING]
- I was in this Uber ride where the driver was this kind of big, intimidating guy. And he didn't really talk to me. But at the end of the ride, he saw that I was going to the United States Senate. And he asked me why. So I told him. And this once intimidating man just started crying. Tears just welled up in his eyes. And he turned to me and he said, my daughter is a rape survivor. And what you're describing, she went through something really similar. When he stopped the car, he said, can I shake your hand? Thank you so much for fighting for my daughter. Has anyone told you that they love you today? I love you. And I'll never forget that dad.
- When I was working in finance, I did it because that's what everybody else was doing, And I said OK, well, I'll give this a try. And I did not like it. I literally watched Makers videos. I watched them over, and over, over again. And just watching these incredible women, heroes of mine, Hillary Clinton, talk about what motivated them gave me the strength to pursue my own dreams.
- I have the great fortune of being with a wonderful community at NASA headquarters, where I worked. And I met another maker, Leland Melvin. He came up to me and was like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I joked, I want to be President Astronaut. And he was like, oh yeah? Cool. Let's talk about that. I went to his office, and he delved into what are your plans to get there? And he really cared. And then he told me that he didn't think he would be an astronaut until another astronaut inspired him. I think it's so important that people, especially young people of color get support. And to have had that from Leland changed my life.
AMANDA NGUYEN: There are so many countries that still don't recognize rape as an issue to prioritize. Many violent extremists use sexual violence as a way to radicalize people into becoming suicide bombers, especially in cultures where honor-- or whatever they define honor as-- is held to be the standard to live. Being able to rip away that honor by raping someone and then offering a solution or path to redemption through acts of terror is, again, a standardized technique. And so when we're looking at the effects of sexual violence, it isn't only in terms of how it affects women. Men, children-- everyone is truly affected. [MUSIC PLAYING]
- In response to so many people reaching out from all over the world, expressing that the Survivor Bill of Rights is something that they want to work on, too, in their own countries, my team and I are writing a worldwide Survivor Bill of Rights. That's taking the form of a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. Leaders from every single country can absolutely make a difference by signing our Change.org UN petition, and advocating for the Survivor Bill of Rights worldwide. Signatures here really do matter. In many countries when a certain number of signatures is hit, their parliament or their government body, has to actually debate the issue. And so the more signatures we get, the closer we are to having to talk about these issues. And prioritize them. v
- When I found out I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, it was like lightning went through me. I think my eyes kind of dilated. It was a shock. But I also felt incredible humility, you know? How could one have ever guessed, from the very beginning, that this is where it could have gone, and did go? I also felt just incredibly grateful and lucky. Because there are so few activists who ever get a chance to have a voice. To fight, to win, and then to be credited for it. You know? And I am just so grateful to the army of people who have supported me. Because no one gets to where they are alone.
- I have two burning questions that I wake up every morning to. It's what is our place in the universe? And where am I going to do about it? Space makes me feel both so humbled and special at the same time. Because when you at the sky you see all these lights. And that star light has traveled billions of years. That photon has traveled all this way to reach your eye. We are but a blink of an eye in the universe. But also we're able to be cognizant, and love, and understand, and process our life. So what are we going to do with our flicker on earth? I'm going to use mine to fight for rights. And go to space.
- Hillary Rodham Clinton, who I watched on repeat, over, and over, and over again in a Makers video, wrote to congratulate me on the Nobel Peace Prize nomination. All I want to do is tell her how grateful I am. Because I don't think that a lot of women get to see someone try to be whatever it is that they want to be. I was able to watch her and her story. And just be so inspired by it. There are so many people who come before, who have created the pathway and cleared it, so that I could be here. And I'll never forget the challenges and the sacrifices that other people have had to go through.
- My heroes are Leland Melvin and Terry Crews. Because both of these men, who are incredible human beings, incredibly accomplished, are both public survivors of sexual assault. The most important thing that one can do for survivors is believe them. Because it is incredibly scary to go public. Especially survivors that, again, may not fit the mold of what one thinks or society thinks survivors look like. When male survivors come forward they absolutely need to be believed. And I am so grateful to both Leland Melvin and Terry Crews for talking about their experience and then channeling that experience into, not only representation, but justice.
- Being authentic really means accepting who you are. I think that's one of the most difficult things that we all come to terms with, or try to at least. I'm a huge nerd and I own it. I'm a rape survivor and I own it. I want to be an astronaut and I own that. And I think that when we grow up, were inundated with labels and things that people tell us, well this is how you're supposed to be. But trust your gut. And as long as you're driven by kindness, I think you'll be all right.
- The overview effect is a psychological, cognitive shift that happens to many astronauts when they go into space for the first time and see Earth. It's this feeling they describe as the full definition of awesome. So being in awe of this pale blue dot that contains all life that has ever lived and died. And so what astronauts describe is that you cannot see man-made borders in space. But what you can see and understand is how connected we all are on this Spaceship Earth. And so, the worldwide Survivor Bill of Rights is predicated on this principle that justice should not depend on geography.
- One of the most moving messages that I got was after I was nominated, and this Vietnamese American woman had written in saying that she had to translate Nobel Peace Prize for her parents. To which I was like, what does that translate to in Vietnamese? It's just the small things that make it real. But getting letters from women in Vietnam as well, and hearing about what it means to them to see someone who looks like them talking about issues that are difficult to talk about, and winning. That has been incredibly moving to see.