How Amanda Nguyen Is Redefining What a Civil-Rights Activist Is "Supposed to Look Like"
"I want to thank you for wearing red lipstick," civil-rights activist Amanda Nguyen recalled a fellow sexual-assault survivor telling her, after recognizing her while shopping at a plant store. "At first, I was like, 'Oh, this is a new one,'" Nguyen told POPSUGAR. But then, the woman went on to say, "No, I just want to say that it's so nice that you didn't give up who you are in order to fit whatever box there is or what an activist is supposed to look like."
That moment stood out as a powerful one for Nguyen. She explained that activists focused on sexual violence are often expected to "replay their trauma over and over again" and that there's "this kind of voyeurism, this idea, where [they] need to be perpetually sad." Nguyen, who founded the Rise organization and survivor coalition in 2014, has reset that expectation, and as a result, she's grateful her focus on "healing and joy" has resonated with people.
"You can absolutely take parts of your life and use them to make the world a better place."
Society has ways of defining what an activist might or might not look like, with their passions and interests simplified. But Nguyen contains multitudes. Her signature red lip, love of bold fashion, dream to go to space one day, immigrant upbringing, and own experience with an unfair justice system are just a few facets that inform her activism, which earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2019. "You can absolutely take parts of your life and use them to make the world a better place," she said.
Here are a few examples of how Nguyen has done just that: In early February, she shared a powerful video highlighting the then-recent hate crimes committed against Asian Americans. The clip instantly went viral, driving mainstream media outlets and people of influence to bring attention to the widely unreported incidents. While she admitted it's "exhausting" to consistently wake up to news of her community being attacked, she found hope in the positive responses to her video, particularly from those willing to help and spread awareness.
"The return on effort is extraordinary, you know?" she said. "I know that people do care." While discrimination against the APIA community has been exacerbated by ignorant rhetoric and misplaced blame during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfortunately not new and dates back to as early as the late 1800s when East Asian immigrants first arrived in the US. Yet this year, this moment, felt like an "inflection point" for Nguyen. "People can choose now whether or not they will speak up and what kind of future we want for our country." She added, "Is it possible that we live up to the creed, the promise of this country, and are able to continually push for a more perfect union at this moment? Each of us gets to decide, and I'm so glad that people in this moment are deciding to speak up and join."
Nguyen thinks visibility has been lacking, urging people to make the APIA community visible in any and every way, whether it's through amplifying the voices of those crying for help, learning about APIA history, asking others to join the fight, or donating to organizations working to combat hate. "It really does start with the self," she said. "It starts with everyone realizing the power they have in order to shape our democracy and our country."
While Nguyen's words are powerful for those outside of the community, they are a significant source of inspiration and a beacon of hope for Asian Americans like myself, particularly in moments of grief and anger. Most recently, as I grappled with processing the horrific hate crimes against primarily Asian American women in the Atlanta-area spa shootings, I kept thinking back to something she said in our interview: "It's OK to be scared. That fear, that grief is valid. But if you speak up and shine light to your truth — there might be a chance that there are trolls, and it's difficult and it's painful — but there also is an equal chance that people will step up and say, 'I am joining you in solidarity.'" These moving words have given me the strength to speak up and demand our stories be heard.
But when Nguyen shed light on the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in her viral video, she wasn't just pleading for acknowledgment from allies: she was calling for systemic change. This call is at the root of Rise, which Nguyen established after being betrayed by a broken criminal-justice system following her rape as an undergraduate student at Harvard University in 2013.
Under Nguyen's leadership, Rise has passed 33 laws impacting over 84 million people, becoming the most successful legislative reform movement in US history. After fighting to keep her own rape kit in the system past Massachusetts's six-month benchmark at the time, Nguyen's frustration fueled her efforts to literally rewrite the law, leading to the Survivors' Bill of Rights Act of 2016, which, among other protections, allowed survivors the right to have their rape kits organized and preserved long term. This also marked the first time the phrase "sexual assault survivor" ever appeared in federal code.
"When people ask, 'What gives you the courage to take on the US government or to speak up about your truth?,' it's quite simple. I draw from my heritage."
Nguyen's bravery and perseverance are awe-inspiring, and they're powered by her upbringing as the daughter of Vietnamese boat refugees. "There's no doubt that the immigrant experience has shaped the way that I interact with the world and how I interact with our legislative process," she said. "When people ask, 'What gives you the courage to take on the US government or to speak up about your truth?,' it's quite simple. I draw from my heritage — that urge and that power of existing — because [my parents] have fought so much for us to be here. If they had to go through so much in order to access these freedoms, it is my responsibility to actually access them."
Though Rise was born out of Nguyen's fight for civil rights in regard to sexual violence, the organization is now focused on all "systemic structures that have been gatekeepers of visibility," for example, our federal and local governments, schools, or Hollywood and mainstream media. Nguyen said Rise is "fighting not only for survivors to be heard, but fundamental access to democracy on a whole different set of issues," because, she stressed, "all justice is intersectional, and in order for us to advance, we cannot leave folks behind."
Rise puts that plan into action through a curriculum called Hopeanomics, which empowers and trains people to "pen their own civil rights into existence." Nguyen said, "We're not about being a voice for the voiceless; we're about passing that mic." In April 2019, the organization created the Rise Justice Labs, a training program that provides activists of any kind with tools and resources to pass legislation. (Rise has worked with Parkland survivors of Zero USA to help end gun violence and with Breaking Code Silence and Paris Hilton to fight institutional child abuse.) While anyone can apply for the accelerator program, they must be current members of the community they're advocating for, because, as Nguyen explained, "The people who have the solutions to the world's most pressing problems are the people who have that problem every day."
In an interesting twist, Nguyen's passion for her activism work goes back to her love of space. The Harvard graduate interned at NASA, has a background in astrophysics, and often refers to herself as a "civil-rights astronaut." Relevant to her self-appointed title is the "overview effect," which Nguyen described as "this psychological experience that many astronauts experience when they go to space for the first time and look back on Earth." She continued, "What many describe is a sense of awe, incredible terror, and humbleness because they realize that we're all on this rock together . . . They return to Earth as humanitarians, profoundly moved to help shape the world around them for the better."
This orbital perspective inspires Nguyen to continue fighting for her rights. And she's still not giving up on her dream of one day going to space: "You don't have to give up who you are and you don't have to give up your love in order to fight for what you care about."
If you or someone you know would like to speak with someone who is trained to assist sexual-assault survivors, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.