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How Shannon Watts went from stay-at-home mom to founder of the largest gun violence prevention org in the U.S.

The founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America explains how she found her voice and gives her best tips on how you can too, especially if you’re considering a new career after taking time off to raise kids.
Shannon Watts is the founder of the gun safety group, Moms Demand Action, the nations largest grassroots organization fighting to end gun violence.
Shannon Watts is the founder of the gun safety group, Moms Demand Action, the nations largest grassroots organization fighting to end gun violence.Andre Chung / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Shannon Watts was a stay-at-home mom of five folding laundry in Zionsville, Indiana in December 2012 when she turned on the television and watched the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shooting story unfold 800 miles away in Newtown, Conn.

Saddened, angered, and fed up with her own and others’ complacency in the face of seemingly endless mass shootings, Watts decided that it was time to do something. The next day, she created a Facebook page that began with the sentence, “This site is dedicated to action on gun control — not just dialogue about anti-gun violence.” She urged women to join her in organizing a Million Mom March. “I started this page because, as a mom, I can no longer sit on the sidelines. I am too sad and too angry.”

At the time, she only had 75 friends on Facebook and an inactive Twitter handle. But, within days, she had a national following and the makings of a grassroots movement. Thousands rallied for her march on Washington the next month, and within a few months, hundreds of volunteers from around the country were lobbying the halls of Congress. “Overnight I went from that lifestyle that I’d acclimated to at home to being busier than I’d ever been in my career. It was a very jarring transition.”

The organization she founded, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, now has a chapter in every state, hundreds of thousands of volunteers and nearly six million supporters, which exceeds the membership of the National Rifle Association.

Shannon Watts speaks about gun violence in schools during a news conference on Capitol Hill.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

“I really was ready to take something on,” Watts told Know Your Value. “I just never imagined this would be it.”

Career pivots like Watts’ is a subject Mika Brzezinski and I extensively discuss in our new book, “Comeback Careers: Rethink, Refresh, Reinvent Your Success — At 40, 50, and Beyond.”

It’s part of the reason I was so drawn to Watts’ story and wanted to find out more. Watts attributed her movement’s success to the strength and power of moms. She also explained how she found her voice, and how you can too.

“Moms make good activists”

Since 2012, Moms Demand Action has had major success at the ballot box, in state legislatures, and in corporate America. Watts said the organization has been effective because mothers make great activists.

“You may not see yourself as an agent of change. (Yet.),” Watts wrote in her 2019 book “Fight Like a Mother.”

“After all, you’re probably plenty busy taking care of your kids and making a living. You might think you don’t have the time, energy, or guts to be an activist…Stop that! You have so much potential to effect change - more than you know,” she added in the book.

Before Watts decided to be a stay-at-home mom, she had spent a more than a decade in public relations. Her executive and communications skills have come in handy, she noted, but she it is being a mom that makes her a great activist.

“I always refer to us as multitasking mofos. I can do a million things at once and do it really well,” she told me. “I think that is a unique skill set for moms because you have to do so many things at the same time and you can’t let any of those balls drop, because people’s lives depend on it.

“I think there is also something to the fierceness of protecting your kids. I never felt this fierceness before I became a mom,” Watts said. “I bet on that being the emotion that would win the day. The NRA had made gun extremists afraid that their guns would be taken away, but I bet that 80 million moms in this country, regardless of political party, were afraid that their children would be taken away.”

Don’t listen to the naysayers: “Build the plane while you are flying it”

The former PR and communications executive by her own admission had limited knowledge of guns and gun policy when she made her Facebook call for action. But she didn’t let that stop her.

“I can’t tell you the amount of times in the early days when people would call me or reach out to me and tell me, ‘Oh, you’re not the person to do this’ or ‘This already exists’ or ‘You can’t do it well, There’s no way this will ever work,’” she told me. “I was cold calling people for advice, and I decided to ignore [the advice from those who] said I shouldn’t do it, because my gut told me I should and [instead] just listen to all the other advice about how to do it, not whether I should.”

Watts continued, “… If I had listened to [those critics], I wouldn’t have started it. If I had said ‘I really need to be prepared here, I need to make sure all my t’s are crossed and my i’s are dotted before I jump in — I wouldn’t have started it.”

Don’t be afraid of failure —Learn from it

Watts said that women need to stop fearing failure and instead use it as a learning tool.

“Men don’t have that same fear factor,” said Watts. “I have come to learn that failure is feedback. When you fail, you need to take it into account and use that feedback to learn how to keep it from happening again.”

And when an inevitable setback does happen, Watts said the group’s organizers practice “losing forward.”

“When we lose a battle, for example in a state house, we think about all the ways we actually won,” Watts explained. That might mean taking note that the group grew in size or that it created new, meaningful relationships with lawmakers. “Whatever it is we learned, we try to categorize that so that the next time we will win,” she said.

“There is a moral imperative for women to run for office”

Watts found her voice, and she’s now fueling others to find theirs.

“I think there is a moral imperative [for women] to run for office, especially right now. Women only hold about 20 to 25 percent of the 500,000 elected positions in this country, and as the saying goes, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.’ I have spent a lot of time in state houses in the past couple of years and I have learned that lawmakers, 80 percent of whom are men, are not rocket scientists,” said Watts.

“Every year, more and more of our volunteers and gun violence survivors run for office and win,” noted Watts. Now an active board member of Emerge America, an organization that recruits and trains women to run for office, Watts has been encouraging her Moms Demand Action volunteers to move from shaping policy to making it. “I do believe that the skills that make moms good activists also makes them good lawmakers,” she said.

Take, for example, Lucy McBath, who was spurred to activism after losing her 17-year-old son to gun violence in 2012. McBath spent years advocating to local, state and federal legislators and was a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action. In 2018, McBath ran and won in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and now works tirelessly in Congress to enact gun violence prevention laws.

“It is incredibly rewarding that we’ve created this organization that makes women feel empowered,” said Watts.