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In 2014, Amanda Nguyen set out to "rewrite the law" on protecting the civil rights of sexual assault and rape survivors through the founding of Rise, a nonprofit consisting of a coalition of sexual assault survivors and allies working to empower survivors. Two years later, in February 2016, legislation she helped draft was introduced in Congress; seven months later, former President Barack Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act into law.
"No one can make us feel invisible when we demand to be seen."
For Nguyen, the fight to keep survivors informed of their rights and to prevent rape kits from being destroyed has been an ongoing one. Nguyen was raped three years ago in the state of Massachusetts, and although she had a rape kit performed, she discovered it would be destroyed after six months if an extension request wasn’t filed.
“Every 6 months, I have to save my rape kit from the trash by filing an extension request to make sure that it is saved. I live my life according to the date of my rape to ensure that my access to justice is preserved - 6 months from my rape, 1 year from my rape, 18 months from my rape. These are the dates that must swirl through my head so that I can one day seek justice,” Nguyen wrote on her GoFundMe page in August.
Frustrated and re-traumatized by a broken justice system, Nguyen met with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to brainstorm legislation that would protect survivor rights on the federal level — the same legislation that is now law.
The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights protects the right to having the evidence of a rape kit preserved without charge for the duration of the statute of limitations; the right to be informed of rights, the right to a counselor, including the right to be informed no later than 60 days before the destruction of a rape kit, among other detailed rights.
Since the unanimous passage of the bill, it’s been the first time the word “sexual assault survivor” has appeared in federal law.
NBC Asian America spoke with Nguyen, who was recently recognized by Forbes as part of their annual "30 Under 30" feature, to talk about Rise, her speech at the Women's March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to protect the rights of all survivors.
Congratulations on being recognized in “Forbes' "30 Under 30” Law & Policy list. What was it like to receive that honor shortly after the legislation you helped draft — the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights — was signed into law?
I think the main thing I felt was just incredible gratitude to everybody who believed in these rights and in me. And [to be] recognized for the activism that not only I’ve done, but my team has done, it meant so much to me and to the community that we’re fighting for.
Can you discuss the process involved with crafting the language for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights? What does the bill explicitly state in terms of equal protection and rights for all sexual assault survivors?
Honestly, at the end of the day, [it] came down to being able to share the voices of real people whose lives are affected by these rights and bring those voices directly to members of Congress. Obviously we had already written the language of the bill and when we talked about these rights we went in and then worked together with everybody and from different sides of the issues and we started coalition building.
We started from a very personal place. I conceived the idea of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights when I encountered a broken criminal justice system. But it really was when I walked into this waiting room in my local area crisis center and I saw there were so many people there and I realized my story is not my own. I knew I had a choice: either I can accept the injustice or rewrite the law. And one of these things is a lot better than the other, and we rewrote it and we did that by researching, making sure we had all of the facts, the legal precedent, the economic regressions.
When we went into Congress I never had any questions. We would have an answer to it, and if we didn’t have an answer to that question, we would research it and turn it around very quickly. And then we also [introduced a] coalition bill — with that, I mean we worked with everybody across the aisle and also with law enforcement, with innocence groups, and again, most importantly, we brought the voices of people whose lives have been affected about this or care deeply about it and we showed how this is important.
You were invited as a speaker for the Women’s March on Washington. What was that experience like witnessing solidarity among strangers and marching alongside women and men fighting for access to health care, reproductive and equal rights? What were some of the main points you sought to carry forward and highlight in your speech?
The main thing I wanted to tell people is that they are not powerless. And that no one can make us feel invisible when we demand to be seen, and for any survivor and ally who’s listening, that they’re not alone. One of the most powerless things that could happen to anyone is rape and Rise is a group of rape survivors and allies who put together and organized and then convinced the entire U.S. Congress to — on the record — vote “yes” for these rights.
You delivered an empowering speech during the Women’s March on Washington which emphasized the message of hope for survivors and a call to action. What stuck out to you during the march?
It was so moving to me to give that speech and then also be with people and march with people in that way. For somebody who remembers still so vividly the despair and the loneliness of walking out of the hospital after I had been there for six hours to go through the rape kit and then to be on that stage and share the story of justice and hope and change with hundreds of thousands of people — I can’t even totally describe to you what that means. I’m still trying to process it.
You know what was interesting? I had noticed that when I said on stage, "I’m a rape survivor," [people] cheered and I thought that was strange but then I realized afterwards it was people who identified as survivors themselves sharing in solidarity, and that was really powerful to hear. But after the speech as I was marching with people and talking to people, it was just so hopeful. It was a scene of support, love, and solidarity and all of us taking refuge in our shared humanity.
You had mentioned in the past that you were determined to help rewrite the law after dealing with a broken criminal justice system. Can you share some of the hurdles and personal challenges you faced in ensuring that your rape kit would not be destroyed in the state of Massachusetts, where your case took place?
I think one of the biggest things was getting politicians to care. When I started this, nobody knew who I was. I was a rape survivor who’s trying to push for these rights and there were politicians who would literally tell me to my face that they had other issues that were more important, that they didn’t care, that they had a campaign to worry about.
I watched my own civil rights be debated upon its political feasibility for the benefit of the politician. What has helped me is realizing that, first of all, we’re on the right side of history. That this is still important and it’s for millions of people who need it. Every time that I do an interview, every time, there are survivors who read it and reach out and tell me how much it means just to see the issue being talked about and then further how much it means to have hope and that’s something that at the end of the day we were able to showcase to people in power.
These are not only numbers — human lives are attached to it. And to bring people and showcase their stories and its impact was really powerful.
In your research and in this ongoing fight, what did you discover in terms of the lack of standard procedures for survivors? What did you discover in terms of the loopholes and hurdles facing sexual assault and rape survivors?
The rights that were affected was untested kits being destroyed before the statute of limitations. Before the law was passed in Massachusetts where my case is, there was no way to actually extend it. And so I started researching what my rights were and I found, across America, there were these civil rights in [certain] states. Justice depends on geography. Had I been raped in say Texas, where they have this right, then that wouldn’t have happened to me. And these survivors in a few different states should not have two completely different sets of rights.
"We’re on the right side of history...this is still important and it’s for millions of people who need it."
And so that’s what spurred me — along with realizing there are so many people that are waiting — to start Rise. And there are obviously other rights that are in the bill and not all of the rights pertain to my case.
I sent out an email, and I said this to everybody I knew — I said, "Could you help me write a Survivor Bill of Rights for the state of Massachusetts?" Through research and through best practices to survivors and the issues that we are facing, we took the most non-controversial one, that everybody agreed on, and put it together. That became the most common sense bill and that’s how we were able to pass it unanimously through Congress.
Change.org and Rise partnered with Funny Or Die last year on "Even Supervillains Think Our Sexual Assault Laws Are Insane,” a video informing the public about the lack of comprehensive sexual assault laws using “supervillains” as characters. What was it like to turn to comedy as a way to shed light on a deeper issue and to really get people to take action?
Humor has a way of talking about difficult subjects without making it difficult. Humor opens up people to listen. Being able to talk about a difficult subject like sexual assault and rape, and use humor, was so helpful for us because it is a difficult subject to talk about. But because we were able to use these comedians to talk about how absurd these laws are, people were able to understand it.
You previously interned at NASA. What’s your next ‘mission’?
I really do want to discover an exoplanet and I am planning to do that at the same time as running Rise. And I do want to be an astronaut. One of the most powerful things for me is having mentors —one of my mentors, he was in the NFL before he became an astronaut, and now he’s going out and speaking about education [and STEM]. And he told me about his love for being able to do whatever it is you want to do. And when I told him I wanted to do Rise, that he would always be there for me wherever I am.
What can we expect in the coming months from Rise?
We need people to join the movement and by that, I mean anyone can. The strength of Rise has been a diversity of people who have been a part of our team. That means socially, economically, and professionally. If you are a comedian, you can be a part of this. If you’re an artist, you can be a part of this. You don’t have to be a lawyer to help pass these civil rights.
And we are now focused on creating a model of millennial advocacy. People can come to Risenow.US — we will have a platform where you can type in your address and type in how much time you have in that day. Say you have 30 minutes and Rise will give you tasks to do for 30 minutes so that you can contribute from wherever you are and whatever time you can give to the cause.
I really want people to understand that they are not powerless and they absolutely can make a difference in this country. In 2016, a group of young people did the impossible. We got Washington to unanimously work together and we did this in record time. A lot of social justice bills take 10-15 years, and .016 percent of bills are passed unanimously. [The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act was signed into law seven months after its introduction.] The way that it’s done is because people are passionate and people share their stories and again we were able to have such support and unanimity.
What I think is really special about what’s going on is not only are we fighting for these rights, but we are able to do this and do this again and again, not only on the federal level…we passed on the federal level and Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington and Virginia have also passed it too. But now as we are gearing up in 23 states, and if we’re able to do it again and again even more, what we’re creating is a model and that model can be used for other issues, too.
The last thing I want to say is that I’ve heard from a lot of [Asian Americans] about what it means to them to be in activism. I’ve heard from so many people — Asian Americans — about their own personal stories, and I am often the only person of color in meetings and I am honest, but I’m also proud that the Rise team makes a conscious effort to be diverse…and that’s how I think it’s evolving for all communities and empowering everybody to be in the room where it happens. Representation matters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.