A Social Change Star on the Rise

Amanda Nguyen has helped rewrite the law, shone a light on sexual assault among Asians and received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Amanda Nguyen
Amanda Nguyen

Born in Corona, Calif., Amanda Nguyen is the power behind the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights that was recently passed on the federal level.

Navigating the broken criminal justice system after her own rape, she knew it was time for a change. Rise, the national civil rights nonprofit she founded, drafted the bill, which is the 21st one in modern American history to pass unanimously. It has served as a model for 15 other laws protecting sexual violence survivors throughout the country. Nguyen was named a Forbes 30 Under 30, Foreign Policy magazine listed her as a Top 100 Leading Global Thinker, Marie Claire called her a Young Woman of the Year and global women’s media and technology company The Tempest named her  #1 Woman of Color Trailblazer. Previously, Nguyen was appointed by President Barack Obama to the United States Department of State as his Deputy White House Liaison. In 2018, she was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Nguyen currently lives in Washington, D.C.

You founded Rise at the age of 22. How did you get it going?

My own rights were at stake and no one seemed to know about this injustice. The early stages were simply sharing my story with anyone who would listen, from Uber drivers to Congressional interns. I did this until someone took me, my story and this cause seriously. We spent a 12-hour day on The Hill, going door-to-door trying to meet members of Congress. We didn’t have contacts or support when we first started. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.

Most people recognize a need for change, but seldom take it upon themselves to make it occur. What drove you to take on a feat as big as changing legislature?

Changing the law, for me, was a matter of survival. My own rights were at risk and I had a choice to make: I could either accept injustice or rewrite the law. While researching what rights were available to me, I was shocked to find sexual assault survivors did not have a baseline set of rights throughout the nation. Instead, depending on where the survivor lived, there was a patchwork set of rights and no state was fully protecting survivors. This absolutely needed to change. Justice should never depend on geography. That inspired me to act.

From establishing Rise to drafting the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and lobbying for it, what has been the most challenging part of the journey?

I don’t have the stereotypical characteristics of a person in power. I’ve had politicians debate the political feasibility of my civil rights in front of me. But through it all, having a deep conviction in the civil rights I believe in has been my North Star.

It must be difficult to stand up in front of politicians and convince them to listen. How did you pick yourself up and keep fighting in the face of rejection?

I have an incredible community of Risers (what we call volunteers at Rise) around me. Many of our Risers are survivors themselves, fighting for their own civil rights. Knowing that the work we’re doing is impacting millions of survivors nationwide and around the world fuels my fire. Every survivor story I hear stokes the flames and keeps me moving forward for justice.

You’ve inspired and empowered many people, women and men alike, to join your movement. Why do they think your cause is so imperative?

The experiences of survivors are traumatic, heartbreaking, frustrating, disappointing and unfair. Our stories are ridiculed, our motives and actions questioned. We are not considered equal to the people who perpetrate these crimes. The sheer powerlessness people feel following these experiences – or even hearing about these experiences – ignites survivors and allies into action.

Many survivors will never see justice in a court of law. But we’ve cleared a path and made legislative justice possible. This may be the only justice they ever see.

In an interview with Huffington Post, you touched on how “Yellow Fever” contributes to sexual violence toward Asians. Please elaborate on this. How does race tie into rape culture as a whole?

Women’s lives are often not valued with full human dignity. Women in general experience objectification, harassment, domestic violence, and sexual violence because sexism dehumanizes us.

Racism compounds those experiences.

Yellow fever, the objectification of Asian female bodies and the stereotype that Asian women are submissive, is an example of this. The exotification and hyper-sexualization of our bodies dehumanizes us and that dehumanization creates a greater chance for sexual violence.

Asian fetishism is not a compliment; it’s sexualized racism.

Asian Americans are seen as a people who won’t speak up when we’re wronged. Whether or not it’s true to the individual, that perception means we’re seen as easier targets. When sexual predators look for victims, they look for someone who is vulnerable.

Women of colour in general, not just Asian American women, have the added weight of being wary of potential partners who might be targeting us because of racist, preconceived notions about our bodies, personalities, and persons.

Race plays a big part in rape culture. Women are already silenced when it comes to being vocal about sexual violence. When you add race into the mix, it adds to whether other people believe that you were sexually violated (i.e. if you are from a race that’s hyper-sexualized, people may believe that you wanted it). It can be an added reason why your rapist targeted you, and it changes how others see you (as a pure victim who warrants sympathy, vs. a woman who isn’t believable). Class, gender, and sexuality all tie into how you are treated as a survivor, or potential victim, as well. All these factors tie into rape culture.

In Asian cultures, sexual assault is considered taboo and risk of stigma prevents victims from coming forward. Was this something you had to consider before going to the authorities? What gave you the strength to proceed?

It’s not just in Asian cultures that sexual assault is seen as taboo. Its taboo in American culture, and arguably, many other cultures as well. The risk of stigma is not a uniquely Asian thing. Even coming forward as a survivor for Hollywood celebrities with a lot of clout is hard. It’s just that it can be seen as MORE taboo in certain cases. Having a supportive community of people around me is what gave me the strength to proceed.

What can we do to change Asian society’s perception of rape survivors and get the much-needed conversation going?

We need to change general societal perceptions of rape victims. We all need to understand that it’s not the survivor’s fault, and that there isn’t anything that we as survivors could have changed, or done better to avoid the trauma that happened to us. Being a sexual assault survivor is not a choice.

In June, you were nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. What does this mean to you?

I shared some of my strongest thoughts in my senate hearing testimony: “When most people think about peace, the work that my team is engaged in may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the truth is for the estimated 35 per cent of women on Earth who are survivors of sexual violence, access to justice is a necessary prerequisite to true peace. Their lives are the invisible war zones that corrode human potential and hold back the promise of a just world. Their powerlessness is our shame.

This is a peace that we all – senator, citizen, advocate from any corner of the globe – can help deliver. We can hold a light up to this darkest corner of human experience, and allow survivors at last to be seen, to be heard, to be believed,

Other big news in your life is that you are an astronaut in training. How did that come about and what does the training involve? When will you go into space?

I’ve always been interested in science and space and fascinated with the cosmos. I’ll go into space once I’ve finished my mission here on Earth – equality for survivors under the law.

What’s next for you individually, and for Rise?

Rise will continue its core mission to pass the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights in the remaining 35 states, but we are also working on drafting and passing a United Nations General Assembly resolution to create a worldwide survivors’ bill of rights that will create, for the first time, a standard set of human rights for all survivors.

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