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Amanda Nguyen discusses intersectional activism

Survivor behind unanimously passed survivor rights bill talks bipartisanship, Asian American empowerment

While working as a State Department liaison to the White House, 25-year-old activist and rape survivor Amanda Nguyen squeezed in trips to the U.S. Senate during her lunch breaks to convince Congress to support her bill protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors.

“I wrote (the bill) as a matter of survival — (to pen) my own civil rights into existence,” said Nguyen at an event hosted by the Brown-RISD Vietnamese Students Association Friday. Nguyen never thought she would “suffer a (greater) injustice than being raped. But the criminal justice system was way worse for me,” she said.

The Survivors’ Bill of Rights H.R. 5578, largely written by Nguyen, was unanimously passed October 2016. The bill is one of only 21 bills in United States history to be unanimously passed by Congress. The bill gives sexual assault survivors the right to have rape kits — which are used to provide forensic evidence in criminal rape investigations — preserved for the duration of the case’s statute of limitations. The bill also provides survivors the right to be notified if their kit could potentially be disposed and the right to be informed of the results of forensic exams, according to the bill.

It usually takes over 10 years for a federal law to pass. But it took only seven months for this bill to pass in a very politically divided Congress during an election year, Nguyen said. The bill passed unanimously because “we were able to convince people that (sexual assault) wasn’t a blue or red issue — that if you care about justice, you would be a part of this.” Under President Trump’s administration, “the (lobbying) strategy is the same,” which is making “sure that your voices are heard” in an effective way.

Nguyen emphasized the importance of empathy and “recognizing the humanity of the other person,” even if you might not agree with some of their opinions. “When I’m talking to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), I’m not talking to a senator. I’m talking to Ted, whose aunt is a survivor,” Nguyen said. “The key thing is to be authentic in your truth and why it is that … you’re fighting so hard for an issue,” she added.

Since drafting and successfully lobbying for the federal law, Rise — a national nonprofit founded by Nguyen that is focused on sexual assault survivor rights — has been responsible for six laws and has been working with 29 states and three countries to pass bills.

Nguyen’s efforts started with one mass email “to everyone I knew,” she said. Nguyen received responses from people ranging from attorneys to coders, who asked how they could help.

The first bill Nguyen helped pass was in Massachusetts, where she was raped as a student at Harvard. Every six months, Nguyen had to fight to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed.

“When I went to research my options, I found out that there were huge irregularities in law by state,” Nguyen said. She was faced with a choice: “I suffer injustice, or I rewrite the law,” she said.

After being told that the bill was going to die because the Speaker of House wasn’t going to bring it up, Nguyen and her team spent 14 hours speaking at every single representative and senator’s office. At the end of that day, the speaker brought up the bill, which was then passed unanimously.

Nguyen and her team conducted careful research before speaking with any officials in order to present a very clear vision of how the bill would benefit them.

“The thing that will attract people, no matter how many numbers you throw at somebody, is a story,” Nguyen said. “A group of 20-something-year-olds … did something that major conglomerates pay literally millions of dollars for lobbyists to do.”

Rise is able to lobby so efficiently because of the authentic storytelling of her team, “which consists of sexual assault survivors and allies,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen highlighted the power of media in effectively connecting with large audiences. Rise worked with Will Ferrell’s comedy website Funny Or Die to create a video on sexual assault awareness that went viral. The video used humor and entertainment to “get the word out there” and educate people, Nguyen said.

“In social movements, trauma fatigue, especially in civil rights movements, is a real thing,” causing people to feel “bombarded consistently with bad thing after bad thing,” Nguyen said. “My deep belief in social movements is that movements are sustained on hope.” Therefore, Rise’s approach is designed “to (not only) show the truth of a story” but also present pragmatic solutions.

“Sometimes this work can get really tough,” Nguyen said. “Every time someone tells me their story, ... it’s another weight I hold, but it keeps my fire alive,” she said. During an Uber ride, a driver once began to cry when she explained what she does for a living.

“My daughter is a rape survivor,” the driver told her, Nguyen said. He stopped the car and said, “Thank you so much for fighting for my daughter. Has anyone told you that they love you today? I love you.”

“I think what has been really moving for me has been other people, other women of color, and also specifically Asian Americans or Asian people, who have reached out to me and expressed … how much it means to see an (Asian and/or Pacific Islander) person talk about these issues,” Nguyen said. “To be very frank, in the places and community I’ve grown up in, this is a very stigmatic issue,” Nguyen said.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’m in a room, talking about this issue, and I’m still the only person of color,” Nguyen said. “It’s important that we acknowledge people of color’s stories. We need more visibility, and that visibility is absolutely within our agencies.”

Kimberly Le ’19, who identifies as Vietnamese-American, sees a role model in Nguyen. “I believe in the empowerment of Asian Americans and Asian American women,” she said, adding she was inspired by how outspoken Nguyen was about “her civil rights being unprotected,” she said.

“I think being able to bring her here … showed that as young people, we are able to make the change that we want to see in the world,” said Arthur Tran ’18, co-president of the Brown-RISD VSA.

On March 22, Rise is launching a public service announcement with Tatiana Maslany, who starred in Orphan Black. Rise is also launching an online platform that same day, which is like an “Uber or Lyft” that connects people to help survivors, she said.

Nguyen’s talk was funded by the University Finance Board, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, Brown Center for Students of Color, Pembroke Center and Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, said Brandon Le ’18, executive co-chair of the Brown-RISD VSA.


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