“Hopeanomics”: Amanda Nguyen on Making Meaningful Change

Photo Courtesy of Forbes

Han Do

AS Beat Reporter

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, social justice activist and entrepreneur Amanda Nguyen gave a lecture on “Hopeanomics” and how grassroots organizing can create change. 

Ms. Nguyen, who is a Harvard graduate and sexual assault survivor, helped draft the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which was unanimously passed in 2016. 

After her experience of sexual assault in her own dorm room, Nguyen realized she had a choice: either accept the injustice toward rape victims or rewrite the law. She chose the latter. 

According to Nguyen, the Bill of Rights ensures that sexual assault victims are aware of their rights, that their rape kit is not destroyed, and that they have their own copy of their police report, among other important rights. 

During the lecture, Nguyen delivered a crash course on community organizing. She shared strategies ranging from “gamifying” your organization efforts to looking out for arbitrary deadlines and restrictions. 

One important but unspoken rule, according to Nguyen, is that the majority party must be the sponsor of your bill. This will significantly impact the chances of your legislation getting passed. 

Passing a bill into law is no easy feat, and for Nguyen, it involved constantly being told no. She has met a few politicians who were “brutally honest,” which was “refreshing,” Nguyen said. 

“They said things like, ‘I sympathize with [you], but this isn’t going to help me get reelected,’” Nguyen said. 

For Amanda Nguyen and her employees at Rise, a civil rights organization she founded that teaches grassroots organizing and offers grants to activists, it is important to practice “radical empathy,” which she said means sitting with someone who “might not see the humanity in you but you are seeing the humanity in them.” 

In order for her bill to pass unanimously, Nguyen said she had to work with a lot of people and politicians whose views and opinions were very different from her own, but she had “met them where they are.” 

It is by building trust, holding space for people, and doing true grassroots organizing that she was able to make progress in states such as Alabama, where progressive issues seem “intractable,” Nguyen added. 

Something people might not know about Amanda Nguyen is her background in astrophysics and that she wanted to be an astronaut. Nguyen speaks of the “overview effect,” which resembles a kind of shift in awareness that astronauts experience when they go to space and everything is so small that they are able to gain a completely different perspective. 

But you do not have to go to space to experience that “overview effect,” Nguyen said. For her, it was being driven to the Senate building by an Uber driver whose daughter was also a victim of sexual assault and who shook her hands and thanked her for the work she was doing.

Regarding what she thinks makes her organization Rise different, Nguyen said it was “the ability to let people go.” This means having a clear campaign structure and deadlines but still allowing people to take breaks and “tap out” when they have burnout. 

​​“We have what we call a no shame, no guilt policy,” Nguyen added.

Nguyen recalled that when asked where her strength came from, she often attributes it to her mother, who was the first woman in her rural village in Vietnam to go to college, as well as a boat refugee when Saigon fell. 

“[My mom] says that the only thing that got her through was hope, the audacity to hope and to live. You are so moved to take a risk that you believe so deeply that the future has something better that awaits you because you are going to create that future,” Nguyen said. 

The takeaway that Nguyen hopes everyone got out of her talk is that, no matter how politicized an issue is, you can build hope and that community organizing works. In fact, that is the reason she has been able to remain so “pathologically optimistic.”

“I have witnessed democracy working. I’ve witnessed grassroots organizing working, [and] that gives me hope.” Nguyen said.