On this episode
We know big problems require big solutions. But change almost always starts small, with one person rolling up their sleeves and deciding to go all in. In this episode of Tilted, we talk to two people who did exactly that. Jamie Margolin and Shannon Watts both started grassroots movements aimed at addressing huge environmental and social challenges. They share stories from their early days as activists, tips for starting or joining a movement, and suggestions for driving change in your own life.
More about our guests:
- Jamie Margolin is a Colombian-American writer, community organizer, and the founder of Zero Hour, an international youth climate justice movement that led the first Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C., and 25 other cities around the world. Youth To Power, her debut book, is a guide to changemaking, with advice on pitching op-eds, organizing successful events and peaceful protests, utilizing media to spread a message, and sustaining long-term action.
- Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country and is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, with nearly six million supporters. In addition, Shannon is an active board member of Emerge America, one of the nation’s leading organizations for recruiting and training women to run for office.
A few things you’ll learn:
- Pinpoint your “why.” What makes this issue important to you? What’s your vision for a better future? As Jamie said, you need to hold on to that—it’s easy to lose sight of it in the day-to-day work of building a movement.
- Apply the skills you already have. If you’re an artist, scientist, marketing expert, or computer whiz, share those skills and find a way to use them in service of the movement.
- Take care of yourself, and ask for help. Driving change doesn’t have to be a solo effort. Find other people who share your passion, whose skills complement yours, and who can take the baton when you need a break.
Whether you’re listening to this episode with friends or your Circle, these questions are designed to help you dig deeper into the topic of creating change in your community.
- Name one or more causes you care about, and “pinpoint your why”—why is this issue important to you personally, and what’s your vision for a better future?
- Take inventory of your skills, and think about how you might be able to use them as an activist. What are some unique things you could contribute to a movement?
- How do you cope with setbacks? How might you “lose forward” the next time you face a challenge?
Rachel Thomas (00:06):
Welcome to Tilted: A Lean In Podcast. Tilted brings you conversations at the intersection of gender and culture. We dig into topics we’re curious about, highly people and stories that inspire us, and we hope inspire you too and share expert advice to help you make the playing field a little less tilted. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In.
Today on Tilted, we’re talking to two women who started movements to build a better future, Jamie Margolin and Shannon Watts. I’m excited to bring you their reflections on what keeps them going, even when it gets tough, along with their advice for how we can all make a difference in the causes we care about.
First, you’ll hear from Jamie Margolin. Jamie started advocating for action on climate change in her hometown of Seattle when she was just 14. Two years later, she co-founded the youth climate action organizations Zero Hour and organized the 2018 Youth Climate Action March in Washington, DC. Jamie has become a leading voice on climate change. She’s even testified in front of Congress, and she’s an inspiring example of what it means to fight for what you believe in, even when it’s hard.
Just a quick note that we recorded these conversations prior to the COVID-19 crisis and the protest for long overdue racial justice. So our guests don’t touch on those topics. But I think you’ll agree their advice is still more relevant than ever.
So Jamie, to kick things off, for people who don’t know what Zero Hour is, could you walk us through what it is and why you started it?
Jamie Margolin (01:42) :
Zero Hour is a youth climate justice organization that I started in 2017 after there was continual worsening of the climate crisis by politicians and not a proper response to the climate justice activism that I was doing in my city of Seattle for a very long time. So I was organizing and mobilizing for about a year as a local activist in Seattle, and no one was really paying attention to the work that I was doing. Back in 2016, 2017, being a youth climate activist, doing this work, it wasn’t considered cool. It wasn’t something that people paid attention to.
Around 2017, it was a perfect storm of things. So there was Hurricane Maria, which was a climate worse than disaster. There was Hurricane Harvey, which was a climate worse disaster, and then the hurricanes and The Bahamas and all the things that were happening, but there wasn’t a proper media response. The media wasn’t turning it like, “Oh, this is a climate crisis.” They were just saying, “Wow, what a big hurricane. I wonder why that happened.” Then on top of that, there were these massive wildfires in my home city of Seattle. Well, no, the wildfires weren’t in Seattle, but the wildfires were in Canada, and they were blowing over the city of Seattle, and they covered the city in a thick layer of smog. So it looked very apocalyptic. It really gave me really bad headaches, and it was just really hard to breathe and just exist, and that was really, and nothing like that I’d ever happened before.
These wildfires were caused by hotter and drier climates, thanks to the climate crisis. So it’s really an example of this issue. So all of these things were happening. Then on top of that, Donald Trump denounced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords. So after that, it was like, “Enough is enough. I need to do something big.” So I posted on my social media, which only had a couple of followers at the time that I was going to start a youth climate march, and I asked, “Who’s with me?” I got a couple of responses, one from a girl named Nadia Nazar in Baltimore, and then I roped in a few other kids, and we started this youth climate justice organization called Zero Hour to organize these youth climate marches.
So it took us about a year to really grow the organization, establish who we were, get people on board. I had no idea how to start an organization, but I put together a platform of what would the youth need in order to solve the climate crisis? But July 2018, we marched on Washington, and in 25 cities around the world, there were also marches organized in solidarity with us that turned out to be Zero Hour chapters. Then we also had a Youth Climate Lobby Day, day before the marches, and so we met with 47 Senate offices. So we met with almost the entire Senate, and we delivered our demands before we marched. So that was a really powerful action.
Then after the march, that was really the launch of our movement. People paid attention. After that, the movement kept on growing. A few weeks after the march, Greta Thunberg was inspired to start her strike, which I later learned was partially inspired, or at least the groundwork was laid by the Zero Hour marches and movements. So that’s really cool. Then we’ve just been instrumental behind all the United States climate strikes that have been happening. I put on a youth climate summit in Miami, Florida, where we trained over 350 people to be climate justice activists in their community, and we’ve done tons of different actions, education campaigns, all sorts of work. Then this year, we’re really focused on voter turnout.
Rachel Thomas (05:01):
You spoke to this a little bit, but I’m always curious, what’s the moment where you go from an idea to, I’m actually going to make it happen?.
Jamie Margolin (05:11):
In terms of turning the idea for a youth climate marches into a reality, the turning point was really, and the issue gets urgent enough. You just kind of have to close your eyes and say, “Screw it. I’m just going to try.” That moment of just taking the plunge is really scary, but you have to do it. The thing is that taking the plunge isn’t immediately rewarded. For most of the time, no one’s paying attention still. It wasn’t like I announced it and everyone was immediately like, “Yes, let’s do this.” It took a lot of slow building that was really grueling, and we weren’t sure if we’d have any results. So it’s pretty difficult.
Rachel Thomas (05:41):
I know a couple of people reached out early on and became your co-founders. Do you think you could have done it without them? Or was that little band core to making it happen?
Jamie Margolin (05:50):
The little band was core to making it happen. I’m a person who finds a way, no matter what, but really marches. Movements are things that you can’t do alone. So I couldn’t start a movement alone. You need people to start the movement with you.
Rachel Thomas (06:02):
Was there a moment where you said, “This is working”? You looked around and were like, “I can’t believe I’ve done this. It’s actually working. It’s what I thought it would be”?
Jamie Margolin (06:11):
It’s difficult to say that because in organizing, and maybe this is just my mindset, it’s always like, “Okay, that was great. What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?” There have been a few moments, a few speeches that I’ve given, kind of really big crowds, or I’m like, “Damn, this is cool.” But there are so many things running through my mind are like, “I have to send this email. I have to do that.” That has been difficult to find a moment to step back and be like, “This is working.” Because the work just never stops.
Rachel Thomas (06:36):
I think it’s amazing that at 14, you became an activist. My son is 14. He’s about to turn 15, and I wish I could get a little activism fired up in him. Do you think it’s made it harder? Is there some advantage to being young?
Jamie Margolin (06:50):
I think there’s been an advantage because right now we’re at a turning point where being a young activist is something that people listen to. You have a certain level of moral high ground when you’re young, because people can’t just come at you and be like, “Oh, it’s just your job to say that,” because no, it’s not. There are ups and downsides. There’s also the downside of going to school, so having to juggle that.
Rachel Thomas (07:09):
Is it weird to have to go like, on one hand, you’re fighting to save the planet and doing really amazing things like testifying in front of Congress and leading movements, and then you have to go to your math homework? Is that hard?
Jamie Margolin (07:21):
It’s not weird. I’m not like, “Why am I doing my math?” It’s just normal. The switch between school and work is normal to me because that’s just my life.
Rachel Thomas (07:30):
For everybody listening who hopefully has a little spark that there’s something they want to be an activist about, how did they get started? What’s your best advice?
Jamie Margolin (07:37):
I talk about this in the book called the youth to power, your voice and how to use it, which is a guide to being a young activist and organizer. But the way to really start becoming an activist and really getting involved is first things first, pinpoint your why. Why are you doing this? What is your main issue? What is your thing? What’s the driving fire, the motivation behind what you do, because you need to hold onto that because it’s going to be easy to lose sight of that very quickly. Then you just have to take the first step. It’s really easy with the internet and social media now to just find an organization that does the work you want to do and to volunteer yourself.
Show up to a meeting. A lot of times you can find Facebook events or on Instagram, they’ll just post like, “Hey, we’re doing a rally at this time.” Show up to the rally and then meet the organizers and see if you want to get involved. Or maybe if you’re an artist, start doing art about a cause that you care about and really promote that and things like that and maybe partner with an organization to promote your art or to do art for the organization to help uplift their cause. Zero Hours is always looking for new artists. Take what you’re already good at, whether you’re an artist, whether you’re really into science, whether you’re an engineer, whether you’re really good at medicine, or you’re a good dancer or whatever, and then take that and apply it to an issue that you care about and an organization that works on that issue because they’re often looking for all sorts of skills. Movement organizing isn’t just marching in the street, yelling. You need the artists, the scientists, the doctors, everyone.
Rachel Thomas (08:57):
As part of writing the book, you talked to other activists. Were there any common threads that kind of bubbled up?
Jamie Margolin (09:02):
I guess common threads that bubble up within all of the activists were most of the people that I interviewed were women, so handling sexism, handling racism within your work and within the movements and things like that. So that was also a common thread of how your identity shapes the work that you do because a lot of the people that I interviewed were members of marginalized identities that either that was the source of their activism, or they were doing something else, but they had to work twice as hard because of their identities or their skin color or whatever.
Rachel Thomas (09:31):
A lot of activists are women. Not all. Of course, there’s activists of all genders. But do you have a theory as to why so many women become activists?
Jamie Margolin (09:39):
Yes. Gina McCarthy said this quote, and then I repeated it when I won BBC 100 Women of the Year. It was put in the quote graphic, “Climate change is a manmade problem, which is why women should rule the world.” As partially a joke, but it’s partially not a joke because here’s the thing. I really recommend reading a book called The Chalice and the Blade, which pretty much talks about how all of the issues in our world can be dated back to patriarchy and not just about men ruling, but about the whole system of patriarchy. It’s not men as themselves as the problem, but the system that was created by men that is patriarchal and not just for men, but it’s just masculine in its way of extraction and just really a lot of masculine energy that needs to be balanced. So I think that the main reason why most activists are women is that no matter where you are in the world, women are always the second class.
So other than with a few exceptions of women run places and tribes and things like that, everywhere in the world, women are second-class citizens. Obviously, it’s a lot worse, for example, in the United States for women of color than white women. So not all women are on an equal playing field. But no matter what country you’re in, it is a patriarchy. Every single country as a whole, except for a few tiny tribes or societies is a patriarchy. So if you’re coming from the agenda of just constantly being put down or overlooked or assaulted, I feel like there’s going to be more of a drive to really be more aware of the world around you. Women of color have to work 20 times harder than anyone to get to the same place that someone else has to get to. So you kind of have to be an advocate and an activist for yourself, no matter what.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice. You don’t have the privilege to not be an activist in it. A lot of women don’t have that privilege to not be an activist. Within the climate movement, the climate crisis is a result of the patriarchy. Every single fossil fuel industry from the beginning was run by men, and it’s not like if women were doing that, it would be better. So it’s not about the men running the companies, but it’s about the patriarchal system in itself of extraction, of greed. Patriarchy isn’t just men in charge. It’s also a way of existing. It’s a way of taking. It’s a mindset. That was instituted when you have an unbalanced society that only values one gender. The climate crisis really is a result of patriarchy.
So if you think about it, fighting a climate crisis is feminist if you do it right. A lot of the solutions to the climate crisis, especially in the developing world is the empowerment of women and having all these UN reports show that 80% of people displaced by the climate crisis are women, 80%. That’s not a small amount. There’s a reason for that because if you are put down by society economically, socially, and all the ways that women are, then you’re going to be a lot less likely to recover from a climate disaster. When the cards are stacked against you, you kind of have to be an activist.
Rachel Thomas (12:24):
As a mom, myself, I just want to know, how does someone raise you? You’re amazing. You’re an activist. What have your parents done to kind of free you up to do all this amazing work or encourage you?
Jamie Margolin (12:36):
They never encouraged me to do it. They just never stopped me from doing it. When I first got involved with politics, it wasn’t like my parents like, “Oh, we should go volunteer at the campaign office.” I was like, “I found something. Can you drive me?” Then they were like, “Okay.” It wasn’t like them pushing me into this. It was me dragging them into this. It’s quite the opposite. It’s not a matter of they push me into it or raise me to do it, but it’s more of they didn’t stop me from doing it. So they didn’t clip my wings. They didn’t try to hold me back.
So what’s next for you? It sounds like you’re doing a million things.
Jamie Margolin (13:06):
Yeah. So Vote4OurFuture is a campaign that Zero Hour launched in partnership with an organization called the National Children’s Campaign. We are launching a fellowship initiative for people. We’re working on hiring some organizers in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, and Philly to turn out the vote and do a lot of deep community organizing there around the climate and around voting.
Rachel Thomas (13:54):
This is really tactical, but I mean, you’ve done walkouts. You’ve written the op-ed. You use social media. You’ve written a book. Do you have a point of view on, are any of those tactics more effective than other tactics?
Jamie Margolin (14:08):
I think all tactics have to be employed strategically, and it really depends on what you’re exactly trying to fight for, what the context is of what you’re fighting for. Those tactics are like a toolbox, and it’s not like any of the tools in the toolbox are better or worse than the other. Oftentimes they’re going to need many tools to build something. You’re not just going to need a hammer. You’re going to need all sorts of things. You’re going to need a screwdriver, and you’re going to need everything. So a lot of times with these tactics, it’s not like, “Oh, you can just write an op-ed and be cool.” It’s like, “No. You write an op-ed to promote the strike that you’re doing, which promotes this legislation that you’re trying to pass.” A lot of times, it’s a chain reaction like that. So no one strategy is better than the other. But also, it’s dangerous if you just use one strategy because then it gets tiring for people, and if you’re just marching all time, nobody cares. So you have to really be strategic and use different tactics.
Rachel Thomas (14:56):
For people listening who aren’t bought in that climate change is as critical as it is or don’t really get it, what are the couple of things you want them to know?
Jamie Margolin (15:05):
I guess the things that I want to know for people who don’t understand that is that the climate crisis really is a grand culmination of all our societal systems of oppression that have been building up for centuries. It is the big monster that has come out of all of the ugly things that we have out of all the bad parts of capitalism, all the bad parts of... Well, there is no good part of colonialism, out of colonialism, all this stuff out of racism, sexism. It is really a result of everything bad that we’ve done. Everyone who has been made most vulnerable by all these systems would press and also feels the worst effects of the climate crisis. That’s not just me being a hippy-dippy liberal from Seattle. That’s like science. If you ask scientists, that’s the people who feel the worst effects.
So climate change will make poverty worse. It makes hunger worse. It makes all of the issues, it makes war and violence worse. It helps cause war and violence, because what happens when there is a scarcity of resources? There’s a scarcity of water. When there becomes scarcity, when there becomes all the negative effects of the climate crisis, when there’s ecological instability, then people fight, and people go to war, and people scapegoat people. That’s how genocides happen. So that’s why this issue is so crucial.
It’s not like the environment is separate from us. It’s not like the climate crisis exists in a vacuum separate from us. So we have to really be careful because it can really affect all levels of human society and in the animal world, of course.
Rachel Thomas (16:29):
You talk about intersectionality a lot in your work and how important it is. For people listening, can you walk them through, first of all, what intersectionality is in case they don’t know and why it matters?
Jamie Margolin (16:38):
Okay. So intersectionality is the idea that issues don’t exist in a vacuum alone and that racism and sexism and climate change and everything, they’re all intertwined or result of one another or made worse and by one another. One time I was on a panel. I think it was at George Mason University. It was really disturbing because there was this really old, straight white guy who was just like, “The reason why we haven’t solved the climate crisis is because all of these gays and black folks and women are like, they want their rights, and they’re all in Black Lives Matter, and that’s distracting from the climate movement.” That was the most wrong thing I’ve ever heard in my life, because it’s not like everyone can put their identities and things on hold while we solve the climate crisis. No one’s going to stop being black in the meantime, like, “Oh, no. Pause being black right now for the climate crisis, and then I’m going to get back.” I can be black again.
I was going to be, “I’m going to pause being gay, and then after the climate crisis is solved, I can be gay again.” People are going to continue to face everyday oppression. Police are going to continue to pull people over and shoot people. It’s not going to stop. Intersectionality is acknowledging that the climate crisis really isn’t separate from racism and colonialism and sexism and systems that cause poverty or anything like that. The same state that gets away with police violence is the same state that police violence is used against protectors of the environment.
So the same governments that think it’s okay to shoot black folks are also the same government that thinks it’s okay to put coal plants in black communities that also end up inadvertently killing people. So if you look at the statistics of where most fossil fuel companies build and extract, it’s in indigenous communities, it’s in black communities, it’s in communities of color, it’s in poor areas. You’re not going to build a coal plant in Bel Air or Beverly Hills. They’re not going to get away with that. People are too rich and powerful and white for that. They can’t get away with hurting poor white communities, but they can’t get away with hurting rich people.
So that whole idea, when I say climate, making climate the number one issue for Americans and the vote for a future campaign, I don’t mean put everything on hold. I don’t mean it’s the number one issue, which means everyone else’s issues don’t matter. I mean, we need to see everything through the lens of the climate crisis. So the healthcare climate crisis hurts people’s health and drives up healthcare costs and insurance policies because now your house is flooded and all these things. So how are we going to make sure that we address the economy and healthcare and everything through the lens of the climate crisis, which literally intersects with everything. So that’s what intersectionality is. It’s addressing an issue the right way in a nutshell.
Rachel Thomas (19:04):
So the other part of it is making your community and your movement as welcome to as many different people from as many different backgrounds. That’s another piece of this. You’ve done that really explicitly. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve done that and how it’s made the movement stronger?
Jamie Margolin (19:20):
Yeah. I mean Zero Hours very explicitly, one of the most diverse organizations out there, it’s mostly women, and then it’s mostly women of color, the diversity and stuff and the inclusion. It comes from the heart of the organization because it’s not like we’re a board of a bunch of old white guys who are like, “Oh, darn. How do we make it seem like we don’t hate everyone.” No. That’s where it comes from. So it comes from a point of genuine relatability. In my own personal life, I’m kind of like a melting pot of a lot of things. So I talk a lot about that, A, to make people feel less alone, but B, to really show that I have all these other things that I have to fight for as well.
Rachel Thomas (19:58):
Thank you for sharing all that. For people listening, and this feels so small compared to your very beautiful articulation about how the climate crisis links to everything else and kind of all of our experiences. But is there anything you want us to be doing day to day in our homes or in our lives to make a difference?
Jamie Margolin (20:19):
A thing that I get backlash a lot on is that I’m not a big advocate for personal blame and responsibility on the climate crisis. Of course, try not to use plastic. No. Everyone kind of already knows the things that you need to do to be environmentally friendly. So do those things. Take public transit when you can. Try not to fly that much. You have to for work. I get it. But things like that. All of those try to eat less meat, go more plant-based. Those are all things that people can’t do and should do because they do make a difference and individual actions do add up. But system change is really more of what needs to happen.
So really, it’s the system change. So in your daily life, I think you need to incorporate activism into your daily life. I think you need to maybe, if you have a lot of money, start donating to an organization. You can go to this Zero Hours to donate to us. You got that money. You can send community meetings every so often and things like that. Everyone kind of knows what they need to be doing for the environment. But I am not a big proponent. I think individual change is important. But recycling is not going to save the world. It’s really more like in-depth activism and system change because a lot of these corporations like Shell and Exxon, they will be advocates for, “Oh my God, go recycle more so that you can ignore what they’re doing.”
So I feel like if we stop pointing fingers at each other and we start pointing fingers at the people at the top who are causing the system, then that’s what we need to change. But that doesn’t mean stopping eco-friendly, do, do all of those things. But everyone kind of knows what that is. So I’m not going to bother going into that.
Rachel Thomas (21:49):
Yeah. You’re just saying that’s table stakes, now you need to do more?
Jamie Margolin (21:52):
Yeah. Exactly. You turned off a light bulb. Congratulations, but that’s not going to save us.
Rachel Thomas (21:58):
Jamie and her fellow organizers prove that you’re never too young to start a movement. Even if you don’t have experience as an activist, passion and hard work can take you far, very far. My next guest, the unstoppable Shannon Watts is another example of this. Shannon founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that’s grown from a small Facebook group to a powerful grassroots movement.
Shannon Watts (22:25):
I was folding laundry one day, December, in my home in Indiana, and I started seeing an emergency alert on my television saying that there was an active shooter at a school in a place called Newtown, Connecticut, at a place I’d never heard of. I can remember sort of looking up and saying, “Dear God, don’t let this be as bad as it seems.” As we all know, seven years later, it’s worse really than anyone can imagine that 20 children and six educators were slaughtered in the sanctity of an American elementary school. Like everyone, I was devastated. But then I got really angry when I saw that pundits and politicians were on my TV saying the solution was somehow more guns, as if weak gun laws and 400 million guns in the hands of civilians was somehow not enough guns.
I knew nothing about gun violence policy or data. I knew nothing about organizing. I just knew our country was broken. I decided that I wanted to be part of something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was so pivotal to me in the 1980s as a teen. It changed the way we looked at drunk driving, overnight almost.
Rachel Thomas (23:37):
Yeah. I grew up in the ’80s too. So I get that.
Shannon Watts (23:38):
Yeah. I can just remember it being so culturally important, and I wanted to join something like that on the issue of gun safety, and I spent a good couple of hours online looking for that, and I found mainly think tanks run by men, some one-off state organizations also mostly run by men. I wanted to be part of a badass army of women. That’s what I’ve always seen be the most effective in getting anything done frankly. So I thought, “Okay. I’m going to start a Facebook page. I’m going to have a conversation with my 75 Facebook friends about this and anything about type A women.”
Rachel Thomas (24:16):
A little bit, a little bit. Yeah.
Shannon Watts (24:18):
Some of those friends started connecting me to other friends who connected me to other friends, and suddenly again, type A women were googling me. I never imagined that I would need to keep my information private. Thankfully, I hadn’t. But my phone number was out there and my email address. So they were calling and emailing me and saying, “How do I do this where I live?” None of us really knew what this was. We just knew it was time to get off the sidelines.
Rachel Thomas (24:44):
I’m so struck. What’s the moment or what goes through your head from, “I’m really angry, I want to make a difference, which I think we all think a lot and actually doing?” Do you remember?
Shannon Watts (24:45):
Rachel Thomas (24:54):
What got you over that hump?
Shannon Watts (24:57):
I was standing at my kitchen counter with my laptop open after I’d been searching, and my husband and his daughter came into the kitchen and kind of said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m creating a Facebook page.” I had to like google how to do that. I said, “I’m creating this Facebook page, and I’m calling it One Million Moms for Gun Control.” Because I didn’t have a focus group in my kitchen. My husband was sort of trepidated. He was like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Again, I don’t know why he would even raise that flag because I didn’t have many social media friends or a presence. But maybe intuitively, but we both knew something. I started that page. I called it that horrible name.
Rachel Thomas (25:36):
You mentioned, was it mostly women reaching out?
Shannon Watts (25:38):
For the most part, it outraged women and moms. I think in retrospect, a big part of it was that so many of our lawmakers are men. So many of our school administrators are men. There’s this proverb that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. I think we felt like we were, and our kids were. No one was doing anything mass shooting after mass shooting. I do want to point something out, which is I’m a white, suburban mom who got up the sidelines because I was afraid my kids weren’t safe in their school not realizing, frankly because I lived in a bubble that over 100 Americans are shot and killed every day in this country, whether it’s city gun violence or rural gun suicides. I came late to this issue, but I think, like so many other women who were woken up by the Sandy Hook School tragedy, we’re here to address all gun violence.
Rachel Thomas (26:33):
That leads me to one of those stats that I read preparing to talk to you. Was it the first leading cause of death for black children and teens is guns? It really does take your breath away. What are you doing specifically to address that piece of the problem, that very critical piece of the problem?
Shannon Watts (26:51):
Many of those gun deaths are in communities that have been purposely starved of resources, and gun violence is part of a bigger intersectional issue. We’re looking at data and research that shows how we can best address gun violence, particularly in city centers. What we see time and time again is that first of all, the legislation we’re working on would impact that. Looking at background checks, for example, which we know has an impact on gun trafficking, looking at red flag laws, which temporarily disarmed someone who is a danger to themselves or others, and particularly effective in domestic gun violence, looking at these legislative solutions, but also interrupting gun violence before it begins.
We work in different states to fund what we call gun violence interruption programs, essentially, whether it’s training teens to go into their high schools and interrupt gun violence before it begins or with community leaders. In California, for example, these programs across the state, were only getting about $9 million a year, which is pretty poultry. We were able to lobby the governor to more than triple that amount last year, which will significantly impact the ability of these violence interrupters to do their work. Again, it’s research and data driven. We want to make sure what we’re doing is effective.
Rachel Thomas (28:10):
What is all that you do? Could you kind of step back and kind of talk us through all of your programming and why you think it matters?
Shannon Watts (28:16):
We really work on gun violence prevention in three ways legislatively. So it’s passing good gun bills, but really importantly, stopping bad gun bills because the NRA’s agenda was really sailing through state houses for decades. The other piece of it is working on it electorally. So we get involved in every electoral cycle, making sure that we’re going up against the gun lobby and supporting candidates who are good on this issue and then culturally talking about responsible gun storage through our program, Be SMART, making sure that influencers like athletes and celebrities and others are on the right side of this issue. This issue was really the third rail, not just politics, but culturally for so long, going in and creating all the systems that makes sure people feel comfortable talking about and legislating on and even running on this issue.
Moms Demand Action is now one of the largest grassroots movements in the country. But a year into this work, we partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. We created the organization, Everytown for Gun Safety. Moms demand action is now the grassroots arm of every town, along with Students Demand Action, and we have hundreds of thousands of volunteers, about 6 million supporters, which makes us larger than the NRA now and about 375,000 donors. So we are really a juggernaut when it comes to gun violence prevention.
Rachel Thomas (29:33):
Did you ever imagine it would be this big, having this huge impact?
Shannon Watts (29:37):
Rachel Thomas (29:38):
No. Right? How?
Shannon Watts (29:38):
I mean, I really thought I was starting an online conversation. I didn’t imagine that that would translate into an offline movement. Yet the way we’ve organized and the amazing volunteers that we have made sure that I believe truly that this organization will last into perpetuity. It needs to. Even if we have all the wins that we hope to get, which I know we will, people have to be there to protect those wins and those gains. So I really do think we’ve created that structure.
Rachel Thomas (30:05):
That leads me to like, what are your biggest successes today, the things you’re most proud of?
Shannon Watts (30:10):
Well, first of all, we have about a 90% track record of stopping bad NRA bills every single year in state legislatures, bills like stand your ground, which we know in danger, people of color in particular, forcing teachers to be armed, forcing guns on college campuses, something called permitless carry, which means you can carry a hidden loaded handgun with no background check or training. These are bills that because we show up, banned. Lawmakers see us, and believe it or not, they’re very scared of moms in red shirts, and that’s the end of that.
Rachel Thomas (30:38):
There’s still way too much gun violence. How do you keep going?
Arianna Huffington (30:43):
There is a lot of gun violence. Over a hundred Americans are shot and killed in this country every single day. That’s about 40,000 Americans a year. Two-thirds of those are gun suicides. We know that the laws we’re passing are life saving. But we also know we’re going up against one of the wealthiest, most powerful, special interests that ever existed. So until we have federal laws like we’re passing at the state level, that will protect all Americans. I mean, we’re only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws, frankly. Until we have those federal laws, we’re still going to see these horrific mass shootings and daily gun violence. But there’s no silver bullet, so to speak. We’re not going to stop all gun violence. But we think we can reduce the amount of gun deaths significantly.
There are days when you wake up, and you look at your phone, and there’s been a horrific shooting in the middle of the night, and you spend the next days and weeks working on that. It can be overwhelming. It can be traumatizing. But I think what our volunteers have decided when they get involved is that if we lose our children, we have nothing left to lose. Standing on the sidelines isn’t an option anymore.
Rachel Thomas (31:46):
Do you have any strategies you use in the moment?
Shannon Watts (31:49):
We have this saying in our organization. It’s called losing forward. When you’re in activism, you lose and lose and lose until you win. But also, failure is feedback. So if you lose, what did you learn along the way? Isn’t that really winning at the end of the day? The example I would use is Arkansas. I would go to Little Rock those first few years and meet with the same handful of very nice women, but they weren’t growing. I think people thought it was sort of feudal in Arkansas to work on this issue. Then what happened was the NRA proposed a bill that put guns on campus, forced them onto campus, and the governor signed it into law and did so with the NRA lobbyists standing next to him.
It so outraged women and moms across the state that suddenly we grew from about two local groups to over two dozen, almost overnight. They were politically powerful at that point because they were larger. So they carved out an exemption that you couldn’t bring guns to Razorback Stadium, which is very bizarre to begin with. But then the next year, two of those new volunteers ran for office and won. One of them took the seat of the man that put the guns on campus bill forward. Then last year, even though there’s a Republican super majority in Arkansas, we stopped stand-your-ground law twice. Those kinds of wins, even though it takes a long time and you lose along the way, that keeps us going.
Rachel Thomas (33:10):
You mentioned earlier before we started to talk that keep going is kind of the mantra of that work?
Shannon Watts (33:14):
It is, keep going. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also a relay race. So you have to hand the Baton over when you get tired or something else has to take priority. The work will still be here when you get back. Burnout is real in activism. So we’re always counseling people on self-care and ways to make sure they don’t get burnout. But you don’t get involved in any activism, but especially this activism and think you’re going to win this overnight.
Rachel Thomas (33:39):
One of the things I’m so impressed by talking to you is you’ve really built this incredibly self-sustaining movement and a movement that’s driving real change. My hope is people listening, you’re going to inspire some number of them to go pick something they’re passionate about and do it. So how do they do that? What’s the roadmap?
Shannon Watts (33:56):
Well, first I’ll say that I wrote a book called Fight Like a Mother. The proceeds go to gun violence prevention organizations. I wanted to get it all on paper how we had done this? So if you’re interested, that’s a great tool, but I can tell you a big part of that is the piece at the beginning, which is where I talk about how we flew the plane, as we built it. As I mentioned, I knew nothing about this issue, and I still jumped in, and I can’t tell you how many people said to me at the beginning, “You shouldn’t do this. You’re not qualified to do this. This already exists. It’ll never work.”
I ignored that. My gut told me that this was what was needed, that this badass army of women as what was needed to stop the gun lobby. I was right. You’re not always going to be right, but I happen to be right in this situation. So my advice to anyone is find out what you’re passionate about and jump in. If it’s in your community, your neighborhood, your state, across the country, whatever the scope of your organization or your passion is, don’t hesitate. Because if you fail, you will have learned the next time that you decide you want to get involved in something.
Rachel Thomas (33:59):
Are there any practical things you wish you had done differently?
Shannon Watts (35:02):
Sometimes they call it founder’s syndrome, where you kind of take on everything and do all the work and don’t want to let it go. I think I probably had that in the early days, where I thought I could do all the work and I could do it really well. I think, again, this resonates with women for two reasons. One, we feel guilty about giving the work to other people, which I don’t think men struggle with. Two, we think we can do the work better than everybody else. What I learned was to let go of that because I couldn’t do it all, and I couldn’t do it all well. When you step back and you let other people have a chance to do the work, they bring new energy and new ideas, and they actually do end up doing it maybe not better than you, but differently, and that’s important. I learned to let go of that and also did not have the fear that I was, putting this work on other people when they were raising their hand, and they wanted a chance to do something.
Rachel Thomas (35:50):
Talking about mothers for a moment. I mean, we already have so much to do as a mother myself. How do you talk to moms about being activists and being moms?
Shannon Watts (35:59):
I wanted to start an organization where women did everything from soup to nuts. What I have found so often in activism is regardless of the issue, women are asked to do sort of the menial tasks of activism, like set up the chairs, get the venue, make the snacks, and then men sort of take the spotlight and set the strategy. I wanted women to get to do it all. Yes, you’re going to probably have to set chairs up, but you also get to do the interview and explain to the local news station what you’re doing and why. I do think there’s still this component of 80% of lawmakers are men. Women need to have a voice on this issue, and this is how we’re doing it. I always say I’m happy to change the name to Parents or Americans Demand Action when we’re equally represented in all levels.
I was just with a volunteer yesterday who explained it to me this way. She’s a full-time volunteer, a full-time mom, and a full-time employee. So wearing a lot of hats and spending a lot of hours doing all of them. I do think also multitasking is what makes moms so good at activism. It’s really the secret sauce to organizing and activism is to be able to do a lot of things at the same time well. I think that’s a specialty, and also, I wrote Fight Like a Mother for that reason because I wanted to talk about activism. But I also wanted to explain how those same skills enable you to be a really effective lawmaker.
I’ve spent a lot of time at state houses. These people are not rocket scientists. If you are passionate and you are knowledgeable, you are qualified to be a lawmaker. So it’s really important that people move from not just shaping policy but to actually making it. By people, I mean women.
Rachel Thomas (37:38):
Why women? Why are women so good at this?
Shannon Watts (37:42):
If you look at the history of organizing, women have been on the front lines since really prohibition. Men decided that this was a Christian value temperance. So they let women get involved, and they never were able to put that genie back in the bottle because I think once women tasted activism and how good and how successful they were at it, they just weren’t going back. If you look at our activism from civil rights, to suffrage, to child labor laws, all the way up to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, it’s almost always women and moms on the front lines who make this stuff happen. I’ve had really interesting conversations about the double-edged sword, sort of the gender bias of women and moms doing this work.
Soraya Chemaly, who’s an amazing feminist writer, she was telling me how on one hand women shouldn’t have to be moms, wear their moms’ shirts to fight for things that keep their children safe. But at the same time, you have to be pragmatic. That is what works right now in this country. I hope it’s not always the shirt we have to wear, but the other interesting thing she brought up is that men are intrinsically afraid of their moms. So when you look at the fact that 80% of lawmakers are men, and then we show up as moms, it’s no wonder we sort of scare the hell out of them. It’s a fascinating gender discussion, but we do have to be pragmatic, and this is what works and what is working right now, and I hope that someday my daughters... Well, first of all, I hope we don’t even exist because we’ve passed all the gun laws we need, and the gun lobby is out of power, but that they can advocate for themselves just as Americans.
Rachel Thomas (39:15):
So a lot of women listen to this show. What is the policy issue that most matters to women when you’re talking to them?
Shannon Watts (39:22):
When I do a speaking event, I travel all across the country and give speeches all the time. It never fails that when I’m talking about lockdown drills, I look out in the audience, and there is a woman, a mom crying, and she’ll come up to me after my event and interior say to me, I just sent my baby to school, and she had to do a lockdown drill, and she’s terrified. The stories I hear, kids wetting their pants in class because they’re scared to go to the bathroom because what if there’s a drill or a shooter, kids who won’t wear their favorite sneakers with those lights that light up because they don’t want them to make them a target of an active shooter. So finally, after hearing all these stories, we investigated, what is behind these drills, and are they effective?
We just came out with a report that shows that there is very little, if any data that shows these drills are effective. In fact, it may be less effective to go through the training than to not go through it. But there is data that shows these drills are traumatizing, that they cause anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, worsening school performance. I mean, it’s exactly what these parents were saying to me. So we made two recommendations of the report. 95% of schools are doing them. So families and faculty should have a heads up before these drills happen, and the tone and the content of these drills needs to be trauma informed. It should not simulate gun violence.
We actually don’t think kids should do them. But recognizing that most schools are, those were the recommendations we made. Now, our volunteers will go to school boards and advocate for those two things.
Rachel Thomas (40:51):
For people listening, it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone listening who doesn’t believe deeply in gun control. But still, what is your best pitch for why people should get off the sidelines and whether it’s an hour a week or hopefully more really get involved in the fight for gun control?
Shannon Watts (41:07):
A lot of volunteers get involved in our organization not just because they’re concerned about this issue or they’ve experienced gun violence, but because they’ve sent their kindergartner to school, and they’ve had to essentially rehearse their deaths in the bathroom of their classroom. They realized we don’t have to live like this. Our children, sure as hell, should not die like this. There really is something to strengthen numbers. When we show up in the dozens or even hundreds in our red shirts at state houses and look these lawmakers in eye and say, “Not in my community. You won’t. Not in my state. You will not pass these laws.” It makes a huge difference.
Until we have the 90% of Americans who say they support stronger gun laws, get off the sidelines and get involved, lawmakers won’t really feel that outrage. That’s what they’re driven by. I can’t tell you how many lawmakers have changed their minds since we started working on this issue because they realize if they do the right thing, we’ll have their backs, and if they do the wrong thing, we’ll have their job. That’s the political formula for success, and you only show that by showing up.
Rachel Thomas (42:11):
I’m curious, and you’ve had so much success. It’s true success and done so much. What are the moments for you that really stand out, where you feel powerful and you’re making a difference?
Shannon Watts (42:24):
I’ve had so many empowering moments along the way. I can remember once I had to testify at the state house in Indiana. During it, I just thought, “Oh, this is going really poorly.” Almost all male lawmakers were really angry. They were telling me not to speak unless I’ve been asked a question. They were essentially bullying me, and I could feel that. I thought to myself, “Oh, I’m being made a fool of.” What happened was all the media wrote about how inappropriate Indiana lawmakers were and how they were bullying their constituents. That ended up being incredibly empowering, not just for me, but for our volunteers, because I always say our job is to shine a spotlight under the refrigerator and let the cockroaches run out to see what lawmakers are truly like, some of them, on this issue, to see what gun lobbyists really want, this agenda of guns for anyone, anywhere, anytime, no questions asked. That’s our job. Anytime we can do that, it really does empower us. We take our power back.
Rachel Thomas (43:18):
What do you do in the moment to keep going when you’re so clearly getting bullied?
Shannon Watts (43:23):
Here’s my personality, and maybe this is why I started this organization, to begin with. When people try to bully me or intimidate me, and I can assure you I’ve received my share of death threats and threats of sexual violence in the last seven years, my instinct is not to be intimidated. It’s to be angry and to not back down, but to double down. I think that’s come in handy over the last [crosstalk 43:43].
Rachel Thomas (43:33):
I think it’s come in a lot of handy. So talking to you, one of the things that really stands out is your feisty. That is a huge compliment.
Shannon Watts (43:50):
No. I’m happy to be feisty.
Rachel Thomas (43:52):
One of the things that women have been asking me over and over again is, how do I build my confidence? Or how do I go for it when it feels hard or I feel insecure, have that imposter syndrome? So I have to ask you because you are pushing through all of that. How do you do it? What are practical ways women can do this for themselves?
Shannon Watts (44:12):
Well, you have to expect blowback. Feisty women are not widely liked. You may have noticed in America.
Rachel Thomas (44:18):
There’s a lot of research [crosstalk 44:19].
Shannon Watts (44:18):
Yes. So I had to just realize that there were a lot of men, and frankly, women too. I mean, sexism is systemic.
Rachel Thomas (44:26):
I could not agree more.
Shannon Watts (44:27):
They’re not thrilled with a feisty woman who’s saying what she thinks and who is fighting for something and has a very strong opinion. So you kind of have to just get used to that and be okay with that. I think that’s good practice for any woman who’s going to work on anything. I mean, especially if you decide you’re going to be a lawmaker, I just reject this whole likability argument. I mean, I’m happy to be unlikable if I’m saving lives. I think at the end of the day, if you are kind, and you’re compassionate, you’ll never see me engage in an ad hominem attack against anyone, especially online. If you have integrity and principles, but you are simultaneously feisty, go for it.
Rachel Thomas (45:06):
We have an election coming up, and you mentioned that some of your Moms Demand Action women have run for office. What’s your best pitch to get women out there running for office too, because I think this is how we’re going to change a lot of this?
Shannon Watts (45:17):
A hundred percent. I never imagined when I started Moms Demand Action that sort of the 2.0 would be that suddenly these women wanted to run for office. I started seeing they were running for all these different offices, and they were really taking the skillset that they had learned through Moms Demand Action to do that. So we started training them and supporting them. I mean, you have this builtin kitchen table of volunteers who will help you get elected [inaudible 45:40] and do all the things that you need, donate. It’s been a formula for success, everything from city council to Congress across the country. As I said earlier, the proverb is unless you have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu, and it is true. I mean, look at VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act is just sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk.
The reason is because there is a new provision in it that would make it harder for stalkers and dating partners to get guns. The NRA does not want that. So that bill’s not going anywhere right now. But imagine if 50% of Congress were women or the president was a woman. It would be a completely different ball game. So it’s going to take several election cycles to get us there. But I feel there’s this moral imperative right now in this country that I don’t care if it’s the coroner or sheriff school board, whatever it is that you’re passionate about. Think about running for office.
Rachel Thomas (46:31):
Yeah, I agree 110%.
Shannon Watts (46:33):
For me. One of the most resonant relationships I’ve had since I started Moms Demand Action was meeting Lucy McBath. So Lucy’s son, Jordan Davis, a black 17-year-old was shot and killed by a white man in Florida who said his music was too loud in his car. Someone connected me to Lucy. I mean, that happened just weeks before the Sandy Hook School shooting. Someone connected me to Lucy later that spring. She’d already begun being an activist where she lived in Georgia. She was a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. We connected over the phone. I knew immediately we’d be friends for life. I said to her, “Will you be a spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action?” I didn’t even know what that meant. We were only a few months old, and she said, “Sure.” Our volunteers went to her trials. There were two in Florida. Then she became a colleague at Moms Demand Action and worked on this across the country and was just so passionate and such a force of nature.
Every time we would have a phone conversation, I would say to her, “When are you going to run for office?” Thinking she’ll run for the state house. Then after the Parkland shooting, she called me and she said, “I am going to run for office. I’m going to run for Congress. It’s time.” I would say one of the most emotional profound moments for me was going to Lucy’s swearing in as a new member of Congress.
Rachel Thomas (47:47):
I literally have the chills.
Shannon Watts (47:48):
That we had gone from 2013 to 2018 together in all these different stages, and suddenly, she was a Congresswoman, and then just days later, after the session started, she put forward several pieces of legislation that eventually passed the house. To me, that’s just the most amazing story, and it’s not even my own.
Rachel Thomas (48:10):
One of the things I want to circle back on for everybody listening and for myself too is she said that you could even tell us how to be really effective if we had an hour. What do you want us to do with our hour?
Shannon Watts (48:20):
Well, first of all, you can join Moms Demand Action. The way to do that, it’s just text the word, “Ready” to 64433. The other piece is to be educated about who you’re voting for. So if you go to the website, gunsensevoter.org, you can find all about who your candidates are, where they stand on this issue. The other piece is to decide what you’re passionate about. If you get involved with Moms Demand Action, and you really want to work on legislation, or you want to work on getting companies to have the right policies or educating people about responsible gun storage. There’s so many different ways to get involved. So figure out what your passion and your talents are, and then we’ll plug you in.
Rachel Thomas (49:00):
Time and time again, we’ve seen that when women stand up to demand a safer and more equal world things change. I want to thank Jamie and Shannon for the work they’re doing and for being so damn inspiring. You don’t need to start a movement to make a difference, but you do need to do something, whether that’s demonstrating, volunteering for an organization like theirs, or voting for the causes and candidates you believe in. To steal a line from Jamie, when the issue gets urgent enough, you kind of have to close your eyes and say, "Screw it. I’m going to try and do something." That’s it for today’s episode of Tilted. You can subscribe to Tilted on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer is Sandy Smallens and special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Chelsea Paul, Kate Urban, Madison Long, and Nicole Roman from the Lean In team, and Caitlin Thompson, Ireland Meacham, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, and Matt Noble at Audiation. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, and I’ll join you next time on Tilted.