With her nonprofit Moms Demand Action, Shannon Watts has mobilized a women-led army of volunteers.
This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
During a recent meeting with my youngest son’s college counselor, we got to talking about gun violence prevention. “There’s a great organization you should know about,” she told me. “It’s called Moms Demand Action.” I had to laugh. It was pretty exciting to tell her that’s the grassroots movement I started.
I still can hardly believe it. When Sandy Hook happened in 2012, I’d left my career in corporate communications to be a stay-at-home mom to my five kids. Like so many other Americans, the shooting left me devastated. I woke up the next morning, angry and agitated. I had to do something. I looked online for a women-led army at the grassroots level—like Moms Against Drunk Driving, except for gun safety—but nothing existed.
I thought, "What can I do from my home in Indiana?" The answer: I could start a Facebook page. Doing so was like lightning in a bottle. I connected with people all over the country who had the same idea that I did—that it was time to get off the sidelines. I remember going to bed two nights later after those online connections had already grown into nonstop phone conversations.
“You know this is going to be a big deal, right?” my husband asked.
I had to admit: It felt like it.
Suddenly, I was spending 16-hour days, calling women from across the U.S. and asking their help in starting local chapters; owning social media; trying to wrap my head around gun policy; working to coordinate volunteers; doing interviews; and creating materials. Within a month, Moms Demand Action was a full-fledged nonprofit working with the White House.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that if you spend 10,000 hours at something, you become an expert at it. I’d spent that time writing press releases in my previous career. I had the skill to create a message that resonated with people. Still, there were a lot of things I didn’t know how to do. Instead of letting that stop me, I found other women who did. If you cling too tightly and try to do everything yourself, you’ll quickly become an organization of one.
Still, there were definitely moments I thought, "This is too hard!" Gun violence prevention is a complicated, nuanced issue. Someone’s always waiting to jump on an error of speech or try to make you lose credibility. I also discovered an underbelly of America I didn’t know existed.
Early on, some Sandy Hook survivors called me, offering to let me tell their stories and use pictures of their family members. It was an honor. Yet as soon as I did share their experiences online, we were immediately overwhelmed with trolling. I remember laying on the floor of my closet one day after spending hours deleting negative comments, and agonizing: How was this a hurdle I could get over?
Soon after, I got a random phone call from a woman volunteering to take over monitoring and deleting comments from our social media pages. (I said yes.) And that wasn’t the last time something like that happened. Each time I’ve faced what seems like an insurmountable obstacle, a volunteer comes up the sidelines and says, “I can take that!”
Raising awareness about commonsense gun laws and encouraging lawmakers to pass good bills that protect people from gun violence is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s no cathartic moment that changes everything and will allow us to walk away. The camaraderie I have with the amazing people I work with gives me the inner strength to continue day after day. As I like to joke, when you get a bunch of type A women together, you’re only going forward.
I made a promise to myself to not only get Moms Demand Action off the ground—but make it outlast me. I’ve kept that promise. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (God forbid) and I know this organization will still continue to grow and be effective. I’m incredibly proud of that.
I started all this when I was almost 42. Now, I’m 47. The past 5 years have gone by in a blink. The truth is, I don’t even recognize the person I was when I began Moms Demand Action. It’s been life-changing. I’ve learned to be so grateful for the talent and time of other people. The best part of this job is when I make thank you calls to survivors of gun violence who've turned to activism, which I do every week. I can’t help but tear up each time. These people are helping to save the lives of strangers.
Every day in America, 96 people are killed by guns. For their loved ones to turn their pain into activism is heroic. Still, we can’t expect them to shoulder this burden by themselves.