Amanda Nguyen in New York City, on Feb. 16, 2020.
Camila Falquez for TIME
March 2, 2022 10:30 PM EST

In 2016, Amanda Nguyen celebrated a major victory when President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act into law. Helping to craft the legislation, which reforms the handling of sexual assault evidence-collection kits on the federal level, was her way of fighting back after learning in 2013 that her own rape kit was set to be destroyed. The CEO of the nonprofit civil rights organization Rise didn’t stop there; Nguyen, 30, has gone on to help establish similar laws in 40 states to date, and has taken her movement to the U.N., where she’s leading an effort to pass a resolution that would protect survivors around the world.

Chanel Miller: You are one of the most hardworking and clearheaded people I know—a natural leader. I wanted to know if, growing up, the younger you was as confident and quick to take action.

Amanda Nguyen: I grew into the traits I have as a means of survival. I realized very early on that I often was the only woman or the only AAPI in the room. My younger self was nervous. I was learning—I still am. And I hope that one day I can be fully confident.

Miller: I want to take it back to undergrad, when your career as an activist began—back to you finding out that your rape kit was on its way to being disposed of. What did you learn in that period?

Nguyen: There was no standardized process to hold onto this evidence, to what could be my justice. That’s when I realized there was something seriously wrong. It felt like a second betrayal, one that was worse than the rape itself. We are told to go to the criminal-justice system and seek this help, but the system is deeply flawed. I remember walking into my local rape crisis center—the waiting room was filled. That moment changed my life because I realized there was a choice I had to make: fix the law, or accept it.

Miller: Activism can be portrayed as leading people to the light, as if it’s so self-generative and optimistic. But often, we’re trying to move away from the pain first, rather than move toward something.

Nguyen: Yes. Justice looks different for different people. I processed mine through realizing that my story was bigger than myself, and that I could fight for these rights and it would make a difference for other people. I didn’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through.

Miller: Through your work, you’re forcing acknowledgment that survivors are enduring this every day. Even when we’re not battling it out in court or in Congress, even when we’re in our peaceful day-to-day lives, we still struggle. What’s the future of the U.N. resolution?

Nguyen: We are so close to passing it. It outlines basic tenets—very similar to what we’ve been working on for the past decade. At its core, it’s about recognizing that rape survivors deserve human rights too. We are demanding that world leaders take our pain and our stories seriously.

Miller: Another topic that’s close to both of our hearts: we’ve talked about how we’re both learning more now about our Asian American heritage than ever before—there’s so much we weren’t taught in school. For me, it’s a mixture of excitement and grief. What does it feel like for you, to come into this knowledge at this point in your life?

Nguyen: It’s like discovering a part of yourself you didn’t know you had. I remember learning about Black and Asian solidarity in Louisiana and thinking, Wow, we are so much worse off for not knowing this, that we have so much organizing power, that our communities have already worked with one another. There are these incredible moments in history that are ours, yet they’ve been erased.

Miller: When Asian Americans started being attacked as COVID-19 spread, I was slow to step up. I didn’t feel like I knew what to ask for, or maybe I didn’t know enough about my own history. You created a video that went viral, in which you said mainstream media needs to be covering these stories. And when you went on CNN, the anchor apologized. It was the first time I’ve seen you pause on TV. What did that feel like?

Nguyen: I wholly didn’t expect that. I was also sleep-deprived. I felt surprised, but also hopeful that we are beginning a healing journey, that if people are willing to admit they were wrong, maybe we actually can do this. Change comes from our innate values. We can speak up—not only because we want to, but because we have to. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy. What I want people to understand is that we can always make the choice to be better.

Miller: People who know you as an activist might not know that you’re also training to be an astronaut. It’s so powerful to see you being loyal to this piece of yourself, this passion for space, that might have gotten lost when your life was redirected by trauma. I would love to hear you talk about where you feel most in your element.

Nguyen: Whenever I need a reset, I draw on what I hope to experience one day: the overview effect. It’s essentially an existential crisis. When astronauts see earth from space for the first time, many of them get the sense of why we are fighting. We’re all in this together. If I ever feel caught up in the day to day, I just float in space.

Miller is an artist, an activist, and the author of Know My Name

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