When you see a need, what do you do?
Do you jump in and try to solve the problem?
Or do you think about it for a while and workshop all the options and scenarios in your head before deciding whether to take action or not?
Both ways can be valid, needed, and valuable. And both have their pitfalls.
When we jump in to solve a need or problem, we can end up on a path to a crash course in humble pie and hard learnings on the go that can often do harm to others.
Yet thoughtful consideration can often lead to failing to take action and falling into complacency. Or even worse, you tap out all together because you feel like your voice, your vote, your time, or your resources will not make a difference.
But we can’t stop caring or tap out. The stakes are too high.
My guest today challenges this complacency–especially right now when so much is at stake here in the United States. She built an organization that has room for all levels of involvement no matter your resources and your capacity.
Shannon Watts is widely known as a “summoner of women’s audacity.” As the Founder of Moms Demand Action, Watts was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, a Forbes 50 over 50 Changemaker, and a Glamour Woman of the Year. She is the author of Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.
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Shannon Watts: Democracy is sick, and it’s our job to help make it better. I think that’s a really important and unique role, particularly for my generation, because once you get to be 50 you understand that you’re gonna play the long game and that the incremental wins are really important. But there’s also that other role of the younger generation, which is, “I want everything to change now and overnight,” and I think that’s important too because it’s not the way the system is set up, but the system might not change unless they were pushing in that direction. All of this is just to say that you do have to expect you're gonna lose, but if you have that mindset, I think from the outset, you're more likely to use that anger when you lose to fuel the next one.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: When you see a need, what do you do? Do you jump in and try and solve the problem, or do you think about it for a while and workshop all the options and scenarios in your head before deciding whether to take action or not. I see from personal experience how both prove valid, needed, and valuable. I’ve learned firsthand how they both have their pitfalls. When we jump into solve a need or a problem, we can end up on a path to a crash course in humble pie and hard learnings on the go that can often do harm to others. I also see how thoughtful consideration can lead to failing to take action and falling into complacency or even worse, where you tap out altogether because you feel like your voice, your vote, your time, your resources will not make a difference. What we can't do is stop caring or tap out because we’re afraid it won't work out or we’ll feel called to be a part of something bigger than us. No matter how big or small, the stakes right now are too high.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways.
Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
My whole life I have been a jump-in-and-figure-it-out-on-the-go person, which made me feel a special affinity to today’s guest. But first, I still cringe when I look back at the hubris of my younger years thinking I had all the answers, but I appreciate how that energy fueled my decisions to get involved in issues that meant a lot to me over the years, whether it was elementary school class elections to raising money for local charities to getting involved in state and federal politics. Underneath that hubris was the desire to help, to make a difference, to feel a sense of purpose and power. Especially when I was younger, I did not overthink the outcomes or what others thought. I just wanted to see change, often immediate change. Patience was not my jam, and I still struggle with it when I see poor leadership impacting so many.
Now, no doubt, I use this fire for change to work through the burdens I carried from feeling powerless and voiceless as a kid. Activism like sports felt like an outlet to my own pain, and I was the ideal volunteer. I would make all the cold phone calls and stay outside for hours putting hundreds of fliers on cars in parking lots and going door to door canvassing. When I was able to vote, I could not understand why people did not share my belief in our mandate to vote.
Now, age has a way of bringing in much-needed patience, humility, and perspective to being more thoughtful, curious, and inclusive when seeking change. Over the years, and to this day, I still have conversations with people who choose not to vote, donate their time, donate their resources to causes they care about.
I see again and again how the protector of cynicism disconnects many from staying engaged in a system they feel does not work for them, and I also see how this protector of cynicism sets in with many folks who tap out and do not feel that they can make a difference with their vote and their advocacy.
Now, my eyes open to see some of the things that fuel the disconnection and anger in many people who don't believe their voice and their vote matters. Now, the therapist parts of me really, truly get the pain, and I also believe wholeheartedly in the power of taking action even when things do not end up with the outcomes we desire. This is the work.
As Jenny Booth, who is a previous Unburdened Leader guest, says in her aptly titled book on anti-racism, “Doing nothing is no longer an option.” We need to make the time to do something, even if it’s small and not witnessed on social media. When 1 or 10 or 20 or 100,000, even millions of people do something, the impact is great. It all adds up, and it starts with us. It starts with one.
There are forces that want us to not care, to feel overwhelmed and shut down. When we look away and stop caring or staying involved is when we delegate our power. My guest today challenges this complacency, especially right now when so much is at stake here in The United States. She built an organization that has room for all levels of engagement and involvement, no matter your resources and your capacity. Shannon Watts is widely known as a summoner of women’s audacity. That’s awesome.
As the founder of Moms Demand Action, which is an organization that I have long supported and am proud to be a part of, Watts was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, a Forbes 50 over 50 Changemaker, and a Glamour Women of the Year. She is the author of Fight Light a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World.
Now, listen for when Shannon reminds us none of us are safe until we are all safe. Notice when Shannon unpacks the dangerous connection between unfettered access to guns and our precarious democracy right now. And pay attention to when Shannon talks about her reasons for leaving the organization she founded and what is next for her. Now, please welcome Shannon Watts to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Shannon Watts: Thank you for having me!
Rebecca Ching: I am really looking forward to this conversation, and I want to kick off with just a light and breezy topic about fear. I’ve been thinking about fear a lot, and in fact, I see it a lot these days. Just last week, there was a scare in my kids’ middle school around a gun threat and a lot of complicated dynamics and just watching the ripple effect of fear just in our community around that, recognizing everyone’s already holding so much. Having worked in politics too, I learned early on that the number one way to get people to do something is to get them really scared.
I see how everyone’s handling their fear differently these days and how it often turns us against each other. So I want to bring you back to some of your roots, particularly on how fear inspired you, what was going through your mind as you worked through your fears for your kids’ safety after the Sandy Hook mass killing.
Shannon Watts: I think it’s a really important point about emotion and how they can be used against us, whether that’s internally we’re using those emotions in a negative way or externally, right? And what the gun lobby is hoping is that fear will be a motivator to buy more guns.
For me, fear, devastation, those emotions turned into rage very quickly. Yes, I was afraid. Yes, I was sad. But I was also, more than anything, incredibly angry and like fear, anger can be used for negative purposes internally, externally. For me, it was a motivator for change, and I had so much anger I feel like it crowded out all those other emotions. It kind of did for a decade. [Laughs] I just felt anger.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: And I guess what I would say is if you are fearful, that is not a reason to hide. That is a reason to fight back. We don't need to live in fear. Other nations don't live in the same kind of fear that we have around this crisis, and it’s preventable. It’s senseless. I hope that I am proof positive that we all play a role in doing something to stop it.
Rebecca Ching: Well, you touched on something that sometimes in response to our fear, especially around our safety, some people think more guns, more weapons is the answer. Can you say a little bit more about that and your view on that?
Shannon Watts: Well, there are at least 400 million guns in the hands of civilians in America, and we have a 26 times higher gun homicide rate than any peer nation. So I just wonder at what point do the guns make us safer? It’s patently absurd to imagine that more guns somehow make us a safer country. The data shows that that is in fact not the case. Easy access to guns is killing us, and it’s killing our democracy.
So that is a trope from the gun lobby, this idea that more guns will make us more safe. It’s been discounted in states with strong gun laws, there’s less gun violence and less gun death, and it’s typically red states that have bad or poor gun laws, they have more gun violence and more gun death. So the data is in. I think the question is what are we gonna do about it.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so speaking of fear, and I can't help but think about what’s going on in the Tennessee state legislature. What is the fear from your experience, your ten years working in this space, of those who are fighting sensible gun laws, who are fighting background checks and just some reasonable folks who are involved in imminent partner violence from buying guns. What are they afraid of if we have those sensible laws?
Shannon Watts: Ugh, it’s so much bigger than guns. You know, it’s a fear of losing your power, I think, at its core. This is a demographic --
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Shannon Watts: -- that is slowly either dying out or being pushed out of power because we have a very, very diverse generation of Americans coming up behind them, and we’ve seen other nations, our nation, act out in this way before. What is different in this day and age, well, since 1968 there are about triple the number of guns in circulation in this country. So the way that these people who are afraid of losing their power are acting out is to do so with guns because guns make them feel like they have more power. I think it’s important to remember that this is a very vocal minority of people in this nation, and the heretofore silent majority really has all the power. Ninety percent of Americans agree on things like a background check on every gun sale.
So I think because we have been either hopeless or felt helpless or thought, “This isn't gonna happen in my community or my school,” Americans haven't necessarily voted on this issue. I think that’s changed quite a bit in the last five years, but this is a reaction to what they see coming, and that is a nation where gun extremists don't have a seat at the table.
Rebecca Ching: You talk about power, and it’s interesting. I just had Cedar Barstow, who authored the book Right Use Of Power, and this power that you're talking about folks are holding onto really is a power over and not a power with. I sense that the people that are involved in the organization that you’ve led for a decade are about let’s power with this together, but this is really about power over and a small group of people wanting to hold that power. Can you say more about that?
Shannon Watts: I think it’s so interesting because let’s take Tennessee. You brought up what is happening there, and basically, there are some very extreme, mostly men in the Tennessee legislature who are beholden to the gun lobby and also are worried about their control of power, and so, they pass these incredibly lax gun laws that are leading to horrific shooting tragedies and overwhelming gun violence in the state. And so, recently, there was a mass shooting at a school in Nashville, a pretty conservative, Christian, almost all-white school.
And so, what happened was these extremists that these parents of these students probably voted into office, didn't want to hear from them when this shooting happened, and they decided suddenly that they wanted to support stronger gun laws. In fact, what was so interesting was during the committee bill hearings on gun legislation, these mostly white, male lawmakers had these mostly white moms, again, who probably voted them into office, physically removed from committee hearings simply for holding signs. I mean, dragged out.
It just goes to show you the patriarchy’s coming for you. It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter how much influence you have. It doesn't matter how affluent you are. It doesn't matter what your religion is. At the end of the day, none of us are safe unless we’re all safe.
I think it was a really important lesson I’m hearing every day for women and moms in Tennessee who say, “Our eyes are wide open now. We understand that the way to keep our kids and community safe is to keep everyone’s kids and community safe.” Black and brown women have been sounding the alarm for decades with very little attention.
Rebecca Ching: For decades.
Shannon Watts: For decades! And, you know, we stand on their shoulders. I wrote a piece for my Substack recently about the fact that I’ve learned so much in the last decade. I came to this issue because of the school shooting. I was worried my kids weren't safe in their schools. I was living in a bubble. This is a very complex issue that demands and deserves holistic solutions. It’s not just the assault weapons ban that might keep your white kids safe in your white suburb. It’s unlocking dollars for community violence prevention programs, it’s red flag laws, it’s background checks, it’s disarming domestic abusers. It’s a whole host of things that we all have to advocate for, I think, as women.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, absolutely. You touched on also the emotion of rage, and what I’ve learned even in my own clinical studies is rage at its heart is a very protective emotion and what we do with that, right? It’s almost the primary emotion even behind anger. You mentioned that was an emotion you lived with for a while at the beginning of starting Moms Demand Action. First, you were scared for your kids’ lives. How have you channeled and managed your rage over this last decade, and how have you led others who are feeling that same rage so they can channel it in ways for good and not completely burnout or turn on themselves or others in the process?
Shannon Watts: You know, I can't say that never happens. I’ve seen a lot in the last decade, and I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen people turn that anger inward. I’ve seen them turn it at other volunteers. I’ve seen people burnout. I’ve seen people decide it’s too much, they can't do the work. I think, as I look back on my life, anger is an animating personality trait for me.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Shannon Watts: And I think probably for a long time I used it in the wrong way. I’m a practicing Buddhist, and for me, the last ten years have been sort of a lesson in right speech, right action, how to use that anger in a way that is focused outward on change and trying to get others to organize around this issue and to make progress. I think for the most part, I had succeeded in that. I feel like I’ve grown a lot and learned a lot. It isn't easy. This is really, really hard work. Whether it’s being exposed constantly to the trauma and the tragedy. Whether it’s working shoulder to shoulder with survivors who have been through the unimaginable. Whether it is dealing with lawmakers who are, frankly, corrupt, not up to the task, or not interested in listening, that can be very demotivating, or even just the fact that the system is set up to take a long time to force change.
So we focus a lot on joy. I can remember we had our first Gun Sense University. This is where we bring all of our volunteer leadership together every year. It started in 2014. And at the end, we had this huge dance party, and there were some people who thought, “Oh, that’s not appropriate. That’s not what we do. This is very solemn work. We are very sad. We are very morose.” That can't be the only focus of a volunteer organization, or no one will stay.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Shannon Watts: No one will stay.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Shannon Watts: Joy and happiness and celebration is integral to successful probably anything but certainly organizing, and also self-care. I think that in itself is a whole loaded and fraught topic of what is self-care.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely.
Shannon Watts: I just had a conversation recently with Dr. Pooja Lakshmin about this and her work on self-care. In some ways, being an advocate is self-care, and sometimes it’s also just taking a break from the work.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, absolutely. You talk about change, and as someone who’s worked at all levels of government (local, state, and federal), change doesn't happen quickly. One thing I’ve been hearing from a lot of folks, whether it’s my neighbors, whether it’s the leaders I work with, really wrestling with big feelings of helplessness and hopelessness about change, to the point like, “Can I make a difference?”
I read an interview that you did earlier this year with The 19th, and you were talking about change, and you said, “Incrementalism leads to revolutions.” That stopped me in my tracks, and I sat on that, and I was like, “Ooh.” I’d love for you to walk me through your thought process with that statement and then how do you lead with this pace in mind when people are still being harmed real time?
Shannon Watts: Well, you don't take on the wealthiest, most powerful special interest that has ever existed and imagine you’ll never lose. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: In those early days, there were a lot of losses. I can remember we lost in Arkansas, and the governor, Asa Hutchinson at the time, was standing next to the primary gun lobbyist of the NRA and signed this bill into law that allowed guns on college campuses, including at tailgates, where there are minors and alcohol. We hadn’t really had any progress in the state of Arkansas. I think people there felt like, “Why would I join a volunteer organization on this very hopeless issue?” That so pissed off moms and women that we grew exponentially overnight.
Rebecca Ching: Ha!
Shannon Watts: In fact, we got so big so quickly that we went in immediately and carved out an exemption so that you could not, in fact, bring guns to tailgates.
And then a year later, two of our volunteers ran for office and won. One of them beat the guy that put the Guns on Campus bill forward by 12 points. She was a retired nurse. And then the year after that, we were able to stop a republican supermajority from passing the NRA’s priority legislation.
So it just taught me and us that -- we call this concept losing forward. So you're gonna lose. You may lose a lot. Hopefully you win more than you lose. But what do you learn so that you win the next time? There’s something about women and moms that I think are the special sauce of activism because we understand the long game. I mean, if you’ve had kids, right, you understand that it is a very long process and that even one night when your kid has a horrible fever and they're sick, sure at 3:00 AM you’d like to say, “Hey, you know what? I am really tired, and I’m going to bed, but good luck with this.” You don't do that with your kids, and I don't think moms will do that with democracy either. Democracy is sick, and it’s our job to help make it better.
I think that’s a really important and unique role, particularly for my generation, because once you get to be 50, you understand that you’re gonna play the long game and the incremental wins are really important. But there’s also that other role of the younger generation, which is, “I want everything to change now and overnight,” and I think that’s important too because it’s not the way the system is set up, but the system might not change unless they were pushing in that direction. All of this is just to say that you do have to expect you're gonna lose, but if you have that mindset, I think from the outset, you're more likely to use that anger when you lose to fuel the next one.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, so I want to bring you back, though, to kind of your beginnings with this organization. How did you manage incremental change? I mean, it sounds like it caught fire, and you knew, okay, the transition from just a little thing to, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be my thing!” But at the same time, how did you navigate the really hard losses at the beginning? I know the cynicism. I can almost write the scripts in my head that I’m sure you heard at the beginning while lobbying with members of Congress.
Shannon Watts: Oh, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I can just hear it, trying to get in the door to meet with the members on just the staffers, all of that. How, at that time in those early stages, did you manage your rage and also the deep disappointments and rejection?
Shannon Watts: Well, I can remember in those early days it was late 2012, early 2013 when a bill was put forward in Congress called The Manchin-Toomey Act, and this was a bipartisan bill in honor of the Sandy Hooks school shooting to close the background check loophole that still exists at a federal level. And so, we spent those early days as an organization going to DC, meeting with our lawmakers in district, begging them to support this bill. You have to remember that a quarter of all democrats back in 2012 had an A-rating from the NRA. Senator Mark Warner in Virginia voted for concealed carry reciprocity, right? They were hoping that if they looked like they were pro-NRA that they wouldn't get beat by a republican.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, that’s right.
Shannon Watts: So even after all that lobbying -- and to your point, I can remember meeting with my senator in Indiana who, at the time, was a Democrat, Joe Donnelly, he wouldn't even entertain an assault weapons ban. You know, he was just hoping for background checks. That was sort of the mindset of democrats.
I’m sitting in the Senate gallery. The bill fails by a handful of votes. Some of them voting no were democratic senators. That was a huge loss. In fact, I thought, “Okay, well, we’ll just pack up our stuff and go back to our pre-scheduled programming of our lives.
There’s no way this is gonna work. The nation’s not ready for this.” I suddenly started getting calls from other women across the country who were organizing under the auspices of Moms Demand Action, and they said, “Hey, my governor wants to pass this good legislation,” like in Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware. And then I was getting calls from women who were saying, “My governor, my state legislature’s gonna do the opposite. They're gonna pass really bad bills after the Sandy Hooks school shooting because they think we need to arm teachers.” And we just realized that we'd have to build momentum in city councils, in state houses, and that momentum would eventually point Congress and the President in the right direction.
I think what’s really interesting is after that bill failed, not a single one of those democrats who voted against Manchin-Toomey still has their job because the NRA went in and invested millions in their opponents even though they voted with them. It taught such an important lesson to democrats, which was with friends like the NRA, who needs enemies.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: And now not a single democrat in Congress has an A rating from the NRA. Not one. They figured out they could vote their conscience, and that they would have this army of red-shirted moms, angry moms, they would have their back.
Rebecca Ching: So how have you been navigating this incremental change without burning out or becoming cynical? You mentioned your faith practice, but what else has helped you?
Shannon Watts: I mean, I certainly have had times along the way where I felt burned out and I needed to recharge. I do think I’m energized by using my skill set. I am a communicator. That is probably my primary skill set, and so, when there’s a shooting tragedy, I feel like it is my job to, one, get other people on the side lines and get them plugged in, and two, to educate them about the solutions because you come sometimes to the movement with preconceived ideas of what should be done. So that actually is helpful to me in times of tragedy.
But I think part of what I have been able to do is to lean on my family, to lean on my husband, to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, and frankly, to pass the baton to other people when I need to take a break. You know, I’ve talked about the fact that one of my kids was diagnosed with a really horrible eating disorder, probably five years into this work, and relapsed several times. There was a time where we thought they might die. And so, certainly, my focus was on them and not Moms Demand Action. Because I’m a woman, I think, one, I felt guilty about giving my work to other people, and two, my ego was like, “No one else can do it as well as you can, or maybe even worse, what if they do?” When I came back what I realized was the work was still there, people brought new energy and new ideas to the table, and I was able to do what I needed to do, which was to put my focus on my family.
So I’m not gonna pretend that I have this down. But I will say I get a lot of questions from moms like, “Do you feel guilty, or did you feel guilty that you were so busy?”
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Shannon Watts: The thing that I can say now at 52 with grown children is that they never bring up the times I didn't go to a soccer game. They only talk about the times that they were really proud, and they were motivated by the fact that I did something I loved. And so, if I can say nothing else to other moms it’s that. Don't feel guilty about pursuing your passions.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, so you’ve been doing this for a decade, and you talked about handing the baton. Well, you literally are handing the baton at the end of this year of this organization that you founded, that’s permeated every part of you and your life.
But before we talk about why now, it struck me that you stayed year after year through countless death threats, very public, very vicious. When I was doing research for this interview, I mean, it was really mortifying, and that was probably just stuff that was shared that I saw. I have no idea what was behind the scenes. I could only imagine. I know other public figures that have had death threats and had to get security. Why did you stay through that incessant harassment? You have kids. That piece, that, “Oh, my gosh,” you know, these targeted attacks on you and your family. Why did you stay even through all of that?
Shannon Watts: I think there was a little naiveté. When I started Moms Demand Action, I had no idea that I would start getting threats of death and sexual violence to me and to my kids immediately. I never imagined I’d be a public figure, so it was very easy to find my phone number and my address and my email, and it was immediate, right? People driving by my house. People sending me texts. People calling me, sending me emails, cutting letters out of magazines and sending me Son of Sam letters. I can remember I called the police. This was in Indiana, and the police came to my house, and they said, “Well, ma’am, that’s what you get when you mess with the second amendment.”
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Shannon Watts: So I kind of had to make a choice early on whether I was gonna double down or back down, and again, I think this goes to the fact that I am animated by anger, I am a pretty pugnacious and provocative person, and I doubled down. It’s kind of like being a gremlin after midnight. You try to silence or intimidate me, I will go absolutely spider monkey. Whatever those threats were tapped into that feeling, and I, one, wanted to share with the world what is happening to me as a woman because I’m a woman taking on the gun lobby, because I’m a woman leader. But also these are the same people who think they should have unfettered access to guns.
And so, it just became a way to further the storyline, I think, to share what was happening to me. I mean, I would say after a year or two it just kind of became white noise. I can remember on my book tour they were dragging armed men out of my book tour stops. I don't know. It was bizarre to me, but I never felt afraid.
Rebecca Ching: Where did you get that from in your story? As someone that’s worked with two decades of folks healing from trauma, I see people respond differently based on their difficult experiences or how they're inspired from their family of origin. My therapist friends are going, “What’s behind that?” That kind of, “Oh, hell no I am not backing down. Come on. Keep coming,” in the face of, again, armed men were being dragged out of your book tour. So I just think that’s still noteworthy. Who in your life or what stories in your life helped fuel you for this time?
Shannon Watts: Ah, that might be a whole other podcast or a therapy session.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: But I don't know the answer to that except that I kind of feel like I came a little bit like this into the world.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Shannon Watts: That I’ve always rooted for the underdog, that I have always been ready for a fight when someone rings that bell. Like I said, I do think that in my career and in my younger life that did not serve me well. I think it made me difficult. It was something that was probably hard to live with in me, speaking of my husband and my colleagues. I think there was something, a fuse, that was easy to light. But when I started Moms Demand Action and all that focus went into my anger about an issue, I do think I have become a much gentler, kinder, more compassionate, more chill person.
Maybe that’s because I’m older. But there’s something about taking that inside me and funneling it for good that was productive.
Rebecca Ching: And so, it’s almost like really channeling all of that feistiness towards this calmed you down in other areas of your life. So it’s almost this balancing. That’s fascinating.
So what’s curious to me, then, is why now? Why step down now? What was behind the decision process? One of the many statistics was ten million volunteers that are a part of Moms Demand Action, and the NRA now is smaller than Moms Demand Action. They have shrunk since you’ve been there. Members of Congress who feared any retaliation from the NRA now are like, “Okay, what are the moms gonna say about this and where is Moms Demand? They’ve channeled. They’ve shifted.” That’s a huge zeitgeist shift that has been remarkable. The wins are starting to continue. Even amidst heartbreaking tragedy, the incremental change and wins are continuing to grow and magnify. So why now? Why leave now?
Shannon Watts: Well, I mentioned to you that I am a practicing Buddhist and managing sort of your shadow ego is a big part of that.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: I can remember when I started Moms Demand Action, a volunteer said to me, “Well, don't get founder syndrome.” I had no idea what that was, so I had to Google it because I’d never been a founder, and it’s this idea that your ego becomes so intertwined with the organization that you can't separate the two from one another, and that, eventually, the ego starts to have a detrimental impact on the organization’s ability to evolve and grow past you and who you were when you started it.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Shannon Watts: So I never imagined that this role would be infinite, that it would go on my whole life. I didn't want it to. I’m 52 now. There are other things that I do want to do with my life. When I say Moms Demand Action has been all-encompassing, we are talking about every hour of every day for the last eleven years. Vacations, kids events, you name it, right? I’ve always been sort of ready, prepared, having to exit for a shooting tragedy.
So I ask myself every year, “Is this the year?” This started early on. “Is this the year?” I can remember in 2018 right before the Parkland shooting tragedy, I thought it was the year five years in, and then that happened and our organization tripled in size, and I just thought -- you know, so there have been times where I’d thought yes or maybe, but it just didn't make sense. And then after the Uvalde and Buffalo shooting tragedies, we passed the first federal gun safety legislation in a generation, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which I’m still amazed that that passed. But when I was standing in the rose garden, I just had this moment of realization that, yes, this is the time. This is the bookend to my activism, not everybody’s. This is the bookend to my activism, and I am gonna hand the baton over.
What I think is beautiful about it is that I started this organization as a white, suburban mom who was scared her kids weren't safe in their schools, and I’m handing the baton over to a Black, queer woman who lives in Washington, DC. She has four kids, and she’s scared her kids aren't safe in their community, right? And so, the organization will evolve. It will grow. It will have different interests and different priorities, and I am excited to watch that.
Rebecca Ching: I hear you saying that now, that you're excited to watch that, and I believe that. And I’ve also worked with other founders and other leaders who’ve stepped down from organizations that have become all-encompassing, a part of their identity, a part of their being, and in many ways a love, like another family member.
What are the things that you have in place as an offramp so that you can recalibrate not just your identity but your center? I’m 52 also. We’re just starting, you know? This is not the 52 that you and I thought of when we were younger. But yeah, what are the things that you are doing to help you offramp, download, recalibrate from this intense ten-plus years?
Shannon Watts: Well, when I told the team almost a year ago in November, I knew (and I had this conversation with my husband and my therapist) that there was gonna be a lot of suffering, that I was gonna have a lot of moments in the coming year where I thought, “Holy shit. Who am I? What do I do now? What am I gonna do with all this free time? What do I say when people ask me who I am or what I do? How do I stop doing the things that I’ve been doing all day every day for a decade?” There was a lot of that, but because I was aware that was going to happen, I think I was able to keep it in check.
You see often where leaders of any kind start to feel that way, and then they decide to just burn down what they’ve created. I knew that was a possibility, and I’m really grateful that my husband, who knows me better than anyone on earth, he was a sounding board. When I would say, “I'm feeling this way,” he would put it into perspective for me. My therapist would put it into perspective for me. And then it was also about, well, what does interest me? Now that I’ve kind of stopped my life for a decade, what have I not been doing that I would like to do?
I went to college to be a journalist. I’d love to write. What was a really interesting synchronicity is that I was running on a treadmill probably a month after it became public that I was gonna leave, and I get a call from Maria Shriver who said, “Why don't you write a book about women in leadership for my Imprint?” which I didn't imagine I would do, and I said yes. I started writing for Substack, which I write for twice a week now. I just told someone I’m busier than I have ever been, even when I was doing Moms Demand Action.
So I am too busy to be concerned about what’s happening over at Moms Demand Action other than rooting them on and helping to promote what they're doing and still popping in to help in any way I can. But I want to go onto another phase of my life. Like you said, 52 is young! There’s a lot to do, and I’m eager to share what I’ve learned as a leader for a decade.
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Is there anything, if you're being really honest with yourself, that you are having a hard time letting go of or are fearful of around your role with this organization that you founded?
Shannon Watts: I think I was most fearful of losing what made me special, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Shannon Watts: What makes me special is to be the tip of the spear and to be leading and to be the one people look to for help and information. And suddenly, when you're off the team, you're off the team, right? You're not getting those calls anymore. People aren't really that interested in what you're thinking about something. I think that was my biggest fear, but I will say I feel like I’ve gone through that valley and come out the other side already because there have been shooting tragedies because there are big things happening. I was invited to go to the White House for an announcement the President is making, and instead I’m going to Japan. I would not have missed that for the world in the past, but now when you break up with someone for example, then you sort of feel like, “Oh, that was a different part of my life and I’ve moved on,” and I kind of feel that way now about the work I was doing. It is my legacy, and I love that, and I honor it. But I also think it’s healthy to have some distance.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, a healthy breakup means you actually need space from each other, for sure, for sure. Thank you for sharing. I read somewhere that in stepping down, you’re gonna still be involved as a volunteer. What do you envision that looking like even with all these other things that you have got going on right now?
Shannon Watts: Well, my friends tease me. They're like, “So does this mean you're gonna be out at the farmer’s market with us handing out secure storage information?” I’m like, “Sure! You invite me to something, and I’ll do it!” I mean, I just did a phone bank on Tuesday night for the election. I am here and willing to help, particularly California moms where I live now, in any way I possibly can. I think that it is more important than ever to do this work. Sadly, I think there are gonna be more tragedies that just emphasize that. Plus, we have such an important election coming up.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Shannon Watts: So I will do anything I can do, but I am writing a book full time, and that is a lot of alone time staring at your computer. And so, that’s really sort of taking precedent right now in my life, all the writing I’m doing. And I’m feeling creative and I’m getting to hang out with my husband, which I didn't get to do for a long time because I traveled so much. I’m visiting my adult kids. So I’m here to help, but I don't have to necessarily be the first person they call.
Rebecca Ching: I want to talk about your Substack. I’m a follower. I signed up, and I’m loving that you're doing something that we’re told not to do. You're kind of just writing about a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You do a deep dive into things that you care about - menopause, your child recovering from an eating disorder, your experience leading Moms Demand Action, and more. And I’ve really appreciated you kind of just being like, “What do you want to know?” Instead of, “Here’s my new thing now,” which is kind of how we’re taught. So I encourage people listening to check it out. I think the content you write is great, but just the modeling of exploration is something that we’re not encouraged to do, and you're really modeling that well.
In one of your Substacks, you wrote about what you learned as a white woman in the gun safety movement. I read that article several times. It was really bringing up a lot in other experiences that I’ve had. You called it an imperfect list written by an imperfect person whose activism has been grounded in privilege. I want to go into some of the things you touched on, but can you explain what you mean or say more about activism grounded in privilege.
Shannon Watts: I think it goes back to this idea of I was a white woman living in a bubble who got involved in this issue because I was scared my kids weren't safe in their schools. My husband’s income enabled me to be a full-time volunteer for a decade. I have not been impacted by gun violence. There are so many things that give me privilege in the ability to do what I did.
What I see are white women sometimes making the same mistakes that I made originally, which was again to be so myopic in my focus on mass shootings. I kind of saw some of that happening in Tennessee, which was the reason I wrote that piece, and also to be honest, I couldn't say those things when I was leading Moms Demand Action, right? I really had to be careful to make sure that I was making everyone feel that they played an important role, which they do, but I couldn't antagonize or alienate or really even bring up some of these more difficult conversations, or at least I didn't feel like I could. I do feel like I can do that now because I’m sort of doing that now a little bit from the sidelines and with perspective.
Again, I think there’s a little bit of that white womaning that we want to come and save the world.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yes.
Shannon Watts: And that we think we have the best ideas without listening first, without thinking about -- I think this example’s kind of a synopsis of what I’m trying to say. I did a book event once in Boston. Our Boston membership leader was there, and she was a Black woman, and most of the people at this book event were white. She stood up, and she said, “Thank you all so much for being here today, but are you also going to events in Black and brown communities? Are you going to courthouses and holding people’s hands? Are you going to marches and rallies? Are you showing up when something bad happens in those communities? Are you advocating for the legislation those communities are prioritizing?”
And I just think that’s something we need to think about more. I see us evolving, and I see us getting there, and I certainly see Moms Demand Action volunteers understanding that and learning those lessons, but it’s almost like every time there’s a mass shooting tragedy, it starts all over again.
Rebecca Ching: It is interesting how you get there and then it’s back to the basics. It’s cyclical, but there is progress being made. It is incremental. You talked about some of these key learnings within that post as an imperfect person whose activism has been grounded in privilege. In one of those posts you said acknowledge your privilege, and I think that’s a word, especially a lot of white women are struggling with. They struggle with that. It’s almost like acknowledging is different than feeling bad for having it. I always say it’s what you do with your privilege. But say more about how important it is to acknowledge our privilege in the work, anything that we’re doing?
Shannon Watts: Well, just by being white you are privileged. So, in fact, that’s sort of the first step, right, is to say, “Oh, I’m privileged because I’m walking around as a white person in a world that was created to benefit white people.” If you have a problem saying that I think you need to think about why. What does that bring up in you? I want to be clear. I’m sure ten years ago I would have felt the same way, right? “Not all women, not all white women.” It is only now, ten years in, that I can say, “Yeah, that was how I started,” and it was because I learned and I was willing to be open to understanding my faults, as an activist, that I could grow.
It would be interesting to know why in 2023 that’s still something that white women grapple with. I think what hardens me is there’s recent data, there’s polling that came out recently that shows republican women and democratic women agree on the solutions to gun safety.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Shannon Watts: It’s the only across-the-aisle agreement by gender, by party, by issue. That gives me hope that we can figure out a way to say, as I say in the Substack piece, “How do we use our collective voices and votes to support Black women?” Because they are really the heart of this issue. They are the north star of this issue. They know what they need to stop the shootings of Black boys and Black men. If we can come to activism with that perspective, I think we will be better activists. But, you know, the other piece that I love is Jessica Valenti is a feminist who wrote about white women activists.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, she’s great!
Shannon Watts: Oh, my gosh. My favorite thing when she talks about how white women can be helpful is getting permits. Because white women believe the system is set up to work for us, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Shannon Watts: And so, Black people are like, “If you need an event space, if you need to have a march or rally, someone get a white woman because she can get a permit for you in about 24 hours.” [Laughs]
So it’s really saying, “I am privileged. I have this unique access to making things happen because of that. How can I help?” Really, at the end of the day, that is, “How can I help?”
Rebecca Ching: I think one of the other lessons was seeking the input of Black women as a segue from acknowledging your privilege as a white woman is also, “I am not the center of this.” It’s decentering, where we’re so used to just jumping in and seeking the input of Black women, say more about that, and also what do we do with that input, and who do we center with that input. Can you say more about that?
Shannon Watts: Yeah, I mean, early on, when I started Moms Demand Action, I became friends with a woman named Lucy McBath who had been a flight attendant for Delta for 30 years. Just weeks before the Sandy Hooks school shooting, her son Jordan Davis, a Black 17-year-old, was shot and killed by a white man at a Florida gas station because they got in an argument about the music in Jordan’s car being too loud, allegedly. Moms Demand Action volunteers, you know, again, we were just a fledgling organization, but they supported Lucy in Florida during two trials. The first one was a mistrial. Eventually, he was convicted of murder.
Lucy became a spokesperson and a colleague, and she reached out to me, I would say in 2013, and said, “I am so grateful for this platform. What I see, though, is when I’m speaking to crowds, they're mostly white people. If this organization is going to last, if it’s going to evolve, if it’s going to grow, if it’s going to become national in scope, then it has to reprioritize who’s in its leadership, who’s in its volunteer base, what issues is it focused on.” She was exactly right.
Lucy’s a Congresswoman now, so of course she was right. But that was exactly what she needed to be telling me, and I’m grateful that I listened because we did do all of those things.
Now, I will say every time there’s a mass shooting tragedy and we grow, we have to start that process all over again because a lot of the people who come into the movement look like me, but it really isn't just about listening to Black people. It isn't just about including Black people in the conversation because that conversation’s been going on. It’s really about following the lead, particularly I think of Black women.
Rebecca Ching: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the other lessons you mentioned is be brutally honest with yourself or ask someone else to be. Can you say more about how you came to that lesson?
Shannon Watts: Well, I have been so fortunate to have people who are brutally honest with me. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: [Laughs] I feel really sorry for those people because, you know, I’m sure it’s not always easy to have been brutally honest with me, but there are certain people in my life, some of whom were volunteers and are now colleagues, some of whom are family members or just friends. But I have gone to them, and I’ve said, “I’ve done this thing, and I’m not sure that was a good thing. Can you tell me?” Or I will say, “I want to do this thing,” and they will tell me. But I’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way.
I do think what has helped me is that I’m a pretty self-aware person. I always want to know if I’m messing up. And I’m also open to doing things differently. I’m not trying to shut down and just forge forward because I do know if you lose people by always saying no, by being inflexible, by doubling down, that isn't the way to encourage a bigger tent.
So I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I don't want to present this like I am somehow the model of how you should do this. I’m not. But I’ve been open to learning and to listening and to getting feedback, and if you take that feedback to heart (and you can decide is it wrong or right), and sometimes you get feedback from people who probably don't have your best interest at heart, you're less likely to take it. That is why I go to friends and family. If you let that in, and you're open to doing things differently, that’s sort of the key to human growth.
Rebecca Ching: Would you say that maybe some of the times where some of your biggest mistakes or falls were when you weren't listening to others that were in your inner circle or yourself, or would you say it’s something else?
Shannon Watts: I think it’s when I stayed in my bubble and decided that I knew best, or I made a decision without getting feedback or input. I do think there’s something about leaders, and I see myself as having had that trait most of my life. I’ve always wanted to or expected to lead on different things. Sometimes you can be too sure that you know the best way forward, and there’s beauty in the pause of thinking that maybe you don't.
Rebecca Ching: The sacred pause. So that was one of your other lessons was acknowledge your lack of knowledge. A lot of leaders are terrified of that. The fear of, “I can't say I don't know. I can't ask for help.” There’s this weird pressure that if we show that they're gonna lose trust, when often, it has the exact opposite of, “I need help. I don't know. Tell me more.”
So can you say a little bit more about how you acknowledging your lack of knowledge has helped you be a better leader?
Shannon Watts: I think part of what I decided at the very beginning was I would not use “I,” I would use “we.”
Rebecca Ching: Ah!
Shannon Watts: That serves a lot of purposes. One thing it does is it does decenter you. It makes other people feel empowered and excited, like this is their organization, not just mine. But it also takes some of the pressure off, right? If it’s not “me, I, mine,” it’s “ours,” and we make those decisions together, and we succeed together or we fail together. That’s really always been my strategy is to talk about the collective we and not I and the knowledge is all of our knowledge. There’s also just so much pressure to being a woman leader and feeling like you can't fail in public.
Rebecca Ching: So much.
Shannon Watts: So much, and people are looking for you to fail in public. So again, leaning on the collective we, it serves so many different purposes that to me that’s almost the key of leadership.
Rebecca Ching: I’m with you, and this lesson is one that I feel like I’ve been saying since I was excited about the whole process of elections is put your ballot where your mouth is. What do you want to say to our listeners who are like, “It doesn't count,” “Look what’s happened in these elections with the split electoral college and the general population vote,” or “It doesn't matter.” What do you say to those folks that are just like, “Ugh, I’m not sure this makes a difference”?
Shannon Watts: I’ll be honest, I don't have a lot of patience for that. I think being cynical is an excuse for inaction. It’s so much easier to say, “What I do doesn't matter. I can't make a difference.” As I said, I’m animated by anger. That makes me really angry because I’m proof positive, Moms Demand Action is proof positive, all of our volunteers are proof positive that, in fact, you can make a difference. In ten years, not a single democrat has an A-rating anymore from the NRA. We’ve passed 500 good gun laws. We’ve stopped the NRA’s agenda 90% of the time every year in state houses for the last nine years. We just passed the first federal legislation in a generation. So much is happening on this issue, and it’s only because everyday people get up and they decide that they're gonna work on this issue.
I think the bigger danger is people who think they don't make a difference. That’s part of the problem. But what I think is more nuanced and more interesting and also more problematic is what’s gonna happen in places like Tennessee where, again, a lot of these white, Christian, conservative parents voted in these extremist lawmakers, and we’re gonna go into an election cycle. So what do you do? Do you vote in so-called moderate republicans who might be better on guns but bad on a whole host of issues? Or can you finally put your vote where your money is and vote for a candidate that is a democrat simply because it will save lives, and you will finally move the needle forward, and you will be doing what Black women do, right? “Vote like Black women” should be your motto.
So I think it’ll be really interesting to see that in Southern states. What will they do next? What will they decide to do in the face of lawmakers who drag them, physically, out of committee hearings?
Rebecca Ching: We’ll all be watching. We’ll all be watching and getting to the ballot, hopefully, too.
As we wrap up, how has your understanding of success changed since you were younger?
Shannon Watts: Oh, you know, when I was in the corporate world (I did corporate communications for several decades), I was miserable. I was promoting sonogram equipment and health insurance and a whole host of things that were not of interest to me. Now, the value of that was I spent thousands and thousands of hours writing press releases and speeches and telling stories.
But I never felt fulfilled. I wasn’t happy. I was making a lot of money. What I felt fulfilled by was volunteering. I worked harder than I ever had in my life. I made zero dollars. I had to manage huge amounts of volunteers, which is slightly like herding cats. And yet, it was the most fulfilling work of my life. To work shoulder to shoulder with other people who cared about the lives of perfect strangers, to feel like we were in something together, to feel a sense of joy and a sense of community, to all be working for a common good, and to know that we were on the right side of history was hands down the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life. So, to me, success is living in aliveness.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Not job titles or a dollar sign. Obviously, those things have their place, but without meaning and purpose and living your values, it does feel lifeless. That’s powerful. Well, before you go, I have a tradition of asking some quickfire questions from my guests.
So what are you reading right now? I know you're writing a book, but what are you reading right now?
Shannon Watts: I am in the middle of Maria Shriver's books, all of her books because I’m working with her Imprint, and I love them. They're very inspirational. I think they're pithy and they're easily digestible. So I have all of her books in a stack on my nightstand.
Rebecca Ching: What song are you playing on repeat?
Shannon Watts: Oh, man. “Lil Boo Thang.” I cannot get that song out of my head!
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: I might have to go to therapy for that. It’s in there forever.
Rebecca Ching: Now it’ll be in mine! What is the best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Shannon Watts: I have to say two: The Bear and Reservation Dogs. I love both of those shows.
Rebecca Ching: Brilliant. Brilliant. Favorite eighties movie or piece of pop culture? I’m so curious what you're gonna say on this!
Shannon Watts: Oh, my god. The eighties, only now do I appreciate that I’m so glad I came of age in the eighties. It was the best decade in the history of the world.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: I’m gonna go with Footloose. I saw it 14 times.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Shannon Watts: I still like the music. I mean, I love a good Footloose Peloton class.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. Yes, that is a great Peloton class. And we’ve got to go with the Kevin Bacon original. I appreciate their attempts at the remake.
Shannon Watts: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: But the Kevin Bacon original is legend status. What is your mantra right now?
Shannon Watts: Let the game come to you.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh, I like that one. What is an unpopular opinion that you hold, or at least one of many I suspect you hold? [Laughs]
Shannon Watts: Oh, this is a very unpopular and outspoken opinion. Spanking is child abuse.
Rebecca Ching: I don't disagree. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Shannon Watts: Who inspires me to be a better leader and human? I really think very highly of Kamala Harris, the Vice President. And she’s been under fire for years. She’s brilliant. She’s really kind, so is her husband, and I think and hope she’ll be the president one day.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Shannon, where can people find you as you are moving into this new chapter, and if they want to learn more about Moms Demand Action, where can they do that?
Shannon Watts: So you can find me pretty much on all social media. I’m not that much on Twitter, or formerly-known app as Twitter anymore.
Rebecca Ching: X.
Shannon Watts: But Twitter, Threads, Instagram, Substack, all @shannonrwatts. Then Moms Demand Action is www.momsdemandaction.org. Text the word “ready” to 64433, and a volunteer will immediately get back to you and help to plug you in where you live. You can also go to www.everytown.org if you want to read more stats and research and data about gun violence.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful. Shannon, this was an honor. I am so grateful for this conversation, and I’m so excited to read your future book and see all the things that you do on this next chapter. Thank you so much for your time!
Shannon Watts: Oh, it was wonderful. Thank you!
Rebecca Ching: Before you go, I want to make sure you take some of Shannon’s incredible learnings that she gave us in this important Unburdened Leader conversation. Shannon reminded us to use our fear to fight back instead of tap out, and how data shows time and again that unfettered access to guns is not making our country safer, and instead is killing way too many and weakening our democracy. She gave us a powerful call to action, reminding us that no matter our influence, education, faith practices, none of us are safe until we’re all safe. Shannon also shared the challenging process of deciding when to leave the organization she founded. There are some really good nuggets that we all need to think about there.
I value how Shannon created an organization that made getting involved accessible for all, no matter your bandwidth, skill set, or resources. I think that’s on us to cultivate spaces that can do the same and push back on the protector of cynicism that says we do not have time and our voices do not matter, and this is the ongoing work of an unburdened leader.
Thank you so much for joining this really important episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com! And if this episode was meaningful or impactful to you, I would be honored and appreciative if you went and left a rating, a review, and shared it with a few people who would also benefit from this episode. I also want to give a special shoutout and thank you to the folks at Yellow House Media who produced this episode - thank you so much!