Shannon Watts, a housewife and mother of five, had no intention of becoming a national figure. Yet shortly after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012, in which 20 children and 6 adults were murdered, her life changed. The next day, no longer content to sit on the sidelines, Watts, writing from her home in a suburb of Indianapolis, sent out an urgent call to action to her seventy-five Facebook followers. Word spread quickly, and soon after, a movement was born: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. With over six million supporters led almost entirely by women, what began with a social media post is now the largest and most effective anti-gun violence movement in the country, with unlikely legislative victories over the National Rifle Association (NRA) in states as red as Arkansas. In that state, Moms Demand Action, flexing its newfound electoral muscle, also sent two of its supporters to the state house.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, of course, but perhaps what is most impressive about Watts, a former marketing professional, is her dogged persistence against formidable odds. “Failure is feedback,” she says, and her organization likes to describe its setbacks as “losing forward.”
“I think that’s the story of activism,” Watts told Sharon Salzberg and me in a recent episode of our co-hosted podcast, Life As It Is. “It’s drips on a rock. It’s never giving up. And it’s learning from when you lose so that you can win the battle the next time.” (See “Drips on a Rock.”)
As extraordinary as Watts is as the founder and leader of an organization that now boasts more members than the NRA itself, none of this would have been possible without the grass roots. And that’s not lost on her. “When I opened my laptop nine years ago, I could never have imagined how many people would selflessly give up their time and talents to join me in this fight,” Watts recently told me. “I am continuously inspired by gun violence survivors and our volunteers, who work tirelessly to save the lives of people they will likely never meet. They do it all amid the demands of work, caregiving, and the pandemic. Our progress is sometimes measured in leaps and bounds, other times in more incremental steps, but it is all leading to a revolution in the way we think about gun safety in America.”
Watts is a leader who has been able to galvanize and give expression to a group’s shared aspirations. But this is balanced and complemented by her ability to do the unglamorous work of a skilled organizer: attending to personal relationships; supporting co-workers; hanging in there to iron out differences; and building consensus. And while Watts draws inspiration from the millions who have joined her and the positive reception she has received in the media, as a student of Buddhism she also draws strength from her meditation practice. “I think meditation is such a great tool, not just for restoring your mind but also for making sure you stay grounded. And when you do receive death threats, or trolls online, or losses . . . see those things happening almost as you see your thoughts . . . knowing they’re temporary . . . they’re impermanent . . . and will go away.”
At a time when we face so many seemingly insurmountable challenges, it’s easy to give up. Yet Watts never does. On that day in 2012 when news of the school shooting broke, she was folding laundry. She knew nothing of activism, nothing of organizing, nothing of gun violence. Yet her anger and sadness drove her to act in a way that has resonated with millions and that has no doubt saved lives. From her meditation practice to her activism, gains are slow and cumulative—“drips on a rock,” as she says. And so much of our practice is this way. What begins as a modest effort to connect with ourselves and others ripples out in unexpected ways, and, we hope, in ever-widening circles.
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