When Robert Schentrup lost his sister, Carmen, in the Parkland shooting last year, he was an 18 year-old with no connections, no experience, no resources, and no recourse—one of the vast majority of Americans who go about their lives believing that they are powerless to effect change. Too young to run for office, it would have been easy for Robert to assume that the only remedies at his disposal were the vital, but limited, tools of voting and marching. Last week, however, less than fourteen months after his sister was taken from him, Robert saw his first bill signed into law by the Governor of Colorado: a bipartisan measure to help keep firearms away from those found to pose an extreme risk to themselves or others.
Robert’s path was a lot like mine. After I was raped in college, I felt powerless and alone—and when I sought justice for myself, I discovered grave irregularities and shortfalls in the civil rights available to people like me. With limited options, I turned my grief into lasting change for myself and others, just as Robert would a few years later. I penned my own civil rights into existence by writing the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which overcame unprecedented gridlock to pass unanimously through Congress before being signed by President Obama in 2016.
The organization I started to get it done, Rise, has since become the most successful legislative reform movement in modern U.S. history. Working with regular people like me who have no training and no proximity to power, we’ve taught sexual assault survivors to write laws and navigate the legislative process using the same principles that I used. In the last 21 months, our Risers have passed new laws in 21 states—each of them unanimously. We cracked the code that for so long has kept people from believing that they could make a difference, and I was honored to have been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the progress we’ve made together.
Of course, sexual assault survivors aren’t the only group of people who have had the doors of democracy closed in their faces. That’s why Rise has built a first-of-its-kind civil rights accelerator to help other hopeful young people claim their rightful place in our democracy and write laws of their own. The Rise Justice Lab is just like the incubators that already exist for tech startups and small businesses—it offers coaching, mentorship, and other support to help people break down barriers to entry and find success. Our goal is to demystify the path we’ve walked, helping new people and new causes make their way through the obstacle courses of bill drafting, committee hearings, and vote whipping that exist in every state.
The first users of the Rise Justice Lab? That would be Robert Schentrup and the organization he started, Zero USA. No issue has been harder to make progress on than gun safety reform—as tragedy after tragedy passes without change, no cause has felt more hopeless. But after stepping into our civil rights accelerator, Robert and his team are now one-for-one in passing new laws, and are planting the seeds for many more to follow.
Voting and marching lie at the heart of our democracy. Running for office is a noble pursuit. But there is an enormous opportunity to make change between those two poles, and it doesn’t require money or connections—all it requires is hope.
Our hope at the Rise Justice Lab is to provide an antidote to the mounting frustration, tribalism, and waning faith in our democracy that so many Americans feel. You provide the passion, and we provide the blueprint to make change in your own community, unclogging the arteries of progress and offering a way for literally anyone to write rights and right wrongs. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager like Robert, a new parent concerned about the impact that climate change will have on your child’s future, a student who wants to reform education debt, or anybody else.
There is plenty of room on the trail we’ve blazed, so I hope that you’ll join the Rise movement, shed off apathy and hopelessness, and find your own place in a democracy that—after all—belongs to you.