Shannon Watts never imagined she would one day become an activist, much less a leading voice on run reform in America. In fact, she didn’t realize her activist calling until the age of 41, where at the time she was a stay-at-home mom who had spent 15 years in a completely different industry, public relations.
When the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., claimed the lives of 26 children and staff members, the tragedy changed the course of her life. Saddened, angered, and fed up with her own and others’ complacency in the face of seemingly endless mass shootings, Watts created a Facebook page the next day that began with the sentence: “This site is dedicated to action on gun control — not just dialogue about anti-gun violence.At the time, she urged women to join her in organizing a Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. That led to the beginning of her gun safety group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is now the nation’s largest grassroots organization fighting to end gun violence, with a chapter in every state, and more than 250 employees and 10 million volunteers around the country.
Watts, now 52, was recently honored on Forbes and Know Your Value’s 3rd annual “50 Over 50” U.S. list, which celebrates women who have found success later in life, and have shattered age and gender norms.
The activist and author spoke to “Morning Joe” reporter Daniela Pierre-Bravo last month — along with “I am a voter” co-founder Mandana Dayani — about the importance of mentorship and making a lasting impact later in life.
“I imagined post-50, that I was sort of done with whatever it was that I wanted to do,” Watts told Pierre-Bravo. “I was thinking very near term like 20s and 30s — having kids and having a career — and it really was when I kind of let go of that whole idea that my whole life opened up. I found the most rewarding work of my life at age 41 and it was nothing I ever imagined - I didn’t think I was going to be an activist.”
Just last year, Watts won her biggest victory yet with the passing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first federal gun legislation signed into law in almost 30 years. “I did not see that coming,” Watts said. “But there was so much momentum that we had built on the ground that when there were horrific shootings, like in Buffalo and Uvalde, we were able to act quickly and seize on the moment and pass that bipartisan legislation."
Watts considers that milestone as her greatest over 50 accomplishment so far. “I feel like I’m just living my best life post 50,” she said. “We’re embracing that women are coming into their own at 50 and there’s so much more that can be done.”
While Watts plans on stepping down from her role at the end of this year and continue with the group as a volunteer, she has shifted her focus toward guiding the next generation of women activists.
“I am a voter” co-founder Mandana Dayani — a long-time admirer of her work in advocacy — eventually sought Watts out as a mentor with the help of “Will & Grace” star and friend, Debra Messing.
“[Messing] was like, who do you want to talk to? Who can you learn from?” Dayani recalled while they were on vacation together. “I said, Shannon Watts, but how do you get to Shannon Watts?”
Messing sent Watts a message via Twitter about Dayani’s interest in grassroots mobilization. Two days later, Watts contacted Dayani.
“We had this beautiful conversation, and I was very vulnerable and saying, ‘Look, I’ve led companies and teams, but I don’t know how to build a nonprofit’,” Dayani recalled. “And she was like, ‘No, you were made for this moment, you know everything you need to know, and women are natural leaders’.”
Indeed, when Dayani asked Watts if she should include any men on her initial team, she answered with a resounding no. “She’s like, ‘There’s a reason I started it with Moms Demand Action, women get sh** done in ways that no one else does',” Dayani laughed.
Both women, now friends through mentorship, lean on each other for guidance and motivation. “[Watts] would just check in on me once a week, once a month and literally say, don’t stop, you’re on a path, just keep going,” Dayani said. “And to me as an activist for the last six years, those are the most powerful words you can hear from people in your community … all of us mentor each other and coach each other [and] the ability to lean on your community is so important.”