Why She’s Amazing
Laura Dunn doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be more.
Laura is a nationally recognized victim-turned-victims’ rights attorney whose work has been featured by HBO Vice, National Law Journal, Rolling Stone Magazine, MSNBC, Al Jazeera America, and TIME Magazine, among many others.
Laura has always felt a calling to help people who had been harmed. Unfortunately, a life-altering experience demanded that she first speak out and help herself. While a student, two men from Laura’s crew team sexually assaulted her. Despite reporting to campus officials and police, she was denied justice and eventually filed a Title IX complaint against the school.
As a result, Laura became a passionate advocate for victims’ rights. Her resume is incredibly impressive and includes numerous honors along with successfully lobbying for the passage of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization, advising to the White House Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Assault, serving as the primary student negotiator on the U.S. Department of Education’s VAWA Rulemaking Committee, and founding the national nonprofit, SurvJustice.
To recognize her advocacy, Senator Patrick Leahy recognized Dunn on the floor of the U.S. Senate while Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Vice President Joe Biden has invited her as a VIP guest to the release of the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, signing of the 2013 VAWA Reauthorization, and release of the It’s On Us Campaign at the White House.
Laura currently serves as Founder and Executive Director of SurvJustice, a national not-for-profit organization that increases the prospect of justice for survivors of sexual violence by providing legal assistance, training institutions and supporting changemakers.
We had a chance to ask Laura a few questions. We think you’ll agree that her strength, courage and determination will make the world a better place.
“I always knew I wanted to help people, especially those who had been harmed or abused.” – Laura Dunn
Q & A
Q: When you were a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?
A: As a little girl, I wanted to be either a prosecutor or a psychologist because I always knew I wanted to help people, especially those who had been harmed or abused.
Q: What did people think when you told them that?
A: I remember telling my mother about wanting to be a prosecutor or psychologist, and she attempted to discourage me from either career by suggesting that women weren’t cut out for such professions. While she herself was an attorney, she had a theory that women took such work too personally so that it would actually harm their health in the long run. I obviously didn’t listen or buy into that theory as I got my undergraduate degree in psychology and my graduate degree in law. I actually think women make some of the best advocates for others.
Q: Did people call you “princess” when you were a little girl and, if so, how did that make you feel?
A: Yes, I definitely had my older siblings refer to me as a “princess” given that I was the baby of the family and therefore “spoiled” in their eyes. It didn’t bother me really because I liked the benefits from being the baby in the family, and I also knew I didn’t act like much of a princess as I was a tomboy.
Q: What does the word “princess” mean to you?
A: A princess to me is a girl who is encouraged to care about her appearance and her likability over her mind and abilities.
Q: How did you decide to turn your personal experience with assault into a dedication to fight for justice for other survivors?
A: The day I learned about the significant underreporting of sexual violence is the day I decided to speak out for myself, which put me on the path to national advocacy for all survivors. When I learned that 70-80% of survivors stayed silent while perpetrators averaged six victims in college (and roughly 12 before being caught and convicted), I knew that silence was no longer an option for me. I had to speak out about my own case and, in doing so, I realized how rare justice is for survivors. This led me to dedicate my life to increasing the prospect of justice for survivors, which is the mission of my nonprofit, SurvJustice.
Q: What did you have to do to accomplish this?
A: For me, I had to first speak up and publicly identify as a survivor. When I did that the first time in 2006, it was rare for any survivor to report campus sexual violence or speak out publicly without ensuring their anonymity. Being public forced me to reject the shame and blame and stand strong. At first, I thought I was just doing it for myself, but I realized that it was an act of activism that gave courage to others and inspired change. Being public gave me a voice to speak out against sexual violence nationally.
Q: Did you have a mentor or role model who inspired you?
A: S. Daniel Carter became my mentor. He initially reached out when I went public to inform me about my rights under Title IX to a safe campus free of sexual violence. After filing a Title IX complaint and having it rejected, he worked with a law school intern to file and win an appeal on my behalf. Beyond helping on my case, he saw a gift for policy and social change within me and cultivated that by opening doors to opportunities to meet with federal officials and eventually helped me change federal law. In addition, I remember being inspired by Wendy Murphy’s book “And Justice for Some” that opened my eyes to the career of being a victims’ right attorney, which is what I am today.
Q: Did your family and friends support your aspirations?
A: While my sisters supported me in speaking out publicly as a survivor and fighting for justice, my parents were not as supportive. I come from a conservative, Christian background that does not speak about the issue of sexual violence, so being public resulted in a lot of judgment or loss of support from friends and my community. While this is definitely the most painful aspect of what I went through as a survivor, it is also what I see changing the most from my work. The more legal recognition of acquaintance sexual violence as a harm, and the more survivors speak out and demand their rights, the more I have seen society support survivors. I have since found an amazing network of advocates and survivors who support my aspirations in full. My parents have also come around to realize they were wrong and to offer their ongoing support for my work today.
Q: Did you think about being called a “trailblazer” for choosing this path?
A: I do believe the term “trailblazer” fits. While there has been a subsequent waive of student and survivor activism around campus sexual assault with many survivors speaking out publicly, there was no such movement or groups when I first spoke out. I was alone in standing publicly against sexual violence, and it was challenging. At the time, I had no idea it would put me on the forefront of national legislative and policy changes and connect me to so many other amazing survivor-leaders and student activists around the country. I helped originate a movement that went all the way to the White House to create a Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Assault simply through using my voice and standing against injustice.
Q: What motivates you?
A: The need for justice in this world has always motivated me. Dr. King said it best, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I believe we each have a duty and sometimes are even specifically called to help bend the universe towards justice. It also makes me think of the quote from Assata Shakur, “The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” I wear being a survivor on my sleeve because it pushes me to fight for justice in a way I could not otherwise access. It is both a personal struggle, but a struggle for social justice that is bigger than myself. I feel honored to do what I do everyday.
Q: Of what are you most proud?
A: I am most proud for starting the national nonprofit SurvJustice while still in law school. In retrospect, it was a very bold, if not outright crazy, thing to do. I am proud that I didn’t worry and instead took the opportunity to create my own organization because I believed in my vision enough to bet my legal career on it.
Q: What would you like people to learn from you?
A: I want people to learn that you can and must be bold. You cannot wait for someone else to be change you wish to see in this world. If you are a survivor, your voice is the most powerful thing to challenge injustice. Every one of us can be brave and bold by speaking up against violence to demand justice.
Q: What three words would you like people to use to describe you?
A: Intense. Passionate. Caring.
Q: What do you want people to know about you outside of your accomplishments?
A: I am very devoted to healthy living. To that end, I have become a certified yoga instructor and am avid about farmers market and locally sourced foods. I am always trying to find the healthiest way to live.
Q: Given the choice, would you do it all again?
A: Every. Single. Time. I have thought of this many times before whenever I face challenges or obstacles, and I would never trade where I am for a different life even if it were easier.
Q: Who do you follow on social media that shares your passion for victims’ rights?
A: The number one person I follow is Wagatwe Wanjuki, who is an amazing outspoken survivor that I love to follow and learn from on social media. She is well known for challenging George Will through her hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege when he suggested women were claiming survivor status because it bestowed a privilege on them. She is fierce and says what others are often unable to say and still be heard.
Q: If you could eat lunch with one person, whom would it be?
A: Hmm, it might be a tie between Hillary Clinton and bell hooks. I am inspired by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy and hope someday to be a politician and follow in the footsteps of all the great women who dared to enter into the male dominated space of political leadership. With bell hooks, I admire her ability to unpack the layers of privilege in our world that hold our society back from ensuring justice for all.
Q: Which woman would you choose to have on U.S. currency?
A: Assata Shakur. I am very inspired by the Black Panther movement and her particular role within it. I think it would be quite a statement to have her on U.S. currency.
Q: What advice would you give to a girl who right now wants to be just like you?
A: Don’t be afraid to go it alone. There have been many parts of my journey where no one (or just very few) supported me, but that did not deter me. The following Robert F. Kennedy quote often comes to mind for me: “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet, it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” This is truth.
Bonus Question: What question would you ask the next Modern Day Trailblazer we interview?
A: Describe one moment in life that could have broken you down, but it actually made you stronger and who you are today.
- Laura is a night owl for sure.
- The last book she read was The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner.
- Laura’s favorite song is “Pardon Me” by Incubus.
- She would choose chocolate and vanilla swirl!!!
But, if she has to choose, it would be vanilla.
- Laura’s favorite quote is “Injustice anywhere is a threat to
justice everywhere.” by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.