In the nearly four years since her youngest son, 6-year-old Dylan, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Nicole Hockley has had one key mission: to make sure no other parent experiences such an unimaginable loss.
“I want people to know that gun violence is preventable,” says Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise following the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
Recently named one of People’s 25 Women Changing the World, Hockley says, “Dylan is with me every day in my heart. Sadly, the more I learned about his death and the person that took his life, I recognized there were all these signs in advance and there had been multiple opportunities for intervention. That’s something that drives me — to know that Sandy Hook was preventable.”
Now, she explains, “to honor my son’s death, as well as his life, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to save other [lives]. I don’t want any other parent to ever be in my shoes and to know their child could have lived.”
Hockley focuses on “pragmatic” steps for students and adults. “At Sandy Hook Promise, we prevent gun violence from happening by teaching how to know the signs of people at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, how to recognize the signs of chronic social isolation and how to practice inclusivity,” she says. “We have chapters in all 50 states. We give people tools to use in their own homes, schools and communities.”
As she explains,”Policy can’t always teach us how to recognize the signs that someone needs help. If we keep it as talking about the gun, that just keeps it at a policy level and then we’re never going to get past the tug of war. Policy doesn’t drive behavioral changes. Behavioral change drives policy. Social change has proved the time and time again.”
“When you look at marriage equality, the law didn’t change just because the politicians changed,” she says by way of example. “It took conversations, reframing the conversation, talking about love and equality and making it relatable to all of America.”
“Because we’re not talking about guns, because we’re talking about protecting our kids, because we’re talking about what you can do today, it’s something people can relate to, and then start having the conversation,” says Hockley who travels the country, speaking in schools and communities to both train and teach. “Nobody can argue with preventing violence, especially when it comes to kids.”
“In my experience, because this has been such a fight between two sides, people are looking for the middle ground and they haven’t been able to find it,” she says of shaping the approach at Sandy Hook Promise. “They haven’t been able to find where they feel comfortable to engage and add their voice. Our approach is very non-confrontational. How can you argue with a project that helps save lives?”
“Dylan could have had a very long and happy life but instead it was cut short,” she says. “He didn’t die in vain. His legacy will save thousands and thousands of lives. This is my way of not having to look at any more mothers in the eye after they’ve lost their children.”