Stacey Abrams at ComNet19
Stacey Abrams, activist, author, civil rights leader, lawmaker, and the first African-American woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union, spoke passionately about how communicators have the power to tell stories that change lives by keeping three key ideas in mind. Sharing lessons from her own life and career, she issues a bold call to action. Here’s how she says to, “get to work”.
Rachel Moreno: Good morning, everyone. My name is Rachel Moreno. I am the Vice President of brand and culture strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It is so great to be here. What a beautiful group you all are. For all of us to be united in service for good, it feels really great. You know, there’s an urgency to the times that we face right now, the right to control our own bodies, to have healthcare, to participate in democracy. Let me tell you, I’m feeling it. I started at Planned Parenthood because I knew I didn’t want to sit back. I wanted to be supporting the people on the front lines of impact who provide care for over 2.5 million patients, regardless of who they are or where they come from.
I wanted to be involved in one of the biggest battles of our time, to preserve the access and freedom to control our own bodies. And one could argue, be right at the center of the fight. And I would just say, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it, that the Supreme Court actually just announced just this morning that they’re going to hear a Louisiana case that will be set to challenge Roe and that would decide future of abortion access in this country.
So Planned Parenthood is not just about sharing science-based facts. We know that the brand is rooted in telling stories. And as you all know, the power of a clear message and a narrative can be the difference between sitting back and leaning forward, so I cannot think of an activist in my lifetime, who has mobilized and led more fiercely, with more authority and creativity, and with bolder clarity of message and storytelling than Stacey Abrams. Her power as a communicator resonates, as a guardian of the Planned Parenthood brands. I know our stories are where our power is, and Stacey helps us understand that the way you tell your story is how you mobilize folks. All of us here know that sometimes it’s not enough to be smart and well-informed or have something to say, and it’s sometimes not enough to be on the right side of justice. She of course has all of that, but what sets her apart is her clarity of purpose and her ambition. And whether it is Stacey as the author, the civil rights leader, or a lawmaker, Stacey Abrams moves us all.
And to be real, I’m feeling lots of butterflies this morning because Stacey Abrams has been someone who has personally inspired me with her ambition and purpose. I once heard Stacey talk about the conversation she had with herself after the governor’s race was stolen, I mean final. And she said, “I’m going to move forward because going backward isn’t an option, and standing still isn’t enough.” And I can’t tell you how much that energy has infused especially today and in response to the news. And so because I passionately want to ensure that my generation and my daughter’s generation live the lives that they deserve. I think we all can agree, it feels like an impossible mountain to climb. And so when I realized I’d be standing in front of you with a lot of nerves, I know that we are all better for sharing space and breathing the same air with Stacey Abrams’ purpose and ambition, because through the power of her words and the boldness of her message, she is indeed moving forward. And she’s taking us all with her. Come and please join me in welcoming Stacey Abrams.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you. Thank you, sit down. Thank you so much. Thank you to Sean for having me here. Thank you, Rachel for saying nice things that my mom will like to hear. When I was in the 10th grade, I was in AP English in Gulfport, Mississippi. I was the only African American student in the class, which was normal for me. I was often the only black kid in most of my classes. My mom was a librarian, my dad was a shipyard worker. My mother liked to call us the genteel poor. We had no money, but we watched PBS and we read books. And because my mother was a librarian, we spent a lot of time in the library. I actually remember sleeping in the stacks. I think that was because they couldn’t afford babysitters. But I was raised by books, and I used to read voraciously.
My mom and dad said, “Look, if you can reach it, you can read it.” I grew fast and tall so I think they misjudged that sentiment, but I loved reading and I loved words. Words were fantastic and fantastical, they could take you places. I read everything I could. And because my mother was a reference librarian, if you had a bit of confusion, for those of you under the age of 40, there are these things called dictionaries and they come as this really big book. And my mother would say, “Look it up.” And in our family, look it up, really she meant look it up. So I would look up words in the dictionary. And at one point, I just decided to read the dictionary. I was also a very sad, lonely child so I decided to read the entire dictionary. And I made note of words, I was probably 10 or 11, and that became my mission. And so by the time I was in 10th grade, I not only loved words, I knew a lot of them. And I have a pretty good memory and great retention. But I also learned that you use words in context.
This is all the backstory for this terrible moment in my life. So 10th grade, I’m in AP English, only black kid there. I’m also going through the angst ridden teens. And so that’s just a terrible combination. I’m assigned an essay and I write an essay on Sylvia Plath. The teacher says, “Stacey, this is really dark,” so I go with T.S. Eliot, but her other concern was that in class, I would use multisyllabic words to answer questions or to raise points. And so at one point, she calls me up after class. She hands me back a paper and she’s given me a C. I’ve never seen that grade on my papers before. And so I was very confused about what it was supposed to signify. And she said, “Well, I gave you a C because I told you to stop using so many big words.” And she said, “It’s making your classmates uncomfortable because they don’t always know what you’re saying.”
And so my question, because I was also an obnoxious child, in my head was, “Well, is it that you don’t know what I’m saying?” but I was raised to be polite, and so I asked her what she wanted me to do about this. And she said she wanted me to rewrite the paper and use smaller words, and that she needed me to adjust my vocabulary in class. Now I’m the second of six children. My parents, Robert and Carolyn Abrams, were civil rights activists. And they raised us to believe that if you thought something was wrong, your job was to fight it. My dad is a bit of a firebrand so he actually got arrested as a teenager helping register people to vote. My mom did the same work, but she’s more cerebral. So she was smart enough not to get caught, but what they taught me seeped in.
And so the next day in class, I refuse to turn in an updated paper because I was not going to rewrite it, but I stopped talking. And for the next week, I refuse to speak in class. If she called on me, I would just stare at her. If someone asked me a question, I would ignore it. I refused to speak and so she told on me. So she called my mom and dad and said, “We have to have a conference.” And my parents told me the day before, they’re like, “Why are we being summoned to go to high school for you?” And I said, “Well, I may have caused some challenges in class because I refuse to speak.” And my parents said, “Why are you not talking?” And I told them the story. I kept it to myself, but I told them, and my mother said, “Okay.” My dad said, “Look, you should never be less than who you are to accommodate someone else’s expectations.” Much to the chagrin of the teacher, when my parents showed up, they did not show up telling her that they were going to make me be better.
They told her that she needed to learn how to teach me or she needed to get a new job. This is public school, so everyone was about to be disappointed because my parents couldn’t pull me out, that was the only high school in our city and the teacher, I think in her defense, thought that she was helping mold me for the future because for the rest of my life, I’ve had people tell me to use smaller words please, or dumb down my language, and I’ve always resisted. I write romance novels. The worst critique I ever got from a reviewer was that I use too many big words, and I use too many high concepts. Presuming that the people reading the book were capable of understanding, it’s still fun. If some people kiss, they should be happy, but I tell you this story to talk about why what you do is so critical, because when I ran for office in 2018, I faced a similar thing.
I faced a similar conundrum with my consultants. They wanted me to soften my language, use smaller words, make it more accessible. And I always use context clues. People know what I’m saying, but they may have to look up the word that I used to say it the first time. And for me, it was such an important issue, we actually had a meeting about it, with my consultants and with my team and I said, “Look, I refuse to believe that people aren’t capable of reaching up. If we only ever speak to people at the lowest possible level, why are we surprised that they stay there?” And so we had a campaign that spoke in the language that I use, that told the stories I needed to tell.
Look, I refuse to believe that people aren’t capable of reaching up. If we only ever speak to people at the lowest possible level, why are we surprised that they stay there?
And language to me was the most critical piece on November 16th, when I acknowledged the legal sufficiency of the election of 2018, but refused to concede, because you see, I know what concede means. I know the legal definition. I know the Webster’s definition. And the word concession means to admit that something is true, right, and proper. And as I sat there in my 10 days of mourning, between election day and non-concession day, which is how I will mark it on my calendar for an eternity, my responsibility was to think about the words I intended to use because I wasn’t speaking for myself. That election was about transforming the expectations of the people of Georgia, about who they were and what they could be. We ran a campaign where we showed up in communities that had never seen a candidate, where we talked about issues that had never been broadcast in the state of Georgia, where we engaged in conversations that were forbidden in our state, because we were not supposed to talk about these things.
And then the last moment of that campaign, it was my responsibility to use the words properly. And so in front of a phalanx of cameras, I made the admission that by the law, my opponent had become the victor in this election, but the law was wrong. The rules were wrong because any rules that allow you to strip people of having access to democracy in a democracy is wrong. That was my point. And for me, the critical nature of that conversation was that for the 1.9 million people who showed up to vote for me and the 1.9 million people who showed up to vote for him and the 54,723 people who somehow got lost in the shuffle, which was the difference, they all needed to understand going forward, my responsibility was to not negate their action, to not negate their attempt. When you tell people to try something, and then you pretend it never happened, then you were diminishing their opportunity, and you were convincing them to never try again. That’s the power of language. That’s the power of communication.
When you tell people to try something, and then you pretend it never happened, then you were diminishing their opportunity, and you were convincing them to never try again. That’s the power of language. That’s the power of communication.
When I was asked to have this conversation with you, I tried to figure out why they wanted me here. I love writing. I love communicating. I’m pretty good at it, but I didn’t know what to say to this community. And then I thought, “Well, I just ran this really large campaign that actually did have the concomitant benefit of transforming the electorate of Georgia, because you see, in a state that was largely seen as black and white, we tripled Latino turnout in the state of Georgia. We tripled Asian Pacific Islander turnout. We increased youth participation rates by 139% in an election where we were told young people won’t participate. In the state of Georgia, and this is a nonpartisan group and I’m just going to use this because it’s an authentic fact, in the state of Georgia in 2014, 1.1 million people voted on the Democratic side of the ticket. And we were told that African Americans had maxed out.
When they voted for Obama, there were no more. Don’t worry about asking them to come and vote. We didn’t believe that was true. And as a result of the 1.1 million Democrats who cast ballots in 2014, four years later, 1.2 million black people voted for me. But we were also told that because of our intentionality of centering these communities, of talking to marginalized communities, of having conversations about reproductive choice and reproductive justice, talking about gun safety, talking about climate change, having authentic conversations, that we were going to alienate white voters. And often in the work that you do, you’re afraid that if you call a spade a spade, that you’re somehow going to alienate the people you need to have help you. Well, what we found in that campaign is that’s a myth because in 2018, I increased the white percentage of the democratic vote for the first time in 30 years.
Now, this matters because you all are tackling the most intransigent problems that we have in our society. You are dealing with communities that do not have voice or if they have voice, don’t know how to lift them up. You’re trying to grapple with problems that seem intractable and persistent and permanent. My mission is to end poverty and we’ve never managed that, but the reality is, our attempt is what matters. And the work that you do communicating and connecting communities through your work matters. And so I’m going to give you three things that I learned from the campaign.
My mission is to end poverty and we’ve never managed that, but the reality is, our attempt is what matters. And the work that you do communicating and connecting communities through your work matters.
Number one, we have to be honest with our language. We can’t use euphemisms to describe real problems. It’s not at risk. It’s not health care. We have to talk about abortion because abortion is an actual thing that people need to talk about. They need to understand the contours of what it means and what it is and why it is a healthcare issue, but we can’t obfuscate it by pretending that we’re just talking about a generic notion. We have to talk about gun safety, not gun control, not gun denial, not the Second Amendment but gun safety because what we’re asking for is the protection of our families. We have to talk about poverty, but we also have to talk about poor children who are of color, who are diminished and dismissed because of who they are, and because of their zip code. And if we sugarcoat it or pretend we’re talking about something else, we are not being honest, and we give everyone else permission to not be honest with us. Our responsibility is to tell the truth. And that truth sometimes is painful and deeply embarrassing.
Number one, we have to be honest with our language. We can’t use euphemisms to describe real problems.
I spent most of the first quarter of 2018 telling everyone I’m broke. I had no money. I was in debt to the IRS, $54,000. I owed everyone I’ve ever met. And in my campaign, I was actually told by one of my biggest supporters to not run because they were afraid that my honesty about my economics would diminish my capacity to run. They were probably right. Had I gone about it the way we normally do, had I refused to be honest, but the thing is, I grew up in a whole neighborhood full of poor people. I work with people who are in over their heads and have no idea how they’re going to swim to the top. I went to three different colleges. I went to Spelman, UT, and Yale. I owe a lot of people money. And if I don’t talk about it, how will people know that I will do something about it?
And so we made the very dangerous choice in our campaign to talk about my debt before it became an issue, to talk about the places where I made mistakes because I grew up in a family without money. How was I going to learn to use something I’d never seen? And so we talked about financial literacy. We also talked about the hard choices you have to make. I was in debt to the IRS because my dad had prostate cancer, and you can defer tax payments, you cannot defer cancer treatment. And so for me, the honest conversation transformed what was seemed to be my biggest liability in this election. And because of that, I was standing in an airport and this man came running out of a restaurant. He had not taken off his apron and he hugs me in this bear hug. And I’m like, “Who in the world are you and why are you touching me?” But he pulls back and he says, “I’m in debt too. Thank you for talking about it.”
Your capacity as communicators is to tell those stories, and to be honest about what it means and why it hurts and why it can be difficult. We don’t have to have the answers to talk about the questions and to articulate the problems, but if we don’t talk honestly about the problems, we will never start to find solutions. So number one, I need you to be honest.
Your capacity as communicators is to tell those stories, and to be honest about what it means and why it hurts and why it can be difficult.
Number two, I need you to be present.
My campaign was unusual because if you hadn’t noticed, I’m a black woman in the deep south. And we have been told that there are only certain places to run for office, mainly Atlanta. Anything further afield is just dangerous territory. I go to Savannah and maybe Macon, possibly Columbus, if I’m in the right outfit, but I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere else because the notion of race is critical in America. In politics, race is the strongest determinant of political leanings of any factor. And if you buy into the notion that you have to stay where you are, then we will always be where we’ve been. And so our campaign went to all 159 counties, including places where they didn’t like black people, Democrats, women, and they didn’t like my hair. But my responsibility was to be present, and to be present in my communication. So when I went to those places, I had the exact same conversations that I had in Midtown Atlanta and South Albany. I talked about the issues that mattered, not waiting to see if people cared or shared my values, but to communicate my values despite what they cared about.
Part of being present is being wholly there and giving people something to hold on to when they’re listening to you, when they’re communicating with you. I went to Dragon Con, One MusicFest, and a gun show. I still have a contact high from one of those. But by being in the spaces, by being present, I created a new narrative. And we were then able to turn that into digital content that we would run. We turn snippets of my conversations into ads that went on country music radio and urban radio. We didn’t run different campaigns for different communities. We ran one campaign to tell all communities that we see them, that we hear them, that we understand them. Often in communication, we segregate information. We don’t want to scare this group by saying this thing, and we don’t want to talk to these people because they won’t agree.
Part of being present is being wholly there and giving people something to hold on to when they’re listening to you, when they’re communicating with you.
I stood in room after room, in audience after audience, and had people come up to me that I never would’ve expected, who said they were so excited to hear their story told by someone they’ve never imagined themselves to be in communion with. Sean talked about this being a gathering. When you write, when you communicate, when you use your capacity for advocacy, you are creating space for people to see themselves in other people’s stories. So do not assume that by not being present, you’re somehow protecting yourself. By being present, you’re creating opportunity for even more to join you.
And number three, I need you to be advocates.
Being an advocate means more than just reporting. It means showing, showing up, showing that you care, and showing that there’s opportunity. Often I think in the C3 world, we’re so afraid of talking so much that we cross over into lobbying or we cross over into politics and so we stay far away. I used to be a 501(c)(3) lawyer, and was a tax exempt attorney for a big law firm for a very long time. It was only four years but it felt like a really long time. And in that space, my job was to advise organizations about where the line was. Unfortunately, when I would show where the line was, they would back so far up they could never see the line, but you are doing the grunt work of being on the front lines.
Being an advocate means more than just reporting. It means showing, showing up, showing that you care, and showing that there’s opportunity.
You are the person in your organization who has the capacity to take the information from your grantees, and the information from the communities that you see, and from your leadership, and from your board, and you have the capacity to turn it into a narrative that can transform a conversation, but it’s not a conversation that can be had in those rooms. Policymakers make the decisions. Policymakers make decisions based on what we’re afraid of. I like to say politicians are like 13 year old girls. I’ve been one so I feel comfortable saying this. We respond to money, peer pressure, and detention. That’s it. Am I wrong? But if those are the pressure points, you have the most amazing opportunity to create peer pressure. By sharing information with policymakers, not sending them a glossy handout that they are going to put in the stack that sits on their desk next to someone else’s in the next thing, and then Sunday, it’ll be at the bottom of the pile until they lose their office and it just goes into the trash.
You are the person in your organization who has the capacity to take the information from your grantees, and the information from the communities that you see, and from your leadership, and from your board, and you have the capacity to turn it into a narrative that can transform a conversation, but it’s not a conversation that can be had in those rooms.
You have the real opportunity to communicate authentic stories and authentic challenges, and to call people to action because that’s what an advocate does. An advocate takes the information and calls us to action, and then points out when we don’t fulfill our promise, when we don’t do our duty. Politicians are hired to fix problems. That’s the whole reason we have government. And if you aren’t doing your part to hold us accountable, then you are not doing your job because you are the intercessors between those who are not seen and not heard, and those who can’t shut up. And when you do your work best, you are an advocate, not simply for these esoteric notions, but for concrete ideas, and you talk about when it works, and when it doesn’t work, you talk about failures and successes, and you do so in equal measure, and you point out the people who are with you and the folks who need to be there.
You have the real opportunity to communicate authentic stories and authentic challenges, and to call people to action because that’s what an advocate does. An advocate takes the information and calls us to action, and then points out when we don’t fulfill our promise, when we don’t do our duty.
When you become an advocate, you transform communication because it’s easiest to solve a problem when people are solving it with you. They can’t solve problems they don’t understand. And they won’t solve problems they’re not held accountable for. So if you become an advocate, you can change things. I am not the governor of Georgia. I know. Despite some people thinking I’m crazy, I know I’m not governor. But in my campaign, I decided to talk about another issue. I have a brother named Walter. He’s the fifth of the six of us. I have a sister who’s a VP of diversity at a college. A sister who’s the first black woman to be a federal judge in Georgia. A brother who’s a social worker. A little sister who does evolutionary biology and molecular systematics, and we still don’t quite know what that means. And our brother Walter, who’s number five. Walter went to Morehouse College but dropped out before his senior year, because my brother is a drug addict.
When you become an advocate, you transform communication because it’s easiest to solve a problem when people are solving it with you. They can’t solve problems they don’t understand. And they won’t solve problems they’re not held accountable for. So if you become an advocate, you can change things.
He was an addict who had been self medicating since he was 15 because he also had early onset bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed for almost 15 years. He’s been in and out of prison, because when he self medicates, when he does not make smart decisions because he does not have the tools to make them, he makes terrible choices and he gets wrapped into an incarceration system in Mississippi. And it’s just as dire as it sounds. But Walter has been released time and again for good behavior because when he is medicated, when he is stabilized, he is a fantastic person. But the minute he leaves a prison, he loses healthcare. He can’t find a job, and he can’t get housing. And so even though we try our best to stabilize him, he cycles and he recidivates, and he goes back to jail.
I talked about Walter’s story on the campaign trail because I wanted Walter to be a point of advocacy. I wanted to tell his story, the good and the bad. And I wanted people to know that as someone standing for the highest office in the land, my responsibility was to defend every person, especially those we often consider beneath our experience. And in that way and with that in mind, I stood on the back lawn in Los Angeles, telling the story of Walter, talking about what I would do to expand Medicaid and create housing opportunities and job opportunities, to make sure we talk about mental health, not as a precursor to excuse ourselves from action, but as a call to arms. I talked about Walter’s issues because he gave me permission to tell his story, to show his plight.
And then because of my advocacy, a young man heard me and called and said, “We’d like to help your brother get into rehab.” I said, “Well, he’s currently serving time in Parchman, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work,” but we knew he would likely get out again because Mississippi is overcrowded and they will release him because he’s a great person when he is stable. But because of my willingness to tell his story, to not be ashamed or embarrassed or worried about what effect it would have, my brother is now in a year-long rehab program that will likely save his life. That’s what advocacy can do. Every one of you knows a Walter story. Whatever your issue, whatever your area of responsibility, you know someone who has tried and failed and stumbled and stood again. If we do not act as advocates to lift their stories up and to demand action on their behalf, why are you here?
You have extraordinary power, the power to tell stories, to call people to action, and to change lives. And so I’m here to tell you, get to work. Thank you so much.
You have extraordinary power, the power to tell stories, to call people to action, and to change lives.
Sean Gibbons: So I’m going to take the privilege of the first question and the last question, and in between my job is basically going to be the point. We’ll have mic runners ready in just a moment or two. First question, you read the dictionary…The word, “communicate”, or “communication”, there’s a definition for it, but there’s also a meaning. What does it mean to you?
Stacey Abrams: Communication means to share information in a way that’s accessible, and that can be processed. It’s not communication if people can’t internalize it. It’s not communication if they can’t feel what it means and then use it to move something.
Communication means to share information in a way that’s accessible, and that can be processed.
Lourdes Zuniga: Hi. Well, I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you, Stacey, for sharing your story. My name is Lourdes Zuniga. I’m the executive director at the Financial Literacy Coalition of Central Texas. And I appreciate what you shared about your story and the story of many Americans. How can you include an equity lens when we talk about economic development? And how can we make financial education our real daily lives, for all Americans to succeed in life, when the wealthy are the ones that have the upper hand?
So I tend not to think about it as wealthy versus poor. I think about it as informed versus uninformed or misinformed. If you have money, most people who have money, their families have had it. There are very few self made anything. It’s usually inherited wealth. It’s usually someone else did the work and you get to benefit. And reality then is that most of those people don’t know, in fact, most of our communities don’t really understand how this inequity happens. I talked about ending voter suppression through our group Fair Fight. One of the most constant responses I get is that, “Oh, there should be voter ID.” And one of the ways they say it, “Well, you have to have an ID to go to a bank.” I’m like, “Do you understand?” There are millions of people who don’t understand that there are folks who have no access to banks, who’ve never been inside a bank, that there’s a check cashing place on the corner that also sells them their dinner. That’s their source of access to financial literacy.
And so part of it is telling the more difficult stories because the people you’re sharing this information with, literally have never experienced the inequity that exists in our financial system. We campaigned in a county that hasn’t had a bank in 20 years. And so the entire population is mostly unbanked unless you’re wealthy, except for the person who owns most of the stuff there, and they’re fine, but everyone else is distanced from that. So part of it is communicating the hurdles, because if you’ve never had to jump them, you don’t know they’re out there.
Brittany White: Hi, my name is Brittany White, and I’m from City Year. I just wanted to say that I also had the privilege of growing up with a librarian as a mother, and we also watch PBS all the time. And I just wanted to know, what’s your favorite book?
Oh, I don’t have a favorite book. I have favorite books. I usually do three. So Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist. It is one of the most extraordinary uses of language. He loves words. It’s a good story, but it’s a great book about words. Number two, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. And then three, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
Amanda Thompson: Hi, Stacey. My name is Amanda Thompson. I’m from Decatur, Georgia. Yeah, and first, I just wanted to say that I’m so proud of the work that you did for the DeKalb delegation and for Georgia, I’m trying not to cry. It’s amazing and I know how difficult that environment is, but I would like to know more how your creative writing and your artist side supports this political work.
Thank you. Thank you for those very kind words. I believe in storytelling. You anchor hard information when people can feel the reality of its experience. And I like telling stories. I’m pretty good at that. But I also like the structure of effective creative writing. It’s, what’s the problem? Why is it a problem? How do you solve it? And when you translate that into creative writing, it’s you create a problem, you complicate the problem and then you offer a solution. The solving of the problem, if it’s done well, you love that book and you write it down. If it’s done poorly, you hurl the book across the room, you’re like, “I’ll never read anything by this person again.” And so part of my, not only storytelling, but my advocacy is making sure I explain what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and how you solve it. Often we skip the why.
We talk about a problem and then we ask for someone to give us money for a solution. If they don’t understand why it’s a problem, they have no incentive to continue to support you. They may give you something to get you out of the way, but you’re never going to get to come back. And so most importantly, making sure that we articulate the why of the problem, that we communicate it, is most important because that’s also how people can measure whether you’ve been effective. If they’re only measuring based on what the problem is, and did you solve it, you’re never going to move the needle. But if you look at the why, if you can see the people are tackling the why, if you can see that they’re diminishing the effect of the why, then they know that you’re making progress, and they’ll give you more time to find the solutions. And the inverse is that if we understand the why, we understand then that because you didn’t get everything done with the first grant, there might be more to do because the why is much more complicated than we imagined.
Shaun Adamec: Hi, Stacey. Shaun Adamec from Boston. Thank you very much for being here. You’ve declined to run for president. For now. You’ve now twice declined to run for Senate. So I won’t beg you to reconsider, as much as I want to, but I will ask you what needs to be true about the race or about the job for you to give another run?
Sure. I’m going to run for office again. I served in the state legislature for 11 years. I spent seven of those years as Democratic leader. One of the reasons I ran for leader was I was either going to be in charge or I was going to go, because the deliberative process of the legislative bodies, while incredibly important and critical to the function of democracy, is not my jam. I do not like it. It is spending a lot of time, not only trying to move policy, but trying to convince your colleagues that the policy matters and that it matters more than this other thing that they want.
When I became Democratic leader, I got to help control the strategy and the narrative and build infrastructure because that’s what I like to do. I want to build infrastructure that solves problems. I like to be both strategic and tactical. I like creating things, and I like executing. You don’t get to do that as a legislator. It’s exactly outside the responsibility of the legislature. And so the jobs I want are jobs that allow me to use power to advance the cause of justice and progress, that help me tackle poverty and all the ancillary effects, and that let me be in charge. That’s the job I want. But within the confines of the Constitution and without taking any actions that are high crimes and misdemeanors.
James Carter: Good morning, my name is James Carter. I work with Collegiate Directions. I live in Los Angeles. My 71 year-old mother and aunt live in Woodstock, Georgia. And they put your signs up in their front yard and they got torn down, and they put them back up and they got torn down. And they put them back up and I said, “Hey, it’s Georgia, be careful.” Their response was, “We love Stacey. We believe in Stacey.” They would wear your t-shirts to the grocery store, and they would get into arguments with people who had something negative to say about you. And that happened over and over. I said, “Hey, be careful. It’s Georgia.” “We love Stacey. We believe in Stacey.” You came to speak at their church, and since that time, they’ve had to have armed guards there. And I told them, “Be careful. It’s Georgia.” “We love Stacey. We believe in Stacey.”
As you continue your ascension, I just want to remind you that there are people who love you and believe in you, and because the people that I love, and believe in the most, love and believe in you, I love and believe in you.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Sean Gibbons: I’m going to take the privilege of a question. I said I wouldn’t, but I like to actually ask you to tell us a quick story. And you can tell it in either one of these two ways, which is, when was the first time you were exposed to voting? Did you go with your mom or dad, or what’s your first memory of voting as an adult?
Well, we were taken with my parents to go vote every time, and as I said, there’s six of us so we look like “make way for ducklings” as we will follow them in, but my mom and dad wanted us to see them vote and we saw them vote every election. My first time voting was actually in second grade. We had a mock election. It was Carter versus Reagan. It was also the only fight I ever got into in school because a young girl told me that Carter was a communist, and I told her that Reagan was a fascist. She threw a book at me. I threw a desk at her. We got separated. I won the argument, if not the election, so there you go. I told you, it was the only fight I ever got into it, but you know, if you’re going to fight, you got to win, man.
Maxim Thorne: I’m Maxim Thorne. I’m with the Andrew Goodman Foundation. So as you know, Andy was 20 years old when he volunteered for Freedom Summer. He was a white upper middle class, if not upper class, white New Yorker who got killed by the Ku Klux Klan, his first day in Mississippi, when he and Michael and James are trying to register African Americans to vote. Over this summer, I spent time with David Goodman, his brother, and his family. And they were rocked by the white supremist killing in El Paso, because there was a whole set of new martyrs that were being created based on the same kind of racist ideology. And we work, as you know, in 25 states and D.C., trying to increase youth civic power and voting rights. What we’ve seen is the level of fear that’s increased about people participating in the census or registering to vote. We have won two lawsuits already, one in Florida and Tennessee.
But I don’t know that the horrors besides the killings, the horrors of the fear, and the voter suppression that is targeting young people and people of color and so forth, is rising to the level of national attention that it deserves. And it’s certainly not even making the primary, isn’t it, in the Democratic presidential primaries. What is wrong with our storytelling that it is not getting that attention? Can you help us with that?
Sure. So first, thank you for the work you do. I will say that we’ve heard more about voter suppression in 2019 than we have heard before, and part of that happened, I don’t want to take too much credit, but you know, I ran against a cartoon villain so there was a very clear narrative that emerged from that election, but also because I refuse to concede and I’ve spent every time I’ve been on anyone’s, you know television, newspaper, bathroom wall. I talk about voter suppression, but I’ve also had this conversation with every one of the presidential candidates I’ve met with. And if you listen to their rhetoric, most of them have mentioned voter suppression in some way. Now, that’s different than what’s happening in the debates because the debates are not governed by the candidates. They’re governed by the news stations. And part of what we have to do is start putting more into the narrative, pushing them to have this as a national debate topic. That’s number one.
But number two, voter suppression is complicated. In the 1960s, it was very clear. There was a law saying you can’t vote, and there were rules that precluded your ability to exercise that power. Now it’s being purged off of rolls for voter cleanup, where you know that the purges are wrong, but because they’ve been baked into the narrative of how we stop voter fraud, dead people don’t vote and you know, this is not 1930 Chicago anymore. And so part of it is that we have to demystify how voter suppression operates. It’s, can you get on the rolls and stay on the rolls? Can you cast a ballot? And can your ballot be counted? Every group that cares about this should focus on explaining those three pieces, because the tragedy of voter suppression is it’s designed to look like user error.
We are convinced that it was my fault, I should have done this. It’s my fault, I didn’t know that. No, it’s not your fault. We have the most complicated, asinine system of voting that you can imagine. We do. We have 50 different democracies with 3,100 different units of government responsible for exercising that power and there is no uniformity to how they do so, and very few remedies for when they do it improperly. And because of that, we have to remember that voter suppression is a feature of America. It is not a bug. Our nation was built by excluding certain communities from having a voice and fundamentally, this is a question of power. We have to talk about voting as a power play. Those in power do not want others to take that power. Therefore, the easiest way to stop it is to close off the one mechanism that allows you to grab that power, and that’s the right to vote.
And so the responsibility and the way to tell the story is to talk about it as a question of power, to talk about it as the question of overly complicating what should be a fairly simple process, because there are hundreds of other nation states that have managed to do this without all the complications. And voter fraud is a lie. It doesn’t actually exist. We don’t need to fix it. It didn’t happen, but voter suppression happens in every election in every community, and we have to give people the space to declare their stories. Last thing I’ll say is this. In 2018, between November 6th and November 16th, we received 40,000 phone calls from people who experienced voter suppression, including a young woman who was told she couldn’t have a provisional ballot because they needed to save it for real voters.
A man who stood in line for four and a half hours having voted in the same community in this tiny town in Georgia for decades, he gets to the front of the line at seven, a little after 7 p.m., and, they tell him, “Oh, we moved you to another precinct, but it’s too late to go so you can’t vote.” Those are not user error problems. Those are systemic problems that have to be addressed, and what you can do is that we have to tell these stories, and we have to call reporters and say, “Tell this story.” We have to write op-eds and tell people about the story. This is a power grab, that if you cannot win on the merits, you win by cheating, and it’s a cheat when you limit access to voting for any eligible citizen in America, whether it’s one or 1,000 or 54,723, or 5 million. It does not matter how many it is, if one person cannot vote who’s legally eligible and is precluded from doing so, our democracy isn’t working and we’ve got to fix it.
Mike Carter-Connenn : Hello, my name is Mike Carter-Conneen I’m with Spitfire Strategies in D.C. You’ve made clear that you won’t run for president this cycle. And I believe reportedly, you’ve communicated openness to serving as a VP to any of the Democratic candidates. I’m wondering, in your conversations with those various candidates, if you’ve had any explicit conversations about serving in that role, and considering the critical work that you’re doing currently, and considering current events, I’m wondering if you’re prepared to drop everything to serve with President Pelosi?
Very nicely done, very well communicated. Okay, number one, it is weird that people are asking if I want to be vice president. That’s not what usually happens, but because I’ve been so intentional about meeting with presidential candidates to tell them two things. One, voter suppression is real and you need to talk about it. And two, Georgia is a battleground state. You need to show up, those are my two messages. Very short, very quickly. Because I met with this guy named Joe Biden and we had lunch, a rumor started that he’d asked me to be his vice president, that is not what happened. But in order to quash that rumor on The View, I had to make a very clear and deliberate statement that in a primary, because I was thinking about whether I wanted to run for president, you do not run for second place. That then became extrapolated to say, “I will never serve unless I can be the one in charge completely,” and as I said, I like being in charge. But once we have a nominee, I’m happy to be second in charge, so.
Karolle Rabarison: My name is Karolle Rabarison. I was also the only non white student in AP English class in Mississippi. I now live in Washington D.C. I work for the Online News Association. We talked a lot about challenges that you’ve overcome and advocating for issues and such, but I think it’s really important to talk about joy and especially black joy. So if you could tell us a quick story of the last time, not last time, but a time that you really felt joy.
So a few days ago, I was with my nieces and nephews, this sound self aggrandizement, but it’s just a hilarious story to me. So my nephew Jordan is starting to run cross country and he had his first meet. And he was bringing my brother, Richard over to meet his new friend, David. And when he brings Richard to meet David, Jordan says, “Hi, David. This is Stacey Abrams’ brother.” And my brother, Richard says, “I’m also your dad.” And the reason that brings me joy is not just the humiliation of my brother, but the work that we’ve done where my nephew cares enough, he’s in eighth grade, that he and his eighth grade friends care enough about politics, that it mattered to them who I was.
And it’s not about me, it is about believing that these young men who are normally considered outside of anyone’s conversation about political advocacy, or even political concern, two young black men cared about an election, cared about the outcomes. Now Jordan wanted to come and swim in the pool at the governor’s mansion so there’s a little bit of a problem there, but the larger piece was that David had no reason to care. And we were able to do such a job in Georgia that we animated their belief that they should care about politics and that matters to me.
Lucia Allain: I’m from New York City. My name is Lucia, I work with an organization called RAICES. One of my questions is, as a communicator and as a woman of color, we’ve had a harder time, you know, being heard, unless we’re the token of an organization because we’re currently trending. So I wanted to ask you as someone who has led a path for women of color, specifically for black women, to be at the forefront of all these important issues, what is your recommendation around how do we continue to put our foot down as communicators of color to have control over our stories, so no other folks take over and pretty much be at the forefront?
Okay. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that certain conversations are going to need multiple voices and faces to tell the story, because sometimes people can’t hear it unless it comes from something they feel familiar with. That said, I don’t mind being a token. If I’m the token, but I’m also the top, that’s fine. And I mean that in this way, sometimes we confuse position for power. We assume, and I talk about this in my book, Lead from the Outside.
We think that because you have a title, that determines the four corners of your power. Your power is as much as you can grab, and your power is as much as you can push. And so sometimes being in a smaller role that people aren’t paying attention to and being the only one there, gives you extraordinary power, because guilt isn’t a very effective way to get stuff done. And I believe in leveraging guilt, shame, animosity, I’ll use it all. And so for women of color in particular, we have to hack those opportunities by saying that even though what they’ve presented is X, how can I turn X into Y? And how can I push that forward? And so rather than seeing the limits that they’ve placed on where you stand, realize that you might be there alone, but that means you got a lot of ground to cover. But the second part is that we also have to keep, once they let us in the door, we got to pop that door open and start sneaking other people in with us. That’s the other obligation.
Jordyn Rush: So, hey Stacey. My name is Jordyn Rush. I am a graduate student at the University of Texas. Go Longhorns. In their journalism program, and I like you have always been the token black girl in all of my classes. And as I get more into my career, I’m starting to notice the importance of storytelling, and being an advocate for change. And so I just wanted to ask you, what would be either the best piece of advice you’ve been given or a piece of advice that you would give to your younger self, as you’re starting to develop or trying to be an advocate for change in this current generation?
So my mom, the librarian, both of my parents actually, became Methodist ministers at the age of 40. They weren’t poor enough, so they went for permanent poverty. We moved to Atlanta so they could go to Emory, they moved back to Mississippi. My mom consolidated three tiny churches into a larger church. And we would help her with the work she was doing, and we would get very frustrated with the people she was trying to serve, who would not be served. And my mom’s advice to me, which has guided much of what I’ve done, is that you meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. We spend so much time trying to convince people to share our values and to share our experiences. We forget that they come with stories of their own, with beliefs of their own. I don’t believe in conversion. That’s what my parents do, and they won’t know if they’re right till Jesus tells them.
My job isn’t conversion. My job is convincing. And that’s what communication is. It’s convincing people to at least take seriously the narrative that you’re providing. But it’s not that you are going to somehow put them on the road to Damascus and transform them with your words, doesn’t happen. But meet them where they are and give them a reason to move towards you, that’s the way I’ve tried to guide my political life, my business life. When we stop trying to convert and we work on convincing, then our mission becomes a little less, but the opportunities grow. So meet people where they are, not where you want them to be, and then help guide them towards the goal that you have.
Mai Tran: My name is Mai, I come from Los Angeles, ECMC Foundation. Thank you for being here. So you are bold, courageous, fearless. And that’s really inspiring. And I feel like a lot of us here are inspired by you. But has there ever been a moment where you were afraid to speak up? How did you overcome this? And we as advocates from time to time may become fearful of speaking up. What advice do you have for us?
Okay, here’s what I think about fear. We all have fear. I believe in embracing my fear, turning it into my friend, getting to know it, taking out to dinner, just being comfortable with it, because the fear is never going to dissipate. When you’re in a space with people with more power than you have, when you feel like you’re not only a token, but when you feel like an interloper, that’s going to induce fear. And when you’re speaking to people who can control whether you have a job the next day, it’s an intense fear. But the reality is you have to live with yourself after that moment, and so the algorithm that I use is, am I going to be more upset by their reaction or by my inaction? Because you can mitigate their reaction. If they don’t take it well the first time, you’ve got some stuff you can do. But often your inaction can have long-term consequences, because often you have information others don’t, and your failure to provide it means you are failing to speak for those who will never be in that room. You don’t have to do it every time, but you really need to make that the question you ask: Which is worse, their reaction or your inaction? And that’s how I make my decisions.
So you get the last question. Please be transformative, thoughtful, life provoking. Okay. No pressure, go on.
Elyse Hammett: Hi Stacey. I’m Elyse, I work for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. I work for Alicia. Thank you for your passion and for your purpose. We also loved the three action steps that you really gave us today and the theme of your speech. I’d like to ask you, because you are in a room of incredibly gifted communicators, what can we do to help you? Thank you.
So that’s, see? You met the challenge.
Okay, number one, actually remember what I said. Okay, so what are the three things? Be what?
Audience: Honest, present, advocates.
That’s perfect. Number two, the issues I am focused on every day right now for 2020 are voter protection, ending voter suppression, and the census. Yes, the narrative of who we are as Americans is told in the census every 10 years, but the cost to communities for non-participation is extraordinary. One perfect example is prison gerrymandering. The most under-resourced communities tend to produce the most incarcerated populations. They tend to be housed in communities where they are counted, not as part of the community, but simply as a way to gain access to resources.
And therefore, the resources that can help this community survive don’t go to those neighborhoods. They go to rural counties, where the the only minorities are the folks who are being incarcerated. Jay Inslee, governor of Washington has just passed a law to end prison gerrymandering in that state, but that is a conversation we need to have, but the larger conversation is that the census is—it’s not going to tell ICE to come pick you up, it’s not going to send you to jail, it’s not going to racially profile you—it is going to guarantee that your communities get the resources they need to tackle the challenges that seem impossible.
We have to talk about voter suppression, and we have to talk about the census, and every single person no matter what your issue, no matter what your frame, the census matters. And we have to not just talk about how important the census is, we have to act on it. We have to make certain that it is a through line for all the work that is being done, because if we don’t know who is counted, then they do not count in the future of our country, and the next 10 years are going to be transformative in terms of demography, wealth, health care, criminal justice reform, whether we have a planet, all of these things are at stake. And so if you will remember the three pieces and fight against voter suppression and for a fair count, I’m good.