Stacey Abrams on Her Historic Georgia Primary Victory & How to Win Real Change as “Minority Leader”

Web ExclusiveJune 04, 2018
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We continue our interview with Stacey Abrams, about how she made history in Georgia last month when she became the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in U.S. history. The former state House Democratic leader defeated Stacey Evans, a former state representative who ran as a centrist. She faces a tough race this November against her Republican opponent. We also discuss her new book, which offers advice to others inspired to run for office: “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion with Stacey Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia. She made history in May by becoming the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the United States. She served seven years as Democratic leader in the Georgia General Assembly. Her new book is called Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about leading from the outside, Stacey Abrams. What advice do you have to those who want to go beyond the traditional white male power structure? What does leading from the outside mean to you?

STACEY ABRAMS: So, I begin this book talking about, actually, how I found my sense of leadership and my sense of ambition. And part of it is that we have to give ourselves permission to want more. Often we are told to relegate our ambitions to the safe spaces where we’ve seen people like us before. And what happens is, over time, we start to edit ourselves. You no longer need outside folks to tell you not to dream. We do it to ourselves. And I think the first and most important foundational piece of advice is dream big. Think about what you want, and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t have it.

But the next step—and I think this is the piece that we often miss—is that we then have to understand how we get there, because wanting a lot is OK—in fact, it’s fantastic—but you then have to have to—you have to figure out how to get there. And what the book really tries to do is deconstruct how power happens and how, as someone who is from a marginalized community, who’s outside that traditional power structure, that it’s possible to get there. I’m sitting in this—I’m sitting in a position and standing in a space where no one like me has stood before. And it didn’t just happen overnight. It happened because I was methodical and thoughtful, and I understood that there were going to be obstacles to what I want. One of those obstacles is fear. And we have to understand what those fears are. And so I spend a lot of time in the book, not glossing over how hard it is to get to where we want to be, but really talking about why those hard obstacles are—you can overcome them, that there is nothing inherent in being a minority that says you can’t have everything you want.

AMY GOODMAN: Your story begins, your book, with your life in Mississippi, where you grew up. Can you talk about what you faced there? You were also chosen to be—once again, making history—the first African American to represent Mississippi in a competition for the Rhodes. And if you could talk about what that meant and your own family’s life story, where your mother and father come from?

STACEY ABRAMS: My parents are originally from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is about an hour north of the Gulf of Mexico. My parents grew up in abject poverty. My dad’s joke is that he was from the wrong side of the tracks, and my mom’s from the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. My mom’s family was incredibly poor, so much so that she actually dropped out of elementary school because they couldn’t afford the segregated school bus. And it took a neighbor and some really good friends at the school to get my mom back to school. And she became the only one of her seven siblings to finish high school. My dad is dyslexic. And he grew up in an age where dyslexia wasn’t understood, and if you were a young black man with a learning disability, they just wrote you off as stupid. My father overcame that, and he became the first man in his family to go to college. My parents went off to college. They went to—my mom went to grad school. They came back to Hattiesburg. My mom was a college librarian. My dad was a shipyard worker. We were actually, by that point, on the Gulf Coast in Gulfport. And my parents found themselves still trapped by poverty. They had moved out of abject poverty into working poverty, because even though they had good jobs, my mom sometimes made less money than the janitor, and my dad couldn’t get a job in an office because of his learning disability.

But my parents raised us to believe that our economic circumstances were not going to dictate our capacity. And so, you know, fast-forward. I get to college. I went to Spelman, had an extraordinary opportunity there and became the nominee from the state of Mississippi, one of two nominees, for the Rhodes Scholarship, which I didn’t win. And I begin my story talking about that failure, because often that becomes the end of the story for so many of us. And my point was that not winning the Rhodes didn’t diminish my ambition. It actually helped me understand how important ambition is and that my dreams were no bigger than my capacity to think about what was possible, but that I had to spend more time figuring out how to get there. And so I spend a lot of time in this book really drawing on what my parents raised me to understand, which is that faith and family and service are the ingredients that help us get to almost anything we want.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that while you didn’t get the Rhodes Scholarship, the lost devastated you in ways that took years to catalogue, but in the attempt, you changed your life. Explain.

STACEY ABRAMS: It is a very heady thing to be told that power and opportunity is before you, to know that when I became the nominee from Mississippi, I was the first black woman to ever have that opportunity. But the problem with that is, once your head gets filled with how important this is, not winning is devastating, because then you’re a disappointment to yourself, to your family, to your state, to your race, to your gender. And that’s a lot to have on your shoulders when you’re 21 years old. And it took me a while to process that I didn’t fail because I’m a bad person, I didn’t fail because I wasn’t smart. I didn’t win. And that’s different than failing. I didn’t win this, but that didn’t mean that I was less than. It just meant that that wasn’t the thing for me at that time. But it took a while to figure that out, because there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with wanting to try something no one has done before. There’s a lot of pressure that comes along with believing that if you do this, you’re opening doors for others. And my worry, one of them was that because I didn’t win, I was closing the door for other folks who looked like me, and they, too, would not have these opportunities. And that’s the other part of ambition for those of us who are in marginalized communities, the sense that if we don’t get something done, that we are not only forestalling opportunity for ourselves, but that we’ve somehow closed the door for others. And that’s not true. By even the attempt, I opened opportunities for others. I opened capacity for others to see that they would no longer have to worry about being first. Now you’re second or third, and the closer we get, the more opportunity we create for other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Stacey Abrams, you went on from Spelman to Yale Law School. And you write, “I joined a white-shoe law firm in Atlanta, where I was the only person of color who practiced my type of tax law. Despite the long history of the firm, only two people of color had ever become partners—and this was one of the more diversity-conscious law firms in Atlanta.” And you’re a romance writer. And you write that your book was often placed on shelves designated for urban black writers rather than the general romantic suspense category. Talk about all of this.

STACEY ABRAMS: Part of being from a minority community—and again, minority can be writ in different ways, and for me it’s about being a woman of color—I was often relegated to very narrow confines, where my experiences were not considered normative enough and basic enough that everyone could understand them. I write romantic suspense novels, where there is nothing culturally specific except the color of the skin of my characters. But the color of the skin of my characters scared away some publishers, and it convinced those bookstores that I only belonged in a certain area, because the assumption was only a certain type of person would want to read it. At the law firm, I was extraordinarily privileged to be in that firm and to have that opportunity, but in a lot of ways I was alone. There was another African-American man who was down the hall from me. He did a different type of tax law. He actually chaired the tax team. But we did different things.

And the reality is, when you are one of the only, you often bear the burden of everyone’s assumptions about who you are and what you are. Part of the point of the Minority Leader book is to say, look, it’s not a problem that that’s where you begin, but our obligation is to make sure we expand what happens next, because, for so many of us, we stop at that moment, where we’re the only woman, we’re the only person of color, we’re the only member of a certain community in this space, we’re the only Muslim—whatever the issue is—and we allow ourselves to be trapped into being just that. And my point in the book is that that’s a place where we begin, but our opportunity is to move beyond that and to understand what those obstacles are.

I spend a lot of time talking about how do we address our fears, but also how do we hack our opportunity by leveraging that uniqueness, how do we think about, yes, I may be on that urban black bookshelf, because they don’t understand how much more I can do. Well, part of my reaction was, I then started sending my books out to men. I had more people reading it. I gave it to folks who didn’t think they read romance novels. Because I wasn’t going to allow my bookshelf space to confine what I knew to be a much more universal story. And so, part of it is, you don’t just give in to where they put you. You stand there, and you reach out for more. And part of our leadership is understanding that you can’t change what other people think of you, but you can change how you react to their thinking and how you respond to it.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just in Atlanta on Saturday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, when I was coming in and out of the city—Jackson named for Maynard Jackson. Now, you had an interesting experience as a Spelman student taking on the beloved first African-American mayor of Atlanta, and this was right after the Rodney King verdict. If you can explain what happened and where it led you?

STACEY ABRAMS: So, I was a student at Spelman. I was a freshman. It was 1992, April. And Spelman College, the Atlanta University Center, which is a consortium of black colleges, used to sit right outside some of the oldest housing developments in Georgia. And so, after the Rodney King verdict was announced, there were riots in Los Angeles, but there were also small riots in Georgia, including in that area. The reaction from the mayor was to actually cordon off that entire community, both the universities and the housing developments and then surrounding neighborhoods. And then they tear-gassed us. I was very irate, and I organized a group of students at my college to call the television stations, who were misreporting what was happening. At a certain point, they asked who was calling, because we were tying up their phone lines. And I just told my friends, “Tell them you’re me.” So, Stacey Abrams was calling multiple lines in multiple television stations.

Eventually, the television stations decided to do a simulcast, bringing everyone together—and I was invited as the person who was one of the rabble-rousers—to come and talk to the leadership of Atlanta about what had happened and about why we were angry, about why young people were outraged. We weren’t rioting at the school, but we understood those who were angry and who felt oppressed and felt ignored. I communicated that, and at this event, Maynard Jackson was there. He disagreed with me, disagreed with my characterization of the city’s overreaction. And I told him he wasn’t doing enough for young people. He won the argument, because he was better prepared. But a few months later, he actually created an Office of Youth Services, and I was hired to be a research assistant there, one of the first young people hired by the city of Atlanta to work in that office.

AMY GOODMAN: You go on to talk, in your book, as you introduce it, to talk about representing anyone who exists outside the structure of traditional white male power—women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, those without money, millennials ready to make change—putting otherness at the center of the conversation. Let us end with that, what that means to you, putting otherness at the center of the conversation, and how you feel that will change America.

STACEY ABRAMS: So often we are told that our status as someone outside the norm diminishes our capacity, diminishes our opportunity, and it becomes, I think, a dampener on our ambition. The point of my title, Minority Leader, is to say that that juxtaposition is an honest one, that being in the minority does not diminish your capacity to be a leader. And what I’ve tried to do in this book is not only tell my own story, my story of success and my story of failure, my challenges with debt and with money, but also my opportunity to stand as the first black woman to possibly become governor in the United States, that no matter what your otherness is, it is not an impediment, it is not a detraction, it is a source of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Stacey Abrams, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, making history in May by becoming the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in the United States, before that, serving seven years as Democratic leader in the Georgia General Assembly, where she got her title, Minority leader, which is also the title of her new book, Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change. If she wins the governorship of Georgia in November, she becomes the first African-American woman to become governor in the United States in U.S. history and the first African-American governor of the Deep South.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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