Stacey Abrams

Commencement Address for American University School of Public Affairs – May 11, 2019

Stacey Abrams
December 31, 1969— Washington, D.C.
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Thank you. You guys are too nice to me. I may not go home.

To president Burwell, to Provost Myers, Dean Wilkins, trustees, faculty, administration, family, friends and the graduating class of 2019—thank you for having me here today.

As a fellow graduate in the work of public affairs, I've had more than 20 years to think about what I intended to do with my degree and where I am today, and to cut to the chase I had no idea this is what was going to happen. I didn't imagine any of the outcomes of the last six months and I knew precious little about the preceding 20 years. And that's entirely okay. I certainly thought I knew what was to come.

Some of you may know from my book, "Lead from the Outside," when I was 18 I had a very bad breakup with a very mean boy. He said nasty things about me and how I was not going to find love because I was too committed to doing other things. I possibly said inappropriate things back to him—I don't remember that part of the conversation—but what I do remember was this sense that I was going to show him. I was going to accomplish many things and I was going to control the world and make his life very, very difficult.

And so I took myself to the computer lab at Spelman College. This is back in 1992, so when I turned on the computer I did not log on to the internet, I logged on to Lotus 1-2-3. I began to type out all of the things I intended to accomplish for the next 40 years. I wanted to be mayor of Atlanta. I wanted to be somewhere near Oprah. I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that the way I could get those things done was to write it down.

And over the last 20 years I have tended my spreadsheet like Gollum tends his Precious. I have looked at it and cultivated it. I've made changes and edits. I've erased things and ignored others, and along the way I realized I had no idea what I was talking about.

Because you see, I'd made a plan for my life but what I was trying to do was prepare to succeed. And that's what I want to talk to you about today.

Because you don't have to plan your life the way I did, but in the process we have to prepare to succeed and we do that by knowing what we believe, knowing what we want, and knowing that sometimes it might not work.

First you need to know what you believe. Our ambitions, our decisions, our responses are shaped by what we hold to be true. Beyond the easy labels of party and ideology are the deeply held convictions that shape those labels.

But too often, adherence to conservative or progressive, to liberal or moderate, to Democrat or Republican or independent, to being pro this or anti that becomes an excuse for lazy thinking. It becomes an excuse for hostile action. And for today at least I urge you to set aside your labels and explore what your principles say about the world you wish to serve.

Because beliefs are our anchors. If they aren't, we run the risk of opportunism, making choices because others do so not because we should. But those anchors should never weigh us down. They shouldn't weigh on our capacity for thoughtful engagement and reasonable compromise.

For seven years I served as the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, and they told me about my ability to be successful because my title was minority leader. There was to be no confusion that I was going to get there by myself. What they wanted me to understand what the system is designed to do is force compromise and force our beliefs to be lived.

And that's why I was able to work with a Republican governor to push forward the strongest package of criminal justice reform in Georgia history, and I would argue in American history. Because my belief said that I had to set aside labels for the work that we were going to do together—and it worked.

We also have to understand that it's critical to know what you believe because public policy is complicated. We're balancing the needs and desires and the arguments of many, a cacophony of demands that all seem to have merit. And as leaders you represent not only those who share your core values but people who despise all that you hold dear.

Therefore your beliefs, your principles, must be concrete and fundamental, and you have to know what they are. Be willing to distinguish between a core belief and an idea you just like a lot, or it sounded good when you read it on Twitter.

As public servants, you will impose your beliefs through policy and through action, so take the time to deeply examine those notions that you would call your own. Be certain you would ask others not only to share those principles but as leaders that you would deny access or restrict someone's freedom to enforce that belief. Because fundamentally that's what we do.

And no—ancestral teachings or religious tendencies are not sufficient cause for belief. As Provost Meyers pointed out, I'm the daughter of not one but two United Methodist ministers, and one of the darkest days of my life was the day my parents said they weren't taking us to heaven with them. It was really harsh. We were coming back from church and we made some comment and my mom turned around and said, "Look, you got to figure out what you believe because we can't take you with us."

What she was telling us, what my father said even who has kindly, was that we had to examine what we wanted to be true and how we were going to live our lives, that they were there as guideposts but they were never going to be able to make our decisions for us. They wanted us to understand that we needed to hold our core beliefs, because our beliefs would shape the world we would bring forth. So if you believe something make sure you mean it.

Once you know what you believe, try not to believe in too much. I am loathe to follow folks who are absolutely certain they know everything, the ones who have a definite opinion about every headline, every decision, and they can give you the answer before you ask the question. And if you can't figure out who in your circle is that person, it might be you.

But you see, beliefs shouldn't be on everything. Public policy usually isn't good or evil. Sometimes it's not even that interesting. It's mundane and routine, and it cuts across neighborhoods and nations and ideologies. But when your lens only allows for a single myopic focus, when you've already made your decision before you know the question, then you do not have the capacity to be a leader because you leave no room for debate and you miss the true role of government and a public policy, and you miss the chance to learn and become a better public servant.

Now, I do have core beliefs, but I don't have an unshakable position on every issue. I do not believe that taxes are good or evil. I do believe that poverty is an abomination and that freedom of speech must be held sacrosanct and that we have to restore justice to criminal justice. I believe climate change is real, but I don't believe there's one answer to solving the problem. And I understand most of all that I have to accept that I may not know enough about an issue to actually render judgment, which is why I have to study and read everything I can, especially counter arguments to my own position. That's why we must always seek to understand what others believe and why.

I had a good friend in the state legislature. His name was Bobby Franklin. Bobby and I both agreed that we were from Georgia—that was about it. Bobby introduced legislation every year that I would have opposed every year, but we sat together and we talked together and we learned about one another and in the process we were able to aid one another and work together on a bill. It was about civil asset forfeiture—which is a deeply scintillating topic—but when Bobby and I introduced an amendment together it was so startling and surprising to the body that the Speaker actually called it up without following the process and we think it passed just because people were too stunned to say no.

But it was because I listened to Bobby's concerns and he listened to mine that we were able to figure out how to address an issue that affected his rural white community and my urban black community. We were able to move beyond our positions and hear each other's arguments and find a solution together.

The truest road to good decision-making is acknowledging that the other guy might have a point, even if it's not yours. And if it turns out that the new information alters your thinking, the terrifying reality may be that you are accused of flip-flopping. I know, that's the death sentence to any ambition.

But as a society that seeks to champion knowledge, we must accept that a person can change what he or she believes as long as that change is authentic and grounded in a true examination of philosophy and reality. Changing who you are to accommodate others or to advance your career—that is craven and is not worthy of real leaders.

But hear me clearly in this day and age. When evolution is based on investigation and interrogation, when people are willing to admit they made a mistake and are willing to right their wrongs, then that should be celebrated and welcomed. It makes us smarter. It makes us better. It makes us stronger.

As you enter the world of public affairs for the first time or on a return ticket, be careful to know if you are evolving or caving in, because the Internet will never let you forget.

And whether you leave here destined to be an administrator or a policy maker or an active citizen, always keep clear in your mind the difference between principle and policy, between belief and behavior. Policy is what we should do. Principle, belief, is why we do it. So know what you believe, know why you believe it and be willing to understand the other side.

So know what you believe and the next—know what you want.

Some of you may have heard that in 2018 I ran for governor of Georgia. In the first few weeks after I announced my candidacy, I did what you're supposed to do in politics, which is reach out to your friends and your family to start to raise the absurd amounts of money it takes to try to become an elected official. My family has no money so I was mostly calling friends. And in the course of this process I raised over $42 million, the most raised by any candidate in Georgia history. But it didn't start out that way.

You see, I started calling friends—people who'd invested in me when I ran for legislature in 2006; people who invested in me when I stood to become minority leader; people who supported the new Georgia Project, an organization I started to register more than 300,000 people of color in the state of Georgia; people who'd stood with me at every turn.

But over and over again I would call and I would hear, "Stacy, we think you're so talented. Stacy, I think you're so qualified—but you're a black woman." I was like, "I know." But they whispered it to me as though they were giving me a terminal diagnosis.

Because you see, they had decided what I was capable of based on what they saw, not based on what they knew. People I've known for years kept telling me that I wasn't ready for this. In fact, it was suggested that I support the other person running and just asked for a role in her administration. That didn't work for me then and it doesn't work for me now. I was told that I needed to wait until Georgia was ready for me. I was told to wait my turn.

And after a while listening to people who supported me for so many years, I started to wonder if they were correct, if maybe I was pushing too far too fast, if maybe what I wanted wasn't real or possible. I listened to their doubts and I started to internalize their diminution of my capacity, until I reminded myself that I knew what I wanted and I had a plan to get it.

Because when you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong, especially when there are those who don't share them. Hear me clearly—do not edit your desires.

You are here in this space. You are entering this world to want what you want, regardless of how big the dream. You may have to get there in stages. You may stumble along the way. But the journey is worth the work.

And do not allow logic to be an excuse for setting low expectations. You know, this occurs when we allow ourselves to be less because we think if it were possible someone would have done it before. But the fact is no one no one can tell you who you are. And the fact that no one has done that before doesn't mean it can't be done.

I became the first black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in our nation's 242-year history. Let's be clear—I realize I am NOT the governor. That's a topic for another day. But what I do not ask is why hasn't anyone else done it. What I ask is how do I get it? Because if we have the ambition to save our world, we have to ask how we do it, now not why it hasn't been done before. That's why you're here, and that's what you're going forth to do.

How? By writing it down and making a plan. If it's simply an idea in your head, it's easy to forget. It's easy to let it float away, an ephemeral idea that doesn't have concrete meaning and doesn't have concrete action. If you just see a title on a roster but you don't make a plan to get there, you'll be regretting it for the rest of your life.

If you know what you want, force the question by plotting how you get there. By knowing what you believe, you have the reason. And by knowing what you want, you can start to draw the map. But if you know what you believe and you know what you want, you need to be prepared to know it might not work—otherwise known as Stacey 2019.

Because the thing is, our beliefs may close off avenues that are available to others. Our ambitions may be too audacious or too different for traditional paths, and our very persons may challenge the status quo more than the quo is ready to accommodate. Plus, you might just screw it up and have to try again.

But opportunity is not a straight road, and to take full advantage we must be prepared to fail to stumble or to win in a way that looks nothing like you imagined.

For those of us who are not guaranteed access, we must realize that not all worlds operate the same. We are required to discover the hidden formulas to success. And too often, opportunity looks nothing like we expected. But to hack this very real possibility, look for unusual points of entry.

I began my career by learning how to do the various jobs it would take to get me to my ultimate goals. I needed to know how to manage a team, how to raise money, how to make tough choices. So I volunteered to fundraise when no one else wanted to. I showed up in places I wasn't expected, and I asked to do the jobs that others avoided.

Each of you harbors a dream that seems outsized, maybe even too big to admit to yourself.

You see, I've talked about my dreams publicly and I've been discouraged for doing so. That I wanted to be the governor of Georgia. That one day I intend to be the president of the United States. And that in between is my responsibility is to do the work to make those things real, not only for myself but for the person who is sitting there thinking, "I want that, too," but they're afraid to say it aloud.

We lead not only for ourselves. We lead for others and our stumbles are opportunities to lay a path for others to follow. And we have to understand that knowing what we believe and knowing what we want means that sometimes there are going to be obstacles to us getting there.

But I will tell you that if you are willing to put in the effort, to accept the grunt work that lets you prove your mettle, to dare to want more than you previously imagined, it will come. It may not be in the form and the shape that you expected, but sometimes it leads you to standing on a stage, addressing the group of people you didn't know you'd have a chance to meet because your stumble led you into falling into new opportunities.

To get, there I need you to utilize your networks. You are joining an extraordinary community of graduates from the American University. While you may not know everyone, most of the help you need is only a few degrees away. Ask for it. And if you don't get what you need, ask for it again.

Broaden your understanding of who knows whom and who can help, and broaden your understanding of where power actually lies. Don't ignore the IT guy or the administrative assistant, the housekeeping staff or that mid-level associate you haven't quite figured out what they do. Because the thing of it is, it's the administrative assistant who can squeeze you onto that calendar when you're trying to get in to see someone. It's the janitor who can open that office when you forgot to do something that needs to be done before anyone notices. And it's the intern that you ignore who can help you finish that last-minute project. Regardless of status, those who share our space are part of our networks. Show them respect and they can show you the way.

But when you learn that it might not work, embrace the fail and search for new opportunities. In the wake of my campaign for governor, for about ten days I wallowed in my despair. And then I reminded myself of why I got into this in the first place.

I grew up in poverty in Mississippi, a working-class poverty my mom called the "genteel poor." We had no money but we watched PBS and we read books. I grew up in a family where my parents would wake us up on Saturdays to go and serve—to take us to soup kitchens and homeless shelters, to juvenile justice facilities and nursing homes.

And when we would point out that the lights were off at home, that we didn't have running water, my mother would remind us that no matter how little we had there was someone with less and our job was to serve that person. My dad would just say, "Having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing."

I ran for governor of Georgia because I believe in a better world. I believe that we can educate our children and guarantee economic security. I believe that we can provide access to justice and a clean environment. I believe more is possible for all of us. I believe you can center communities of color and acknowledge the marginalized and not exclude those who have opportunity and access. I believe that we can be an inclusive society without relegating ourselves to notions of identity as a bad thing but instead using identity to say we see one another, we see your obstacles and we will make you better and stronger because of it. That is why I ran.

And so in the wake of not becoming governor of Georgia, I had the opportunity to sit back and wallow, to worry and to fret or to simply be angry. But instead I decided to found Fair Fight Action because I believe voter suppression is real and a threat to our democracy. And we will fight for voter rights and for electoral integrity because I believe in the United States of America. That is what we're going to do.

I also launched Fair Count because I know the 2020 census is the story of America for the next decade and we have to make certain everyone is counted, because if they're not they will not count. That is our opportunity.

Neither role is where I expected to be today, and there are other roles that wait for me, maybe before 2020 and maybe after. But for me, the responsibility is to act as though today is the last day to do the work I know needs to be done, not because of a position I hold but because of the work that awaits us.

And that is your charge. That is your calling. That is your obligation. When life doesn't work, when the fail seems permanent, acknowledge the pain but reject the conclusion. Our principles, our beliefs, exist to sustain us. Our ambitions are there to drive us. And our stumbles exist to remind us that the work endures.

Public service is a passion play. It's the drama of how we shape the lives of those around us, how we allocate resources and raise hopes and ground our dreams in robust reality.

You stand as the architects of our better lives, those who don't fret and worry, who don't just stand on the sidelines and watch, but get into the scrum and make it work. You are here because you believe that more is possible and you have been trained to make more a reality. You are here today because you have accepted your destiny as public servants, as leaders for our current age.

Our nation is grappling with existential questions, and our allies and our enemies watch to see how we respond. The tension of elections pull against the urgency of governance, and we cannot forget that they are not the same thing.

You might be tempted to harden yourself, to cast your lot with what you know and to wall yourself off from people and ideas that challenge your direction. But you are here in this school because you understand the deeper calling of our obligations; to serve the grace that is our social contract; to build a better, stronger, more resilient world. And you are the embodiment of the most deeply held belief of everyone here—that American University, that the School of Public Affairs, that your friends and your family and your classmates and I all hold today—a singular belief that shall illuminate us today and forward.

We believe in you.

Thank you and congratulations.