Stacey Abrams

University of Colorado Law School Commencement Address - May 9, 2021

Stacey Abrams
May 09, 2021— Virtual
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This address was delivered via Zoom during the virtual commencement ceremony.

Thank you so much, Wilson [Wilson D. Scarbeary, class treasurer].

Thank you to Dean [James] Anaya, to faculty, to family, to the administration and staff, and of course, to the graduates of 2021.

Thank you all so much for having me, although I'm going to begin this with a little bit of a gripe.

Emma [Emma W. Hancock, class president], you are from Georgia and you know that as the Southern hospitality rules go, you don't upstage your guests. So between the outfits and the speeches, you could have toned it down a little bit, but it's okay. I will forgive you because that's also a Southern trait.

It is my honor to be here with you all today. I have very fond and vague memories of my own graduation from law school in 1999. And during my tenure, there was nothing akin to what you all have both survived and surpassed.

Ileana [Ileana Jiménez, class secretary], hearing the story of your dear friend, Brianna, I'm so sorry for the loss that your class has experienced but I know that her memory is not only indelible, it will continue to carry you all forward.

And speaking to a class that has endured more than its share of challenges and pain because of COVID, because of just the sheer magnitude of what we've experienced in the last three years, I come with you today to say, thank you. Thank you for being so committed to doing good, to being the best that you are crossing this threshold and you are commencing the next phase of your life.

But as you get ready to commence, I've heard something said a few times today that I want to talk about myself, which is belonging.

Belonging is a word that we use a lot and it is a hard thing to hold onto, particularly, when you are entering spaces that don't expect you, that don't want you and that are willing to reject you at the slightest drop of a hat.

When I was in high school, I was the valedictorian of my high school. And in Georgia, when you become the valedictorian, you get invited to meet the governor.

I was slightly impressed by that. I was more impressed with the fact that he lived in a mansion in Buckhead, the really ritzy part of Atlanta. And so I was very excited about my opportunity to go to the governor's mansion.

Because there are so many schools in the state, they break us up into two groups. One group goes on a Saturday, the second group goes on Sunday, and I was in the Sunday group.

On my day to go, my mom and my dad and myself, we got dressed up, we put on our best and we went outside and we got on the bus.

You see, my parents were in graduate school studying for their Masters of Divinity. They were working full-time, they were in school full-time, and they were raising six children. And my parents had no money. You have poverty here, my parents were below that.

But my parents were committed to education and they were committed not only to their education, but to the education of their children. And they wanted us to have every experience possible.

So even though we could not go to the governor's mansion in our own car because we couldn't afford one, my parents did the work and made certain they knew how to get me there on MARTA.

So we take public transit and we get to the governor's mansion. The bus pulls up to the stop that's across the street. We get off the bus. And the three of us cross the busy street. We walk up the driveway, standing on the side, walking along the margin because cars are coming and bringing other students from across the state for this amazing occasion.

We get to the guard desk and the guard comes out of his little booth and he's got his clipboard in one hand and he looks at me. He looks at my parents and he says, "This is a private event. You don't belong here."

Now my dad says, "No, no, no. This is our daughter Stacey. She's one of the valedictorians."

And I think in that moment, I expected the guy to look at the clipboard that was in his hand or to ask my mom for the invitation that was tucked in her purse, but he didn't do either of those things.

What I remember with vivid clarity is him looking over our shoulders at the bus that was pulling away from the curb, the bus that was carrying nurses and janitors and folks who had to work on a Sunday. And he looked at that bus and he looked at us and he said, "I told you, you don't belong here."

Now I'm 17 and so my instinct is to run and try to catch that bus as soon as humanly possible, but my mother had my arm in a death grip. And she and my father had raised us to understand not only who we are, but whose we are. And in that moment, my mother and father wanted to remind this gentlemen that this was their daughter.

As I mentioned, my parents were in graduate school to become United Methodist ministers but they weren't pastors quite yet. So my father had a very vigorous and engaged discussion with this man about where he might find himself in the afterlife if he did not find my name on that list. By the end of the conversation, the man did indeed look at the checklist and he found my name and he let us go inside.

But I tell you this story because I don't remember entering the governor's mansion. I don't remember meeting the governor of Georgia. I don't remember the canapes or my colleagues.

I remember nothing of that day, except a man standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia, looking at me and telling me I don't belong.

You see, belonging matters because in society, we have worked hard to become one. We may bring our individual strands of identity but our mission is to be knitted together into a larger whole.

And as lawyers, you are going to be called upon to enforce the notion of belonging. It is going to be your responsibility to ensure that the laws do not divide us from society, that people who deserve civil justice or criminal justice have their due.

It is your responsibility as lawyers, as people who are administering what justice should look like, that you understand to the core of who you are, that those who stand before you and ask for your aid are simply asking you to help them belong, even if they've made a mistake, or worse, if a mistake has been made against them, and they have no one else to speak for them.

Being the person who helps make certain that we belong is a difficult task and one that I am absolutely certain you are prepared for.

Because you see, the notion of law school, the years of tutelage, are not about memorizing torts and understanding how to read through criminal procedure or fake your way through contracts.

It's not about preparing for the bar exam, God bless you, and it's not about the job that you get.

It is about the people you will be when you have those jobs, the person you intend to be when you are the person, when you are the one who stands before the halls of justice and you get to decide who belongs in our society, who belongs in our notion of what is right and wrong.

I grapple with that question every day. The work that I do, the life I've chosen to live is one about belonging.

And regardless of whether folks share my political beliefs or my personal ideology, my moral core tells me that my responsibility is to ensure that no matter who you are, if you are here, you do belong. That if you make a mistake, you can redeem yourself and if you are willing to do right, we will lift you up.

But we cannot do it unless we come armed with our own sense of what makes certain we belong.

And so I'll give you three edicts.

Number one, own your ambition.

So often we are taught to sublimate our needs and our desires, to hide who we are or worse, to edit what we want. We're told that we shouldn't dream too big, out loud. And for so many of us, that becomes a part of how we live our lives.

There are those who get dismissed as cocky because they say, "Look at me." And what I'm exhorting you to be is not cocky but confident.

You see, cocky says, "Look at me," but confidence says, "See me." Confidence says that I am possessed of the requisites to do this work. I am possessed of the personal traits that would make me strong, and I have the right to believe in my capacity.

That is not to say that you don't have to work at it. But ambition is not about what you're willing to do, it's what you're willing to dream, and I need you all to dream big.

We are in the midst of a turmoil in our society, both in this country and around the world, where we are trying to figure out who we will be for another generation.

And I need confident leaders who are stepping into the world and who believe that it is their right to demand better. It is their right to deserve better. It is their right to have ambitions that go beyond what a piece of paper would tell you you can be, and instead to use your heart, your mind, your desires to reach even further.

Ignore the seductive logic that says, if this could have been done, someone would have done it. That's not the truth. Sometimes success is waiting for you. Achievement is waiting for you. That next rung on the ladder has been waiting for you to arrive, so climb it.

Do not edit your ambition. Hold onto it, lift it up and use it not to self-aggrandize, but to help those around you believe that they're capable of more as well.

So your first job is do not edit your ambition.

Your second job, though, is embrace your fears.

People will tell you to be fearless, and they are lying. Fears are real. I've met them and I've gotten to know them. And what I've realized is that one cannot be told to be brave unless one acknowledges that fear is real.

And so your first responsibility is to acknowledge the fear, understand it. Don't let it loom over you like a specter. Invite it in, buy it a coffee. Understand the contours and the context and excavate what it is inside you that makes that fear so overwhelming.

Because fear is real. Fear of being underestimated, fear of being wrong, fear of being embarrassed, fear of not being enough.

But with each of those fears, there's the absolute reality that once you know what it is, you can solve for the problem.

But you can't solve for a problem you refuse to acknowledge. Acknowledge that fear is real, embrace it, get to know it, take care of it, but never let it determine who you're going to be.

I'm afraid of a lot of things. I'm afraid that I'm too much, too little, too fast, too slow, too big, too small. But I am never afraid that I'm not enough.

And the reality is that even if I'm not ready for the thing I want, because I know I can get there, I will never let that fear stop me.

Because when fear overwhelms us, when it steals from us not only our ambition but our sense of capacity, then fear stops us from being wholly who we can be.

Know your ambition and follow it, but also acknowledge your fears and embrace them. Use them to hone you. Use them to drive you. Use it as a fuel to push you forward, not a fire to consume you.

But never pretend that fear isn't real because when you deny it for yourself, you find yourself denying it in others, and that robs you of the capacity for empathy.

The best leaders, the best servants, the best lawyers can emphasize with those they stand for. They can understand the pain, the rage, the fear, the complexity.

And when fear is part of who we are and how we lead, then fear doesn't guide us away from challenge, it simply prepares us to be better at defeating those challenges.

So don't edit your ambition, and embrace your fear.

But third and most importantly, be prepared to fail.

Now on commencement day, telling you to prepare to fail can sound like a terrible bit of advice. But hear me out.

I was raised by two parents who had come from some of the most abject poverty you can imagine in Mississippi.

They worked hard, they went to school. Both of my parents were first in their family. My mom was the first to graduate from high school, the first and only to go to college, the only one to go to graduate school.

My dad is a dyslexic black man who grew up in segregated Mississippi and was told he was stupid his entire life because they didn't understand learning differences. And yet he became the first man in his family to go to college because he figured out how to memorize his way through school.

My parents together became two young, successful black people who went on to get a graduate-- My mom got a graduate degree in library science, was a college librarian who sometimes made less money than the janitor who cleaned the college because race and gender were permitted to be the markers they used to determine her worth.

And my father, this brilliant man who had this extraordinary memory, worked as a shipyard worker. Noble work, and I don't disparage it at all but he was never given the opportunity to use his mind because his one foible, this learning difference that he had was misunderstood and misapplied, and he was denied for so many years the full value of what he had inside him. And yet my parents decided to go back to graduate school anyway, despite us growing up, working poor.

My parents by all appearances from the outside were failures because despite having graduate degrees and college degrees, they still just hovered above the working poor line. My mom didn't like that. She called us the genteel poor. We had no money, but we watched PBS and we read books.

But what they wanted us to understand was that they were not failures because they hadn't achieved everything they sought. They were only failures if they stopped trying. My parents raised us to understand that you stumble and you fall, but you only fail permanently when you refuse to do it again.

I heard those lessons when I was growing up when my dad and my mom would tell us lessons and would take us places and would have us do things.

But I got a public experiment writ large when I ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. You see, I had the temerity to think that I could be the first Democratic governor in Georgia in more than 20 years. I found out when I was running that were I to be successful, I'd be the first black woman in American history to be the governor in the United States of America.

I didn't run for office with those accolades in my mind or those history-making markers in my mind, I ran because I wanted to do good. I had these ideas about justice, these ideas about change, these ideas about what we could be as a state. And so I thought I was going to get that done.

And I planned well. I had a campaign that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. I raised more money than any candidate for governor ever has in the state of Georgia, and I turned out more voters than any Democrat in the history of our state. And I am not the governor of Georgia.

You see, I anticipated challenges, but I couldn't solve every problem and I failed to achieve my ends.

And for 10 days, between Election Day and my non-concession day, I grappled with that failure. I worried about going outside. I worried about conversations and engagements because I didn't want to see the pity or the disbelief or the rancor. I didn't want to hear people tell me that I'd just not been enough, done enough, tried hard enough. I was afraid to go to the grocery store because I didn't want to face the embarrassment of losing.

But in that 10 days, I had to sit with myself. I had to sit with my grief, because grief is an important part of failure. I had sit with my anger because rage is real. And I had to sit with my bargaining, trying to figure out if God would let me go back in time and do it again, kinda figure it out.

But the reality is, that was the best loss I've ever had because in the wake of not getting what I strived for, I was reminded of why I ran.

Yes, I wanted to be governor. Yes, there was good I wanted to do. But losing that opportunity did not absolve me of my responsibility to do right.

And so I created Fair Fight because I believe that voter suppression is wrong. And regardless of your party, as citizens, we have the right to vote without impediment.

I created Fair Count because we all deserve to be counted and seen in this society, especially the marginalized and the disadvantage in the communities of color, Native American, Latino, Black, AAPI, the communities that are too often left out of the equation are left out of the solutions.

I created the Southern Economic Advancement Project because I believe that policies must be made real if we are going to see progress in this nation.

And in the loss of that election, I found a renewed sense of who I'm supposed to be. My failure was not permanent but it was an extraordinary teacher.

I will run for office again. And when I run again, regardless of what I run for, I will never run from the possibility of loss. Because the most important thing I discovered in not winning that election was that I had friends and allies and family, people I didn't know who were cheering me on and people I knew who did more for me than I could have imagined.

And what's the most important lesson that you can take from this graduation is the conversations you will have after this Zoom ends. The conversations you will have by text and by email, the whispers you will share when you get those scores back from your bar exam, the moments you have to reach out because the job you thought you would get disappeared or the job you had wasn't what you expected.

Failure not only teaches us how to survive loss, it teaches us how to be better people, how to be better friends, how to be better allies, how to be better family. Loss teaches us that every single day, and if we have ambition and we acknowledge fear, then loss will surely follow, but so too will progress, so too will success, and so too will justice.

Because I am talking to a class comprised of men and women, people who have come together to be better together than they were separately, who celebrate the time they give to those who need them most, and who've committed themselves to building a world of justice.

If you were willing to commit your life to justice, then you will never permanently fail unless you forget that you are in this together.

And so to Colorado Law School, to the class of 2021, I tell you to not edit your ambitions, to embrace your fear, to learn from your loss, but most of all, to go forth and to conquer.

Thank you so much.

Colorado Law. (2021, May 9). Stacey Abrams Keynote: Colorado Law 2021 Commencement [Video]. YouTube.