Stacey Abrams

Bowie State University Commencement Address - May 21, 2021

Stacey Abrams
May 21, 2021— Prince George's County, Maryland
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President Breaux, Provost Goodman, faculty, staff, family, friends and most importantly graduates, thank you for having me here today.

Please allow me to commend the students, faculty, staff and administration of Bowie State University for your perseverance during what has been a tumultuous year.

My time in college wasn't quite this rough. During my time, however, I became well known at the registrar’s office for my many majors. I dabbled in physics and philosophy, theater and English, history and film, deciding that I needed to declare each of them as my future. I finished in political science, economics and sociology—not exactly, but close enough.

My fondness for multiple interests has never waned. In my adult life I have been a tax attorney, a politician, a small business owner, and according to some who might disagree with me—a pain. But for so long my attention has been fixed on voting rights, social justice and the dual pursuit of equality and equity.

But I have another passion, a separate identity. I'm also the author of fiction and non-fiction—tax article and romance novels, leadership manuals and legal thrillers.

Why do I write? Because writing and storytelling have always been an essential part of who I am and how I interact with the world.

My love of reading and storytelling come from my parents. When I was growing up, my mom was a college librarian who read to us and my dad was an amazing storyteller who spun whole worlds out of cloth. My parents made sure the six of us had all the books we could consume. For my mother reading had always been a refuge. And for my dad, who was dyslexic, his learning difference went undiagnosed until he was in his thirties, but his love of stories had been a constant companion.

Books and poetry and plays had been both refuge and companion for me, too. They allowed me to explore other worlds that reminded me of my own, but they also offered me a vantage point—a new perspective through which I could understand my space and my role in it.

You may be wondering about the connection between writing, storytelling and your graduation from Bowie State. But here’s the thing: Education gives us the opportunity to write a new narrative for ourselves, our communities, our nation, our world.

And at this moment, where we wrestle with urgent issues that require our attention, an ongoing pandemic that’s killing millions of lives, economic upheaval that has uprooted livelihoods, and systemic injustice that has ended too many lives and left too many behind, we need leaders like you who are willing to rewrite our current story. Leaders who are committed to bettering themselves, committed to bettering their community and ultimately committed to progress.

First and foremost we have to have a commitment to self. You see, I love words and etymology like the word commencement. As you've no doubt already heard, the word is derived from Latin and it means “to begin.:

In a novel, today's commencement would begin a new story, a new narrative of high drama and romance and tragedy and unexpected plot twists.

Some of you are continuing your education. Others are entering the workforce, and there might be those of you who are still figuring it out. But no matter your journey, I implore you to take the lessons you’ve learned here and write your own narrative.

Use the themes of this matriculation about asking good questions and not being afraid to not know the answer. Lessons about working with others to find better solutions than you could find on your own. Try even harder, continue to ask questions and never stop the intellectual inquiry that is the hallmark of a graduate of higher learning. Aid your new company or community by challenging yourselves to achieve your highest standards.

And as you work to apply the lessons you’ve learned at Bowie State to the story of your life, know that stumbles and defeats are inevitable—those bumps along the way. Our greatest endeavors will falter and the failure will seem permanent, but stories always have twists.

And during these times I urge you to acknowledge the pain but reject the conclusion that you should abandon your mission or stop writing. On this journey hold fast to what you believe is possible, know what you want can we made real even and perform to the best of your abilities, even if the outcome falls short of your ambition.

Look, you might have heard in 2018 I ran for this really important job in Georgia, and I didn't get it. In the aftermath of my campaign for governor, I allowed myself to rewrite my story, to acknowledge my anger and my sadness, but I knew that I couldn’t stay in that place, that I had to move on.

Despite not getting the position I desired, I knew the work of protecting voting rights, of ensuring that every community is counted and broadening economic power in the South still endured.

When we fail, when our story goes awry, we often feel the need to edit our ambitions to reflect our new fears. Do not let false logic limit your expectations of success. Our stumbles often cause us to fall into new opportunities that allow us to do the work anyway, just in a different way. Remain committed to your dreams and ambition even when difficulties arise, and write a new chapter.

But we also have to be committed to community. As graduates, today you join the ranks of the privileged—those who have sought and achieved higher education.

Each of us knows someone who stopped before high school ended or barely finished high school and decided or were told that higher education was not for them. That they weren't smart enough or financially capable enough or simply not good enough because the stories of their futures were written off.

You enjoy the privilege of self-confidence and of support, and you found your way to Bowie State into a new level of opportunity.

But despite this new level, it is imperative that we return to the communities that others forget and use our training and our imagination to serve those who have been left behind.

A great story focuses on the protagonist but it never ignores the broader commentary. You have an obligation to be in community and give back to the people who’ve poured into you on this journey and even more to those who didn't know they could be with you on the way.

Be it daily or on the weekends, you must do the work of the people no matter how hard it may be and no matter the discipline you’ve studied. Take these degrees you are accruing and put them to the benefit of those in need.

Education is a powerful tool that can destroy lives or liberate them. You have to write the ending. You've been gifted with the intellectual acumen and the drive to understand your world better than most. Each day you fail to serve your community, you should feel the burden of that silence.

People often think that they must work in the public sector in order to serve through their profession. But we can serve in a variety of ways. Returning to our high schools and talking about the importance of higher education. Sometimes taking a young person under our wing to show them the way. Working in a soup kitchen or at a shelter. Volunteering in the place of your choice. Coaching a youth sports team. Coaching a soccer team. Coaching a chess team.

But by finding ways to give back and grounding ourselves in public service, we commit ourselves to finding a better story about communities and progress and what is possible.

And progress is the third chapter of this story. In our current world, progress can be seen as elusive. It can be seen as hard and difficult, but we need to understand that sometimes it's just writer's block.

We are battling a pandemic, an epidemic of gun violence, an erosion of democracy, police brutality, environmental injustice and more. Despite moments of triumph, it seems like the dark days that shake our faith are much more common.

The issues we seek to solve with our education can be heavy and daunting and can be the heaviest tone. In these months as they have shown us, the journey can sometimes be traumatic for both ourselves and the people we want to help. It seems improbable that we can develop our own solutions, scribe our way to more. But we are obligated to push through this paralysis and into the tough work of creating our own answers—moving the blocks away.

I persevere not because I am an inherent optimist, but because I am always determined. Because I know progress is possible. I'm the daughter of civil rights activists. The granddaughter of domestics and cooks. The great granddaughter of sharecroppers. And I had the opportunity to run for the governorship of Georgia in a nation that enslaved my ancestors just three generations ago.

I am determined to be worthy of the legacy of their hardships, to be a fighter for their deferred dreams, and to be a testament to the wonders that resilience can reveal. Because that same fortitude, that same tenacity, that same drive we read about lives in each of you.

We cannot allow the current circumstances of our society to make us believe that more is not possible. We cannot create the future that we deserve if we refuse to write that story.

On the journey towards progress we must lean on each other for support, for guidance and sometimes for distraction. So be sure to hold on to one another in laughter and in grief. To reach out when you are in joy but also in pain. Be the ones who teach the world that joy and progress exist, and together we can write our triumph on the scrolls of history, our progress on the narrative of tomorrow.

As our world grapples with existential questions of who we are and who we are becoming, you are here because you understand the deeper calling of the obligation, the commitment to self, the commitment to community, the commitment to progress. You understand that we can rewrite our current narrative and lead us on a journey of discovery and newness.

And as you embark on this journey, know that Bowie State, your family, your friends, you classmates and I travel with you. We wish you well and we look forward to reading the next chapter in the future of you.

Congratulations to the class of 2021.

Bowie State University. (2021, May 21). Spring Commencement 2021 [Video]. YouTube.