Stacey Abrams

Spelman College Commencement Address - May 15, 2022

Stacey Abrams
May 15, 2022— Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia
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Abram's remarks begin at 36:09 in the video.

Thank you so much. Thank you Dr. Campbell. Thank you, board chair Roz Brewer. Thank you to the faculty and staff, to the family and friends, but most importantly, thank you to the class of 2022. [Applause]

Now, it was 27 years ago -- that I sat where you sat. I graduated in 1995 and while my years at Spelman were not marked by a pandemic, racial upheaval, and…well…the Kardashians ending their show, I began my time at Spelman immersed in some turmoil.

My beginning at Spelman was also a bit of a drama. You see, I didn't want to go to Spelman. I grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Yes. We moved to Georgia when I was a junior in high school. I was 16 when we moved here and I was just old enough to date. My parents didn't allow us to date till we were 16. There was no one for me when we first got here and I had always attended schools where I didn't often see someone who was…a potential around me. And then I found them and we broke up and it was a whole other story.

By the time I was thinking of Spelman College, I was thinking about getting out of the South. You see, when you grow up in Mississippi and come of age in Georgia, the North looks really inviting. Technically I was born in Wisconsin, I just remember being cold and eating cheese curds.

So, I applied to colleges outside of the South. To Swarthmore and Vassar, Sarah Lawrence. But my mother, Carolyn Abrams, had a different idea. She said, “Stacey, just apply to Spelman. You don't have to go, just apply.” I should have known it was a trick. But I filled my application and I submitted it.

And then we received that letter that tells you that Spelman College wants you. I got that letter and it went to the stack with my other letters and I was prepared to ignore it and my mom said, “Just go visit. You don't have to attend, just to visit.” It would have meant two days out of school, which was appealing because I had senioritis in, like, second grade.

And so [laughter] the opportunity to visit Spelman College did have its appeals so I agreed to go visit, and three things happened.

One, I met my fellow Spelmanites. I met young women who were extraordinary and so different and so diverse in ways I had never imagined.

Two, I met Dr. Campbell's predecessor, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. [cheers and applause]

And three, as I mentioned, I wasn't allowed to date till I was 16. I saw Morehouse College. And, lo and behold, I became a Spelmanite.

But how I got to Spelman is not nearly as important as what I got from Spelman.

You see, in my first year in that college, I was a shy, quiet person. I didn't consider myself shy, I just didn't like other people. But what I realized was that I was afraid of being different.

I was not what I believed to be the typical Spelman student. I didn't look like everyone, I didn't like everyone, my roommate was from a place she called “De ‘twa” — I realized she meant Detroit. [laughter] I was meeting people who had so many experiences that were unlike my own and I was broke.

My family was what my mother called the gentile poor. We had no money but we watched PBS and we read books. I spent a lot of time in financial aid. I spent that first year at Spelman trying to figure out where would I fit in.

Two things occurred. I became a nuisance to Johnnetta Cole. I would go to her office almost every week to complain about some new injustice that I saw on our campus. I was so annoying to her that she finally said, “Stacey run for student class --. Just get out of my office.” She said it much more nicely but I could read between the lines. So I ran for my freshman class counsel.

But later that year, the second thing happened. Rodney King was beaten. And his case went to trial. And the men who had misused their power, who had on camera denied his dignity and abused his humanity, were released, were exonerated, were told they had done nothing wrong.

There are those who refer to it as riots. I just refer to it as an uprising because from California to Atlanta, black folks understood the message that we were being told.

As a student at Spelman College, I didn't like what I was hearing. And so with my fellow Spelmanites, I became outraged and angry. I organized a march from our campus down to City Hall. One night we were enraged and we were engaged and we were ready to go.

The next morning, riots, as they called them, started breaking out. There were protests around our campus and around our city and just outside our gates. Those protests were protests that did not care whether you were supposed to be on our campus or off. These were protests about the indignities faced by too many people whose skin color was an inconvenience to too many others.

And in that moment I realized my attendance at Spelman College didn't change my background and wouldn't change my future unless I understood my lessons at Spelman College.

So in my dorm room, when they were reporting what was happening and they were misreporting the information — and this was before this thing called the internet — we got on the phone. I organized 15 of my fellow classmates to call all of the television stations and block their phone lines until they started telling the truth.

In those phone calls [applause]…. And just so you understand — we had touchtone. It was hard. But in that moment, one of my friends came to me and said, “I keep calling but they wanted to know who I am and I don't want to give them my name.”

I said, “Just tell them you are me.” I did not think this through. Because suddenly there were dozens of young women calling these television stations saying, “I'm Stacey Abrams.”

And finally, the dean at the time, Dean Freddy Hill, sent someone to my dorm to come and get the real Stacey Abrams.

I was invited to an event, a simulcast, with Mayor Maynard Jackson. And standing toe to toe with him but very low beneath him — he was a very tall man — I assailed him and accused him of not caring enough about our people, not caring about the young people on the campuses or on the streets. I told him that I thought he was not doing his job as mayor.

He proceeded to correct me. And in that skirmish, he won.

But what happened next, changed my life. You see, a few months later, Maynard Jackson invited me to become the first student employee at the Office of Youth Services that he had just created at the city of Atlanta. [applause] —

Now I tell you that story, not for self-aggrandizement, but to anchor myself in your moment.

Because as much as we are still grappling with the implications of a pandemic that has taken a million American lives, while we grapple with the implications of a broken health system that has let to many of our people perish or suffer unnecessarily, we also are facing the continued ill of racism and civic injustice, of social injustice and economic injustice, and we have to be bold in our ambition to say, enough is enough.

And what we were working on in 1992, I believe you will get done. Because soon we will be done with the troubles of this world if you live up to your potential and you do what I know you can do. [applause]

In 1992, I was a Spelman student who believed that racism and poverty were immoral, that they were stains on our lives, but more importantly they were inefficient.

How much greater would we be as a nation if every young black woman woke up every morning knowing her potential and seeing her possibility.

How much stronger would we be if every community of color, instead of being pitted against one another, linked arms together.

How much greater would we be, as a nation of people, where we acknowledge race but know that race does not determine our value or our future.

I was doing that in 1992. But in 2022, I have a different understanding. I have taken lessons from those years and I have brought them to this moment and with your indulgence I will share them with you.

One, be bold in your ambitions.

You may have noticed, I’ve gotten in trouble in the last few years for being too forthright about my intentions. When people ask me questions about what I want, I don't coyly duck my head or cover my mouth and giggle.

If you ask me if I want to be the vice president, I say yes. You want to know if I want to be president, I say yes. If I want to be governor, the answer is yes. [applause]

There are those who hear in that an arrogance. They hear in that an audacity that should be shameful and should be repulsed. But I was taught at Spelman College to be bold in my ambitions. To believe that I am capable of whatever I can imagine.

Because the boldness of my ambitions said that we can register thousands of Georgians to vote and cast their ballots and make their voices heard. My ambition said that we can call out the challenges we see and work our hands to make it better.

When I was 17 and then 18, I was in the college lab, the computer lab, because I had another ambition. I was dating this guy named Chad — we won't talk too much about him — but he broke up with me, and he told me that I was too involved in other things. I didn't pay enough attention to him. So I cried. I may have plotted a little bit. And then I went to the computer lab.

And that day I put together a spreadsheet of all of the things I was going to do to show him he was wrong for letting me go. [applause] On my spreadsheet, Dr. Campbell, I said I will write a best-selling novel. I said I would become a millionaire by the age of 30. I was way off. [laughter] I said that I would become the mayor of the city of Atlanta because that was the highest ambition I could imagine for a black woman in politics.

I wrote it down. And for the next 25 years, I nurtured and cultured that list. I changed some of the words. I rearranged some of the dates. The guy I was going to meet who was going to replace Chad still hasn't showed up but he’s still on the list. [applause]

What I anchored for myself that day, what I want you to hear, is that I let myself be bold in my ambitions. I did not doubt myself or edit myself or tell myself I wasn't enough.

That is what Spelman is about. Spelman is about reminding us that we were enough when we got there and now we know how to get to the next place. Now we know how to rise to the next level. That is the legacy of Spelman. [applause]

But it was also as Spelman College that I learned that part of being bold in your ambition is acknowledging your fear.

You see, it turns out I wasn’t shy, I was just afraid of making mistakes. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, being the wrong person, dreaming the wrong dreams. I was afraid of being seen and being heard. I was afraid of me.

And for so many years, we have been told to be fearless. That is dumbest advice I have ever heard. Fear is real. And it’s usually a warning. It’s a caution to us, not to not act but to understand what we’re facing.

I believe in embracing my fear. I take it out to lunch. Because if we are afraid of sexism, if we are afraid of racism, if we are afraid of success, if we are afraid of the limits of access — that’s okay.

We need to know our fears, name our fears, number our fears — and then conquer our fears. [applause]

Never let anyone tell you it’s wrong to be afraid. Fear is healthy. It is caving into fear that’s dangerous.

You see, I'm not afraid of fighting against those who tell me that we can't have economic justice in America. Because they’re wrong and I’m right.

I'm not afraid of saying that we should all have the right to voice our opinions in our elections, whether we agree with each other or not.

I'm not afraid of these things because I understand why fear happens. It happens because sometimes in our guts, we know that if we acknowledge our fears and embrace our fears, we may beat our best ambition.

I want you to hold onto your fear, get to know it, give it a name, give it a nickname. But never give it control. [applause]

The other part of being bold in your ambition is knowing the difference between humility and self-effacement.

I'm sure none of you have ever had this happen when you were the one to solve a problem, find an answer, get something done and then you're like, well, it wasn't just me.

You see, there's going to be a time, especially for black women, where we are cautioned against taking credit for our work. We are told that that’s obnoxious.


You see, what's obnoxious is letting someone else take credit for what you’ve done. What's obnoxious is denying your capacity. Because when you tell yourself you aren’t enough, when you allow others to tell you you are not enough, then slowly you become not enough.

I don't believe in self-effacement. I do not agree with this idea that there is something Southern about denying my capacity.

I do believe in humility, because not a single one of you sits here alone. None of you made it here alone, none of you made it through alone and none of you will make it any further alone.

Humility says, I can do it, I just can do it with others. Humility says, I can do it well, I'm just not the only one who can.

I want you to toss aside the notions of self-effacement, the way we are told to navigate our spaces, by ducking our heads and batting our eyes and pretending we didn't get it done. Move forward, bold in ambition, holding on but not being controlled by fear but always with humility. Never with reducing yourself to what someone else thinks you should be.

Number one, I need you to be bold in your ambitions. Say, “Bold in my ambition.” [Audience responds, “Bold in my ambition.”]

Number two, I need you to learn your losses. Sorry -- that's wrong. I need you to learn your lessons , not your losses.

I get confused sometimes because I’ve recently had a public loss — you may have heard about it.

And there are those who think that because I didn't become governor in 2018 that I should have gone about my business, that I should have taken my toys and gone home, that I should be quiet and sit still.

There are those who think that when you don't win, those things you try for, that your failure defines you. It is not failure that defines you, it is your response to failure that tells you who you are.

I learned at Spelman, to learn my lessons, not my losses. Whether it was somebody breaking up with me, me making a mistake in class, me getting the first C I have ever gotten in my life — and I'm still mad about it — but it was also the loss of friends. The loss of opportunity.

You are going to face a great deal of loss. But when we focus on not getting, we ignore what we have received.

You see, I didn't receive the title of governor. You are not entitled to win an election. You are not entitled to power. You are not entitled to success. But we are all entitled to access.

And that is one lesson I learned in 2018. You see, I stood for governor not because I wanted a title but because I said I wanted to do the work. And when I didn't get the title, I still had the work to do. I wasn't exempted because I didn't get the platform. [applause]

But this is a lesson I learned at Spelman that, my lesson was that you still have work to do even if those you want to serve haven't told you to come on. That not getting everything you want doesn't mean you got nothing from it.

I learned my lesson that it was enough to try if I was willing to try again and try again, and try again. I was enough if I was willing to take the promises I made and put them into action.

And because I had a little time off, I did a lot during the last four years.

I learned that failure is inevitable but it is not permanent. That moment where you think that you have lost everything, when you made a mistake and everyone saw it and thank God I did not come of age during the internet — Lord, love a duck what would happen right now.

But what I do know is that the feeling that you get, this idea that because you stumbled and you fell, that nothing else will be that good again, is wrong.

You are going to stumble, you are going to make mistakes, you are going to do your very best and it will not be enough. But learn your lesson, not your losses.

Understand that you tried and if you didn't do everything, investigate. What could you have done? What should you have done? What did you miss?

But when you are doing that investigation, don’t leave the other side out. There are rarely times when we fail because it was all our fault. And part of learning your lessons is making sure you understand your side of the ledger, and the other side.

Because in our life and our society, sometimes all of the burden is on us. But the lesson I've learned is that it’s not all on me. Success or failure, victory or failure, moving forward or moving backwards — I have to look at what I can do, but I have to do my part to understand what other people should do. And if we do it right, the next time we try, we bring them along with us or we shut them up altogether. [applause] Progress is victory.

I got in trouble in 2018 when I didn't become governor, because I was bold in my pronouncement and audacious in my language and I said to a group of people over and over again in many different states that I am not the governor of Georgia — I am not confused — but then I followed with this: I won, I won. [applause]

Now. It causes people an itch. It makes them angry, because how dare I claim I won. Because, you see, I have been black a long time. I have been a woman my whole life. I have been a black woman in the South for as long as I can remember and I know that sometimes success is just progress.

That is a victory and I am going to claim the victory every time I can. [applause] Because when you claim those victories, you create space for the next victory to come.

We have got to learn our lessons and part of the lesson is that sometimes victory doesn't look the same for us as it does for everyone else. But when we hold ourselves accountable to a standard, without also setting our own, we are living someone else's life and playing someone else's game.

I learned my lessons, not my losses. I will come back and try again but I will set my own metric. I will do in my own time and in my own way. And if I do it right, the next time, victory will be even sweeter. [applause]

So first, I need you to be bold in your ambition. Say, “Be bold in my ambitions.”

And I need you to learn your lessons, not my losses.

And last, I need you to know what you believe. Say, “Know what I believe.” [Audience responds, “Know what I believe.”]

“Don't believe too much.” [Audience responds, “Don't believe too much.”]

Part of my job when I was in the state House of Representatives was to be the leader of the Democrats. But that wasn’t my title. My title was minority leader. They put in my title that I was about to lose.

If you’re doing the math, if you are in the minority and the other guy’s title is majority leader, the imbalance is kind of obvious from the beginning. I used to tell my colleagues that minority leader was just Greek for “lose well.”

But then I got into my job and I started understanding what my opportunity was. You see, when I stood for leader, when I asked my colleagues to let me have that job, I told them, look, I’ve been a minority for a very long time — I am really good at it. You all, for most of your lives, for most of your ambitions, for most of your lessons will be in the technical minority. But if you know what you believe about yourself and about your work and about your purpose, then you will never be in the minority.

I understand what I believe. I wrote it down.

When I stood for office in 2006, I had a set of things I thought I knew to be true but, I was going to have the chance for the first time in my life to impose my truth on others. It is a very, very seductive notion, being able to make other people do what you want, believe what you want, live as you would have them live.

But it was here at Spelman College that I understood that to know what I believe was to live my values every day.

You see when I was a student at Spelman College, I became the student body vice president as a junior. We were in the midst of a very tumultuous time, a conversation about the role of sexuality and sexual orientation on college campuses. You guys wouldn’t be familiar with that at all.

In 1994, as the student body vice president, it was up to me to decide whether we allowed a student organization on campus. It was going to be the first lesbian-lead organization on our campus that we acknowledged.

There were friends of mine who did not speak to me after I signed the piece of paper saying that, yes indeed, we were going to allow this organization to be on Spelman's campus. There were those who told me, “Well, Stacey, you are a Christian. You can’t possibly believe this is right.”

So I went back to my Bible. Talked to my parents. My parents are both United Methodist ministers. That’s why we came to Georgia. And what my parents told me is that your faith is a shield to protect, not a sword to strike people down. [applause] They told me to know what I believe -- and so even though I had to have security at the dorm — I lived in LLC II by then, I’d moved up [laughter] — even though I had to have security at the dorm sometimes after we let that decision come to fruition, I never regretted it for a moment because I knew what I believed.

When people try to assail who you are, if you know what you believe, then you don't have to listen to their lies. When you know what you believe, you can withstand the assaults and you can also withstand the silence.

Because it’s not the people who yell at you, it’s the people who turn away from you who will hurt the most. It's not the ones who deny you in public, it’s the ones who forget to return your call or say they didn't see your text.

And as you make more and more important decisions, as you rise in this world as I know you will, you have to know what you believe because sometimes belief alone is what keeps you aloft.

When I decided to run for the state legislature I had to decide what I believed about reproductive choice. I had to decide what I believed about poverty and taxes, what I believed about mass incarceration and the death penalty. I had to make a list of beliefs and when I realized what I was doing, I started writing it down because you see, I wanted to know what my beliefs are versus my opinions.

See, an opinion is something you think you know, a belief is something you’re willing to fight for. Know the difference between your beliefs and your opinions, and never let your opinions drive your future.

You see, I have evolved over time. And when I was a student at Spelman, I had very different opinions. But because of my lessons, Dr. Campbell, because of what I learned, Chairman Brewer, I understood that it wasn’t enough to say I thought something to be true.

I learned at Spelman to do my research. To investigate my hypothesis. To test and evaluate my evidence. To draw my conclusions and then come back and see if I could replicate the experiment.

When you know what you believe, you are willing to question yourself and make certain that the person you are is the person you want to be.

It is easy to say, “I believe,” but it is hard to live those beliefs if they are not true and deep.

But while we do that, when we know what we believe, we’ve got to create space for other people's beliefs. And that’s one of the hardest parts of leadership, it’s one of the hardest parts of success, it’s one of the most difficult parts of being in this world.

I have a very strong beliefs. I am so invested in my beliefs, I raise millions of dollars to make it so. That’s a lot of begging. But those beliefs anchor me and they lift me up. They give me purpose and give shape and meaning to my life.

But the thing of it is — they mean nothing if I don't create space to understand other people's beliefs. If I am not willing to create space and investigate their thinking, then I am not doing my job.

You see, when I was in the legislature, there was a gentleman named Bobby Franklin. For those of you who paid attention during your time in Georgia, if you’re not from here, he is from East Cobb County. Yes. For anyone else, the translation is: we did not agree on stuff.

Bobby once said that even though we read the Bible, he thought mine was missing a few pages. He was so far to the right and I was, in his mind, so far to the left, we just met on the other side. But Bobby and I became friends because when we would talk about issues, there were moments where we agreed on outcome just not on intention.

And part of leadership, part of success, part of progress is creating space that sometimes you don't get to the same place for the same reason but you can be on the same train.

When we are willing to understand other people's beliefs, when we’re willing to give them a space to be heard, we become better people.

Now I’m not saying you have have to adopt those beliefs. I'm not even saying you have to like them. But you have to listen to them. You have to learn from them, if for no other reason so that you can successfully rebut them when you’re in the debating stage.

But I know that I am a better leader because I have worked with people I don’t agree with. I know I am a better friend because I listened to ideas and beliefs that I don't hold. I'm a better human because I’m willing to investigate truths that are not my own. I am a better ally because I know that there is more to the world than me.

When you know what you believe and you don’t believe too much you create space for growth and progress. You create space for transformation. You create space for tomorrow.

When Dr. Campbell invited me to address this class, she let me know this would be her last year, and I want to take a moment and thank her for the seven years of extraordinary leadership she has provided to my college. [applause]

But I'm also here to say thank you to you.

Because as you commence, as you begin the next phase of your lives, as you turn those tassels and you throw those caps in the air, never to be seen again, as you worry about financial aid payments that will begin in 6 to 8 months, and you worry about the decisions that you’ve made, I am here to tell you — you’re all right.

You’ve done your best. You have learned your lessons, not your losses. You are on the cusp of knowing what you believe. You are ready to be bold in your ambitions and to lead the future.

When I was at Spelman, we had a different motto emblazoned across the front, but I like what you all have today. You have a choice in this space. You have a choice in this moment. Class of 2022, you have a choice in this world.

And I am here to say thank you, 27 years on, because you have a choice to change the world. So, let's get it done.

Thank you so much. [applause]