Success, Leadership and Authenticity: A Conversation with Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams

This episode is a replay of an amazing 2021 California Conference for Women Keynote Conversation with best-selling author, nonprofit CEO and political leader Stacey Abrams.

Narrowly defeated as the first Black woman to win a major party nomination for Governor, she galvanized a movement that would register 800,000 new voters. Joined by award-winning journalist Lisa Ling, we will explore Abrams’ road to becoming a true pioneer. From her humble beginnings, to successes and pitfalls along the way, she shares invaluable lessons about ambition, leadership, authenticity and failure.

You will leave inspired and armed with tips so that you are ready to lead from the outside and truly make a difference.


Stacey Abrams

STACEY ABRAMS is an author, serial entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO and political leader. After serving for eleven years in the Georgia House of Representatives, seven as Minority Leader, in 2018, Abrams became the Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia. Abrams was the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States. After witnessing the gross mismanagement of the 2018 election by the Secretary of State’s office, Abrams launched Fair Fight to ensure every Georgian has a voice in our election system. The impact of Fair Fight led to Abrams being named to the Forbes list of World’s Most Powerful Women in 2020. Over the course of her career, Abrams has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national levels. She is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the 2012 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, and a current member of the board of directors for the Center for American Progress. AbramsNew York Times best-selling book Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change, is a personal and empowering blueprint for outsiders who seek to become the ones in charge. Her newly released book Our Time is Now is a blueprint to end voter suppression and chronicles a chilling account of how the right to vote and the principles of democracy have been and continue to be under attack. Abrams received degrees from Spelman College, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and Yale Law School. She and her five siblings grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi and were raised in Georgia. @staceyabrams

 

Lisa Ling

Lisa LingLISA LING is the executive producer and host of THIS IS LIFE on CNN, now its seventh season. For five seasons prior, Ling EP’d and hosted Our America on OWN. She was also a field correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show and contributor to ABC News’ Nightline. Ling was the first female host of National Geographic’s flagship show Explorer which sent her to cover the phenomenon of female suicide bombing, the spread of the MS-13 gang and the humanitarian crisis inside North Korea. She got her start in journalism as a correspondent for Channel One News where she covered the civil war in Afghanistan at 21 years of age. She later went to become a co-host of ABC Daytime’s hit show, The View, which won its first daytime Emmy during her time at the show. Ling is the co-author of Mother, Sister. Daughter, Bride: Rituals of Womanhood, and Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and The Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home that she penned with her sister Laura. In 2014, President Obama appointed her to the commission on White House fellows. She is an advisory board member for Fostering Media Connections, The Amani Project, and a Baby2Baby angel. @lisaling

Celeste Headlee

Celeste Headlee Celeste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Heard Mentality and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee

 


Additional Resources:

More from Women Amplified:


Stacey Abrams & Lisa Ling Interview Transcript:

Lisa Ling:

Today, I am so excited, and frankly, a little giddy, to be talking to one of the most compelling figures of our time. She is an author, an entrepreneur, non-profit CEO, and a true leader who has broken boundaries, demanded justice, and opened the doors for millions of Americans. She is, of course, the incomparable Stacey Abrams. Stacey, so great to see you. Thank you so much for being with us.

Lisa Ling:

Now, you rose to national prominence by becoming the first black woman in history to earn a major party nomination for governor. But what I think has really captivated so many people is what you did after failing to win that seat. Many were begging you to run for a Senate seat in Georgia, one that you very likely would have won. But instead, you led this massive collaborative effort to register 800,000 voters in Georgia. In other words, in your words, you refused to let a setback set you back. So can you tell us why you made that decision?

Stacey Abrams:

Well, first of all, Lisa, thank you for interviewing me. I have admired you for years. And if that’s the introduction I get, I would love for you to do my eulogy. It’s a little bit stark right now to use that phrase, but it was really good.

Stacey Abrams:

I want to frame what happened in this way. I’d spent a decade building towards Georgia becoming a competitive state primarily because I believe in justice. I believe that progress is possible and that the weakness of our public health system, of our infrastructure, of our educational system, that the challenges we face in Georgia are solvable. And my responsibility when I became Democratic Leader in 2010 was to think about how do you solve it? But through that, I also very strongly believe that becoming governor, especially in a southern state, would be instrumental to tackling these problems, not just for Georgia, but to really set a narrative for what could happen across the south and around the country. And so when I stood for governor, I told folks, “If you will trust me, if you will run with me, if you will vote in ways you haven’t before, I’m committed to trying to make these things come to fruition.”

Stacey Abrams:

But it was near the end of that campaign where we really became grossly aware of how vicious the voter suppression led by my opponent, the Secretary of State, how effective and vicious it was. And so when I didn’t win, my first responsibility was to either challenge the outcome of the election to try to make myself the governor, or to challenge the system that allowed him to strip the right to vote from so many people to create barriers to their participation. And I was raised by my parents to believe that if you saw a problem, your job isn’t to whine about it. You can for a little bit, but not for very long. Your job is to fix it. And for me, fixing the problem meant that we had to tackle the root issue, which was access to democracy in Georgia.

Stacey Abrams:

Fair Fight has gotten a great deal of credit for the role we played in helping activate voters to register, including a group that I’d started in 2014 called the New Georgia Project. But what we, I think, did most effectively was to actually tackle the system itself. To say that voter suppression has multiple tentacles and we were not going to let any of those tentacles continue unabated.

Stacey Abrams:

So when we didn’t win the election, my first responsibility was to tackle the issues of democracy, to tackle the system itself. And that meant beginning with a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and the elections officials, then Brian Kemp and now Brad Raffensperger. And just yesterday, we received word that the court refused to throw out the case, which is what the Secretary of State’s office sought, because the issues still continue. But another part of it was making certain that when people tried to register to vote, that their registrations were processed. That when they tried to find a polling place, that a polling place was open. That if they needed in the middle of a pandemic to cast their ballots by absentee ballot, that they were able to do so.

Stacey Abrams:

For me, tackling the system itself has always been the most important approach to the work of justice. And running for the Senate, while I think it was an incredibly gracious invitation, and I am so grateful for those who wanted me to undertake that, it wasn’t the right job. For me, being in the Senate is an important position to have. We have seen already how critical it is to have people of good intention in that body as we watched so many abdicate their responsibility during the impeachment trial. But where I wanted to stand was, how do we make certain that it’s not about a single election or a single person, but that we fix the system itself? Because if you don’t fix the system, you may be successful, but someone else is going to lose out. And that person is going to be a voter whose voice isn’t heard.

Lisa Ling:

Well, you truly galvanized the system. After Georgia was called in the presidential election, and then after the two Senate seats flipped, the internet just blew up. Your image was everywhere, accrediting you for mobilizing, organizing, and making sure that people registered and voted. Thousands and thousands of people, many for the first time in their lives. What would you say were the keys to the success? And in particular, how did you mobilize so many different demographics?

Stacey Abrams:

The work started long before 2018. And I reference that because I know there’s so many people out there wondering, how can I do this where I live? And I believe it is possible across this country, but we have to be honest about how hard it is, but how valuable it is. We began the work, I started my work in earnest in 2010 when I became Democratic Leader. So the end of 2010, heading into 2011. I began by really understanding what the impediments were to voter registration. And so often, it was that people weren’t asked or they didn’t understand the process. If you come from a family that has long had civic participation or you live in a community where civic engagement is what’s expected, then yes, voter registration seems easy. But if you live in a community that’s often been isolated from civic participation, where politicians don’t even bother to ask for your vote, where your school doesn’t talk about it because you’re barely getting the education you deserve, you’re not going to necessarily know how to be involved.

 

Stacey Abrams:

Voter registration has to be more than giving someone a piece of paper to fill out. It’s got to be about educating people about what voting accomplishes, because voting isn’t magic. And I think one of the testaments to the work that I’ve done, that so many have done to get more people to the polls, is that we were honest about what we were asking for. This wasn’t going to transform the country. We weren’t going to wake up and the world is absolutely different. But the world gets better when you participate. Change begins when you participate.

Stacey Abrams:

And we really talked about voting. I used the analogy that it’s like medicine. For the diseases, for the ills of our society, the medicine has to be taken again and again for us to get what we need, for us to get better. But the minute you stop taking your medication, things lapse, things get bad again. And so we have to not only vote, but we’ve got to create a pattern of voting.

Stacey Abrams:

And so one of the responsibilities I felt and where I get some of this credit is that I’ve made sure that we invested in organizations, that we built organizations. When I started the New Georgia Project, which is now run by Nsé Ufot, we raised a lot of money, but we gave a lot of money away. And we did the same thing with Fair Fight. It’s not just about building the organizations I start, it’s about using the platform I have to invest in other community members and other groups in smaller organizations that may not have the platform I have, but have the same purpose. And often, we see ourselves in conflict. I believe that this is a collective effort. And when people see you working together and your attention is focused on their betterment, more and more people believe that it’s worth investing and it’s worth trying.

Lisa Ling:

Well, one of the things that many have recognized about your leadership is that you are very deliberate about sharing resources and even credit. Why is that?

Stacey Abrams:

Number one, I heard a long time ago that I’d rather have 50% of something than 100% of nothing. When it comes to justice, when it comes to progress, when it comes to getting things done, I’ve always believed in partnership. It may be the fact that I’m the second of six children. So I was about 15 before I realized Snickers really could satisfy because you always had to share. And for me, the sharing piece, it’s not only sharing credit, it’s sharing the work. And if you’re willing to do one and not the other, then that requires self investigation. I’m not a better person at what I do if I’m the only one who’s acknowledged for it. And for some, that’s the metric of their value, that they are the one who get all the credit.

Stacey Abrams:

I want to see us have the success. And the best way to engender that success is to celebrate everyone who participated, to laud everyone who participates. There’s a saying that victory has 1,000 parents, but defeat is an orphan. Defeat means taking responsibility for where you are, and I take responsibility when I can. But that also then means that you have to celebrate the parents of success, especially those who did work that no one saw. Because if you’re willing to do that, if you’re willing to create space for others to come in, you actually create space for even more people to see themselves as a part of what you do.

Lisa Ling:

Well, certainly, the movement that you helped to create, it was so obvious that everyone really did feel like they were a part of something. And that was really so exciting to watch from afar. I want to talk a little bit about how you became the person you became. What inspired you to public service to begin with?

Stacey Abrams:

I’m the daughter of Robert and Carolyn Abrams. And I talk about my parents so often because they really are the genesis of what I grew up to do. My parents had three rules for us. Go to church, go to school, and take care of each other. They wanted our faith to be a foundation, but they also raised us to believe that faith should never be used to hurt others. It should never be a sword to strike people down. It should always be a shield to protect. And for me, that meant living this faith in a way that was always about helping others.

Stacey Abrams:

The fact that they told us education was critical was because they both came from the abject poverty you hear about in Mississippi. And while they’d made progress, we were still working poor when we were growing up. But my mom and dad said, “Look, we may not be where we expected to be, but we’re further ahead than anyone else in our families have been. And so we’re going to celebrate where we are and then we’re going to push you all to do even more.” And that meant education had to be a part of what we did.

Stacey Abrams:

And the third was that they said take care of each other. And part of it was take care of your five brothers and sisters. And if anybody gets in trouble, everyone’s in trouble, so you might as well do well. But it was also that they would take us out to volunteer. We would go to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and juvenile justice facilities. We would look at them. We were like, you guys do know we don’t have running water at home or the lights have been cut off for two weeks? But they wanted us to understand that, as my dad said, having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing. And when you take those pieces together and when you watch the way my parents not only raised us, but the way they lived.

Stacey Abrams:

My parents volunteered, even when they didn’t know where their next dollar was going to come from. They would take us with them to vote, even though they knew politicians didn’t bother to knock on their doors. And they protested, even though they knew that some of the things they were asking for would go to people that were not themselves, and that they would benefit others, but they may not benefit from that protest. I grew up believing that my responsibility, and I shared this with my siblings, that our responsibility is if we see a problem, our job is to fix it. And there is nothing more broken than the waste of human capital and human spirit that comes when people believe that they’re not a part of progress, they’re not a part of society. Or worse, when they believe that no one cares about them and no one cares about their future.

 

 

Lisa Ling:

When they said take care of each other, you really took that to heart and began to take care of everyone, and it’s so incredibly moving. Stacey, you represent someone who is actively changing narrow, outdated ideas of what leadership looks like, not only as the first black woman to run for governor on a major ticket, but as a self-described geek and introvert. So what does it take to decide not to compromise yourself and be authentically who you are?

Stacey Abrams:

As I said, I’m the second of six children, and that meant I grew up surrounded by extraordinary people. My siblings are remarkable in their own ways. But it also meant that we together, we are each other’s best cheerleaders. We create opportunities for one another, we share our successes and our failures, and we’re all very close. There’s 12 years between the oldest and the youngest, but we’re a pack. That’s how we run.

Stacey Abrams:

What that meant for me was that even though I was introverted, I wasn’t shy. I was just more comfortable being by myself than being in crowds. But my belief that things needed to be done, it was stronger than my desire to be quiet and stay away from people. And part of that came about because even in my family, sometimes I was the one who had to speak up. Sometimes I was the person who had to give voice for the younger ones who didn’t know how to frame what they needed. And we don’t have the luxury, we don’t have permission, to not serve those we care about, to not serve the communities we care about.

Stacey Abrams:

I had to translate that in a lot of ways, and part of it was accepting who I am. I talk about being an introvert not because I want credit for being an introvert, but because I want people who find themselves in that space, who are quiet and don’t necessarily see themselves as a voice for others, to understand we can be quiet and loud at the same time. It’s just about understanding who you are so you can adjust your systems to make it work. I go out and talk to people all the time. But when I come home, I’m by myself and I will immerse myself in the silence that I need.

Stacey Abrams:

Likewise, when I was told by some when I was getting ready to run for office that I needed to change my hairstyle, I needed to lose a lot of weight, that I need to get braces, they may have legitimate points. But to tell myself that I’m not prepared to serve because I don’t look like what people expect is not viable for me. And so part of my authenticity is just stubbornness. I’m not willing to wait to do what I think needs to be done, and that means I’ve got to accept who I am.

Stacey Abrams:

I can always work to do better. I want to be healthier than I am, but I don’t think I’m grotesque. I’m not going to fix my gap because it’s my mother’s gap. It’s the gap that I have and that my mother had because our families couldn’t afford orthodontia. And if this gap creates space for me to do even more for people, I’m happy with it. I like my hair the way it is. And while some may not be comfortable with it, I try to make sure there are other parts of me they like. But fundamentally, if we don’t like ourselves, if we aren’t willing to be our whole selves, if we wait until we are perfect to act, then we never do anything.

Stacey Abrams:

That’s not to say that who you are should never force someone else to be different. That’s the selfishness, I think, sometimes with authenticity. I do have to be a part of society, and there ways I have to compromise not myself, but compromise my behavior. I have to go to those lunches and have those conversations. I need to do those speeches. And it’s not that I don’t do the things I need to do, I just create the accommodations I need to make what I do match who I am. But you used the word compromise, and that’s exactly the right word. But you don’t have to compromise your values or your authenticity to compromise for society. You can be a part of without losing who you are.

Lisa Ling:

I’m cheering inside vociferously because I don’t think women can hear enough that you don’t have to compromise your authenticity. It’s just such an important message and mantra. I want to take you back to your college days when you were at Spelman. In your incredible book, Lead From the Outside, you wrote about the time when you are a student at Spelman and when, after a breakup, you went into the college computer lab and put a spreadsheet together that laid out your life plans for the next 40 years. For example, by age 24, you wanted to write a best-selling spy novel. By 30, you wanted to make $1 million, and you wanted to become mayor of Atlanta. So why do you think you did that back then? And how many of those things materialized and what did you learn from this exercise?

Stacey Abrams:

Part of being at Spelman was being in a place that, for the first time, race and gender were not the differences between me and someone else. I was at a black woman’s college. And while some see it as a way to immerse yourself in blackness and in gender issues and gender conversations, it was also a space where the quality of my work, the quality of my mind, was the conversation. It wasn’t barriered by some people by what they saw and what they expected because of who I was from the outside. And let me be very clear. The intrinsic and indelible nature of being a black woman is something I celebrate, but I am that and more. And it was the and more that I had a chance to really explore at Spelman.

Stacey Abrams:

But it was also the first time I got to date, really. I dated a young man near the end of high school, because I wasn’t able to date until I was 16. And so the second time I dated, the second time I thought I was in love, it broke my heart. And one thing he said to me was that he just doubted what I would be because I didn’t seem to be the person he needed. And so I decided to figure out who I was. I’m very goal oriented. And so I went into the computer lab, and we had Lotus 1-2-3, that was the newfangled program at the time. And I wanted to write it down because I’d read a book before about how important it was to concretize your goals by writing it down. But for me, it was even more. It was not only writing down the goal, but writing down how you get there.

Stacey Abrams:

I didn’t come from a family where we knew professionals. I didn’t come from a family where we knew politicians. I came from a family that understood civil rights and protests, where we talked about those things, but those weren’t a part of my daily life. And so I had to give myself a roadmap. I needed to map out how I would get there. It wasn’t enough to say, I see it. I needed to understand how to reach it. And at 18, you’re so full of all of the things you can become and all of the ways you can get there, but we rarely receive guidance on how hard it is if you haven’t seen it done before.

Stacey Abrams:

And so for me, I tried to think of the most ambitious things I could imagine. But even when I thought of the ambition, I put constructs around it. I didn’t just want to write a novel, I wanted to write a spy novel. I didn’t want to be a billionaire, I wanted to be one millionaire because that was the most money I could imagine making. I didn’t think about being President of the United States because that was absurd. The best job I thought a black woman could have in politics was to be the mayor of Atlanta. And so even then, I was trying to be as ambitious as possible, but I was constrained by who I thought I could be. And so one of the reasons the spreadsheet has been so important to me is that it’s allowed me to dream even bigger, to map out how I get there, but to also allow myself to change my dreams.

Stacey Abrams:

I don’t want to be the mayor anymore. I had a chance to work for two extraordinary mayors. They did amazing things. But I do not want their jobs, because the work of being a mayor is different than other type of work. That’s one of the reasons I realized I wanted to run for governor, because the work of a mayor was always constrained in the south by what the state decided. That a mayor in a city where the governor or the state legislature could take away what you had given changes the nature of that job. It doesn’t diminish the importance, but it changes the nature. And we have to give ourselves permission to change our nature too. To figure out that thing that drove us at 18 might still be there, but it might’ve become encompassed by something different, something more, by changes and challenges we hadn’t imagined.

Lisa Ling:

I appreciate that you gave yourself those goals. Whether those particular goals, materialized or not, you set out to make them, and I think that that certainly proved fruitful for you as an exercise. Now, women and people of color have been fighting for pay equity and better representation in leadership for decades. And some would say that minimal progress has really been made. And you’ve made the point we don’t have time to dismantle centuries of patriarchy, racism, classism, and bigotry. Instead, we need to hack the system. So what would hacking the system look like to really achieve equity in the workplace with all the issues that continue to plague us?

Stacey Abrams:

For those who sit in C-suite or middle management, part of it is remembering where you started. We so often focus on what’s happening at CEO level, we forget what happens to the cleaning ladies and the janitors and the secretaries and the assistants, the administrative people. Part of the way to hack the system is instead of championing your own change, work within your organization to ensure that you are doing the best you can by those who are the most vulnerable and have the smallest voices and the weakest choices. That hacking is such a difference because when you start at the bottom, it is that notion of lifting all boats. But in this case, you’re creating a foundation that then ensures that the next level and the next level benefit because you’ve taken care of that baseline. But it’s also about being willing to be the voice of those who don’t have the right to speak up.

 

Stacey Abrams:

The first time I was working at a law firm, and it was fantastic firm, but one of the secretaries asked me a question about what she could do, and she needed me to be her champion. And I thought, well, if I do this, then I’m putting myself at risk. And in retrospect, I think, of course she needed to ask me. I could put myself at risk because they gave me more value, they ascribe more value to the role I played. And it was my responsibility to use that position of power to hack power for her. And there’s so many small ways we can do that. Things we see that we don’t say, or we whisper it or mutter it, hoping that someone overhears us. But we can hack the system by redesigning the system where we are. And it may not change everything, but small changes accrue.

Stacey Abrams:

When I became Democratic Leader at the state, I was intentional. When I first hired my staff, I was the new leader. We had one full-time staffer. I then hired around me people I knew. And it turned out when I finished hiring, my staff was black and white. It completely ignored the fact that Georgia had a burgeoning Latino population, a growing AAPI community, Asian-American Pacific Islander community, and that I had the responsibility to think about that too. So I picked up the phone and called the organizations that serve those communities and said, “I’ve run out of money, but I would love interns, if I could, just to get them in the door so that they could be seen.” And it was my opportunity to hack the system.

Stacey Abrams:

I knew I’d been successful when one of my colleagues from the other side of the aisle said, and I don’t know if he was being complimentary or not, he said, “We can always tell someone from your office. It looks like the United Colors of Benetton or the United Nations.” And for me, that was a perfect compliment, because I couldn’t fix the state, I couldn’t make the GOP hire anyone, I couldn’t tell the Speaker who to hire. But in the posture that I had in the platform that I had, I could do more. And even if I couldn’t pay them immediately, I brought them into a space they had never been in before in number. And I became a better leader, I became a better person. And when it came time in 2020 to turn out voters, we didn’t just turn out black and white voters. We increased participation by Native American, Asian American, Latino voters in record numbers. And that’s because I used my system and my space to hack the system and change the outcome.

Lisa Ling:

Stacey, that’s the thing that I think so many people just so admire about you. Clearly, you are wildly ambitious, but you’ve never lost sight of your surroundings and the people that you have been trying to lift up as well, and that has been so appreciated. You once said that we should have aggressive and wild ambitions that are only anchored by plans, not by doubts. And as women, I think many of us have been taught to temper our ambition. So why do you recommend women have aggressive and wild ambitions? And to the women listening today, what would you say to encourage them to express or make those wild ambitions materialize?

Stacey Abrams:

So over my shoulder is a poster for a documentary that I produced called All In: The Fight for Democracy. And I want to mention it for two reasons. Number one, fighting for democracy, being willing to tackle systems that have been in place literally since the inception of our nation, is wild and in some ways absurd, that in Georgia, a young black woman, or semi-young, is going to tackle this system and try to make it work better. But that was my wild and ambitious dream, but it was also grounded in the plan. Knowing that litigation was a part of it, knowing that we needed to fix legislation, knowing that we needed to build advocacy. Using my skills grown over years of building organizations, hiring people who are smart and thoughtful and capable of greatness, being willing to raise money in order to fund those dreams. But beginning with this very ambitious belief that I was going to stop voter suppression in Georgia. And then we actually, by August of ’19, decided we’re going to do it in 20 States. So that’s one piece of it.

Stacey Abrams:

But this poster also represents one of those secret dreams I had. I am a geek, but I also am well known for my love of media. I love television, film, books, music. I immerse myself in the arts. And I had the ambitious idea that I could produce a documentary to tell the story of voter suppression, because people needed to understand this isn’t a singularity. My campaign and what we faced was certainly deeply problematic, but it was repeated in places across this country in smaller fashion, and maybe not with the same kleig lights. But what I wanted people to see and understand was that this could be done, and so I produced a documentary, and now we’re out there in the ether. I met filmmakers and I was able to plot out how I could be a part of this.

Stacey Abrams:

And so regardless of the scope of the ambition, and regardless of whether it seems to be so personal as to be small or so massive as to be unattainable, our responsibility is to dream it anyway, to desire it anyway. Because you may not get what you want, but you will get something so much better than you have, one, because you tried, and two, because more than likely, you’ll succeed. Sometimes we’re not afraid of our ambition, but it’s not about being afraid of success, it’s being afraid of the responsibility that comes with success, the responsibility that comes with failure. But the only responsibility you have is to understand why you succeeded and multiply it, or understand why you didn’t succeed and solve for it. But we can’t let our ambitions be edited by our own fears. I like to say, take fear out for a drink, get to know it really well, make it your friend, because fear makes you brave. And if fear makes you brave, bravery makes you ambitious, and ambition makes us better. And that’s how we start to create change.

Lisa Ling:

I love that. Leader Abrams, we are about at the end of our time, but I have to ask you one last question. Since you are such a big planner, what can you tell us about your future aspirations?

Stacey Abrams:

I can tell you one day I will run for office again, but I am not thinking about that now, and here’s why. Right now, we are fighting more than 120 voter suppression bills that are popping up all around the country to undo the work that Fair Fight and so many others were able to do in Georgia and around this country. Two, we have a census that has been absolutely decimated by the weaponization under the Trump administration. And it is the narrative and the investment that will dictate the next 10 years of our lives, and really a generation of change. And then we have a COVID recovery that’s going to happen, but has to be deeper and broader and more infrastructure driven than anything we’ve seen before, especially in the south.

 

Stacey Abrams:

When I didn’t become governor, I created Fair Fight to work on democracy, Fair Count to work on the census, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project to work on making sure that the south receives the support it needs to really see progress, and those are things I’m going to be focused on. My work is here in Georgia. My focus is on Georgia. But I’m always thinking about how what we do here can the world, and specifically help those who’ve been left out and left behind. That’s what I’m focused on. I will think about running for office again later. But for right now, that’s the work ahead of me and I’m excited about it.

Lisa Ling:

Well, thank you for your candor on that. Leader Stacey Abrams, we so appreciate you taking the time. We thank you for your wisdom, your insights, and constantly challenging everyone around you to do better and be better. Thank you so much.

Stacey Abrams:

Thank you.

View Transcript

Lisa Ling:

Today, I am so excited, and frankly, a little giddy, to be talking to one of the most compelling figures of our time. She is an author, an entrepreneur, non-profit CEO, and a true leader who has broken boundaries, demanded justice, and opened the doors for millions of Americans. She is, of course, the incomparable Stacey Abrams. Stacey, so great to see you. Thank you so much for being with us.

Lisa Ling:

Now, you rose to national prominence by becoming the first black woman in history to earn a major party nomination for governor. But what I think has really captivated so many people is what you did after failing to win that seat. Many were begging you to run for a Senate seat in Georgia, one that you very likely would have won. But instead, you led this massive collaborative effort to register 800,000 voters in Georgia. In other words, in your words, you refused to let a setback set you back. So can you tell us why you made that decision?

Stacey Abrams:

Well, first of all, Lisa, thank you for interviewing me. I have admired you for years. And if that’s the introduction I get, I would love for you to do my eulogy. It’s a little bit stark right now to use that phrase, but it was really good.

Stacey Abrams:

I want to frame what happened in this way. I’d spent a decade building towards Georgia becoming a competitive state primarily because I believe in justice. I believe that progress is possible and that the weakness of our public health system, of our infrastructure, of our educational system, that the challenges we face in Georgia are solvable. And my responsibility when I became Democratic Leader in 2010 was to think about how do you solve it? But through that, I also very strongly believe that becoming governor, especially in a southern state, would be instrumental to tackling these problems, not just for Georgia, but to really set a narrative for what could happen across the south and around the country. And so when I stood for governor, I told folks, “If you will trust me, if you will run with me, if you will vote in ways you haven’t before, I’m committed to trying to make these things come to fruition.”

Stacey Abrams:

But it was near the end of that campaign where we really became grossly aware of how vicious the voter suppression led by my opponent, the Secretary of State, how effective and vicious it was. And so when I didn’t win, my first responsibility was to either challenge the outcome of the election to try to make myself the governor, or to challenge the system that allowed him to strip the right to vote from so many people to create barriers to their participation. And I was raised by my parents to believe that if you saw a problem, your job isn’t to whine about it. You can for a little bit, but not for very long. Your job is to fix it. And for me, fixing the problem meant that we had to tackle the root issue, which was access to democracy in Georgia.

Stacey Abrams:

Fair Fight has gotten a great deal of credit for the role we played in helping activate voters to register, including a group that I’d started in 2014 called the New Georgia Project. But what we, I think, did most effectively was to actually tackle the system itself. To say that voter suppression has multiple tentacles and we were not going to let any of those tentacles continue unabated.

Stacey Abrams:

So when we didn’t win the election, my first responsibility was to tackle the issues of democracy, to tackle the system itself. And that meant beginning with a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and the elections officials, then Brian Kemp and now Brad Raffensperger. And just yesterday, we received word that the court refused to throw out the case, which is what the Secretary of State’s office sought, because the issues still continue. But another part of it was making certain that when people tried to register to vote, that their registrations were processed. That when they tried to find a polling place, that a polling place was open. That if they needed in the middle of a pandemic to cast their ballots by absentee ballot, that they were able to do so.

Stacey Abrams:

For me, tackling the system itself has always been the most important approach to the work of justice. And running for the Senate, while I think it was an incredibly gracious invitation, and I am so grateful for those who wanted me to undertake that, it wasn’t the right job. For me, being in the Senate is an important position to have. We have seen already how critical it is to have people of good intention in that body as we watched so many abdicate their responsibility during the impeachment trial. But where I wanted to stand was, how do we make certain that it’s not about a single election or a single person, but that we fix the system itself? Because if you don’t fix the system, you may be successful, but someone else is going to lose out. And that person is going to be a voter whose voice isn’t heard.

Lisa Ling:

Well, you truly galvanized the system. After Georgia was called in the presidential election, and then after the two Senate seats flipped, the internet just blew up. Your image was everywhere, accrediting you for mobilizing, organizing, and making sure that people registered and voted. Thousands and thousands of people, many for the first time in their lives. What would you say were the keys to the success? And in particular, how did you mobilize so many different demographics?

Stacey Abrams:

The work started long before 2018. And I reference that because I know there’s so many people out there wondering, how can I do this where I live? And I believe it is possible across this country, but we have to be honest about how hard it is, but how valuable it is. We began the work, I started my work in earnest in 2010 when I became Democratic Leader. So the end of 2010, heading into 2011. I began by really understanding what the impediments were to voter registration. And so often, it was that people weren’t asked or they didn’t understand the process. If you come from a family that has long had civic participation or you live in a community where civic engagement is what’s expected, then yes, voter registration seems easy. But if you live in a community that’s often been isolated from civic participation, where politicians don’t even bother to ask for your vote, where your school doesn’t talk about it because you’re barely getting the education you deserve, you’re not going to necessarily know how to be involved.

 

Stacey Abrams:

Voter registration has to be more than giving someone a piece of paper to fill out. It’s got to be about educating people about what voting accomplishes, because voting isn’t magic. And I think one of the testaments to the work that I’ve done, that so many have done to get more people to the polls, is that we were honest about what we were asking for. This wasn’t going to transform the country. We weren’t going to wake up and the world is absolutely different. But the world gets better when you participate. Change begins when you participate.

Stacey Abrams:

And we really talked about voting. I used the analogy that it’s like medicine. For the diseases, for the ills of our society, the medicine has to be taken again and again for us to get what we need, for us to get better. But the minute you stop taking your medication, things lapse, things get bad again. And so we have to not only vote, but we’ve got to create a pattern of voting.

Stacey Abrams:

And so one of the responsibilities I felt and where I get some of this credit is that I’ve made sure that we invested in organizations, that we built organizations. When I started the New Georgia Project, which is now run by Nsé Ufot, we raised a lot of money, but we gave a lot of money away. And we did the same thing with Fair Fight. It’s not just about building the organizations I start, it’s about using the platform I have to invest in other community members and other groups in smaller organizations that may not have the platform I have, but have the same purpose. And often, we see ourselves in conflict. I believe that this is a collective effort. And when people see you working together and your attention is focused on their betterment, more and more people believe that it’s worth investing and it’s worth trying.

Lisa Ling:

Well, one of the things that many have recognized about your leadership is that you are very deliberate about sharing resources and even credit. Why is that?

Stacey Abrams:

Number one, I heard a long time ago that I’d rather have 50% of something than 100% of nothing. When it comes to justice, when it comes to progress, when it comes to getting things done, I’ve always believed in partnership. It may be the fact that I’m the second of six children. So I was about 15 before I realized Snickers really could satisfy because you always had to share. And for me, the sharing piece, it’s not only sharing credit, it’s sharing the work. And if you’re willing to do one and not the other, then that requires self investigation. I’m not a better person at what I do if I’m the only one who’s acknowledged for it. And for some, that’s the metric of their value, that they are the one who get all the credit.

Stacey Abrams:

I want to see us have the success. And the best way to engender that success is to celebrate everyone who participated, to laud everyone who participates. There’s a saying that victory has 1,000 parents, but defeat is an orphan. Defeat means taking responsibility for where you are, and I take responsibility when I can. But that also then means that you have to celebrate the parents of success, especially those who did work that no one saw. Because if you’re willing to do that, if you’re willing to create space for others to come in, you actually create space for even more people to see themselves as a part of what you do.

Lisa Ling:

Well, certainly, the movement that you helped to create, it was so obvious that everyone really did feel like they were a part of something. And that was really so exciting to watch from afar. I want to talk a little bit about how you became the person you became. What inspired you to public service to begin with?

Stacey Abrams:

I’m the daughter of Robert and Carolyn Abrams. And I talk about my parents so often because they really are the genesis of what I grew up to do. My parents had three rules for us. Go to church, go to school, and take care of each other. They wanted our faith to be a foundation, but they also raised us to believe that faith should never be used to hurt others. It should never be a sword to strike people down. It should always be a shield to protect. And for me, that meant living this faith in a way that was always about helping others.

Stacey Abrams:

The fact that they told us education was critical was because they both came from the abject poverty you hear about in Mississippi. And while they’d made progress, we were still working poor when we were growing up. But my mom and dad said, “Look, we may not be where we expected to be, but we’re further ahead than anyone else in our families have been. And so we’re going to celebrate where we are and then we’re going to push you all to do even more.” And that meant education had to be a part of what we did.

Stacey Abrams:

And the third was that they said take care of each other. And part of it was take care of your five brothers and sisters. And if anybody gets in trouble, everyone’s in trouble, so you might as well do well. But it was also that they would take us out to volunteer. We would go to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and juvenile justice facilities. We would look at them. We were like, you guys do know we don’t have running water at home or the lights have been cut off for two weeks? But they wanted us to understand that, as my dad said, having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing. And when you take those pieces together and when you watch the way my parents not only raised us, but the way they lived.

Stacey Abrams:

My parents volunteered, even when they didn’t know where their next dollar was going to come from. They would take us with them to vote, even though they knew politicians didn’t bother to knock on their doors. And they protested, even though they knew that some of the things they were asking for would go to people that were not themselves, and that they would benefit others, but they may not benefit from that protest. I grew up believing that my responsibility, and I shared this with my siblings, that our responsibility is if we see a problem, our job is to fix it. And there is nothing more broken than the waste of human capital and human spirit that comes when people believe that they’re not a part of progress, they’re not a part of society. Or worse, when they believe that no one cares about them and no one cares about their future.

 

 

Lisa Ling:

When they said take care of each other, you really took that to heart and began to take care of everyone, and it’s so incredibly moving. Stacey, you represent someone who is actively changing narrow, outdated ideas of what leadership looks like, not only as the first black woman to run for governor on a major ticket, but as a self-described geek and introvert. So what does it take to decide not to compromise yourself and be authentically who you are?

Stacey Abrams:

As I said, I’m the second of six children, and that meant I grew up surrounded by extraordinary people. My siblings are remarkable in their own ways. But it also meant that we together, we are each other’s best cheerleaders. We create opportunities for one another, we share our successes and our failures, and we’re all very close. There’s 12 years between the oldest and the youngest, but we’re a pack. That’s how we run.

Stacey Abrams:

What that meant for me was that even though I was introverted, I wasn’t shy. I was just more comfortable being by myself than being in crowds. But my belief that things needed to be done, it was stronger than my desire to be quiet and stay away from people. And part of that came about because even in my family, sometimes I was the one who had to speak up. Sometimes I was the person who had to give voice for the younger ones who didn’t know how to frame what they needed. And we don’t have the luxury, we don’t have permission, to not serve those we care about, to not serve the communities we care about.

Stacey Abrams:

I had to translate that in a lot of ways, and part of it was accepting who I am. I talk about being an introvert not because I want credit for being an introvert, but because I want people who find themselves in that space, who are quiet and don’t necessarily see themselves as a voice for others, to understand we can be quiet and loud at the same time. It’s just about understanding who you are so you can adjust your systems to make it work. I go out and talk to people all the time. But when I come home, I’m by myself and I will immerse myself in the silence that I need.

Stacey Abrams:

Likewise, when I was told by some when I was getting ready to run for office that I needed to change my hairstyle, I needed to lose a lot of weight, that I need to get braces, they may have legitimate points. But to tell myself that I’m not prepared to serve because I don’t look like what people expect is not viable for me. And so part of my authenticity is just stubbornness. I’m not willing to wait to do what I think needs to be done, and that means I’ve got to accept who I am.

Stacey Abrams:

I can always work to do better. I want to be healthier than I am, but I don’t think I’m grotesque. I’m not going to fix my gap because it’s my mother’s gap. It’s the gap that I have and that my mother had because our families couldn’t afford orthodontia. And if this gap creates space for me to do even more for people, I’m happy with it. I like my hair the way it is. And while some may not be comfortable with it, I try to make sure there are other parts of me they like. But fundamentally, if we don’t like ourselves, if we aren’t willing to be our whole selves, if we wait until we are perfect to act, then we never do anything.

Stacey Abrams:

That’s not to say that who you are should never force someone else to be different. That’s the selfishness, I think, sometimes with authenticity. I do have to be a part of society, and there ways I have to compromise not myself, but compromise my behavior. I have to go to those lunches and have those conversations. I need to do those speeches. And it’s not that I don’t do the things I need to do, I just create the accommodations I need to make what I do match who I am. But you used the word compromise, and that’s exactly the right word. But you don’t have to compromise your values or your authenticity to compromise for society. You can be a part of without losing who you are.

Lisa Ling:

I’m cheering inside vociferously because I don’t think women can hear enough that you don’t have to compromise your authenticity. It’s just such an important message and mantra. I want to take you back to your college days when you were at Spelman. In your incredible book, Lead From the Outside, you wrote about the time when you are a student at Spelman and when, after a breakup, you went into the college computer lab and put a spreadsheet together that laid out your life plans for the next 40 years. For example, by age 24, you wanted to write a best-selling spy novel. By 30, you wanted to make $1 million, and you wanted to become mayor of Atlanta. So why do you think you did that back then? And how many of those things materialized and what did you learn from this exercise?

Stacey Abrams:

Part of being at Spelman was being in a place that, for the first time, race and gender were not the differences between me and someone else. I was at a black woman’s college. And while some see it as a way to immerse yourself in blackness and in gender issues and gender conversations, it was also a space where the quality of my work, the quality of my mind, was the conversation. It wasn’t barriered by some people by what they saw and what they expected because of who I was from the outside. And let me be very clear. The intrinsic and indelible nature of being a black woman is something I celebrate, but I am that and more. And it was the and more that I had a chance to really explore at Spelman.

Stacey Abrams:

But it was also the first time I got to date, really. I dated a young man near the end of high school, because I wasn’t able to date until I was 16. And so the second time I dated, the second time I thought I was in love, it broke my heart. And one thing he said to me was that he just doubted what I would be because I didn’t seem to be the person he needed. And so I decided to figure out who I was. I’m very goal oriented. And so I went into the computer lab, and we had Lotus 1-2-3, that was the newfangled program at the time. And I wanted to write it down because I’d read a book before about how important it was to concretize your goals by writing it down. But for me, it was even more. It was not only writing down the goal, but writing down how you get there.

Stacey Abrams:

I didn’t come from a family where we knew professionals. I didn’t come from a family where we knew politicians. I came from a family that understood civil rights and protests, where we talked about those things, but those weren’t a part of my daily life. And so I had to give myself a roadmap. I needed to map out how I would get there. It wasn’t enough to say, I see it. I needed to understand how to reach it. And at 18, you’re so full of all of the things you can become and all of the ways you can get there, but we rarely receive guidance on how hard it is if you haven’t seen it done before.

Stacey Abrams:

And so for me, I tried to think of the most ambitious things I could imagine. But even when I thought of the ambition, I put constructs around it. I didn’t just want to write a novel, I wanted to write a spy novel. I didn’t want to be a billionaire, I wanted to be one millionaire because that was the most money I could imagine making. I didn’t think about being President of the United States because that was absurd. The best job I thought a black woman could have in politics was to be the mayor of Atlanta. And so even then, I was trying to be as ambitious as possible, but I was constrained by who I thought I could be. And so one of the reasons the spreadsheet has been so important to me is that it’s allowed me to dream even bigger, to map out how I get there, but to also allow myself to change my dreams.

Stacey Abrams:

I don’t want to be the mayor anymore. I had a chance to work for two extraordinary mayors. They did amazing things. But I do not want their jobs, because the work of being a mayor is different than other type of work. That’s one of the reasons I realized I wanted to run for governor, because the work of a mayor was always constrained in the south by what the state decided. That a mayor in a city where the governor or the state legislature could take away what you had given changes the nature of that job. It doesn’t diminish the importance, but it changes the nature. And we have to give ourselves permission to change our nature too. To figure out that thing that drove us at 18 might still be there, but it might’ve become encompassed by something different, something more, by changes and challenges we hadn’t imagined.

Lisa Ling:

I appreciate that you gave yourself those goals. Whether those particular goals, materialized or not, you set out to make them, and I think that that certainly proved fruitful for you as an exercise. Now, women and people of color have been fighting for pay equity and better representation in leadership for decades. And some would say that minimal progress has really been made. And you’ve made the point we don’t have time to dismantle centuries of patriarchy, racism, classism, and bigotry. Instead, we need to hack the system. So what would hacking the system look like to really achieve equity in the workplace with all the issues that continue to plague us?

Stacey Abrams:

For those who sit in C-suite or middle management, part of it is remembering where you started. We so often focus on what’s happening at CEO level, we forget what happens to the cleaning ladies and the janitors and the secretaries and the assistants, the administrative people. Part of the way to hack the system is instead of championing your own change, work within your organization to ensure that you are doing the best you can by those who are the most vulnerable and have the smallest voices and the weakest choices. That hacking is such a difference because when you start at the bottom, it is that notion of lifting all boats. But in this case, you’re creating a foundation that then ensures that the next level and the next level benefit because you’ve taken care of that baseline. But it’s also about being willing to be the voice of those who don’t have the right to speak up.

 

Stacey Abrams:

The first time I was working at a law firm, and it was fantastic firm, but one of the secretaries asked me a question about what she could do, and she needed me to be her champion. And I thought, well, if I do this, then I’m putting myself at risk. And in retrospect, I think, of course she needed to ask me. I could put myself at risk because they gave me more value, they ascribe more value to the role I played. And it was my responsibility to use that position of power to hack power for her. And there’s so many small ways we can do that. Things we see that we don’t say, or we whisper it or mutter it, hoping that someone overhears us. But we can hack the system by redesigning the system where we are. And it may not change everything, but small changes accrue.

Stacey Abrams:

When I became Democratic Leader at the state, I was intentional. When I first hired my staff, I was the new leader. We had one full-time staffer. I then hired around me people I knew. And it turned out when I finished hiring, my staff was black and white. It completely ignored the fact that Georgia had a burgeoning Latino population, a growing AAPI community, Asian-American Pacific Islander community, and that I had the responsibility to think about that too. So I picked up the phone and called the organizations that serve those communities and said, “I’ve run out of money, but I would love interns, if I could, just to get them in the door so that they could be seen.” And it was my opportunity to hack the system.

Stacey Abrams:

I knew I’d been successful when one of my colleagues from the other side of the aisle said, and I don’t know if he was being complimentary or not, he said, “We can always tell someone from your office. It looks like the United Colors of Benetton or the United Nations.” And for me, that was a perfect compliment, because I couldn’t fix the state, I couldn’t make the GOP hire anyone, I couldn’t tell the Speaker who to hire. But in the posture that I had in the platform that I had, I could do more. And even if I couldn’t pay them immediately, I brought them into a space they had never been in before in number. And I became a better leader, I became a better person. And when it came time in 2020 to turn out voters, we didn’t just turn out black and white voters. We increased participation by Native American, Asian American, Latino voters in record numbers. And that’s because I used my system and my space to hack the system and change the outcome.

Lisa Ling:

Stacey, that’s the thing that I think so many people just so admire about you. Clearly, you are wildly ambitious, but you’ve never lost sight of your surroundings and the people that you have been trying to lift up as well, and that has been so appreciated. You once said that we should have aggressive and wild ambitions that are only anchored by plans, not by doubts. And as women, I think many of us have been taught to temper our ambition. So why do you recommend women have aggressive and wild ambitions? And to the women listening today, what would you say to encourage them to express or make those wild ambitions materialize?

Stacey Abrams:

So over my shoulder is a poster for a documentary that I produced called All In: The Fight for Democracy. And I want to mention it for two reasons. Number one, fighting for democracy, being willing to tackle systems that have been in place literally since the inception of our nation, is wild and in some ways absurd, that in Georgia, a young black woman, or semi-young, is going to tackle this system and try to make it work better. But that was my wild and ambitious dream, but it was also grounded in the plan. Knowing that litigation was a part of it, knowing that we needed to fix legislation, knowing that we needed to build advocacy. Using my skills grown over years of building organizations, hiring people who are smart and thoughtful and capable of greatness, being willing to raise money in order to fund those dreams. But beginning with this very ambitious belief that I was going to stop voter suppression in Georgia. And then we actually, by August of ’19, decided we’re going to do it in 20 States. So that’s one piece of it.

Stacey Abrams:

But this poster also represents one of those secret dreams I had. I am a geek, but I also am well known for my love of media. I love television, film, books, music. I immerse myself in the arts. And I had the ambitious idea that I could produce a documentary to tell the story of voter suppression, because people needed to understand this isn’t a singularity. My campaign and what we faced was certainly deeply problematic, but it was repeated in places across this country in smaller fashion, and maybe not with the same kleig lights. But what I wanted people to see and understand was that this could be done, and so I produced a documentary, and now we’re out there in the ether. I met filmmakers and I was able to plot out how I could be a part of this.

Stacey Abrams:

And so regardless of the scope of the ambition, and regardless of whether it seems to be so personal as to be small or so massive as to be unattainable, our responsibility is to dream it anyway, to desire it anyway. Because you may not get what you want, but you will get something so much better than you have, one, because you tried, and two, because more than likely, you’ll succeed. Sometimes we’re not afraid of our ambition, but it’s not about being afraid of success, it’s being afraid of the responsibility that comes with success, the responsibility that comes with failure. But the only responsibility you have is to understand why you succeeded and multiply it, or understand why you didn’t succeed and solve for it. But we can’t let our ambitions be edited by our own fears. I like to say, take fear out for a drink, get to know it really well, make it your friend, because fear makes you brave. And if fear makes you brave, bravery makes you ambitious, and ambition makes us better. And that’s how we start to create change.

Lisa Ling:

I love that. Leader Abrams, we are about at the end of our time, but I have to ask you one last question. Since you are such a big planner, what can you tell us about your future aspirations?

Stacey Abrams:

I can tell you one day I will run for office again, but I am not thinking about that now, and here’s why. Right now, we are fighting more than 120 voter suppression bills that are popping up all around the country to undo the work that Fair Fight and so many others were able to do in Georgia and around this country. Two, we have a census that has been absolutely decimated by the weaponization under the Trump administration. And it is the narrative and the investment that will dictate the next 10 years of our lives, and really a generation of change. And then we have a COVID recovery that’s going to happen, but has to be deeper and broader and more infrastructure driven than anything we’ve seen before, especially in the south.

 

Stacey Abrams:

When I didn’t become governor, I created Fair Fight to work on democracy, Fair Count to work on the census, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project to work on making sure that the south receives the support it needs to really see progress, and those are things I’m going to be focused on. My work is here in Georgia. My focus is on Georgia. But I’m always thinking about how what we do here can the world, and specifically help those who’ve been left out and left behind. That’s what I’m focused on. I will think about running for office again later. But for right now, that’s the work ahead of me and I’m excited about it.

Lisa Ling:

Well, thank you for your candor on that. Leader Stacey Abrams, we so appreciate you taking the time. We thank you for your wisdom, your insights, and constantly challenging everyone around you to do better and be better. Thank you so much.

Stacey Abrams:

Thank you.