On April 27, 2019, Chicago Humanities Festival hosted Stacey Abrams for the annual Joanne H. Alter lecture, which centers women pioneers in social action and public service, at University of Illinois at Chicago.
After serving eleven years in the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams won the 2018 Democratic nomination for Governor of Georgia, the first Black woman to take a gubernatorial nomination from a major party. As nominee, Abrams won more votes than any Democrat in the state’s history.
Abrams has been receiving national attention lately: she is rumoured to a bid for Georgia’s contested Senate seat in 2020.
The lecture began with a surprise introduction by Lori Lightfoot, the first African American woman elected to mayor of Chicago. Lightfoot commended Abrams for “setting the course of the narrative” and described her as an “iconic, towering, and powerful leader.”
After Mayor-elect Lightfoot’s introduction, Stacey Abrams came on stage to a standing ovation. Award winning journalist Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun Times lead the conversation.
Mitchell began by asking about the three pillars of education, faith, and service outlined in Abrams’s book, Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change.
Abrams detailed how her parents prioritized education, faith, and service and “broke beyond what history told them they were capable of.” Growing up in Mississippi, Abrams’s parents insisted that their children go to school, attend church every Sunday, and be of service to those in poverty. When Abrams and her siblings pointed out that their family was oftentimes as poor as the people they helped, her father’s reply was “having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing.”
When asked about Democrats abandoning Abrams replied: “It's not that the Democrats’ abandoned faith as much as it was that Republicans’ weaponized faith.”
She elaborated: this “weaponization” was the Republican party’s means of drawing in religious voters to turn out for Republican candidates. The Republican party’s extraction of “rhetoric, not the principles” of faith resulted in the Democrats becoming the “party of everyone else.”
Abrams noted that “service is something you do every day” and pointed out that politicians do not act on the values they claim to represent. She criticized current political leaders for “aggregating power without aggregated purpose to that power.”
Another shooting had occurred earlier that day at a synagogue in California, killing one person and injuring three. Abrams pointed to the desanctification of religious spaces, and particularly not reacting with policy after armed killers enter places of worship, as “an example of how we devalue faith.”
While Abrams was running for Georgia governor, she said in an interview with Cosmopolitan that she plans to be president one day. The Republican party lost their minds as a result. She said this attitude stems from being told “you can only be as much as the person before you” and that “we want as much as we can imagine.”
Abrams also emphasized knowing why you want to run for public office. She said “knowing why we want things helps when a person steals your election,” referencing the 2018 Georgia governor’s race.
As both secretary of state and a candidate for governor, Brian Kemp oversaw the purging of 107,000 voters from Georgia’s voter registration. Kemp won by 54,723 votes. Abrams noted that focusing on why you want to run makes for better leaders who prioritize pursuing goals instead of merely holding a title.
When asked what the biggest lesson from her loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Abrams said, “Don’t let the Secretary of State [her opponent, Brian Kemp] be in charge of the election.” She described her opponent, the current governor of Georgia, as the “referee, contestant, and score keeper” of the election.
However, even though Abrams did not become governor of Georgia, she was incredibly proud of how her campaign transformed the electorate in her home state: turnout among non-whites was a record 40 percent in 2018, compared to 36 percent in 2014 and 18 percent in 1994.
Additionally, Abrams noted that she did not have to sacrifice components of her progressive platform to convince moderate white voters to support her, as some campaign analysts recommended. he won the highest percentage of white voters for a Democrat in Georgia’s history, at 25 percent. “Efficiency does not count if you are not doing authentic work” she explained. “Your purpose should be so strong and clear that it stands after you are gone.”
The audience had the opportunity to send in questions before the lecture. Abrams was asked what advice she gives young people looking to get into politics.
Emphasizing the importance of representation, Abrams advocated for young people providing the answer to the challenges they see in their community: “We should be represented by people who see us and do something to help us.”
Reflecting on her own experience breaking barriers in politics, Abrams advised, “Don’t be afraid to be who you are unless who you are is a jerk,” and, “Create space for the things you are best at to emerge.”
Another audience member wanted to know how they could help fight voter suppression: Republican determination to keep people of color from voting played a role in the outcome of Abrams’ 2018 race.
Abrams described voter suppression as a tactic “used with surgical suppression" by Republicans in her home state. Abrams referred the audience to her post-election project Fair Fight Action, which mobilizes communities to advocate for free and fair elections. She also shut down the counterargument to voter suppression—people simply don’t utilize the system to vote—by pointing out that when the system is not usable it should be examined.
“If you can’t choose your leaders, you are no longer living in a democracy” she warned the audience.
The final question was asked by Mitchell: “What drives Stacey Abrams?”
In alignment with her faith, upbringing, and necessity for a higher purpose, Abrams succinctly stated: “Poverty is immoral. It is solvable. We are capable of better. I am driven by a deep passion to eliminate poverty.”
Then, Stacey Abrams walked off the stage to another standing ovation.
The image used in this article is courtesy of Megha Bhattachayra.
Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.