Concede, Compromise or Fight?
Stacey Abrams on Failure, Leadership, and Power
“I have learned to be the recipient of a hug.”
An Introvert in An Extroverted World
This, from Stacey Abrams, a favorite of the national Democratic party, former Democratic minority leader for Georgia’s House of Representatives, and former candidate for the Georgia governor’s office in the 2018 elections, who, remarkably, confesses she’s an introvert. In a conversation April 11 with actor Holland Taylor at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, Abrams explains that when she told her family she first decided to run for office as a member of the Georgia General Assembly in 2006, they asked her if she knew she would have to talk to people.
Abrams, the first black, female gubernatorial candidate in U.S. history, refused last November to concede to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. Abrams’ decision is controversial even if Kemp won the election against the backdrop of conflict of interest — he was still Secretary of State in charge of elections — and amidst a major controversy over voter suppression and fraud.
Abrams’ response to her loss was to establish Fair Fight Action, an organization dedicated to voter rights and voting reform in Georgia. In January, the non-profit branch of this group, partnering with Care in Action, an entity that represents domestic workers in Georgia, filed a lawsuit against Georgia’s State Board of Elections and interim Georgia secretary of state demanding a complete overhaul of Georgia’s voting system alleging that it violates the constitutional rights of voters of color.
Distinguishing Between Right and Wrong
“There is right and wrong, and it’s important to distinguish between the two in every choice, in every hard moment of decision. Do we concede, do we compromise, or do we fight? These are the options,” Abrams writes in her new book, Lead from the Outside: How to Build your Future and Make Real Change, an updated version of Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change which she wrote at the beginning of her gubernatorial campaign.
Today, Abrams’ fans inside the party and in the public are encouraging her to run for President in 2020. She politely demurs, offering her refrain “I’ll take it under advisement.” As the field of Democratic candidates keeps growing, others say Abrams should wait this race out.
In any case, Abrams advocates that no one can win against Trump if they try to “beat” him.
“When you go into any intention trying to defeat someone else, then you’re going to lose because you’re automatically playing by their game,” Abrams said in a conversation with Tina Brown at the Women in the World Summit, also April 11. “Trump did not win because he was a good candidate. He won because 70,000 people voted in three states because of the electoral college, but six million people stayed home.”
Voting rights, however, remains Abrams’ most public concern.
“If we don’t have representatives who talk about the problems, then how can we find solutions to the problems?” she mused in her talk at the 92nd Street Y. “And, we can’t really do anything without addressing voting rights — because people are not being represented.”
A Romance Novelist Under a Pen Name
People are starting to get to know the public side of Stacey Abrams, but few know what she’s done in the past, such as writing eight successful romance novels (under the name of Selena Montgomery) or being an entrepreneur, using her knowledge of tax law to co-found a company called Nowaccount, a payment system for small businesses.
Certainly, few know how she got to where she is today. Her parents, both pastors, graduated from college; her mother earned a master’s in library science and was a practicing librarian, her father worked in a shipyard. She was one of six children in a family that expected the three eldest to take care of the three younger children. Only one of the Abrams’ children, her brother Walter, has struggled, suffering from bipolar disorder and addiction. He continues to go in and out of rehabilitation and prison, a cycle that many struggle to break out of because she argues, the mental health component isn’t addressed by either system.
She grew up with the family’s philosophy of the “trinity of success: go to church, go to school and take care of one another”. The family lived in poverty but regularly volunteered to help those needier than themselves.
An Over Achiever with a Fear of Failure
Abrams was a high achiever wracked with fear of failure. Growing up a person of color in Gulfport, Mississippi, Abrams’ explains in her memoir that her confidence was constantly challenged by situations that questioned her credibility.
Abrams recounts that as a middle-schooler, she won a prize for an essay she wrote in a city-wide contest. But when she went to claim her prize with her father, she was rebuffed.
“While he waited in the car, I ran inside to receive my ribbon and my $50 reward. But the woman in charge— white and grim-faced when I introduced myself — refused to give me the money. I couldn’t be the author of the winning essay, she declared to the others milling around the school lobby,” Abrams writes. “When I protested, she demanded that I produce photo identification, an impossibility for an eighth grader.”
These kinds of experiences made her deeply afraid of failing. Though she was encouraged by professors at Spelman College to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, she originally refused.
“As I grappled with the Rhodes, I again balked at an opportunity because I had decided early on that I wouldn’t attempt what I could not win,” Abrams writes in her book. “And my loss seemed certain — I was black and a girl and from the wrong family and the wrong zip code.”
Ultimately, Abrams applied for, but did not win, the Rhodes Scholarship. She had gone full circle from first not wanting it, then wanting it desperately, and then having to confront failure which she said, during her talk at the 92nd Street Y, was devastating.
“It’s not what happens but how you process what happens and how you use it to galvanize yourself moving forward,” Abrams, a Yale Law School graduate observed, noting how the experience was ultimately life-changing.
Abrams’ Lead from the Outside is great reading as a memoir and as a how-to book on leadership. Chapters include “Fear and Otherness,” “The Myth of Mentors,” “Work-Life Jenga” and concludes with “Taking Power.” At the end of each chapter, Abrams has tucked in questionnaires and spreadsheets to help guide you on issues such as courage or goal-making as well as links to information and resources.
“Stretch yourself to be the leader you imagine. Be the one who places her sense of self above fears of humiliation or chagrin,” Abrams writes in the last chapter, Taking Power. “If we take ownership of our identities and leverage our capacity to lead, we will make waves and headlines and enemies. Change is disruptive, uncomfortable and inevitable, but we are each responsible for shaping the direction of new power.”
The Unpredictability of Grief (TheCovey, June 2018 issue)
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