By Jamel Smith
November 15, 2021
At the center of every socio-political movement is a natural born leader. A leader who is charged with a higher calling to bring together people from all walks of life for a great cause. A leader who is willing to reanimate the noble and relentless works from leaders of yore. A leader who desires to create blueprints for those who will follow.
In recent years, we have seen many news headlines unearthing the flaws in the American democratic process. The 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, in particular, defined the way the world interpreted American democracy. The election between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams became the tip of the iceberg in the state’s decades-long history of voter suppression. Controversies rose out of the election: irregularities in voter registration, “more than 200” closed voting places, and malfunctioning voting machines in primarily poor and minority neighborhoods. Kemp won the election with less than a 55,000 vote difference.
Despite Kemp’s electoral victory, the real champion of the election was Stacey Abrams. From the ashes, Abrams rose and became the newest and biggest headline, as she transformed into a voice for the voiceless. Shortly after her loss, she founded Fair Fight Action, a voters rights organization dedicated to promoting fair elections around the country. Today, Abrams is still fighting the good fight; she’s toured America, speaking about her journey, since that fateful day in 2018. She will be in conversation with Ohavia Phillips in Charlotte at Ovens Auditorium on November 17 and Melissa Harris-Perry at the Durham Performing Arts Center on November 18.
Stacey Abrams grew up in Mississippi to parents who were deeply involved in social justice and activism. “My dad was arrested when he was 14, registering black people to vote in Hattiesburg, Mississippi,” she said. “We’d tease him that my mom was doing the same work across town; she just managed not to get caught.”
Collectively, the Abrams household was called to a higher way of thinking: don’t simply bemoan the ways of the world, engage. “Growing up, we were very involved in volunteering and in public service despite our economic circumstances. Or I would say, actually, because of it. My parents wanted us to understand that economic deprivation did not exempt you from obligation,” Abrams said. Her family’s servant heart would influence her career as an organizer and, later, as a politician.
Abrams moved to Georgia when she was 15 years old, and started to show more interest in politics. Three years later, she would attend Spelman College in Atlanta where she’d spend her freshman year as a fledgling student organizer on campus, registering first-time voters. “I set up my first [voter registration] table to register students at Spelman. I set it up at Manley Plaza on a Friday, and nobody stopped. Nobody signed up,” Abrams said. Despite her minor setback, Abrams continued to pursue her passions, and cultivate her interests. That was 1991.
By 1992, she was a credible organizer on her campus. Not only did she build a legitimate (by her standards) voter registration bench on her college campus, she also became more engaged in building her own political career. She worked on the Clinton general election campaign, and later, participated in the mayoral race as a student volunteer. The budding politician also began to amplify her voice as a teen activist and speaker. In 1993, her star elevated on to the national stage when she was featured as a teen activist speaking at the 30th Anniversary March on Washington.
Looking back, Abrams gives credit to her beloved alma mater for her growth as an organizer, activist, speaker, and politician. “A lot of my political sensibilities came into being at Spelman. It was in Georgia, and particularly at Spelman, that I started to exercise that political muscle, and it worked.”
Youth civic engagement has been a tenet of Abrams’ activism, advocacy, and successes as a politician. Since September, Abrams and Fair Fight Action have been sponsoring an eight-part video series called Civics For The Culture. The series was co-created by Abrams’ former intern and legislative aide, Chelsey Hall, and focuses on deepening engagement amongst young people who are often overlooked in elections. So far, the series has featured informative videos from Abrams and actress Stormy Reid.
— Teen Vogue (@TeenVogue) October 26, 2021
“[Voter] registration is fine. But it’s like giving someone the keys to the car without teaching them how to drive,” Abrams said of the series. “Civics For The Culture is about teaching young people how to drive and to do it in their language. And in a medium that actually penetrates.”
For Abrams, “engagement” remains the operative word for any sustainable change to occur. In recent weeks, she and Fair Fight Action have made headlines for providing 108,000 Americans with medical debt relief after raising and donating $1.34 million. As a political leader in a region stricken by restrictive laws around healthcare and voter rights, Abrams understands the gravity of this million-dollar accomplishment.
Medical debt burdens families across the country, so we’re doing something about it. Partnering with @RIPMedicalDebt, we eliminated $210M+ in medical debt for 108,000 people across 5 states. Read more here: https://t.co/yyXaA3RAs0
— Fair Fight (@fairfightaction) October 27, 2021
“Our purchase of that debt was a very strong statement about Medicaid expansion as one of the perfect examples of what happens when you have gerrymandered state legislative districts,” she said. “When the majority of the people in a state declare that they want something, but the people who lead that state refuse out of meanness and callous failed leadership to deliver it, that is an act of voter suppression and it’s a consequence of voter suppression.”
Stacey Abrams always stays busy. In addition to being a political leader, entrepreneur and speaker, she is a New York Times best-selling author. Abrams’ conversation tour will break down her many interests and career paths with the hopes of inspiring someone to be just as busy. “My hope is that it is truly a conversation where, when people leave, they’re thinking about what they can do, and that they are emboldened about just the scope of their ambitions,” she said. “And not in a ‘motivational speaker’ sort of way. But more in a ‘you can pursue the things that matter to you too, and here’s how I’ve organized my time to pursue the things that matter to me’ sort of way.”
In this article
- Chelsey Hall
- Civics For The Culture
- Durham Performing Arts Center
- Fair Fight Action
- gubernatorial election
- Jamel Smith
- Medical dept
- Melissa Harris-Perry
- Ohavia Phillips
- ovens auditorium
- social activism
- Spelman College
- Stacey Abrams
- voting rights