On Feb. 19, 2020, Stacey Abrams participated in a discussion with Benjamin Todd Jealous, Rhodes Scholar and former president and CEO of the NAACP. The talk was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, where Jealous is currently a visiting scholar, and included opening speeches from University President Amy Gutmann, Dean John Jackson of the Annenberg School for Communication and Dean Theodore Ruger of Carey Law School. Over the span of an hour, Abrams shared many important lessons learned from her political background that can also be applied to the everyday workplace.
Abrams is lauded for her efforts to fight voter suppression and gerrymandering in the South. She is a lawyer, activist, politician, author and the leader and founder of several organizations and initiatives, including Fair Fight Action. Abrams ran in the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia and led successful efforts to fight voter suppression by ensuring each vote was counted. She also played a significant role in increasing voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election as well as the Georgia senatorial run-off elections in January 2021.
Longtime friends, Jealous and Abrams discussed the previous administration and its impact on the current political landscape. First, Abrams shared advice on best practices for success.
1. Do not edit your ambition
The first lesson encourages individuals to go beyond what is expected of them. Abrams added that we should “imagine what [we] want, think about what could be and don’t use the seductive logic of ‘it hasn’t been done before,’ or ‘someone like me hasn’t done it’ to convince yourself you can’t try.”
2. Get really comfortable with fear and failure
The second lesson reveals the benefits of learning from failure. Failures provide the tools to anticipate potential consequences and challenges when developing a strategy. Abrams advised, “If you’re going to fail again … fail differently.”
3. Don’t go it alone
The third lesson demonstrates the importance of coalition-building and developing partnerships in achieving successful outcomes. Abrams stated: “I may be smart. But I am better when I’m surrounded by people who are smarter, faster, stronger … who think differently.”
Abrams also emphasized “thinking about what should be” and then taking steps to figure out how to accomplish this goal, saying “progress is not an ethos, it’s a position.” In other words, accomplishing a goal is an ongoing journey and not a final destination; it takes commitment, time and work, but it is imperative to take a stance.
Abrams also underscored the importance of working with those who have differing viewpoints and beliefs. Abrams educated herself about what opposing entities find to be important and used that as a part of her strategy for fighting voter suppression and racial injustice. By informing herself about what the opposition truly desired and believed to be important, she was able to be a more effective leader and strategist. It was important to not only focus on what she and her allies believed but also incorporate different perspectives to advance toward a common goal.
Finally, Abrams discussed the importance of self-care and boundary setting. It is not easy to be bold, recognizing her humanity in that she “can’t do it all.” She said losing the 2018 election for Georgia Governor in the manner that she did was difficult. Still, despite what her post-2018 gubernatorial election efforts suggest, Abrams took time for herself. During that 10-day respite, Abrams allowed herself the space to acknowledge her disappointment and set restorative boundaries by being selective about her communication with others. Abrams took the time she needed and was kind to herself. It was only when she felt comfortable doing so that she returned to her fight for justice.
Abrams advised that “ambition doesn’t allow itself to be thwarted by not getting what you want. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to expand how you think about it or understand what you need to do differently.” She did not give up her fight, but “let herself breathe” in order to continue her fight. Abrams recommended that “you have to give yourself permission to grieve and to be burned out. You have to give yourself permission to sit still and not have to solve things.”
About the author
Dr. Brittany Robertson is a Research Analyst with DiversityInc. She is a project lead for DiversityInc’s annual Women of Color and Allies event and assists with various research projects. Dr. Robertson received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also has an extensive career as a higher education professional, working in the areas of advising, admissions, enrollment and recruitment. Dr. Robertson’s research focus is on women of color and their experiences in the workplace.