Newsmaker: Stacey Abrams

Political leader and author on civic participation in uncertain times

March 31, 2020

Stacey Abrams Photo: Gerri Hernández
Stacey Abrams Photo: Gerri Hernández

When Stacey Abrams did not win the Georgia governorship in 2018—a contest she has famously declined to concede, believing the election was mismanaged—she didn’t wallow or disappear. Instead, the politician, author, and entrepreneur thought about how else she could serve. She started Fair Fight and Fair Count, two nonprofits aimed at countering voter suppression and encouraging participation in the 2020 Census, respectively. American Libraries talked to Abrams—fresh off her Public Library Association 2020 Conference appearance and ahead of Census Day (April 1)—about her forthcoming book, the role of libraries in a democracy, and why meeting civic duty matters more than ever.

The spread of COVID-19 has ramped up significantly in recent weeks, and social distancing and self-quarantine have become facts of American life. Meanwhile, the US is conducting primary elections and the 2020 Census. How do you see these events being affected by the public health crisis? What can be done to encourage civic participation during a time of fear?

We have to remember this isn’t the first time we’ve faced a crisis. It certainly is a different type of crisis, and the scale cannot be underestimated, but we are a resilient nation—and part of our resilience is our ability to adapt to the challenges.

First and foremost, we have to accept that this is likely not going to be over by the summer. We have to plan for the entirety of the 2020 election cycle and the 2020 Census to be carried on with the threat of coronavirus. That means we have to make it easier to vote and easier to participate in the census—and we have to remind people what comes next. Part of civic duty is understanding the consequences of action and inaction.

[We can use] digital strategies, traditional strategies of phone banking, and mail to communicate with voters and those who need to complete the census. But it’s also incumbent upon us to use every tool in our toolbox—adapting our laws for how we vote, adapting our timetable for the census, and using the economic stimulus package to ensure that states have the resources they need to meet these challenges.

What was the impetus behind starting your two nonprofits, Fair Fight and Fair Count? What have you learned since starting this work?

When I did not become governor in 2018, my responsibility was to think about what work I would have done had I been in office. My fundamental belief is simply [that just] because you don’t have the title, it doesn’t exempt you from responsibility. The two key responsibilities I saw heading into 2020 were ensuring access to the ballot for all Americans and that all Americans participate in the census.

The census allocates not only the financial resources of more than $1.5 trillion per year, but our democratic power through the reapportionment of Congress and the drawing of lines for political districts for the next decade. The votes that get cast based on those districts have to be protected.

Fair Fight was designed to fight back against voter suppression, not only in Georgia, but across the country. Fair Count was designed to ensure that the hardest-to-count populations were counted. What we’ve learned is that these are vital organizations. They are now part of national networks. We are a part of building the promise of our democracy, and I’m proud to be a part of that work.

Your forthcoming book Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Henry Holt and Co., June), described as a blueprint for taking back our country, touches upon themes of voter protections, identity politics, and leadership. What do you think is the first step in the fight for our democracy?

Believing that we have the right to a better country. That’s been the core of the narrative of America from the beginning. If you read The Federalist Papers, if you read essays written at the time of our founding, it’s always been that we strive for a more perfect union. We get better when more people are included, when more voices are heard, and when people believe that they have the right and the responsibility to participate.

But part of the book is designed to explain why participation is harder—what has happened in the last 20 years to make voter suppression a real and pervasive force in our nation, but also how we think about getting that power back. This is a nation that is vibrant and multicultural, and we have to know who we are to understand what we want and how we get it. Fundamentally, what Our Time Is Now tries to do is identify the problem, give it structure and form, and then give clear directives about how we can combat any of those pressures that try to take away access to our democracy.

During your talk at the PLA Conference in Nashville, you said the library is a “venue for expression” and “space for understanding.” Could you elaborate on what you see as the role of libraries in society?

Our libraries were created out of this novel notion that shared information makes us stronger as a country, but also that we become better people when we have access to knowledge. It’s not simply a one-directional delivery of information; it’s also about the shared communication. When you come into a library with set of notions, and you check out that book, or you get online and read that story, you change who you are. Libraries are situated for that purpose because they are inherently public, but they are also a convening space for those who normally would never touch one another.

By being an open space, we create opportunities for people to challenge ideas and to be part of a broader conversation. I know there was some pushback about my comment [at PLA] about freedom of expression, when I said we should allow libraries to serve as those convening spaces. Here’s what I mean: We should never entertain demagoguery and vilification of others as a public good. But we should entertain the space to understand [ideas and] what they mean and how they affect who we are.

It’s incumbent upon our state and federal government to figure out how we best finance our library systems to ensure that this public convening space that has been a part of our nation for more than 200 years continues to be a safe space for participation in our democracy.

You mentioned that your mother was a research librarian—you grew up taking “naps in the stacks,” and you were amazed watching people come and ask her for help. Did her job inform the way you approach work, tackle problems, or interact with the public?

Absolutely. When I was watching my mom, I was fascinated not simply by what she knew natively, but what she knew how to find. I grew up believing there was an answer to every question. As a natural introvert, [I have] a tendency to shy away from public engagement, but because of the way my mom worked, I understood that sometimes the best way to be a good person and a good citizen is to provide access and to help people find answers.

You also mentioned at the PLA Conference that you and your siblings have a family book club. What’s the next pick?

Actually, we’re in the midst of negotiating. We really love N. K. Jemisin, and she’s got a new book that’s coming out [The City We Became], but we also started reading Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning trilogy. We’re either going to do the second book in her trilogy or the new book by Jemisin.

It’s so great that you all keep in touch that way.

We are nerds to our core and we love reading.

Your name has been mentioned in the media recently as a possible vice presidential candidate, and you haven’t been shy about expressing political ambitions. Where do you see yourself working in government next or doing the most good?

My focus has been largely on understanding each facet of government. I’ve had multiple internships at the federal level, working with the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget. I’ve worked at the city level as deputy city attorney. I’ve served at the state level as a legislative leader, and I really deepened my capacity there. My understanding of myself now is that where my skills are best suited is on the executive side—that’s what I like to do. I like to manage teams and bring projects to fruition. So my responsibility is to stand for office when I can implement those strongest parts of myself but to never shy away from doing public work, whether I’m in office or out.

Do you have any advice—particularly for women and people of color—who may be looking to run for office for the first time or who may be running for office for the first time in 2020?

Number one, make sure you’re running for the job you want, not the job you think you should want. So often people get seduced by the title associated with the job. I encourage every candidate to think of the work that you have to do after you win, and make sure that’s the kind of work you want to do. If your passion is education, unless your city council does education policy, run for school board.

Number two, be prepared to raise money. It is a necessary part of our current political system and we can’t shy away from it. People of color and women tend to be hesitant to ask others for investment. I remind people, if you’re doing this right, you don’t get to spend a dollar of it on yourself. You’re spending those dollars on the vision that you share with those who support you.

And number three: Recognize that if you don’t win, that’s not the end of the road. Not winning does not mean you are a loser. Not winning means you have to find the next opportunity to serve, and I encourage folks to do that.


Opening Session speaker Stacey Abrams on stage at the 2020 Public Library Association Conference in Nashville on February 26. (Photo: Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios)

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