Stacey Abrams wants a fair fight—and a fair count.
“In 2018, I did not become governor of Georgia,” the nonprofit CEO, 11-year Georgia House representative, recent Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and author of the forthcoming Our Time is Now (Henry Holt and Co., June) told a packed auditorium at the Opening Session of the Public Library Association (PLA) 2020 Conference in Nashville on February 26. “I had some time on my hands.”
“The right to vote is sacred. I give us credit for what we accomplished but challenge us to think about what’s not done,” Abrams said. “Folks don’t always remember the history of voter suppression. We think that everything got solved with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
For instance, “if you are physically disabled in America, the right to vote isn’t actually real,” Abrams said. “Navajo [people] in Arizona are still fighting to be heard on land they’ve inhabited since before the inception of our nation,” she pointed out, and vestiges of Jim Crow laws and voter roll purges still exist. “My job is to keep working until everyone can vote.”
If voting is agency, then the census is its infrastructure, Abrams observed. “The census is how we allocate money and the political power. [Offices are] determined by the census in that apportionment every 10 years.”
And libraries, she said, will be “ground zero” for this year’s census, for the first time available online. Beyond offering computers and a broadband connection to help patrons fill out the form, Abrams believes library workers have an opportunity to set the record straight.
“Libraries are places of truth. You can be the ones to tell them that the census is safe and necessary,” Abrams implored. “If you do not get counted, you do not count.”
Naps in the stacks and audience questions
Books and libraries were integral to Abrams’s upbringing. “For most of my childhood, my mom was a librarian. I grew up taking naps in the stacks,” she told moderator Mia Henry, founder of Freedom Lifted and facilitator of PLA’s social justice workshop Equity Starts with Us. “What was so amazing to me … was watching people come and ask her for help.”
Abrams also touted libraries as a place where all types of people can come together to figure out what their beliefs are. “We need safe spaces where people can question what they learn and ask for more. Libraries are one of the few places where ignorance is okay,” she said, adding, “We have to stop setting the bar that you have to have perfect information to be a [civic] participant.”
Henry turned the program over to a spirited Q&A, in which attendees asked if Abrams would ever consider moving to Washington, D.C. (“I would consider a 4–8-year relocation,” she replied to audience laughter and applause), how to avoid burnout in advocacy (“take some of the responsibility off yourself, you’re never going to be finished,” she suggested), and what advice she has for someone thinking about running for office (“the most effective person in politics is someone who is intellectually curious,” she said).
When Henrietta Dotson-Williams took the mike, she introduced herself as 80 years old and the first African-American woman to serve on her county’s board in Rockford, Illinois. “I kept running and running and running,” she told Abrams. “I’m so proud of you, and I know you’ll go far, and I hope I live long enough to vote for you as president.”