Stacey Abrams, 45, became the first African American woman nominated to run for governor by a major party in any state when she ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia in 2018. She also became the first African American woman to deliver the State of the Union response.
Previously, Abrams served as minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives. She is a lawyer and the author of several romance suspense novels (as Selena Montgomery), as well as the memoir “Lead From the Outside.”
KK Ottesen spoke with Abrams about running for governor as a black woman in Georgia, how she dealt with the naysayers and what’s next for her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
KK Ottesen (Washington Post): In your book you describe just showing up to a [Spelman College] board of trustees meeting [while a student there]. Why did you crash it, and what did they make of you?
Stacey Abrams: I did not understand why my tuition had to go up every year. I did not understand why financial aid did not keep pace with tuition. So I showed up to the meeting. When [Spelman president Johnnetta Cole] allowed me in, the person I sat beside was a partner at an investment firm. I didn’t know what an investment firm was. But he was very kind. Everyone was. He let me sit beside him and shifted his notebook over to me. And I’m looking at all of these numbers; I had no idea what I was looking at. And he leaned over and started explaining financial statements to me.
Then there was the highest-ranking woman at Coca-Cola. She started telling me things. And the president of Ben & Jerry’s. They saw it as an opportunity to educate me, and I was just so hungry for information. I was listening and learning so much so that over time, they forgot that I sort of barged in. They started telling me when the meetings were. And I eventually got my own notebook.
Sitting in those board meetings was incredibly eye-opening. It showed me that these things weren’t impossible to know. And you didn’t have to be “to the manner born” to learn. You just had to work harder.
KO: You’ve talked about people not coming on board when you decided to run for governor, or saying, “Don’t you think that’s a little much?” How do you handle that, especially with someone you’re close to?
SA: Well, if I’m going to do something, I ask for information, I seek out input. But I don’t ask for permission. Because either it is something you intend to do or it is not. That sounded a little bit like Yoda. [Laughs.] If it’s something you need to do, why would their response vitiate your determination?
Because I don’t tend to ask for permission, I sometimes can be seen as not following the protocols. When I declared, there was a group that just thought it was impossible for a black woman to cut through the history of racism and sexism in the state of Georgia, and that I certainly couldn’t accomplish something [winning as a Democrat] that white men had not been able to accomplish for the last 15 years. There was [another] group offended that I didn’t ask their permission — I was supposed to wait in line and earn the right to run. And then there were those who knew me, but whose imagination for my capacity stopped with my race as an African American.
These were the hardest conversations. Because I don’t mind the naysayers and pundits in that first group. Fine. And that middle group, I understand: You’re the gatekeepers. But friends who diminish their assumption of my capacity because of phenotype — that was the most depressing and saddening part. Particularly women who helped me win my first race, who urged me to run for leader, who understood how I had navigated so many difficulties and had been an incredibly successful leader. But in this moment of opportunity, could not push themselves past the lack of imagination that I could do this. It was repeatedly, “You’re so smart. You’re so capable. You would absolutely be a perfect governor, [whispers] but you’re a black woman.” As though they were giving me some fatal diagnosis.
KO: Was it whispered, too?
SA: Yes. It was this whispered admonition that they believed what this other group believed: You aren’t the right person because of race and gender. I could at least attribute ignorance to the others. But I am very determined. And I think that goes back to not asking for permission. If you don’t bother asking for permission, then anyone else’s denial of your agency is irrelevant.
KO: So as you look forward and think about running again, what’s calling to you?
SA: The three jobs I’m looking at — Senate, the presidency and governor — are separate and distinct jobs that have very different responsibilities, very different outcomes and different pathways. I normally don’t do public rumination. This part is uncomfortable. [Laughs.] For me, it’s figuring out if this is the right time for the job. And am I the best person for one of those jobs?
KO: You’ve said, “Practice boldness, and the world adapts.” Where did that notion come from?
SA: I think it’s the way my parents behaved. My mom is incredibly smart. She’s quieter, more contemplative. My dad is very brash. He does not have unexpressed opinions. And I think I adapted both of their styles. I’m more introverted by nature like my mom, but I realized that my father could get things done. My dad was always comfortable confronting power and stating where he wanted to be. And my mom was always thoughtful about, once you’ve confronted, what do you get them to do. I learned you don’t shrink back from the fact that people are going to be discomfited by who you are or what you say, and to be prepared to explain why and what you are.
I watched my parents tackle problems where they saw them, in spite of the challenges they faced themselves. They told us to fix things. And one day, I just remember asking, like, "Why is it that you all have to fix Mississippi?" My mom and dad explained, look, poverty exists. And yes, there are those who are supposed to be doing something about it. They don't always do their jobs. And we're trying to do our part. So that's how they explained why we were doing this work, especially when, you know, our lights were cut off at home.