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Stacey Abrams Wants You to Upend the Status Quo, Too

The first black woman candidate for governor of Georgia overcame obstacles at every turn, and laid out the road map for others to follow

Stacey Abrams

Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams takes the stage to declare victory in the primary during an election night event on May 22, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Stacey Abrams has gone where no one who looks like her has gone before. With her May 22 Democratic primary win in Georgia, she became the first black woman to capture a major party’s nomination for governor. If elected this November, she will become the first black woman governor in the United States.

In a Facebook post following her primary victory, Abrams said: “We proved that an unmuted voice can shake the foundations of an ‘immutable’ status quo. We showed the nation that there is power in our voices, and there is power in our feet.”

Abrams, 44, has a made a career of challenging the status quo. She mined those experiences and lessons to write Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change. Published a month before her Georgia primary, the book is the usual inspirational campaign biography, but also takes the form of a how-to manual for those traditionally sidelined from power seeking to embrace ambition and leadership.

Her call to action is a timely one. It has been half a century since former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat, became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, and yet people of color remain sorely underrepresented in elected office. According to the Pew Research Center, non-white Hispanics and other racial minorities make up 38 percent of the nation’s population but only 19 percent of the current Congress—and that’s the highest level of representation. For black women, the numbers in both state and federal office show only meager gains since Chisholm’s groundbreaking election.

As outlined in “The Chisholm Effect,” a recent report from the Center for American Women in Politics and Higher Heights, there are 19 black women in Congress, constituting 3.6 percent of all members of Congress. In state legislatures, black women are 3.7 percent of all seats. That’s up from 2.3 percent in 1998. Only 12 black women have ever held statewide elected executive offices, such as attorney general, secretary of state, or treasurer.

“This year, we should all be buoyed by the Chisholm effect, which spawned generations of black women determined to and successful at breaking political glass ceilings,” Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, writes in the foreword to “The Chisholm Effect.” “There’s an opportunity in the coming months for black women to build on these gains by taking decisive action to increase our political representation and provide America with leadership that is powerful, connected, and lasting.”

Abrams may well benefit from that opportunity, although Republicans have won the Georgia statehouse the last four elections. But she has beat expectations before. A graduate of the Yale Law School, she left private practice in Atlanta to become a deputy city attorney, and after winning a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, became its first black woman minority leader. In Minority Leader, she describes how at each juncture she often was told that she wasn’t ready or that it wasn’t her turn, especially when she decided to run for governor.

She won the primary over Stacey Evans, a state legislator backed by some key Georgia power brokers. In her victory post on Facebook, Abrams thanks all those who “believed that a little black girl who sometimes had to go without lights or running water—who grew up to become the first woman to lead in the Georgia General Assembly—could become the first woman gubernatorial nominee from either party in Georgia’s history.”

“There are few how-to guides to help those of us who are ‘other’ to become the ones in charge,” Abrams explains in Minority Leader. “Power and leadership are hard, and it’s especially difficult for those who start out weighed down by stereotypes and lack of access... I have learned how to seize opportunity, how to plan for victory and for defeat, and how to acquire, hold, and wield power, and I wrote this book to share what I’ve learned and the strategies I employed.”

Here are 15 of those takeaways:

  • “Becoming a minority leader demands that we embrace ambition as our due. The starting block is knowing what you want—and then wanting more.”
  • “For minority leaders to move forward, we must oftentimes first confront layers of anxiety holding us back. To achieve power, to become effective leaders, we must name what scares us and acknowledge what scares those afraid of us.”
  • “The space to invent ourselves, to reimagine our futures is narrower and sometimes seemingly nonexistent for those who do not occupy a place of privilege … We aren’t going to win playing by the written rules. So we have to discover the hidden pathways to win. I call it ‘the hack’—by which I mean figuring out how to circumvent the traditional systems and own opportunity.”
  • “Finding and owning opportunity is bigger than just us, bigger than our feelings of fear, and bigger than our triumphs. We need to be in it for others like us. Not only is this true, but acknowledging a broader responsibility can give us the courage to take a chance, and help us find bravery we might not otherwise have.”
  • “Even if your dream has not yet been discovered—the path to realizing ambition is the same: 1. What do I want? 2. Why do I want it? 3. How do I get there?”
  • Power Mapping: 1. Identify your problem or goal. 2. Identify the key decision-makers related to that goal. 3. Map the relationships. 4. Reach out to targets. 5. Make your plan.
  • “First things first might be a cliché, but it’s a useful one that means prioritizing what matters most to you and believing there is no wrong answer.” To manage time and people, Abrams uses a system of “Gotta Do, Need to Do, Oughta Do, and Might Get Around To.”
  • “Identify the source of the obstacle to making your voice heard and find a way to use it to your advantage.”
  • “A central tenet to success is to show up—again and again and again—to take an alternate approach, and keep at it until it works. And when we show up, act boldly, and practice the best ways to be wrong, we fail forward. No matter where we end up, we’ve grown from where we begin.”
  • “The most significant successes come from letting your light shine, embracing failure, and getting good at being wrong.”
  • “Part of being a leader is recognizing that whatever your corner of the world, whatever small place you happen to be able to touch, that power should make you move it a little bit.”
  • “Know what you believe and why you believe it.”
  • “Always keep clear in your mind the difference between policy and belief. Policy is what you should do. Belief is why you do it. “
  • “Effective leaders must be truth seekers, and that requires a willingness to understand truths other than our own.”
  • “Minority leaders do not have the luxury of traditional power, which comes with experience, access, and information. But when we understand how power works and how we can fight back and gain some for ourselves, we can rewrite the rules.”

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Linda Kramer Jenning

Linda Kramer Jenning

Linda Kramer Jenning is the immediate past president of the Journalism and Women Symposium, and an adjunct professor in the Georgetown University Master of Professional Studies in Journalism program. 

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