A conversation with Stacey Abrams, the founder of voting-access organization Fair Fight Action, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia in 2018, and a possible vice presidential candidate, can move with total ease between such topics as voter suppression, romance novels (she’s written several), prison reform, media bias, and spiritual praxis.
But for Abrams, there is a through-line best summed up with the word that she repeats at least seven times in our 30-minute interview: responsibility.
Abrams’s career—which has included stints in business, law, activism, media, and of course politics—is a battle-tested answer to the question: “What is my responsibility?”
Here are some things that qualify: civic engagement, justice work, strengthening our democratic institutions, speaking her truth, inspiring people to recognize their own power, holding those in elected office to account, pushing for change.
Here is one thing that does not: what her detractors—most of them male, most of them white—think of her.
Amid the nationwide reckoning about injustice in all its insidious forms and about deep-rooted structural racism, Abrams is all too familiar with the warped standards that people of color who seek power are expected to meet. As she puts it: “I know that I’m assessed using their understanding of who I am or what I should be, but I can never allow that to determine who I am and what I can be.”
Earlier this month Stacey Abrams released her latest book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America, just as dozens of states prepared to head to the polls for their respective primaries. The book is about the vote and the varied tools conservatives have weaponized to keep people from exercising their right to it. It’s also about power—accrued not just at the ballot box or via the census, but through the stories we inherit and how we use them to drive us forward.
Here, Abrams talks to Glamour about activism, politics, fair elections, and the 2020 presidential race.
Over the past few weeks in particular, there’s been a debate over how best to effect change, whether that’s through political leadership, activism, organizing, or something else. Has there ever been a point in your career where you wondered, “Did I pick the wrong lane? Am I not in the role that I need to be in to make the most change?”
No, and that’s because I’ve always been fairly flexible about what I do. When I ran for office the first time, it was just a part-time legislative role. I spent the rest of my time either running my business or doing just the work I thought needed to be done. I served on a number of boards with organizations that I thought were incredibly important.
When I was in the legislature, I could see that voter registration was a challenge, and I did not think that was a separate responsibility from my political work. It was concomitant with my belief that the work I’m called to do is work that focuses on justice. And when I became the minority leader of the Georgia State House, I right-sized my other jobs so I could make sure I was focused on not just building the operation that I needed, but also building past me outside in the community.
My job is to never get off the road. I may have to switch lanes, but I have never, ever gotten off the road.
Working to extend voting rights as you describe them in the book, and also as I think a lot of people experience them, can feel like such an act of deferred hope. Progress can feel so slow. How do you deal with that?
I was raised by parents who taught us to think about service as a responsibility, as opposed to an activity. When it’s an activity, then yes, you’re going to want to get something from it that day. You’re going to want to be able to say, “I feel good because I went and did it.” But if it’s a responsibility, then your satisfaction comes from knowing that you are doing what you should.
Of course there are moments where the pain is so deep and the egregious nature of the harm is so great that I wish there was this moment of: “We did it. Done.” But that’s not how it works.
In the Me Too movement, there was a realization that some of the men who had been accused of misconduct were the same people who had been shaping the narrative about women in positions of power for decades. The past few weeks have demonstrated that this same phenomenon is true when it comes to race. White people in the media have been covering people of color who are seeking positions of power, and their own biases factor into that coverage. You’ve had to deal with both—the sexism and the racism. What are you making of this overdue reckoning?
There have been multiple moments of recognition for me. I tend to be very frank about it—that the decisions I make about what I say and how I say it are shaped by the fact that I cannot rely on others to tell the story accurately, or to even understand what the story is.
Rather than snap my fingers and hope, my responsibility is to state my truth and then do the work based on what I know. Whether it was those who discounted my critique of the election system in Georgia until it was clear that poll lines were hours long or those who characterize my responses to questions very differently than other people’s [responses to those same questions].
I know that I’m assessed using their understanding of who I am or what I should be, but I can never allow that to determine who I am and what I can be.
This is reminding me of what I think a lot of people are talking about at the moment—the extra labor of just having to consider your words so carefully. It’s taking up time you could be spending doing something else.
Yes, that is quite true. I’m not angry about it. I’m just always disappointed when I read media narratives that betray a very facile understanding of what difference means in real time and in real life. It’s a great disappointment especially when it comes from people who—based on their experiences reporting on these issues—should know better.
People do what they’re used to. They don’t change frequently, and they don’t change fast. And while we’re waiting, my responsibility is to push that change along. They can catch up when they get there.
You write in the book, “Those who cannot vote have no say in the operation of government, which creates a permanent state of powerlessness.” You also talk about having a brother who’s in prison, so I know this issue is personal. Do you believe that incarcerated people should be allowed to vote in prison?
Why do you think that that’s still considered such a radical position within the Democratic Party?
We have to remember that every iteration of a political party brings with it those who were there before the new vision became real. We have this notion that there are these clean breaks in history and that therefore there will be clean breaks in ideology. It doesn’t happen.
One of the reasons politics takes such time and care is because you don’t get what you want. You get what you can negotiate. Part of negotiating is understanding that people bring with them their experiences, they bring with them their prejudices, they bring with them their narrative that shaped how they think about the world.
For millions of Americans who are absolutely Democrats, there was a time when the notion of someone incarcerated being able to cast a vote or even someone released being able to cast a vote was shocking. Their understanding of that position has been shaped by decades of behavior, so it takes time.
Another thing I learned from your book is that the term identity politics was coined by Black women, which I did not know. It is the ultimate irony to me that it is now a term that’s cynically used against people of color or to discount the concerns of people of color. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
It’s an intentional degradation of that term, and because I understand the origin, I refuse to concede it. There have been multiple terms of art used to describe how marginalized, disadvantaged communities enter the political space. But it is no surprise that the one that’s been appropriated and misused and denigrated is the one coined by Black women.
Let’s think about what the term means—it means that you want to be seen by those in power and you want your needs to be served by those hired to serve them.
There is nothing malicious or divisive about saying, “You should serve my needs.” That is the entire point of democracy. In a democracy, we say that as a community, we want people who represent our needs to work together to create the structure that lets our needs be met. And what identity politics says is “Me too. I want you to see me. I want you to understand me, because you cannot solve problems if you don’t understand.”
I will continue to choose my language carefully, even to my detriment. And I will not concede to the cynicism.
Over the past few weeks, and for all the challenges that we have acknowledged just in this conversation, there has been a sense of change in the air, which is sort of thrilling and daunting. How are you thinking about that and about the fact that it took so much grief and pain for this change to feel possible?
I wrote this book not simply to focus on voter suppression and its challenges, but also to understand the entire arc of what we’re experiencing. The choice of title is intentional—Our Time Is Now. The grief and anger and outrage that has been fomenting and has flared up again and again and again since time immemorial, but at least in the last decade since 2013—the reason that has taken hold is because people have changed. This is a nation that is more diverse than it has ever been. This is a nation that has seen the consequences of conservative behavior. And now people know they can do something about it.
There are more of us than there are of them. There are more people of color, there are more people who are marginalized, who are disadvantaged, who have seen that when they organize themselves and engage in politics, politics change.
And we are in a moment. It is a moment that was driven by the most grotesque and horrific incidents we can imagine—the murder of people by those who were charged with their safety and the disregard of those murders by those who are responsible for their adjudication. But we know we can do something about it.
You called the recent primary election in Georgia an “unmitigated disaster.” What are the steps we can take to make sure that is not repeated in November?
It’s going to take briefings, it’s going to take litigation, it’s going to take legislation, and it’s going to take advocacy. We cannot shake our heads and bemoan our case if we’re not also willing to engage in the change. One of the reasons Fair Fight 2020 was set up was so that we could harness this national energy around these conversations. And it’s not just Fair Fight; there are a number of great organizations that I share in the book. But every person needs to know that there is no natural evolution of sharing power. That’s what this conversation is about; that’s what voting is about. It is about power. And we will not get our share of power unless we work together to make it so.
I encourage everyone to find an organization that espouses the beliefs they hold to be true and commit to helping. I encourage folks to look at Fair Fight and to look at Fair Count because it’s working on the 2020 Census, which I really hope your readers understand. I spent an entire chapter on the census in a book with only 10 chapters because the census is so pivotal to our lives. It is the least-understood mechanism that determines so much of who we are and how our democracy operates.
We speak a lot here about ambition and women’s ambition in particular. The 2020 primary felt like the kind of race where any person who had ever been told, “You might be a good president,” made the decision to get into it. You are obviously an ambitious person. Do you ever regret not getting into that race?
My ambition is to service, but service is only effective if you are doing the right job at the right time for the right reasons. And when that opportunity was available, I looked at all of the people who were running, and I believe that they were the right people to stand for office. And so my responsibility was to do what I’ve done, which is to build an infrastructure that will ensure that the votes of Americans will count in this election.
Are you feeling good about that happening, medium about that happening? How terrified should we be about Americans’ votes in fact counting?
We should be on edge, but not to the point of paralysis. We need to harness extraordinary energy. If we do, we will win. If we do not—if we ignore the importance of this election, if we ignore the importance of everyone on the ballot, we will not just be running the 2016 election again, we will be running the 2010 election again. We can’t focus simply on the presidential race or the Senate. We’ve got to go all the way down the ballot.
In 2010, we as a nation, as progressives in this country, did not vote our power, and the Obama administration’s legislative agenda was frozen because we didn’t vote. But more than that, at the state and local level, the people who were elected determined the political map for a decade, which is why they were able to roll back reproductive choice, why they were able to roll back criminal justice reform, why they were able to roll back environmental protections.
We cannot think this is just about the presidency. This is about the next decade of power in our country. We have to pay attention to the Census. We have to pay attention to the whole ballot. And if we do that we can win.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour