Stacey Abrams shares strategies for organizing, increasing voter engagement, and “getting good done”
If Stacey Abrams has one piece of advice for those looking to enter politics, it’s this: “Politics should be a tool for your policy. Policy should never be a tool for your politics.”
The author, activist, entrepreneur, and political leader spoke to an online audience of over 3,800 on March 18 as part of the 2021 Distinguished Speaker Series at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. “The minute we start making choices so we can win elections instead of winning elections so we can make better choices,” she said, “you have fallen far afield from what should be driving you.”
Abrams should know. For 11 years, including seven as Minority Leader, she served in the Georgia House of Representatives. In 2018, she was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, making her the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States.
Over the course of her career, she founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national levels. The author of nine books, she is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the 2012 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, and a current member of the Board of Directors for the Center for American Progress. According to Forbes, which ranked the Nobel Peace Prize nominee among the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, “few people were more powerful in 2020 than Stacey Abrams.”
Abrams discussed several aspects of her political career, including strategies for improving community outreach and increasing voter engagement. Below are takeaways from her conversation with Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, Dean of Tisch College of Civic Life. Watch it here.
Serve people, not parties.
“When I served in the legislature, it was always front and center that my responsibility was to serve people,” Abrams said. “It was not my job to make sure I only passed democratic bills to serve people. My job was to get good done and to stop stupid and, even more importantly, to stop mean and evil and wrong.”
The most effective way to do that, Abrams learned, was to work with the other side. “I sometimes adopted their ideas, and I helped them get their bills through,” she said. “We have come to this place in our politics where everything from the other side must be inherently wrong. And that's just not true. There is a whole universe of what we can do together.”
A pragmatist and entrepreneur at heart, Abrams also recognizes the fundamental need for money to produce results, which is why she welcomes the return of congressional earmarking. “Money makes you compromise. When you have to work together to deliver resources, you are much less likely to respond through demagoguery.”
Meet people where they are.
The child of Methodist ministers and activists, Abrams developed from an early age a strong sense of communal obligation. “I grew up in a family that was very committed to social justice. My parents would take us with them to protest. They would take us with them to vote, but they also took us with them to volunteer. We worked at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. We would go to juvenile justice facilities. We spent time in housing projects, teaching young people to read because the school system was not doing its job.”
Seeing “the places and the spaces where things had just broken and fallen apart” led Abrams to ask the foundational question behind all her efforts: How do we make government work better?
“I do not recall a single politician ever knocking on my parents' door because we lived in a neighborhood and in a community where we weren't expected to be part of the political space. If no one asks you to participate, if you come from communities that have been so often distanced—not just from the reality of campaigning and voting, but from receiving the benefits of engagement—you don't participate. For me, it was about building one narrative that actually spoke to people where they were.”
Abrams credits her upbringing and her parents’ grassroots activism with informing her own approach to organizational leadership. “I read a lot of theological texts about how you grow a church, and I thought, ‘I'm going to grow the church of progress, and we're going to do the work to get people to be engaged.’” As leader of the Georgia Project and Fair Fight, organizations committed to increasing voter registration and fighting voter suppression respectively, Abrams recruited young people to go into the community and build operations while also training them to run campaigns and think critically about policy.
Adopt a franchise model for organizing.
When asked how her work in Georgia could be scaled up to the national level, Abrams pushed back on the idea. “I think about it instead as a franchise model,” she said. “Scale is trying to build the largest entity possible. Franchising is taking the core of it and replicating it, but making it adapt to where you situate it. Unfortunately, in our country democracy differs based on where you live. The rules are different. Access is different. The needs are different. The responsible thing to do is to look at the states that have the opportunity to change engagement and to scale that investment.” Abrams identified three specific strategies for doing so:
- Create an organizing universe. “In Georgia, that meant LGBTQIA, communities of color, communities serving the poor, labor, environmental groups—it was bringing all of those groups together and creating an ecosystem, not where we agreed on everything, but where we all agreed that we needed more people in the process and more people who had stake in what we did. That can be replicated in other places.”
- Localize the work. While presidential elections turn out the highest number of voters, local elections produce a greater return on investment for most people, Abrams said. “It's about making sure that the zoning decisions made by your county allow for affordable housing. And making sure your state legislature is not operating to strip you of the most basic and fundamental of rights. What I would say is take the organizing model, but also make sure you understand the needs of your people and localize that work.”
- Don’t expect results overnight. “Know that it’s going take time. If you promise instant results and you cannot deliver, people start to disbelieve you. I always under-promised—and sometimes I barely delivered—but I was always very clear about what we could or could not do.”
Motivate and mobilize young voters.
Noting that Georgia had the largest share of 18- to 29-year-old voters of any state in the country during the 2020 presidential election, Solomont asked Abrams about her strategies for engaging young voters. In addition to meeting young people where they are, she offered these tips:
- Invest in party infrastructure. “Sometimes we eschew the idea of political parties and that apparatus, but it's an amazing organizing model,” she said. “I made certain that we were part of building an aggressive state party that was very much able to lead the charge through the organizing core that happens through the Democratic National Committee.”
- Hire young people in legislative and political spaces. "Over the course of my seven years as Democratic Leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, we had more than 400 interns. We trained them on public policy during session, and we trained them on politics when we were out of session. And that created a whole cadre of operatives who could work within their communities to help other young people learn about politics and do the work.”
- Reach across young people. Abrams emphasized the importance of investing on college campuses and allowing young people to shape their own communication tools. She explained, “We put money into young people's hands and said, ‘Tell us what you need. Tell us how you would do this.’” But she cautioned that political leaders must reach out to young people in all circumstances. “Not every young person is going to college. Not every young person is employed. There are some people who simply want to find a way to belong.” For Abrams, that has meant anything from attending music festivals and pop culture conventions like Dragon Con to communicating through streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.
Abrams also acknowledged the profound impact that the COVID-19 pandemic, economic hardship, healthcare disparities, and racial injustice had on voter turnout in 2020. “The ability to connect the dots between voter engagement and actual change had never been more real and more salient,” she said. “People vote when they know that voting can change their lives, and young people in the starkest reality saw what that meant and understood that that was true.”
But young people were not the only group to vote in record numbers in Georgia this election year. Solomont noted that women of color were crucial to Democrats’ success in Georgia, where exit polls show 91% of Black women voted for Biden. “Almost every societal ill, every social malignancy, every political consequence hits Black women, hits Black communities, hits communities of color,” Abrams explained. “We are often the receptacles of the trash of bad policy. We are the victims of bad decision-making and, worse, of intentional decision-making that dehumanizes and discounts our role and our responsibilities and our right to active engagement.”
The key to building solidarity among communities, said Abrams, is empathy. “What I've seen happen with communities of color and with women of color, in particular, is that there is always a sense of ‘How can I lift myself and others? How can I share my benefit?’” Following the deadly Atlanta spa shootings in which six victims were Asian-American women, she noted, “it was not simply Asian-American women standing by themselves. Black women, Brown women, Indigenous women—we all stood up and said, ‘Yes, we have to lift these women up. We have to center their story.’”
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Abrams is to never give up. Politics, she reminds us, is not an episodic instrument available only to elected officials. “When I did not become governor, we did not stop,” she said. “We have seen progress. It has been slow. It has been plodding. It has not been sustained. But it has happened. We are responsible for the next generation in a biological [way], but also in a cultural way. That means that we don't have the luxury of just abandoning ship. We've got to keep going because we see the shore and we believe that there is space for us when we get there.”