Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams knows that "stumbles and defeats are inevitable" in life. But, in a virtual commencement speech to 2021 graduates at Teachers College, Columbia University, she urged young leaders to understand that despite these stumbles "what you want can be made real" if you don't give up.
"I know what I'm talking about because in 2018 I ran for governor of Georgia and I lost," said Abrams, who was awarded the Teachers College President's Medal of Excellence award during the April 29 ceremony. "In the aftermath, I allowed myself to acknowledge my anger and sadness, but I knew that I could not stay in that place."
Instead Abrams, who was Georgia's first Black female gubernatorial candidate, started an organization called Fair Fight to help address voter suppression. Through her organization, Abrams worked to ensure that eligible voters across the country, and particularly in Georgia, were registered to vote and were educated on their voting rights.
It is estimated that more than 800,000 new people registered to vote in Georgia between 2018 and 2020 as a result of her efforts, with Abrams telling NPR that 45% of those new voters were under 30 and 49% were people of color.
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"I knew that not receiving the position I wanted did not absolve me of the responsibility to do the work," she told the 2021 graduates. "You see, when we fail, we often feel the need to edit our ambitions to reflect our new fears. But do not allow false logic to limit your expectations of success."
As a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who has openly talked about running for president one day, Abrams told the graduating class that "our stumbles often cause us to fall into new opportunities — ones that allow us to do the work anyway, just in a different way."
"Throughout life, we will all have moments of quiet triumph and dark days that shake our faith," she said. "But, the issues that we seek to solve can be heavy and daunting and still we can get it right."
Recognizing that this year's graduates are entering the real world amid a global pandemic, a recovering economy and ongoing issues of inequality, Abrams told the student leaders to "lean on each other for support and guidance and distraction. Hold on to one another in laughter and in grief. Stand for one another in joy and audacity. Be the ones who teach the world that joy and progress do exist despite how dim the future seems."