Stacey Abrams: How Can Your Response to a Setback Influence Your Future? Stacey Abrams' journey in politics has taught her a lot about life. Her greatest lessons, she says, have come from the setbacks she has experienced along the way.
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Stacey Abrams: How Can Your Response to a Setback Influence Your Future?

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Stacey Abrams: How Can Your Response to a Setback Influence Your Future?

Stacey Abrams: How Can Your Response to a Setback Influence Your Future?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

STACEY ABRAMS: So in Georgia, when you are the valedictorian of your high school, you are invited to meet the governor of Georgia. I was valedictorian of my high school, so I got invited to meet the governor of Georgia.

ZOMORODI: This is Stacey Abrams. She's a lawyer, an author and a politician.

ABRAMS: But my family were working poor, so we spent most of our time using public transit to get around. Therefore, on the day we went to go and visit the governor's mansion - which is in really ritzy part of Atlanta - we had to take the bus. My parents and I get off the bus. We walk across the street. And we get to the guard gate. And the guard looks at me, looks at my parents. He looks at the bus that's pulling away. And he tells us we don't belong here.

He assumed we were visitors coming to just view the governor's mansion as tourists. And my dad says, no, no, you know, this is my daughter, Stacey. You know, she's one of the valedictorians. But the guard didn't look at the list that he had. He didn't accept the invitation my mom had in her purse. He just kind of sneered at us. And he said, look, you don't belong here.

ZOMORODI: Stacey Abrams picks up her story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABRAMS: Now, my parents were studying to become United Methodist ministers, but they were not pastors yet.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: My father may have mentioned that he was going to spend eternity in a very fiery place if he didn't find my name on that checklist. And indeed, the man checks the checklist eventually, and he found my name. And he let us inside. But I don't remember meeting the governor of Georgia. I don't recall meeting my fellow valedictorians from 180 school districts. The only clear memory I have of that day was a man standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia, looking at me and telling me I don't belong. And so I decided 20 some odd years later to be the person who got to open the gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Stacey. Stacey. Stacey. Stacey. Stacey.

ZOMORODI: In 2018, Stacey ran for governor of Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABRAMS: When you chose me as your Democratic nominee...

ZOMORODI: And that was the first time in the history of the United States that a Black woman was a major political party's pick to govern a state. But Stacey lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABRAMS: I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

ZOMORODI: You came really close to winning the governor's seat and being that person in the governor's mansion. And I can't help but think that that awful moment back in high school actually played a really big role in shaping who you would become, who you are now.

ABRAMS: That's absolutely true. It became part of the narrative when I was running for governor, in part because I needed people to understand that I wasn't raised with this notion that I could ever aspire to being governor of a state, let alone being the first Black woman to do this. I had never thought of myself necessarily as a change agent in that way. But there is something very galling but also very motivating about some stranger telling you who you are and what you mean.

When I ran for governor, for me, it was about saying, look, I was told a long time ago I didn't belong in this place. And I've spent my life, whether intentionally or not, proving him wrong. But it wasn't about him. It wasn't about what he saw or didn't see in me. It was about who I am and who I intend to be. And I belong here as much as anybody else.

ZOMORODI: OK, so looking back on that moment, what do you think you learned?

ABRAMS: Yeah, I think there are a few things. One is that humiliation isn't permanent. So you're young, you think of each moment of just embarrassment as this permanent scar, and it stops us from trying so many things. Well, I was humiliated by a guard. He was a state trooper. And he felt it was in his power to diminish me. And while he did have the effect of erasing what could have been a wonderful memory for me, the humiliation of that moment didn't have the power to stop me from becoming who I would be.

And I think the second is that you learn to dream bigger. I'd never met a lawyer growing up. I'd never met a politician. So part of what you can learn is that you can dream beyond the things you know. Because I read about them. I found other examples that were outside of my daily life but were within the scope of my imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So many kids aren't in their classrooms right now, but there is so much to learn outside of school. The lessons just look a little different. And so on the show today, we are talking about the school of life, ideas about how our everyday interactions can shape us and why pivotal moments in our lives teach us more than any textbook. Just ask Stacey Abrams.

ABRAMS: My first campaign for governor was really a study in how gender impacts how you can run for office and how race and gender intersect. I had a primary, and my opponent also had the name, first name of Stacey. We spelled it the same way. The distinction was our race. And for so many people, that was the only difference they could tell. They actually called us the Staceys...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: It's a showdown between the Staceys - Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans...

ABRAMS: ...Something that would never happen with men.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: It's the battle of the Staceys, with Stacy Evans running against...

ABRAMS: And so part of the first race was really about me dispelling mythology about who I was and whether I was even capable of standing for this office. And then in the general election, I ran against the guy who was in charge of running the elections. So using a sports metaphor, I ran against the contestant, the referee and the scorekeeper. It did not turn out well for me (laughter). But it turned out better than I think anyone expected, given that we came within 54,000 votes out of, you know, nearly 4 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABRAMS: I faced a few obstacles in this race. But in the pursuit, I became the first Black woman to ever become the nominee for governor in the history of the United States of America for a major party.

(APPLAUSE)

ABRAMS: My question became, how do I move forward? How do I get beyond the bitterness and the sadness and the lethargy and watching an inordinate amount of television as I eat ice cream?

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: What do I do next? And I'm going to do what I've always done; I'm going to move forward because going backwards isn't an option, and standing still is not enough. No matter what I do, I ask myself three questions. What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Listening to you talk, I bet some people would think - and I probably would have thought - that you are a real risk taker. But having heard your TED Talk, I actually think you are extremely strategic.

ABRAMS: So often we jump from the wanting to the doing, but it's so critical to take that time and to really excavate what it is that you want but why it is that you want it because when it's hard, when people are saying inappropriate things about you, when your opponent has a commercial where you, you know, are portrayed as King Kong climbing the side of a building in one of the most racist, sexist tropes you can imagine, you have to know why you're doing this stuff.

ZOMORODI: Right.

ABRAMS: And then the third is know how you're going to get it. It is important to make a plan. I try things that are guaranteed to fail at least half the time, but I know ambition and dreams without a plan, it's just a wish. So I think about it. I write it down. I figure out what are the steps. And I've been not only chastised for being too ambitious; I've been called too calculating. But, particularly, when you come from a place where people don't expect of you, that also means they don't teach you how.

And so my approach is, I'm going to teach myself how, and I'm going to find people who help me navigate because anything less is nearly a guarantee that I'm not going to be successful.

ZOMORODI: Do you get any satisfaction out of proving people's expectations wrong or realizing that they have no expectations and then showing them all the things that you can achieve? Or does that just annoy you?

ABRAMS: I can be a petty human, yeah. I mean, there is...

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: There is satisfaction. There are some people who have been very intentional and disciplined about their underestimation of me. When I was running for governor, I had a group of people who I would have said, these are my friends; these are people I can rely on. They had been there for me. But when I called them about running for governor, they said, well, you know, you're smart and you're capable and you're probably the best candidate, but you're a Black woman. And they would whisper it, and...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) You're like, I know.

ABRAMS: That's exactly it. That's exactly what I would do. I'm like, I've seen me. This is not news.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ABRAMS: But their expectations of me ended at the water's edge of race - not just a Black person, but a Black woman that suspended their expectations of me. And it was one of the most devastating parts of running. So, yes, I take some satisfaction from it, but I also take the disappointment I felt and try to use that to cushion the blow for others.

It's important for people to know it's OK to want more, and I don't want another young Black woman who has this ambition to be told by people she trusts that she's thinking too much and she wants too much and she needs to stop.

ZOMORODI: Sounds like you are still a really good student, watching and learning and figuring out the best way to accomplish all the things that you listed. But how much do you feel like, at this point, it's time for people to learn from you?

ABRAMS: I - you know, my mom was a librarian when I was growing up. She was a research librarian. And so I grew up believing that there is no end to the acquisition of knowledge. There's no end to the acquisition of learning. There is also always an opportunity to share what you've learned - not simply by reciting it, but by living it. And so I hope every day that I am demonstrating, in real time, in an active practice, what I believe to be true.

You know, I'm not the governor of Georgia. I didn't get the thing I wanted. And my responsibility in that moment, if there was a teachable moment there, was how I responded. I started doing something about the next thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Stacey Abrams. She's a lawyer, author and founder of Fair Fight Action, an organization working to protect the right to vote. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

On the show today, Lessons from the School of Life. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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