Stacey Abrams: Learning, Leading, Teaching

By Celia Coates

“When you decide what you want and why you want it, take action immediately. Do not wait for an invitation to act. I promise you, the letter is not in the mail.”

This advice is from Stacey Abrams’ book, LEAD FROM THE OUTSIDE. It is not one of the self-positioning books written by candidates preparing for an election, although it was first published as MINORITY LEADER in 2017 before her run to be the governor of Georgia – but that’s another story. Abrams made a great decision about what she wanted and why she wanted it many years ago. She wanted to develop her abilities without restraints and to become a leader who could open the way for outsiders– people like herself who have struggled because the doors to opportunity were tightly closed.

Here’s one of her stories about exclusion,
“Once, in middle school, after I won a city-wide essay contest, my dad drove me to pick up my prize. While he waited in the car, I ran inside to receive my ribbon and my $50 reward. But the woman in charge – white and grim-faced when I introduced myself – refused to give me the money. I couldn’t be the author of the winning essay, she declared to the others milling around the school lobby. When I protested, she demanded that I produce photo identification, an impossibility for an eighth grader. I demanded my prize, but inwardly granted her the validity of her doubts. “

Not only did she have to face discrimination because of the color of her skin, for being a woman, and for being part of the working class, she had to fight the crippling self-doubt that can accompany being put down over and over, again and again. Stacey Abrams has refused to know her place and instead she’s showing all of us how to change our all-too-narrow society.

Black journalist Zelina Maxwell wrote,
“ ’ It’s frustrating to realize we’re taught to be humble in a way that men are not.’ “
And Abrams adds,
“Though Maxwell meant black women, her comment applies more broadly – to women, people of color, and those who do not come from privilege. We deflect praise, pretending we don’t deserve it. Worse, we actually think we don’t. Our deference becomes a method by which to dial back aspirations, and we belittle our accomplishments for fear that those around us will laugh at our dreams. Because sometimes they do.”

 Abrams fought the demons of self-doubt and now,
“… I don’t worry if I am black enough or feminine enough much anymore. I spend time knowing my intentions, understanding my methods, and most important, evaluating the results.”

 She has filled this remarkable book with two kinds of teaching about how to fight prejudice and achieve success: first by telling us stories from her own life, and then by providing practical advice and chapter summaries that read like the best self-help books.

Her first lessons came from her family,
“… our parents refused to believe that their lot meant their children could not do better than they had. Instead, they created their own prescription, known in our family and the Trinity for Success: go to church, go to school, and take care of one another.

 Abrams excels at the “take care of one another” rule – hers has not been a simple self-centered climb to the top. She wants others to climb with her. How refreshing! It’s been hard in writing this post not to include quote after quote from her honest stories about her life and her bold and clever advice. I’ll limit this to one story that includes many of the elements of what Abrams has to teach us.

She says we should  not follow the conventional advice about finding a mentor,
“By narrowing our sense of what a mentor can be, we ignore those who are all around, ready to help hone our skills.”
“I don’t have traditional mentor. Instead I have curated support, training, and advice from an array of alliances, advisers, and friends: an a la carte approach designed for maximum input and flexibility, for a range of circumstances that can defy the conventional wisdom of success.”
“In your network, be certain to have an adviser who does not look like you, sound like you, or have your same experiences. A good adviser should offer a contrasting view because of gender differences, racial differences, socioeconomic background, and so on. We get stuck in our own heads, and an adviser who offers a starkly divergent personal history can sometimes illuminate what we miss in our own experience. One of my closest confidants is a white guy from South Carolina who is also involved in politics. He has a sharp mind, asks incisive questions of me, and forces me to sift through the detritus of important decisions to focus on the main issues. Because of our real connection, I do the same for him, pushing back on his analysis and enlarging his understanding of a situation. Because we do not share identical life histories, his perspective gives me a window into how to filter discussion and sift through my own readings of events. I do not have to abandon the viewpoints informed by my life story, but I also have the additional capacity to integrate other angles and takeaways.”

 Okay, just one more quote,
“When you maintain relationships by trying to find ways to serve others, the effect ripples out.”

 This lesson is part of the reason a post about Stacey Abrams is in WINN. I chose the image of ripples in a golden pond that appears on the homepage to capture my sense of what is needed now – sharing knowledge and wisdom about the nature of reality in a way that can ripple out so we can, together, create a new understanding of what really matters and live our lives around those values. Abrams has created a successful life for herself and worked collaboratively with others to provide a new way for achieving political success. The old way is usually hierarchical, fiercely competitive, and often for the benefit of a few individuals rather than for whole communities. I like Abrams’ form of leadership much better, and it doesn’t have to be limited to politics – there are leaders in all areas of life.
Please buy and read her book.

*     *     *    *     *
LEAD FROM THE OUTSIDE: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change, by Stacey Abrams, Picador, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2019.

The image that accompanies this post, “Leadership,” is by Nick Youngson.  (

Just one more quote – this is from Creative Commons that often provides free images: “When you share everyone wins.”











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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nancy says:

    Stacey Abrams is awesome. I’m so glad to know more about her. We will be seeing a lot more of her in the future. We urgently need her type of leadership.

  2. Carolyn Scripps says:

    Hello Celia, I just discovered all of your WINN postings in a Google “Social” file. I’ve been traveling and then moved to Kansas last week. I will have internet installed tomorrow. I’m at work now, so I must make it short. All is well. It’s hot and humid here, but I am glad to be back in Lawrence. Much love, Carolyn

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