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Don’t edit your ambitions. Get really comfortable with fear and failure. I don’t think of failure as proof that I’m not good, I see it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do better.”
Stacey Abrams
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Democratic star and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams advocates bottom-up organizing to reform gerrymandering and redistricting if Washington doesn’t act.

A Conversation with Stacey Abrams

The Georgia politician sat down with Ben Jealous, visiting scholar and former NAACP leader, to discuss topics from gerrymandering to romance novels in a virtual discussion. A longer version of this story appeared on Penn Today.

After Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, she said she was “the saddest I’ve ever been and the most worthless I’ve ever felt.” She gave herself 10 days to grieve, watch TV, feel depressed and mad, and then she transformed those emotions into action.

“Ambition doesn’t allow itself to be rewarded by not getting what you want. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to expand how you think about it, or understand what you need to do differently,” she told the virtual audience in a conversation at Penn. “I got through those bouts by remembering why I do it, remembering my job isn’t to win; it is to move forward.”

Don’t edit your ambitions. Get really comfortable with fear and failure. I don’t think of failure as proof that I’m not good, I see it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do better.”
Stacey Abrams
Abrams shared her thoughts on a wide range of topics during the hourlong conversation with Ben Jealous, the former (and youngest-ever) head of the NAACP and a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication, the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law, and School of Social Policy & Practice. The two have a friendship spanning nearly 30 years, and their discussion covered topics from gerrymandering and social media to Abrams’ side gig as a romance novelist and how her political strategy can be compared to a game of spades.

In remarks before the discussion, Penn President Amy Gutmann called Abrams and Jealous “two totally relatable people who have each done extraordinary things,” and urged all attendees to listen carefully to their conversation.

Annenberg Dean John L. Jackson Jr. and Law School Dean Ted Ruger also made introductory remarks to the virtual audience of over 3,000.

In the days and months that followed her gubernatorial loss, Abrams created Fair Fight, a voter protection organization that helped register hundreds of thousands of new Georgia voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“I don’t think you solve a problem for yourself. I think if you see a problem, you should solve the problem for the person who comes behind you who may not have the resources,” the Democratic politician said. “My responsibility was to fix the system for the next person who was going to run, and fixing the system for the voters who were told their voices didn’t matter.”

The event was sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program, and the Provost’s Office.

In introducing Abrams and Jealous, Ruger noted a tweet Jealous sent the night before the event. In it, Jealous pointed out that he and Abrams organized together in 1994, both ran for governor in 2018 (Jealous ran in Maryland), and both worked together for almost three decades, but the Penn event would be the first time Jealous had ever interviewed Abrams. “We’re lucky to be part of this first,” Ruger said.

Their conversation covered such a range of topics Abrams joked at one point that it was “like the strangest game of ‘Jeopardy’ ever.”

Asked what advice she would give to young people whose ambitions might be bigger than what’s perceived as possible, she had a simple reply.

“Don’t edit your ambitions,” she said. “Get really comfortable with fear and failure. I don’t think of failure as proof that I’m not good, I see it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do better.”

As for redistricting and gerrymandering, Abrams said the best solution is federal action, but another would be transforming the way citizens treat the Census, which is the singular metric used to draw legislative redistricting lines.

“We treat it as a once-a-decade intrusion in our privacy. I see it as a 10-year opportunity for organization, strategy, and planning,” she said. “We’ve got to use the census as a tool for our success, as opposed to allowing it to be weaponized to deny us our agency.”

Asked how to get working people across racial lines to recognize their own self-interest and come together, Abrams pressed the importance of first recognizing the difference between populism that is with and for the people, and the authoritarian populism that’s undermining democracy in places like Brazil and Hungary and that remains a danger in the United States.

She sees the more important question as one of what do people prioritize as their best self-interest? Where she grew up in the South, people’s most important self-interests are so varied, from racial identity to moral and religious identity to economic needs.

It’s challenging and important work for politicians to understand what drives people “because only when you know what drives them can you figure out how to steer them,” she said.

She described the importance of knowing “the opposition,” reading books by conservatives and watching Fox News, and talked about her successes in the Georgia legislature were the times when she understood what the opposition wanted and was able to harness that to work toward her own goals. She worked with the Georgia Tea Party to block anti-environmental legislation for three years until the governor and Chamber of Commerce finally gave up their push. She understood the Tea Party issue was about undermining property values, not her worry about climate change.

“When it was framed in that way, it may have had the environmental benefit I wanted, but it had the economic needs that they held as important,” she said. “We were able to work together fairly seamlessly for three years to hold the line.”