Gubernatorial Candidate Stacey Abrams emphasizes education, diversity, criminal justice reform
Former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams wants to be America’s first black female governor. She knows it won’t be an easy task. “Georgia has a lot of work to do,” Abrams said. The state has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, an inconceivably high incarceration rate and more people on probation or parole than any other state. Nevertheless, Abrams is ready to get to work.
She grew up in Mississippi, the daughter of a college librarian and a shipyard worker. The obstacles that her parents faced throughout their own lives and the tenacity they proved in overcoming them greatly influenced Abrams. Her mother was the only one of her seven siblings to finish high school. To begin to do so, as a third grader, she had to work to make enough money to pay for the segregated school bus to take her school.
Her father was dyslexic. “Imagine being a black man growing up in the 1950s before they figured out what dyslexia was,” Abrams said. “They just told him he was stupid because he couldn’t read.” He used his excellent oral memory to make his way through school.
Abrams’ parents married during their time University of Wisconsin. When they returned to Mississippi after graduation, despite their degrees and high achievements, they remained unable to move out of poverty. “They were still black in Mississippi,” Abrams said. “Despite an education that moved them forward…they still found themselves in between the working class and working poor.”
The two made sure their children knew that their economic status didn’t determine where they would go in life. Her mother didn’t like the term working poor. “She called us ‘genteel poor’ meaning we watched PBS and read books,” Abrams said. “We only had to worry about three things: go to church, go to school and take care of each other.”
They went to church to establish a moral framework but “they told us that our religion was never to be used to discriminate against others or to disparage anything,” Abrams said.
She and her siblings pursued an education because their parents believed that was the most vital tool in moving out of poverty. “Even though it hadn’t gotten them as far as they thought it would,” Abrams said, “it got them further than anyone that they knew.”
Taking care of each other boiled down to service. “My mom would say no matter how little we have, there is always someone [who has] less. Your job is to serve others,” said Abrams.
The family moved to Atlanta where Abrams attended Avondale High School of the Performing Arts and became the school’s first African-American valedictorian. After, she went to Spelman College, then U. T. Austin before earning her J.D. from Yale Law School.
After working for various law firms in Atlanta, she ran and was elected for the state legislature. “I served for four years and then decided that I should become minority leader because I though the Democrats were not pushing as hard as I thought we could to make the change that we needed to make,” Abrams said. She prevented a Republican supermajority in the House of Representatives and, off of that success, has turned her sight on leading the state of Georgia as Governor.
“This is the time for Georgia to think about the next chapter of our leadership,” Abrams said. “We have a choice to make. We can either continue with the type of leadership we’ve had: conservative, dissociative, often to the exclusion [of others]…with cultural and social parameters that are not thinking about the whole of Georgia, the diversity that is Georgia.” Instead, Abrams envisions a leader like herself who will “focus on making diversity the strength that we wield in Georgia.”
One of her main focuses is education. “When you improve our education,” she said, “you improve our economic capacity, you improve criminal justice reform, you improve our economic development.” She plans on making certain that preschool is truly universal, that technical college is free for students with a 2.0 GPA, that debt-free college is possible through need-based aid and that the government is thinking about the different kinds of students in the state’s schools.
“A lot of folks running for office say they want to be the ‘Education Governor.’ I don’t,” she said. “I want to be the ‘Public Education Governor.’ I believe in the right of families to send their children to public schools but the state has a formal and constitution obligation to provide quality K-12 education.”
Another focus is criminal justice reform. “This is important to me,” she said. “I have a younger brother who is serving his second term in prison and, both times when he’s been release, we’ve struggled to find him a place to live, to get him access to a job and to get him health insurance because, when you are an ex-offender in the South, you find that you cannot get health insurance.”
She wishes to work on eliminating cash bail in the state and decriminalizing poverty, the possession of marijuana and traffic tickets, each of which are often used as pretenses to arrest immigrants and people of color. She also wants to ensure there are transitional programs in place for people upon release from prison.
She also would like to work to make sure small businesses have access to capital. “We should be as excited for you as we are for Amazon,” Abrams said. “As excited as I am to draw out 50,000 jobs from Amazon, I also want us to put money into 5,000 small businesses that can hire ten people each. That’s 50,000 jobs across the state of Georgia, not just in one region.”
Abrams has ensured her campaign represents the emphasis on diversity and youth-driven action that her platform preaches. She and her staff have reached out to high school and college students through internships and campus ambassador programs to provide as them with the knowledge of how best to engage in the political process. She has also created the B.L.U.E. Institute which works to provide training for young people of color to work on campaigns in the South. She pledged to create a a Governor’s Youth Council within her first 100 days in office.
Abrams was inspired by the power of a young person’s voice when she was 19 years old and was invited to be a speaker at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. “It was an extraordinary event…but what saddens me is that when I stood on stage last year…and gave a similar speech. As much as we’ve done, there is still so much more that’s left to be done.”