Updated: Jan 17, 2021
What Stacey Abrams Learned About Power Is Revealed in Her Book, Lead from the Outside
By Qiana Artis
An America where every vote matters, our leaders work for us and defend our civil rights, and the government helps when it can and steps back when it should. An America where there are no carbon dioxide emissions, where all schools have equal resources within asbestos-free environments, and no child fears eviction during a global crisis.
An America where politicians represent people who vote for them and pay attention to people who vote against them.
This can be, writes Stacey Abrams in Lead from the Outside, Georgia voters’ future. Abrams is the founder of Fair Fight Action, whose mission is to “fight until every eligible vote cast is a vote counted.” The org aims to publicize election reform, support voter protection teams in battleground states, and engage in targeted voter registration and voter outreach.
Abrams founded Fair Fight Action in 2018. She had just officially ended her bid to become the next governor of Georgia. Voting equipment had gone missing in poor communities; voters were purged illegally from records; poll workers ran out of paper for extra ballots, and long lines sent potential voters back to work without the opportunity to vote.
Reports showed that the man who won the governorship, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s former Secretary of State, had canceled almost 700,000 voter registrations in 2017. This included the 86,000 voter applications from Abrams’ early voter registration effort, the New Georgia Project. Of those new voters, 45 percent were under the age of 30 and 49 percent were people of color.
Fair Fight’s victories began during the 2019 municipal elections in Georgia. Their advocacy and litigation efforts led to approximately 26,500 potentially purged Georgia voters remaining on the roles. Fair Fight also helped end “exact match.” To be allowed to register under “exact match,” citizens’ applications had to match their driver licenses—down to the hyphen. In the 2020 elections, Fair Fight was credited as a contributor to the 4.1 million increase in voter turnout in 2016. In the last two years, Abrams and Fair Fight have registered an estimated 800,000 new voters.
How did Fair Fight do it? The answers lie in Abrams' book, Lead from the Outside, in which she spells out her philosophy of how outsiders can win. By outsiders, Abrams means the “others”of society—those who exist outside of traditional white male power. Women. People of color. Members of the LGBTQ+ community. Millennials and Gen Z-ers ready to make a change. Vote that Jawn? Perhaps.
As an outsider, a Black LGBTQ+ Gen Z-er, I experienced firsthand what it means to find political power and begin to lead from the outside. I was a student volunteer with Philadelphia’s youth voting initiative, Vote That Jawn, during the 2020 election. Mid-afternoon, one cold October day, I led a virtual conversation with classmates Sheyla Street and Skye Lucas at a Second Pilgrim Baptist Church Voter Registration and Food Distribution Drive. We discussed food insecurity and mail-in ballot logistics, but what stuck out to me was the energy on North 15th street that day.
I came face-to-face with Representative Donna Bullock who thanked Vote That Jawn and Philly youth leaders for rallying voters from all generations. Pastor Isaiah Banks, wearing sunglasses and his brightest smile, reminded Instagram Live viewers, and his surrounding congregation, of the importance of voting. The smiles, cheers, and thank-you’s I received became my source of power. I realized just how important voting was to the futures of the vote mobilizers registering people and distributing food that day.
Vote That Jawn and its community partners fight the same fair fight as disenfranchised Georgians have been doing for the past few years, and with guidance from grassroots leaders like Stacey Abrams, we outsiders get closer to rushing in.
Ambition: knowing what you want, and then, wanting more
For outsiders, the first stepping stone on the path to leadership, Abrams writes, is ambition. She challenges outsiders. The first questions outsiders must ask themselves are: What is the problem? Why is it a problem? How do you solve it?
The problem was that outsiders often lack ambition because they lack political power: voter registrations kept in pending status, missing votes from faulty voter machines in communities of color, and uncounted provisional ballots result in a kind of hopelessness.
The organizers set their sights on voter registration, education and protection, and then planned how they would proceed. They needed to grow the civic power of a new coalition of voters, which Abrams describes in Lead From the Outside: those who reflect the diversity of Georgia and America at large.
In the 2020 elections, Fair Fight created the “blueprint for victory in 2020,” a 16-page document on data and trends among Democratic voters in Georgia. Having a blueprint helped organizers target voter outreach efforts. They decided to center their efforts on disengaged voters of color: Blacks, mostly women, and those between 18 and 29.
Fearlessness: naming and knowing what scares you
The next milestone on the road to power is fearlessness. Fear, Abrams believes, is a conditioned reaction that keeps outsiders from challenging. In order to strive for fearlessness, outsiders must name and know what scares them, then harness that fear to use to their advantage.
Fair Fight had to embrace the fear Abrams often encountered in others during her run for governor. Voters wanted her as governor, but were afraid that Georgia was not ready for a fair fight.
And little wonder: Abrams’ initial voter registration and outreach project, New Project Georgia, was placed under investigation by the secretary of state. Brian Kemp’s office disputed that New Project Georgia could register so many voters so fast. Abrams and her team were willing to enter a two-year battle to fight the investigation and prove their innocence, showing that the Georgia secretary of state had canceled at least 35,000 registrations illegally.
Abrams' willingness to fight this battle, and then continue on to start Fair Fight, yet another organization to confront voter suppression, shows her and her team’s fearlessness.
Opportunity: owning opportunities and making what you have work
The third problem that outsiders often face is that they lack connections to other communities. Fair Fight invested in grassroots voters’ rights groups. They saw opportunity in collaboration, and in sharing donations, tech expertise, and relationships. Fair Fight gave financial support to groups aimed at getting out Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters. To name a few, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Black Voters Matter Fund, and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.
In 2013, as a candidate, Stacey Abrams saw the opportunity to reach out to 800,000 unregistered people of color in Georgia, a community the size of South Dakota. She launched her first voter registration effort as a result.
As a former, and likely, a future, candidate, Abrams had studied the landscape of voters, articulated the hurdles outsiders face in seeking public office and was then ready to work bringing outsiders in.
Qiana Artis is a PA-born, PA-voting sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science. A writer by hobby, she is the prose editor for The F-Word, University of Pennsylvania’s feminist literary magazine, and enjoys publishing the political passions of her classmates.