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SXSW: Stacey Abrams discusses the road to representation in democracy

SXSW 2021 is all about the future and how we, as American people, can change it for the better. UT alumna and New York Times bestselling author of "Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America" Stacey Abrams is tackling that goal in the form of representation and free civic engagement.

Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams' and science fiction author N.K. Jemisin took the SXSW virtual stage on Tuesday. Abrams' keynote had a surprise beginning from musician and queer icon Janelle Monáe, who performed her song "Turntables" with a heartfelt message to Abrams, who Monáe said made her proud to be a Georgia voter.

Abrams and Jemisin declared themselves big fans of each other's work—Jemisin said she was internally "fangirling." Abrams said that Jeminin's "street cred among the Abrams clan is high."

Though the session was cut short by technical issues, Abrams, who served as a Georgia state representative for 11 years and seven as minority leader, said her mastery of storytelling intertwines with politics because she is able to give people a reason to engage.

"It's all about telling a story, but you have to center the voter, center the citizen, center of the person in that narrative. If it's about someone else, and they can't see themselves either benefiting from or being victimized by, then you give them a reason not to pay attention," Abrams said. "I've always tried to make my work about centering the communities that need to be heard, especially those who are never part of the narrative, unless they are seen as the villain or as an impediment to other success. By centering mentally those communities, essentially those narratives, create space for other people to tell better stories by going to the polls by being involved by being civically engaged."

Growing up "a daughter of the South," watching her neighbors fly confederate flags signifying the war to enslave her ancestors, Abrams said her responsibility is to fight for her right to be heard. Fair Fight, the organization Abrams started in 2018 to fight voter suppression, empowers others to do the same.

Abrams and Fair Fight engaged more communities of color to vote in 2020 than ever before in Georgia's history. During the election cycle, Abrams proudly said they elected the first Jewish Senator and first Black Senator from Georgia and were promptly hit with more than 50 bills trying to undo equal voting rights access.

"We did it by telling them a story about their power, that if they wanted relief from COVID, if they wanted access to voting rights, if they want criminal justice reform that is real, if they want policing reform, these are the things they need to do," Abrams said. "They need to show up to vote, they need to make a plan to bring their families—they listened."

When Abrams lost her run for governor in 2018, she learned that she needed to do better, be faster, get stronger, but when there has only been two Black woman senators and no Black woman governors, she found herself getting a question that she feels white men don't get asked:

"Are you qualified?"

Abrams said she knows that Black people occupying space in 2021 requires audacity and giving up allows the false narrative that she is somehow lesser continue.

"There is absolutely a discomfiture with the audacity of black minds, the audacity of people of color, thinking we belong in spaces, declaring we deserve to have access," Abrams said. "I was chastised for refusing to demur and pretend that I didn't have the capacity to do the job because I don't have the title and the positions that the people were used to seeing have."

Using a narrative she teaches to fifth graders, Abrams explained the hurt that voter suppression causes to close out her session: A law bans peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school but that is Tommy's favorite food. Tommy brings a PB&J sandwich to school and gets caught, so now there is a law that says his parents must go to jail. Who has the right to decide whether or not PB&J sandwiches are allowed?

"We have to follow the bill, we have to understand that there are going to be the cashew farmers who want to take down big peanut, because there are peanut farmers who understand that losing peanuts will mean that the butters become more expensive," Abrams said. "We have a governor who has to decide if she will sign that bill or not. It is the right of voters to decide whether peanuts will rise again or if cashews will become the nut for the future."


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