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Stacey Abrams to new grads: 'Be fearless' is the ‘dumbest advice I've ever heard'

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Former Georgia House Representative and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams is introduced before speaking at a Souls to the Polls rally supporting Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on October 17, 2021 in Norfolk, Virginia.
Zach Gibson | Getty Images

Two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate and activist Stacey Abrams returned to her alma mater, Spelman College, to deliver the commencement speech on May 15. Abrams walked the new graduates of the all-women HBCU through her experiences as a student and how they shaped her career.

Abrams, 48, was the student body president at Spelman before she graduated in 1995 and attended Yale Law School. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2006-2017, during which she became the first Black Georgian to lead in the House of Representatives. Abrams is well known for her civic engagement efforts and voters' rights advocacy.

She says Spelman taught her to be confident and "bold in her ambitions," something she hopes newly graduated Black women will emulate.

"You may have noticed I've gotten in trouble a little bit in the last few years for being a bit too forthright about my intentions. When people ask me questions about what I want, I don't quietly duck my head or cover my mouth. If you ask me if I want to be the vice president, I say yes. You want to know if I want to be president, I say yes … There are those who hear that in arrogance. But I was taught at Spelman College to be bold in my ambitions, to believe that I am capable of whatever I can imagine."

According to Abrams, these three key lessons helped her reach her greatest potential:

"Be fearless" is "dumb" advice

We've all heard the advice, 'be fearless,' before. However, whether it be a personal or professional goal, the idea of approaching something new fearlessly can seem daunting, and in some cases impossible.

Abrams says fear is not something we should get rid of, but something we should understand and embrace.

"For so many years, we have been told to be fearless. That is the dumbest advice I've ever heard," she told graduates. "Fear is real. And it's usually a warning. It's a caution to not act but to understand what we're facing. I believe in embracing my fear. I take it out to lunch."

Abrams also explained that without identifying your fears, you won't be able to conquer them. She urged the audience to "never let anyone tell you it's wrong to be afraid."

"Fear is healthy. It is caving into fear that's dangerous. You see, I'm not afraid of fighting against those who tell me that we can't have economic justice in America because they're wrong and I'm right. I'm not afraid of saying that we should all have the right to voice our opinions in our elections whether we agree with one another or not. I'm not afraid of these things because I understand why fear happens."

"I want you to hold on to your fear, get to know it, give it a name, give it a nickname, but never give it control."

"Learn your lessons, not your losses"

While recalling her 2018 loss in the race for governor of Georgia, Abrams says many expected her to accept failure and "be quiet and sit still."

However, Abrams said that remaining resilient even when it's hard makes all the difference.

"There are those who think that when you don't win those things you try for, that your failure defines you. It is not failure that defines you, it is your response to failure that tells you who you are."

Abrams let students know that they would face many losses in the future, but having gratitude and working hard will pay off in the end.

"You're going to face a great deal of loss. But when we focus on not getting, we ignore what we have received … I stood for governor not because I wanted the title, but because I said I wanted to do the work. And when I didn't get the title, I still had the work to do. I wasn't exempted because I didn't get the platform. This is a lesson I learned at Spelman. That not getting everything you want doesn't mean you got nothing from it. I learned my lesson that it was enough to try if I was willing to try again and try again and try again."

"Know what you believe"

When Abrams joined the Georgia House of Representatives, her title was minority leader, a title she says already symbolized loss.

"They put in my title that I was about to lose. If you are in the minority and the other guy's title is majority leader, the imbalance is kind of obvious from the beginning."

After accepting the role, Abrams started to understand that despite the title, her opportunity to make an impact would create major change.

She advised graduates to let their character and work ethic speak for themselves.

"You will for most of your lives, for most of your admissions, for most of your lessons, be in the technical minority. But if you know what you believe about yourself and about your work, then you will never be in the minority."

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