When I was in high school at the age of 17—I graduated from high school in Decatur, Georgia, as valedictorian of my high school—I was very proud of myself. I was from a low-income community, I had grown up in Mississippi, we'd moved from Mississippi to Georgia so my parents could pursue their degrees as United Methodist ministers. We were poor, but they didn't think we were poor enough, so they were going for permanent poverty.
And so, while they studied at Emory, I studied at Avondale, and I became valedictorian. Well, one of the joys of being valedictorian in the state of Georgia is that you get invited to meet the governor of Georgia. I was mildly interested in meeting him. It was kind of cool. I was more intrigued by the fact that he lived in a mansion, because I watched a lot of "General Hospital" and "Dynasty" as a child. And so I got up that morning, ready to go to visit the governor. My mom and my dad, who were also invited, got up, and we went outside. But we didn't get in our car. And in the south, a car is a necessary thing. We don't have a lot of public transit, there aren't a lot of options. But if you're lucky enough to live in a community where you don't have a car, the only option is public transit. And that's what we had to take. And so we got on the bus. And we took the bus from Decatur all the way to Buckhead, where the Governor's Mansion sat on this really beautiful acreage of land, with these long black gates that ran the length of the property.
We get to the Governor's Mansion, we pull the little lever that lets them know this is our stop, we get off the bus, my mom, my dad and I, we walk across the street. We walk up the driveway, because there are cars coming up, cars bringing in students from all across the state of Georgia. So we're walking along the side. And as we walk single file along the side, my mom and dad sandwiching me to make sure I don't get hit by one of the cars bringing in the other valedictorians, we approach the guard gate.
When we get to the guard gate, the guard comes out. He looks at me, and he looks at my parents, and he says, "You don't belong here, this is a private event." My dad says, "No, this is my daughter, Stacey. She's one of the valedictorians." But the guard doesn't look at the checklist that's in his hands. He doesn't ask my mom for the invitation that's at the bottom of her very voluminous purse. Instead, he looks over our shoulder at the bus, because in his mind, the bus is telling him a story about who should be there. And the fact that we were too poor to have our own car—that was a story he told himself. And he may have seen something in my skin color, he may have seen something in my attire; I don't know what went through his mind. But his conclusion was to look at me again, and with a look of disdain, say, "I told you, this is a private event. You don't belong here." Now, my parents were studying to become United Methodist ministers, but they were not pastors yet.
And so they proceeded to engage this gentleman in a very robust discussion of his decision-making skills.
My father may have mentioned that he was going to spend eternity in a very fiery place if he didn't find my name on that checklist. And indeed, the man checks the checklist eventually, and he found my name, and he let us inside. But I don't remember meeting the governor of Georgia. I don't recall meeting my fellow valedictorians from 180 school districts. The only clear memory I have of that day was a man standing in front of the most powerful place in Georgia, looking at me and telling me I don't belong. And so I decided, 20-some-odd years later, to be the person who got to open the gates.
Unfortunately, you may have read the rest of the story. It didn't quite work out that way. And now I'm tasked with figuring out: How do I move forward? Because, you see, I didn't just want to open the gates for young black women who had been underestimated and told they don't belong. I wanted to open those gates for Latinas and for Asian Americans. I wanted to open those gates for the undocumented and the documented. I wanted to open those gates as an ally of the LGBTQ community. I wanted to open those gates for the families that have to call themselves the victims of gun violence. I wanted to open those gates wide for everyone in Georgia, because that is our state, and this is our nation, and we all belong here.
But what I recognized is that the first try wasn't enough. And my question became: How do I move forward? How do I get beyond the bitterness and the sadness and the lethargy and watching an inordinate amount of television as I eat ice cream? What do I do next? And I'm going to do what I've always done. I'm going to move forward, because going backwards isn't an option and standing still is not enough.
You see, I began my race for governor by analyzing who I was and what I wanted to be. And there are three questions I ask myself about everything I do, whether it's running for office or starting a business; when I decided to start the New Georgia Project to register people to vote; or when I started the latest action, Fair Fight Georgia. No matter what I do, I ask myself three questions: What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it? And in this case, I know what I want. I want change. That is what I want. But the question is: What change do I want to see?
And I know that the questions I have to ask myself are: One, am I honest about the scope of my ambition? Because it's easy to figure out that once you didn't get what you wanted, then maybe you should have set your sights a little lower, but I'm here to tell you to be aggressive about your ambition. Do not allow setbacks to set you back.
Number two, let yourself understand your mistakes. But also understand their mistakes, because, as women in particular, we're taught that if something doesn't work out, it's probably our fault. And usually, there is something we could do better, but we've been told not to investigate too much what the other side could have done. And this isn't partisan—it's people. We're too often told that our mistakes are ours alone, but victory is a shared benefit. And so what I tell you to do is understand your mistakes, but understand the mistakes of others. And be clearheaded about it. And be honest with yourself and honest with those who support you.
But once you know what you want, understand why you want it. And even though it feels good, revenge is not a good reason.
Instead, make sure you want it because there's something not that you should do, but something you must do. It has to be something that doesn't allow you to sleep at night unless you're dreaming about it; something that wakes you up in the morning and gets you excited about it; or something that makes you so angry, you know you have to do something about it. But know why you're doing it. And know why it must be done. You've listened to women from across this world talk about why things have to happen. But figure out what the "why" is for you, because jumping from the "what" to the "do" is meaningless if you don't know why. Because when it gets hard, when it gets tough, when your friends walk away from you, when your supporters forget you, when you don't win your first race—if you don't know why, you can't try again.
So, first know what you want. Second, know why you want it, but third, know how you're going to get it done. I faced a few obstacles in this race.
Just a few. But in the pursuit, I became the first black woman to ever become the nominee for governor in the history of the United States of America for a major party.
But more importantly, in this process, we turned out 1.2 million African American voters in Georgia. That is more voters than voted on the Democratic side of the ticket in 2014.
Our campaign tripled the number of Latinos who believed their voices mattered in the state of Georgia. We tripled the number of Asian Americans who stood up and said, "This is our state, too." Those are successes that tell me how I can get it done. But they also let me understand the obstacles aren't insurmountable. They're just a little high.
But I also understand that there are three things that always hold us hostage. The first is finances. Now, you may have heard, I'm in a little bit of debt. If you didn't hear about it, you did not go outside.
And finances are something that holds us back so often, our dreams are bounded by how much we have in resources. But we hear again and again the stories of those who overcome those resource challenges. But you can't overcome something you don't talk about. And that's why I didn't allow them to debt-shame me in my campaign. I didn't allow anyone to tell me that my lack of opportunity was a reason to disqualify me from running. And believe me, people tried to tell me I shouldn't run. Friends told me not to run. Allies told me not to run. "USA Today" mentioned maybe I shouldn't run.
But no matter who it was, I understood that finances are often a reason we don't let ourselves dream. I can't say that you will always overcome those obstacles, but I will tell you, you will be damned if you do not try.
The second is fear. And fear is real. It is paralyzing. It is terrifying. But it can also be energizing, because once you know what you're afraid of, you can figure out how to get around it.
And the third is fatigue. Sometimes you just get tired of trying. You get tired of reading about processes and politics and the things that stop you from getting where you want to be. Sometimes, fatigue means that we accept position instead of power. We let someone give us a title as a consolation prize, rather than realizing we know what we want and we're going to get it, even if we're tired. That's why God created naps. But we also learn in those moments that fatigue is an opportunity to evaluate how much we want it. Because if you are beaten down, if you have worked as hard as you can, if you have done everything you said you should, and it still doesn't work out, fatigue can sap you of your energy. But that's why you go back to the "why" of it.
Because I know we have to have women who speak for the voiceless. I know we have to have people of good conscience who stand up against oppression. I know we have to have people who understand that social justice belongs to us all. And that wakes me up every morning, and that makes me fight even harder. Because I am moving forward, knowing what is in my past. I know the obstacles they have for me. I know what they're going to do, and I'm fairly certain they're energizing and creating new obstacles now. But they've got four years to figure it out. Maybe two.
But here's my point: I know what I want, and that is justice. I know why I want it, because poverty is immoral, and it is a stain on our nation. And I know how I'm going to get it: by moving forward every single day. Thank you so much.