Stacey Abrams shares lessons in life, law with Colorado Law class of 2021

University of Colorado Boulder

After navigating their final year of law school amid a pandemic and a social justice movement, 200 graduates from Colorado Law celebrated their landmark accomplishments in a virtual ceremony on May 8.

The class, comprised of Juris Doctor, Legum Magister and Master of Studies in Law graduates, and their families heard from political leader, voting rights activist and keynote speaker Stacey Abrams, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives (2007-17) and the first Black woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union Address (2019).

Stacey Abrams keynote: Colorado Law 2021 commencement

Abrams talked about the power of belonging in society and her perspective on life, law and a lawyer’s call to action. Despite growing up in poverty, Abrams was highly motivated in school and was named valedictorian in high school. She was invited to a celebration for valedictorians at the Georgia governor’s mansion, but was initially denied entry by a guard at the door after he witnessed her get off a city bus with her parents. Her father and mother–who placed a high value on education and were both working towards masters degrees in Divinity at the time–stood up for their daughter until they were admitted to the event.

“I remember nothing from that day except a man standing in front of the most powerful place in all of Georgia and telling me I don’t belong,” she said.

She charged Colorado Law graduates with protecting that societal sense of belonging as they move through their careers.

“Belonging is a word we use a lot, and it is a hard thing to hold on to–particularly when you enter spaces that don’t expect you, that don’t want you, that are willing to reject you at the drop of a hat,” she said. “As lawyers, you will be called upon to enforce the notion of belonging. It is your responsibility to not let the laws divide us from society.”

Abrams’ three acts

To see that responsibility through, Abrams provided three edicts to live by:

Own your ambition. Abram’s challenged Colorado Law graduates to dream big and believe in their power to enact change-and to do so in a way that isn’t cocky, but rather confident and is used to help others realize their full potential.

“So often we are taught to supplement our needs or desires or to edit what we want,” she said. “I need confident leaders who are stepping into the world and believe it is their right to demand better, it is their right to deserve better.”

Stacey Abrams giving a TED Talk in 2018

Stacey Abrams speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up. CC photo by Marla Aufmuth / TED

Embrace your fears. Fear is all around us, and many times we are told to suppress our fears, but Abrams contests that notion. “One cannot be brave if one does not acknowledge fear is real,” she challenged. “When you deny it from yourself, you find yourself denying it in others and then you lose the capacity for empathy.”

Her call to action was not to live in fear, but to instead recognize the fear or challenge, embrace it and let the acknowledgement of fear be used as preparation to problem-solve and overcome even the toughest obstacles.

Be prepared to fail. Abrams acknowledged this third charge might sound like a terrible piece of advice on commencement day, but argues it is the most important takeaway as graduates move forward with their lives and careers.

She used the personal example of how her loss in the race for governor in 2019 was a landmark failure in her life-but she used that failure to learn, grow and move on to establish her organization called Fair Fight, which advocates for equal voting rights in America.

“Failure not only teaches us how to survive loss,” she said. “It teaches us how to be better people: how to be better friends, how to be better allies, how to be better family members.”

Abrams said having ambition, embracing fear and preparing for failure will equip the graduates of Colorado law to make progress that leads to justice. As a class who has come together during a time of turmoil in society, Abrams reminded graduates about their belonging to one another, and that their lives will not be defined by their title, but by what they do with their opportunity.

“[You are a class who] have committed themselves to building a world of justice. If you build a world of justice, you will never fail unless you permanently forget that you are in this together.”

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