Fifth graders welcome former DeKalb student and graduate 

5th grade student at podium

Photo: Vanecia Thompson

Imagine being a student at your local DeKalb County School District (DCSD) elementary school.

The subject for the month is Civil Rights. You’ve heard about historical icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as modern figures such as Colin Powell and Barack Obama.

Now imagine meeting one of those modern heroes and engaging in a deep, subject-driven, thought-provoking conversation. At Midvale Elementary, this isn’t just imagination; it’s a reality.

Midvale Elementary welcomed former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams on Friday, April 19, 2019 as part of a fifth-grade focus on Civil Rights. The program was entirely student driven and included a student welcome, brief speech by Abrams, and a Q&A session.

Abrams, a DCSD graduate from the former Avondale High School, spoke to students about her career in politics, how she has overcome obstacles, almost being the first African American female governor in the history of Georgia, and how she navigates the realm of politics.

“One obstacle I’ve had to face is being black,” Abrams said. “We shouldn’t consider that an obstacle, but there has never been a black woman as a governor in any state, ever. There have only been four black people who have been governor… It’s an obstacle to helping people believe that a black woman can be governor. Do people underestimate you because of who you are? What happens when people underestimate you? You have to prove them wrong. I had to risk not winning, and I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I got more people to pay attention and more people to vote than any other Democrat in the history of Georgia.”

Abrams advised students to not listen to people who think others aren’t good enough, smart enough or experienced enough. She said it’s better to instead focus on strengths—how intelligent, able to learn, and skillful a student may be—and to prove people wrong.

Many students asked questions about Abrams’ famed gubernatorial run in 2018, which picked up international attention. While Abrams narrowly lost the election, she shared with students things she learned on the journey.

5th grade teachers with Stacey Abrams

Photo: Vanecia Thompson

“My mother took part in the Civil Rights movement; she helped people register to vote, get rights, and helped end Jim Crow [laws],” said Abrams. “When I told her I wanted to run for governor, she was worried… I was afraid. But I did my part—I made sure every time I said something or did something, I was the best I could be. I had to practice. Part of my job and overcoming my fear was practicing being better. I had to practice a lot more than other people—those people didn’t have people telling them they weren’t good enough because they were African-American or a woman.”

Abrams admitted she was not the best public speaker, but stated she overcame her fear of speaking in front of large crowds by changing her point of view. Instead of looking at it from a position of fear, she learned to look at it from a learning perspective.

Students were assured that studying Civil Rights was more relevant than ever. Abrams noted the differences that would occur if the Civil Rights had never happened.

“I wouldn’t be here,” Abrams said. “While there were many good schools around during segregation, they were limited in how much money they received and how many resources they had. Students who graduated from them were often told there are things they cannot do…I could have gone to jail for helping people vote. Thanks to the Civil Rights, there are so many things I’ve had the chance to do—go to really good schools, work in really interesting places, and meet incredible people.”

Abrams also shared advice on writing speeches, remaining resilient, and becoming a successful politician. The secret for Abrams on the latter? Caring about others.

“We don’t often think about that, but it’s your job—you’re being hired to make peoples’ lives better, so you should care about them, and care about all of them,” Abrams said.

Students were in awe of meeting a modern Civil Rights icon in person and having their questions answered directly. Abrams’ history in Georgia, Atlanta, and DCSD itself did not go unnoticed.

5th graders at Midvale Elementary with Stacey Abrams

Photo: Vanecia Thompson

“Ms. Abrams went to a DeKalb County school just like we do,” said one student. “This connection, and the accomplishments by Ms. Abrams reassures many of us that our dreams are within reach!”

The fifth-graders all agreed that Abrams shares many qualities—courageous, knowledgeable and principled—with well-known Civil Rights leaders. Fifth-graders also pointed out that Abrams has broken many barriers with regards to her race and gender.

“Stacy Abrams is an excellent example of someone making a difference in the world,” said one student.

The event was made possible by Midvale fifth grade teachers Ameer Barron, Donna Blair, Gary Budd, and Zakiyyah McCaskill, who penned a letter to Abrams in late March.

“During [Abrams’] visit to Midvale, we think [her] dynamic and passionate stance on supporting basic human dignity and respect will resonate among our group of fifth graders,” the letter states. “[Abrams’] wisdom will foster compassion among our talented students and has the potential to fortify connections made during classroom instruction. Her keen insight, blended with her presence, shines a light and brings to life the critical pieces that words in a textbook cannot.”