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Former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams exalted the power of storytelling to change lives in her keynote speech for The Hollywood Reporter‘s Power 100 Women in Entertainment event, presented by Lifetime, on Wednesday.
Walking onstage to a standing ovation, Abrams insisted that storytelling’s extraordinary power lies in shaping not simply our thoughts but our vision: “A good narrative can call people to action, change lives and set the course of our futures.”
The 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia learned the importance of stories from her parents, who worked hard but still struggled to make ends meet. “My mom called us the genteel poor — we had no money but we watched PBS and we read books,” she said. Her mother was a librarian and would sign them up as volunteers so they could see plays for free. Her father, a shipyard worker, “left home every morning before daybreak, but he never failed to tuck us in on Friday nights with a never-ending bedtime story that rivaled the best sagas ever penned by Octavia Butler or Charlotte Bronte.”
Volunteering was paramount in her upbringing, with her parents reminding her that “no matter how little we had, others had less and it was our job to serve them. We held the hands of the homeless and we learned to ask about their biographies. Tended the elderly in nursing homes to hear their recollections and their loneliness.” Abrams recalled watching in awe as her parents, who became United Methodist ministers, would weave possibilities of a better world through their prose.
The author carried her love of storytelling in every form to romance novels: “I crafted characters and plot lines where women who looked like me did things few black women dreamed about — ethnobotanists saving small villages and falling in love with handsome, flawed leading men — who learned to do as they were told.” As an attorney, Abrams wove complex explanations for her clients’ tax issues, “and gave the IRS a reason to believe,” she said.
Through Fair Fight, her voting rights organization through which she works to advocate for free and fair elections, Abrams drove home the importance of stories in tandem with her political work. “From state legislator to candidate for governor of Georgia,” her efforts were “rooted in knowing that the stories of people of color, of the marginalized, and the disadvantaged are too often footnotes, not chapters. Instead of ignoring them, we centered on these communities and it worked.”
Her mission was simple, Abrams explained: “For every person to feel in their gut that they were seen and heard and valued. That their stories too carried power and meaning, purpose and grace.”
She implored that all the leaders in the room at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Women in Entertainment event possessed that same power in Hollywood. “With a word, with a scene, with a script, you become advocates for the voiceless,” Abrams said. “You become the ciphers that tell the full truth of who we are as a society. And you are the oracles of our current age, defining challenges, calling us all to action through your work.”
She wagered that as women, “you have leveraged your space to highlight our complexity, our strength, our capacity for greatness and for redemption.”
The leader herself reflected on her campaign running for governor. “I was told that to be successful, I had to change my look, hide all of my past mistakes and use smaller words,” Abrams said. “I’m sure many women in this room can relate — being told that who we are is not enough to be what we imagine.”
Despite such discouragement, her experience running “as a sturdy black woman with natural hair and my mother’s gap reminded me of the power of authenticity and truth-telling even when it is painful, embarrassing and difficult. Because when we are not honest about who we are, we give others permission to lie to us.”
Instead, Abrams urged that “we must tell our truths on screens, in boardrooms and behind the scenes. We must be honest about the challenges that exist for women — particularly women of color — in this industry, in order to find the solutions that will empower others.”
Storytelling is a responsibility, she concluded. “You can inspire a nation to accept that our stories are valid, no matter how imperfect that story might be. To uplift the voices of those who wait in the shadows to hear someone whisper their name. To demand action on behalf of us all. This is our power,” Abrams said. “And I tell you today with no hesitation, this is our moment. So congratulations, and let’s get it done.”
The event’s honorees included Reese Witherspoon and Ronan Farrow. In addition to Abrams, Kerry Washington, Gretchen Carlson, John Legend and Charlize Theron served as speakers and presenters. Deanna Brown, president of MRC Media, which includes THR and Billboard, and publisher Lynne Segall also made remarks, as did editorial director Matt Belloni and guest editor Olivia Wilde.
Also in attendance were notable names such as Niecy Nash, Sophia Bush, Janet Mock, Bonnie Arnold, Gigi Gorgeous, Connie Britton, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Salke, Bob Gersh, Maggie Rogers, Anna Paquin, Channing Dungey, Lori Greiner, Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nina Shaw, Donna Langley, Dawn Hudson and Kaitlyn Dever, among others.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Power 100 Women in Entertainment event, presented by Lifetime was sponsored by Cadillac, Fiji Water, Moroccan Oil, eOne, Gersh, SAG-AFTRA and Loyola Marymount University, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
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