Social Activist Lisa Abbott Encourages Open Conversations About Class

After deciding she wanted to be a community organizer and joining a social justice organization, Lisa Abbott traveled to the mountains of eastern Kentucky for a life-changing job interview. Once she returned, Abbott told her roommate that she could see herself working there for a long time. That was in 1992. Now, 27 years later, Abbott is still a member of the organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC).

Abbott recounted her story at the Empathy, Balance, & Inclusion programming for Uppers last Friday. During the talk, which took place in Kemper Auditorium, Abbott spoke about her experiences as a social activist and offered her thoughts on social class, power, privilege, and social change.

“I encourage you to continue to think deeply about your own social class and upbringing, and the assumed and often invisible class identities of others. Reflecting on the class experiences that have shaped our lives is one of the ways that we can develop self awareness and interpersonal awareness that can allow everyone to bring their fullest self to the conversation to the decision making,” said Abbott in her talk.

Her Senior year at Groton School, Abbott was accepted to both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and Yale University. When UNC offered Abbott the Morehead Scholarship, which included a fully covered tuition and a stipend for attending, she made a choice between the two.

“The decision was shockingly straightforward to me. Lots of people felt that that must’ve been a really hard decision; I did not feel that way, at the time or now. I really saw the opportunity to go to North Carolina as a chance to make a fresh start and to find myself for myself,” said Abbott.

Abbott continued, “I don’t think I knew who I was, and I had some awareness of that. If I could go somewhere and graduate without debt, maybe I could figure out who I wanted to be and pursue a career of my own choosing,” said Abbott.

Emerald Tan ’20, who attended the presentation, noted Abbott’s experiences in high school and her choices concerning college.

“I found her story about her socio-economic struggles in high school really compelling because we are in a private high school and she went to one too. And I think it is very clear there is often a divide between the very wealthy people and the people on financial aid,” said Tan.

At UNC, Abbott began her career in environmentalism. She joined SEEK, a student-led environmental action coalition, and realized that communities with people of color and poverty were powerless when the state of Kentucky “was trying to locate a nuclear waste dump and hazardous waste dump.” These inequities drew Abbott to the political side of environmentalism.

“[SEEK] made me rethink what being an environmentalist meant, and made me see how many of the environmental issues that were affecting communities, were affecting poor people and people of color primarily, disproportionally, and then there were wealthier and whiter, more affluent communities,” said Abbott.

Abbott continued, “I also learned something else along the way. I saw how in every one of those effective communities, there were humble but courageous people who were daring to speak out, to resist, to work together, to improve the quality of life in their communities.”

After college, Abbott was inspired to join KFTC, a membership-led social justice organization with more than 12,000 grassroot members. From 2002 to 2015, Abbott served as the organization’s Deputy Organizing Director for Just Transition, which aims to build economic and political power in a shift towards a regenerative economy. Abbott’s work also focuses the development of a democratic society, the uses of sustainable energy, and climate change, according to the KFTC website.

“We [at KFTC] believe that unequal power relationships lie on the heart of most unfair and unjust conditions in our communities and in the world. We help diverse groups of people work together to identify solutions to the injustices they face, and then build an exercise collective power to win the policy changes that they seek at the local state and sometimes federal levels,” said Abbott.

Axel Ladd ’20 found Abbott’s work in refranchising felons one of the most interesting points of her presentation.

“In America we have this huge problem where felons are not allowed to vote, and America’s crime system is unjustly targeted towards people of color. We see a lot of people getting put away on bad sentences with very insufficient court rulings and they also cannot vote. And you have these entire groups of people who are just silenced through this entirely legal process, and [Abbott] was talking about how we can get these people to have a voice, even if they can not vote,” said Ladd.

Susan Esty, Director of Wellness Education and organizer of Abbott’s visit, hopes that Abbott’s talk inspired students to enact change in their communities.

Esty said, “We hope that students will take away a message that there are a lot of ways to make a difference in our local communities. Activism doesn’t need to end when you graduate, even if you choose a career path that isn’t directly involved in politics. We are stronger together, when we tune into issues affecting our communities and take action to build a better future for everyone.”