Nancy Abudu ’92: Voting and Working for Fairness
All it takes is a brief glance at the list of organizations where Nancy Abudu ’92 has spent her professional career to understand her commitment to making the nation and the world a more equitable and just place.
Those groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and the Legal Aid Society of New York, as well as work as a staff attorney for the Eleventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. After 14 years with the ACLU in Georgia and Florida, she is entering her third year as deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. In that role, Abudu works alongside a team of lawyers and community organizers to protect and strengthen the voting rights of minority communities and other politically vulnerable populations.
A phone interview during the first week of 2021 found Abudu in her Atlanta office as she monitored the results of the two Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs, which resulted in the state electing its first Black U.S. senator (Raphael Warnock) and the first Jewish senator (Jon Ossoff) to represent any state in the Deep South in more than 140 years.
The Georgia Senate runoff, of course, was held on the heels of the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, which brought issues of voting access to the forefront of America’s national discourse with a degree of focus and scrutiny not seen in decades—all against the backdrop of today’s hyper-partisan political climate.
In October, less than a month before the November election, Abudu and fellow Mercersburg graduate Sam Rodgers ’11 (who ran on the Republican ticket in the fall as a candidate for his New York State Senate district) participated in a virtual school meeting moderated by faculty member David Bell. In the meeting, Abudu emphasized to the assembled students that political participation does not and should not end after one casts a ballot, and that voters have an ongoing responsibility to hold officials accountable.
“What we’re seeing [on Election Day] is people realizing their vote really does matter, and the next step is to make sure that everyone’s vote counts,” Abudu says. “Once we see the results, that’s where the accountability piece comes in. As a society, I believe that we may have taken this for granted—in part because in America we have some structural checks and balances that we’re all supposed to believe in and will make sure the right thing happens in the end. The problem is that our society has gotten completely out of balance, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have not been doing a good job.”
Abudu was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, just a hop, skip, and a short rally from the center of the American political universe across the Potomac River. Her parents both immigrated from Ghana. Abudu credits her father, Paul, who was active in the Pan-African movement and the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid, with instilling in her the importance of civic participation and voting. “So when I came of age, I cast my ballot,” she said in the October school meeting. “I was very involved in political and civil rights issues throughout college and law school.
Abudu graduated from Columbia University and Tulane Law School. While at Tulane, she did environmental justice work for a law clinic that worked with communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The corridor is known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high prevalence of diagnoses and deaths in the area, which is home to a significant number of chemical plants and refining facilities. She continued working in support of environmental justice and women’s rights after landing at a corporate law firm right out of law school, and then transitioned into nonprofit advocacy on a full-time basis.
“For me, it’s always been about fairness and justice and due process, and that everyone should have a fair opportunity to live their life to the fullest,” Abudu says. “I’ve had a variety of interests in terms of civil and human rights, and in my career I’ve tried to employ different strategies, not just in the courts, but also through legislative advocacy and public education.”
In two years as a Mercersburg student, Abudu served as a Peer Group Leader, a Class Council officer, a member of the Karux yearbook staff, and as president of the Black Student Union, which was founded in 1989 [read the Winter 2020 issue of Mercersburg magazine for more information]. She was also a member of The Fifteen and played volleyball and soccer. Her younger sister, Madeline ’94, graduated two years later.
“I was challenged at Mercersburg academically, which of course is pretty common in terms of the rigor of the curriculum,” Abudu recalled in the school meeting. “It was also a challenge to come in as an 11th-grader in the middle of my high-school career, and also coming from a culturally diverse home environment to a place that at the time was still pretty homogeneous. There were issues of cultural competency that were lacking from some of the students and maybe even from some of the faculty and administration. But thankfully, I had the confidence to speak up for myself and for my classmates to try and raise awareness and implement some solutions to address those situations.”
Reflecting later on her time at Mercersburg, she says, “I appreciated my experience there because I realize how rare that opportunity was for me. I think of [then Headmaster] Walter Burgin ’53, and his commitment to making sure I was successful there. And now I appreciate it in terms of the privilege and power that Mercersburg wields in a way that, I think, is trying to be progressive and help move our country in a better direction. I gained a lot from the school.”