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Graduate student and newly elected commissioner uses literacy to empower

Mariah Parker sees literacy all around us.

It's how you move your hands when you talk. It's the tune you hum as you drive in your car. It's the photos and videos you share on social media.

When put into an educational perspective, Parker wants to use these connections to help children open doors to new ways of embracing language, storytelling and communicating. "Or even validating their knowledge as a powerful tool for expressing themselves," she says during a break from her schedule at Hendershots Coffee in Athens. "I think, 'OK, what do kids already know about language that they might have learned through music?' and connecting them with that is a way to bring them into other kinds of learning and other kinds of self-expression."

Parker's reflections on literacy came during a crossroads in her day. Five minutes earlier she was conducting an on-camera interview. In the days after she was conducting a workshop with middle-schoolers at the Camp DIVE summer program hosted by the University of Georgia College of Education. And in the moments in between, she is furiously checking her email and social media to keep up with her latest challenge: Newly elected Athens-Clarke County commissioner.

"Yeah, I think my Twitter got hacked," she says, recounting the wave of events following her swearing-in at the Athens-Clarke City Hall. Elected on May 22, she is the only new commissioner to immediately be seated, taking the place of former Commissioner Harry Sims, who resigned to run for mayor.

Six months ago, she says, she never thought running for office was possible. Now, she's fielding calls and emails from business owners and new constituents on top of UGA demands—she's working toward a Ph.D. in language and literacy education in the College of Education—and performing in occasional shows as rapper Lingua Franca.

Her swearing-in ceremony outside City Hall caused a flurry on social media—photos shared around the world show her hand placed on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." But the gesture makes sense once you understand the confluence of social activism, youth empowerment and the power of words embraced by this lover of language and literature.

"I got my undergrad degree in English with a focus on creative writing, and I also minored in Spanish and other modern languages. But I didn't see then how it was all connected," says Parker, who attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She moved to Athens five years ago and began a master's program in linguistics, which is where the idea of literacy, language and policy began to gel. "It's purely distillable to just loving language and seeing it in everything."

But why pursue a public policy route rather than an educational one? Parker says often teachers become the front lines in battling issues stemming from home—and it's up to the larger community to solve these issues.

Public policies help raise or lower barriers to academic achievement, she adds. "At the end of the day, if your kids are hungry and they are falling asleep in class because of the fighting in their house the night before, as a teacher there's only so much you can do. But there's enormous pressure on educators to do something about that."

During her master's program and working with College of Education professor Ruth Harmon, Parker began thinking about using socio-linguistics to make more equitable classroom spaces. For example, helping teachers communicate more effectively with their students by validating the way their students were raised to communicate.

Now, as a doctoral student in the College's department of language and literacy education, Parker is taking it a step further, working on ways to help empower students and increase their civics education.

"It's so important in showing kids how to be involved in their communities and how much their voice matters and how to make their voice heard," says Parker. "And so my focus has shifted to what kind of talk do you need to talk to do this kind of work? How do we give people more access to that kind of talk? How do we shift what kind of talk is acceptable in the new political sphere?

"Just because you speak a certain dialect, attended a certain amount of school or use a certain kind of vocabulary does not make your opinion any less valid."

In addition to her work this summer at Camp DIVE, Parker is also working on a grant that would fund a program at a local high school to teach a civic literacy course. The idea is to help students find their voice as an advocate for their community through music, art, photography, theater and more.

It's putting the tools in the hands of young people so that when the next election comes around, the next generation isn't just voting—they're also running for a seat at the table.

"Running for office—I went from not thinking it was possible six months ago to doing it, and that's because someone empowered me and gave me the tools to do it," says Parker. "And I want to be that person for other people."