Interview with former Commissioner Mariah Parker

Commissioner Mariah Parker stepped down from their post on September 8. APN spoke with Dr. Parker about their resignation, their move to Atlanta and about the growing strength of the labor movement across the south.

Athens Politics Nerd: Hello, Dr. Parker! So you’ve officially stepped-down as ACC Commissioner after a bit over four years in office. A lot of people were surprised by your decision, which seemed to come all of a sudden. When did you make the decision to step down, and why?

Mariah Parker: I had for months been thinking about the need for me and others to get more involved in movement building. I tried to craft an exit strategy for a while and recruit someone to run in my place, but there were a few recent cataclysmic reckonings I had with the limitations of the role [of commissioner] and of the cruelty of capitalism. It made me feel like there wasn’t any time to waste in getting to that work.

People are really suffering. They don’t feel like they have any power to change things until someone comes to them and talks to them, supports them and shows them how. I decided to take the plunge and let go of the sense of disappointment that I know so many people feel with the limitations of the system. I decided to step into the power of being a free agent that can help realign peoples’ imaginations and walk with them in the work of trying to make change in their own lives.

APN: When you speak about the cruelty of capitalism, I think you mean the recent evictions at Lexington Heights and other neighborhoods?

Parker: Exactly. I have never been shy when it comes to taking direct action in the face of injustice. When I raised those possibilities, which are well-precedented in our history of struggle for freedom, folks didn’t feel like they had the power to do that, and they thought only politicians could do anything about it.

That really sat with me as a deeply sad perspective for us to collectively hold. I thought a lot about ‘how did we get here?’ I decided that I had to be part of that change in the community to help people understand what power they have when they come together to push for basic needs and rights. And better than that! To push for the kind of world we actually deserve. I felt deeply called to that work.

APN: I’ve heard that you moved to Atlanta very recently. Because of that, I think some of your constituents feel abandoned and that you haven’t always taken your commitment to them seriously. When people express those kinds of feelings about your resignation, how do you respond?

Parker: I have always felt that more than being a commissioner was necessary to transform the conditions that we live in. Taking direct action, popular political education and learning from movements across history and across geographies will help us see what possibilities for wins and policy change are on the table.

I think I’ve done a lot of good work to bring, particularly, young people into a political process that has never really listened to them, and I’m really proud of that. But throughout this journey, I’ve realized that a lot of the forces shaping and crippling our communities are very far flung and impact a lot of people whose fates are all bound together.

For example, take the University of Georgia which keeps so many people in poverty. Think how they always wave vaguely towards the Board of Regents as the reason why they can do nothing. That Board of Regents is also keeping thousands of people in poverty who work at universities across the state. Or the Prosperity Capital Partners situation — how many thousands of other people are being impacted by the cruelty of decisions like that? In Athens, we have small pockets of people willing to fight, but imagine if folks across geographies and race, class and gender stood together to push back against those forces?

I feel that broader movements like that have always been necessary to overturn unjust conditions. I see the work that I do across the south, like down in Montevallo, Alabama in a couple of weeks, or in Atlanta or in Athens, where I still organize, all together this adds up to not only changing the south, but changing Athens. As the saying goes, none of us are free until all of us are free.

APN: In Atlanta, you’ll be working with Raise Up the South as a labor organizer, and recently it seems like the US labor movement has been gaining strength. Tell us more about what you’ll be doing with Raise Up the South and what you hope the labor movement more broadly will be able to accomplish in coming years.

Parker: I just got back from walking around a Kroger parking lot talking to the dudes pushing the shopping carts about what it means for them to make $10.25 an hour and how their lives would change if they made more. These folks articulate really powerfully their understanding of this exploitation, that corporations are making billions of dollars while meanwhile, they can’t go back to school, or they have to bring their kids with them to the McDonalds where they are work because they can’t afford childcare.

We go out, we have conversations with workers about the possibilities of coming together to collectively challenge injustice in their workplaces and win! We just had some workers in Durham walk out, and a couple days later, they had all the problems they wanted to address fixed. From addressing sexual harassment to a more hospitable work environment. So there are ways for everyday, average people to band together, fight back and win. We have conversations with and follow the lead of workers in supporting them to take on those fights together.

APN: Do you anticipate that you’ll continue to do organizing work in Athens?

Parker: I have meetings in Athens tomorrow with former constituents, policy makers and workers. I hope with time as our work continues to expand across the state, that the next stop is Athens. I am not waiting around for that to happen, I’m making that happen because we need it right now. I am always here when called upon.

APN: With your departure from the commission and with Tim Denson also leaving, it feels like the end of an era. When you look back on your time as commissioner, are you more proud of what you accomplished, or disappointed by the things you didn’t get to do?

Parker: When I evaluate the last four and a half years, within the context of the possibilities of the role, I do feel really proud. I came to do things like decriminalize marijuana, lift wages, fund more affordable housing, and I did a lot of those things. There’s a lot farther to go, but considering the inventiveness with which we met those challenges and the insistence upon getting that done, even when we got told no at various points, we did it anyway! I will always feel really proud of that, of the powerful coalitions who helped achieve those things.

I don’t see it as the end of an era. I feel a lot of hope in a new beginning in which people realize that we have to save ourselves. It has to be a collective struggle. It has to be the most downtrodden folks finally seeing that the lies they’re told about themselves are just that, and really stepping into their power. I feel like this is the era in which we are entering. I feel really excited about that prospect. It gives me a lot of hope.

APN: What are some of the things you’re most proud of having accomplished as commissioner?

Parker: It’s always really small things. There’s the big glamorous policy changes that catch the headlines, but then there’s the small seeds you plant that you foresee growing into something amazing. Small things like the number of young people finally serving on our boards and commissions. As young as 16 years old, that would have been unthinkable four years ago. To imagine what it means for that person to have that institutional expertise by the time they’re 18. The possibilities of what they could do then, the leader they could become, it makes me excited.

The thing I’m most proud of is getting folks together to push for investments in our young people as a response to sprees of gun violence we’re seeing break out in Athens. In those cases, we’re seeing survivors and victim’s families and folks in these communities who are often counted out and blamed for what’s going on, really standing together. They’re saying, ‘we know what the solution is, we love our community and we’re going to fight for it.’ That’s really powerful to see.

APN: So many people are skeptical and jaded about politics, but should we start to believe in government again as a means to solve problems for ourselves?

Parker: Growing up, we’re told that civics involves going to vote every two or four years. That’s your duty, and when you do that, you’re done. We think about things like the civil rights movement as a historical aberration, as a moment in history and not an ongoing process. I think that’s purposeful. Folks don’t see that they can do that work. And they don’t see that folks making their lives miserable have… uh… varied job titles! (chuckles) But the thing they have in common is a ton of money.

Being jaded is valid because things are really bad out here. But I think people are starting to believe more in what they can do if they come together. They can make the government work for them. But also, if they come together, they can push back on bad landlords, they can push back on their bosses. I remain hopeful that people are starting to imagine all the different ways to fight back, and not just feeling depressed that government isn’t working. There are so many people to fight! You can push the government, you can push all kinds of people.

APN: Do you think you might run for public office again some day, or will organizing, or music, or maybe your academic career, be your focus going forward?

Parker: The academic career is definitely out. I don’t see that as a particularly powerful avenue for building a movement. I do see myself as an educator, so popular political education will always be a part of my work, whether that is running for office and using that platform to talk about how we can achieve housing for all people, and liberatory policies like that, or crafting media that helps people believe in that reality, and classrooms. I’m not sure where things are going to go. I do think my place is ultimately in the movement, however you want to define that. I show up where I’m needed. That’s why I ran in the first place, and I’m so glad that I did. I’d like to thank people for giving me that chance.

APN: When we think about the future, it’s easy to get pessimistic about things like the rise of far right movements and also about the ongoing crisis we face from climate change. But is there also reason for hope?

Parker: Hope is a discipline. You might feel a spark today, then it fades, and then you feel a lightbulb’s worth tomorrow. But you have to keep flexing it for it to grow strong enough to withstand everything to get out of the crises that we’re in. Even if it is a faint hope, even if it comes and goes, I do feel like it is there. We need to keep flexing it.

APN: Thank you, and good luck in whatever you decide to do in the future!

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