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Dr. Mariah Parker to give 2023 Commencement keynote address

Dr. Mariah Parker will give the keynote address at Warren Wilson College’s Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 13. Parker (they/them) is a community organizer with the Union of Southern Service Workers, a rapper (under the stage name Linqua Franqa), a linguistics scholar, and a 2013 alum of Warren Wilson College.

Parker made headlines when they were sworn in as a Georgia county commissioner, at age 26, with their hand on a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” The action went viral on social media and major news outlets. As a county commissioner, Parker focused on economic justice, criminal justice reform, racial equity, and raising the minimum wage.

Now Parker works for the Union of Southern Service Workers, the Southern arm of the Fight for $15 and a Union workers movement. The organization works with retail, fast food and other low-wage workers to take militant, non-violent direct action for fair wages, more regular schedules, paid sick days, healthcare benefits, safety at work, and other improved working conditions. 

In addition to being a community organizer, Parker is an accomplished hip hop artist. They use their career as a rapper as a platform for activism and education, to inspire people, do mass civics education, and to share personal experiences. Their music is also intricately tied to their academic work in linguistics and language. Their stage name, Linqua Franqa, comes from the linguistic term “lingua franca,” or common language used to communicate across cultures. Parker said linguistics also gives them a toolkit to create inventive hip hop verses.

At Warren Wilson, Parker studied creative writing and modern languages, worked at the Writing Studio, and wrote for the student newspaper, “The Echo.” Those experiences inspired them to get their master’s degree in linguistics, and then their Ph.D. in language and literacy education from the University of Georgia. Their dissertation focused on activist literacy, or the ways in which interpreting texts, speaking, writing, and other forms of communicating are critical to successful movements toward social change. Their latest album, “Bellringer,” was part of their dissertation.

During the Commencement address, Parker will invite graduates to lean into their anxieties for the future.

“It’s been my experience that there’s no excitement without fear, and there’s no fear without excitement if you look at it the right way,” Parker said. “The fear and excitement of embracing new challenges and adventures is a recurring theme in my own life journey. I’ll bring some of those reflections back to this, one of the most startling and exciting departures in a young person’s life: graduating from college.”

Parker said Warren Wilson is, in many ways, home to them. They will also speak to their own experiences as an undergraduate student.

“I am excited to reflect upon my time at Warren Wilson, in service through the Big Brother Big Sister Program, my time in work, and the Writing Studio, where I discovered my love for teaching that led me to where I am today in many ways. The lessons from that have carried me into this moment,” Parker said.

Jay Roberts, provost of Warren Wilson College, said the college is honored to have Parker speak at Commencement.

“Mariah embodies the mission and spirit of the College in so many ways, joining creativity, intellect, activism, and community-creation,” Roberts said. “There is no one path that Warren Wilson alums take, but I am confident Mariah’s journey will inspire our Class of 2023 and we are thrilled to welcome them back to campus.”