By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times
Author and educator Nathalie Nelson Parker has partnered with Birmingham City Schools (BCS) to launch a special program to promote literacy and college and career readiness among local students.
The “I Love My Future HBCU” initiative is inspired in part by Parker’s children’s book of the same title—and now Parker is looking for ways to bring the book to life and amplify its impact.
The book, subtitled “Teaching Children About Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” is timely, especially because Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has designated October as HBCU Month in the state.
“As I look at the landscape of education—teacher shortages and lower rates of literacy, particularly post-pandemic—I think it’s important to partner with educational institutions, with teachers and principals, and with the ecosystem around our children to really motivate them to read and to imagine,” Parker said.
The Alabama Literacy Act, which went into effect for the 2023–2024 school year, requires that third graders demonstrate a certain level of reading proficiency or be held back.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has stated that the BCS system is facing a reading “crisis.” At the close of the 2022–23 school year, “almost 50 percent” of third graders were not reading on grade level, Woodfin has said, and he’s asked for adults citywide to step up to help address the emergency.
The “I Love My HBCU” initiative—which Parker will kick off on Wednesday, October 18, at Minor Elementary School and South Hampton Elementary School—will include interactive read-aloud sessions and much more for Birmingham students. The author and educator has developed lesson plans and activities sheets for elementary school students. “We anticipate having bookings all the way to February for Black History Month,” Parker said.
Through the initiative, Parker and her team will offer customized programs for area schools based on student needs. Programs could include reading to students, leading class discussions, hosting school-wide assemblies with creative keynotes, and helping high school students be better prepared to apply to attend an HBCU.
Her goal is to inspire a love for reading and learning, all while introducing students to the rich history of HBCUs, the opportunities the institutions offer, and the contributions HBCUs have made to higher education, the nation, and even the world.
Mark Sullivan, Ed.D., BCS superintendent, said the book “I Love My Future HBCU” will appeal to students for several reasons.
“We know that children are attracted to images when they can identify with them,” he said. “Children also are often intrigued by rich history from their community and their culture.”
BCS is encouraging all students, especially elementary scholars, to make a practice of reading, said the superintendent.
“We want them to learn to read, enjoy reading, and use the information from books to expand their knowledge,” Sullivan said.
Coming of Age
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Parker is a first-generation American child of Jamaican parents. “Because I was the first child to be born in the States, my parents really pushed for me to get the best education possible,” Parker said.
Parker attended Gammon Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, an HBCU that is a constituent of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary part of the Atlanta University Center (AUC) with Morehouse College and Spelman College but an independent graduate school at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
Before embarking on her studies at Gammon, Parker already had degrees from two predominantly white institutions: she’s a graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College, one of nation’s top graduate schools of education, and Delphi University, where she double majored in political science and English.
“There’s nothing wrong with those institutions,” Parker said. “I just never had that level of belonging, that feeling belonging in a community that looked like me, that appreciated me, that affirmed me.”
She found all this and more at Gammon Theological Seminary, the only historically Black seminary of the United Methodist Church. It was at Gammon that she met her husband, the Rev. Leon F. Parker III, who currently serves as the Vice President of Student Life Engagement and Chapel and is an assistant professor of religion at Miles College.
While attending Gammon and just after she and Leon Parker got engaged, Parker was selected by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to be part of its HBCU All-Stars program for the 2015–2016 school year. She remembers that time vividly.
“I’m in Washington, I’m representing my HBCU, I’m engaged, I’m excited about being a part of the HBCU ecosystem, and I just felt so much love and appreciation for the privilege I had of meeting my husband there, going there, and just really coming of age,” she said.
The moment inspired her to write the book “I Love My Future HBCU.” She wanted to write a book for her future child, a book that shared her love and appreciation for her HBCU.
Love for Literature
Long before she fell in love with HBCUs, Parker developed a deep passion for reading.
“Growing up in the inner city of Queens, New York, books were an escape,” Parker recalled. “It was the catalyst for me to imagine a better life for myself. But it also [gave me the] freedom to be able to express myself, to critically think, and to really navigate some of the challenges I experienced.”
Parker’s love of literature led her to a career in education. She taught English for 10 years in a variety of settings—middle and high schools, private and public schools, rural and alternative schools in New York and Atlanta, as well as in Nashville, Tennessee.
Though she resides in the Birmingham area, Parker currently serves as the Director of Recruitment, Retention, and Innovation at Gammon Theological Seminary and works as an educational consultant through her company, Civitas Consulting Group.
She’s also the founder of the National Network of Young Adults, an initiative she launched in 2016 to develop leadership skills in young adults, ages 18 to 35, through national events, trainings, and partnerships with more than 20 HBCUs and campus ministries.
Parker’s 6-year-old son, Leon F. Parker IV, already shares his mother’s love for the written word.
“He loves to read so every night,” said Parker. “It’s not one book before bed—it’s three to four books. … That, to me, is so special. He lays out his book and says, ‘We’re gonna read this one first!’ And, as tired as I am, I look forward to that time of day every day.”
As an educator, Parker wants to foster as much love of reading in others as she has in her own child and is excited to launch the “I Love My Future HBCU” initiative in October, HBCU Month in Alabama.
“I didn’t have the blessing of being born in Alabama, the state with the most HBCUs,” Parker said. “I think it’s so important right now that we have those conversations with our children and let them know that [attending an HBCU] is an option for your future, that there’s this community that’s committed not just to your academic success but to your wellness, your wholeness.”
To learn more about the “I Love My Future HBCU” initiative, visit www.nathalienelsonparker.com/hbcu.