Sandy Springs City Councilmember Melody Kelley, who’s also a chemistry professor for Georgia State University, has made learning an integral part of her life and career.

Kiara Kelley, left, joins her mother, City Council member and GSU associate professor Melody Kelley, at Sandy Springs City Hall. (Courtesy of Melody Kelley)

Kelley attended Detroit’s public schools in what she called a disadvantaged district. She said the few strong educators at the school stood out and inspired her.

One of those educators was her 11th-grade chemistry class teacher, Michael Cuba, who she said was a chemist. He was conducting science and not just teaching. That was transformative for her, and she said it got her interested in becoming a scientist.

She said chemistry appealed to her as it’s inherently rooted in problem-solving. “And it’s looking at the physical world for things that are tangible, things you touch, things that go on inside of you, things that go on outside of you,” she said.

Kelley said that she was fortunate that philanthropy and grant money became available at the time to help students who weren’t demographically represented in specific fields of study like her choice of chemistry.

After graduating with an undergraduate degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, she earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That brought her to the South.

“I wanted to be a scientist at that time. Later, I decided I wanted to be a little bit more of a scholar. And so I felt like academia was a place where I could write books, do research, and teach as well,” Kelley said.

That was put on hold right after earning her doctorate because she did not immediately find a full-time job. So, Kelley worked as a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school.

That’s when her roots in civic engagement began. She said it started with involvement in the parent-teacher organization (PTO) at her daughter’s school and led her to become its president. People don’t realize how organic the transition from parent-teacher organizations to broader civic engagement is, Kelley said.

A job offer six years ago from Georgia State University to work as an associate professor in chemistry brought her to Sandy Springs. A search for a new home led her to Sandy Springs, which she said was in her price range and a short commute to the Dunwoody campus.

But with this move fully into her chosen profession, she didn’t drop her civic engagement. Kelley said when she moved to Sandy Springs, she continued that involvement at her daughter’s new schools, including serving on the Sandy Springs Charter Middle School and North Springs High School PTO boards.

That involvement dovetailed nicely into the nonprofit sector, she said. Kelley said she became a board member for Sandy Springs Education Force, a local nonprofit that provides co-curricular programming for the city’s public schools.

Kelley said her next engagement was joining a Leadership Sandy Springs class. This nonprofit cultivates leaders within the community, she said. And they connect people she doesn’t believe would have met otherwise.

She said her experience in Leadership Sandy Springs directly relates to what she does as a council member. The connections made within the community organization extend into her work on council, Kelley said.

She also listed graduation from the Sandy Springs Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy in her civic engagement. And in 2020, Rep. Josh McLaurin appointed her to the Sandy Springs Charter Review Commission in 2020.

As she attended Charter Review Commission meetings, many of them virtually because of COVID-19, she said a learning gap began to be seen in her students and her own daughter.

Being a single parent had been a balancing act but may be more so now after the pandemic, she said. As an educator, Kelley said she needs to work on the learning gap that she even sees in her daughter.

Before the 2021 City Council election, Kelley said she received phone calls from several people in her growing network asking her to run for office.

“What motivated me was the fact that those people didn’t know each other, necessarily,” she said.

She remembers walking into a City Council meeting years ago for the first time in her life.

“It was like they were speaking a different language,” she said.

Now that she serves on City Council and through her previous civic engagement, she has been learning that language and says she asks questions during council meetings to learn more.

“But also, I have a desire in the public forum to take the public on the journey with me of learning about the city,” Kelley said.

She looks forward to seeing what City Council actions may bring, such as potential redevelopment for three North End shopping centers. She also noted how the developing trails system touches quite a bit of multifamily housing in her District 2, which she believes will contribute to its usage.

“I would ask that people understand that I am a work in progress,” Kelley said.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.