Liliana Bakhtiari- Leader
In September 2017 a group of people gathered in the garden of 368 Ponce to hear Liliana Bakhtiari, candidate for Atlanta City Council, District 5 speak. a few high school students were waiting with excitement on their faces. also In the crowd were artists, activists, and everyday neighbors in attendance. we were curious to learn more about Liliana. at the time all we had heard was that she was young, openly queer, and from an immigrant Iranian family. Without question She was not your typical politician running for office and we were eagar to learn more. Months after the campaign we sat down over coffee to discuss the whirlwind experience of the campaign.
Liliana has an extensive history of organizing and is recognized within the community for her work in social equality. In her childhood years she assisted her father, a pharmacist with his pharmacy on Auburn Ave. Liliana worked at the pharmacy on the weekends and first began building relationships with members in the community. Once in University Liliana and her friends launched a non-governmental organization dedicated to protesting the tragedies in Darfur. She spent her time in student led coalitions such as the Georgia Dreamers program and affordable education. Liliana’s work in public service took her abroad to places like Kenya and Cambodia to name a few. While abroad she tackled issues from humans rights, to food scarcity, and cultural after effects of genocide.
In recent years Liliana’s close friends urged her to consider making a shift into politics. She tells us, “I kept saying no. I had this distrust around the fact that someone could be around politics and still be a trustworthy person.” Once Donald Trump announced the muslim ban Liliana had to act. Members of her family like so many others were impacted by this rash decision. An uncle of Liliana’s with a wife and children in the United States had been approved for a green card. He was anxiously anticipating being reunited with his family after spending years apart. The day that the ban was announced those plans came to a complete halt. To this day he waits in limbo between Iran and Azerbaijan hoping to see his family again. Other members of Liliana’s family with green cards were visiting Iran during the enactment of the ban feared they wouldn’t be allowed reentry back into the United States. Liliana recognized this was her opportunity to step up and run for City Council. “It felt like a way to speak up and represent people who have never been represented in local office before. This was an opportunity to marry social justice and activism with policy reform. Which is something that doesn’t tend to happen very often.”
The political climate combined with Liliana’s background made her announcement for candidacy of immediate interest. It was as if someone had lit a fire. There was a press race with news organizations such as Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, and Buzzfeed vying for an interview with Liliana. The timing was right to get her name out there. Working as a full time candidate and partnering with her peers she hit the ground running. During her campaign Liliana was able to conduct multiple rounds of phone banking, social media ads, and knocks on doors. Her average donation was $75 from over 1,700 contributing individuals. While fundraising Liliana found unique ways for constituents to donate such as potluck nights, comedy nights, drag show nights, and even dance parties.
“Where your money comes from says a lot about who you’re answering to.” “One of my friends pointed out to me that if they couldn’t afford to come to any of my events then why would they vote for me? I wanted to make certain I was accessible to everyone.”
Liliana also showed up. To any and every neighborhood meeting day in and day out. There wasn’t a week that passed when you couldn’t find a way to connect with the candidate. On nearly every account Liliana’s campaign was a tremendous success. As a first time candidate she made national headlines, out raised the incumbent 3 times, and raised a total of $132,000 in 8 months. Voters believed in Liliana. As someone who grew up in the city she is acutely aware of the struggles and concerns on the minds of the everyday people. Affordable housing, public safety, gentrification, and preserving the history of neighborhoods are all issues Liliana has been working to impact.
Another accomplishment attributed to Liliana’s ability to relate to real people in the community comes from a story of a first time voter named John. “Very few people know what City Council actually does. Thats also why a diversity of tactic is so important. That’s why I didn’t just do phones, or just do the field. I showed up everywhere I could think of. One guy was 40 years old and he finally registered to vote. I was the first person he ever voted for. I’m very proud of him, his name is John. So now John votes. He said he was never going to register to vote unless he met someone that inspired him.”
At the end of it all the election rested on 252 votes in favor of the incumbent. Liliana joking laughs, “its like an Iranian wedding, its nothing.” When asked if there was one thing she would change about her campaign she confidently says if she had started one month earlier she would have won the campaign.
So what is life like now for the former District 5 candidate? In her own words she is very busy. “A lot of first time candidates have been calling me, a lot of long time candidates have been calling me. A lot of people want to ask questions so my phone never stops ringing. I sit on about 5 different boards now. One of my big focuses is insuring that first time minority candidates and female candidates are put through for office and know what to expect. Really pushing these ingrained institutions that endorse candidates and pushing to be the voice in the room that encourages them to broaden the definition of a viable candidate. Because by every definition I wasn’t a viable candidate. If they had jumped in earlier on my campaign we would have had a very different outcome. There is an urgency in politics and we need something different. Not just preparing white men, we are in a place where we need to diversify, we need to take risks on people even if they don’t feel like a sure thing.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of spending any time with Liliana you know that her passion for service is tangible. When you talk with her she listens, looks at you directly, and cares about what you have to say. From her efforts to reduce her plastic consumption by forgoing the use of a plastic straw in her iced coffee to jumping to hold the door open for a customer with their arms full, Liliana cares. After meeting with her you understand this is who she is, serving people is rooted in her, and she will unfailingly work to lift up those around her.
Our conversation turns to the future and what plans are in store. Liliana and her partner are embarking on a cross country tour through the United States this fall on a refurbished school bus. They are spending the summer redesigning the school bus so that it will facilitate their needs serving as a travel bus, on the road home, and a work center. The goal of the tour is to visit cities across the US that have successfully implemented affording housing solutions. Liliana is specifically interested in how the “tiny home” models can solve the answer to Atlanta’s homelessness crisis and offer a better way forward to confront density. Additionally she is keen on finding what works in cities that are also addressing the needs of senior citizens. “Single family housing is a huge obstacle when tackling the issue of density. Duplexes, triplexes can be built in the character and integrity of our neighborhoods. If you want to maintain an economy, our population is growing, we’re bringing in millions more people in the next few years and if you do not build for the people that are coming into this city then they will take the homes that are already here and there will be faster displacement of folks. I’m trying to see how we can marry that with the need for density. Its not easy to do and I still haven’t met anybody that can answer that question for me.”
The future of neighborhoods in District 5 are most notably at risk to gentrification and the rising cost of living. With a considerable amount of new development taking place, specifically on Memorial Drive, we have begun to see displacement of communities. Neighborhoods such as Reynoldstown, the first neighborhood established by freed slaves, now have no people of color living there. None of the original residents are there and that is disheartening to Liliana and many others to see. Land prices on Memorial are going for millions an acre and replaced with commercialized property.
"My love for the city does not hinge on being an elected official. I want to be the best person I can for Atlanta."
Will Liliana Bahktiara’s name once again be on the ballot? Thats a question we’ve been waiting months to ask. “I do want to run again. I don’t want to have gotten that close and not run again. My love for the city does not hinge on being an elected official. I want to be the best person I can for Atlanta. There is a lot to determine with the redistricting. I don’t want to run for the sake of running. I want to run against someone who I think I can do a better job of running the city effectively. In the meantime I’m working with City Hall and building a bench here. I am encouraging more minorities and more people to run and doing everything I can to pass on what I've learned to those folks. I’m doing everything I can to be as knowledgable on the issues of seniors and affordable housing so that I can be as big of an asset to this city as I can. All that to say I hope to be on the ballot in 2 to 4 years.”
When asked what can people do to be more engaged with the city, Liliana’s advice is simply to show up. "If you want your child to cross the street safely, you want to pay better taxes so you can afford to live in this area, or you want to ensure that you have police patrolling the roads so that you feel safe then you must get involved. Show up to monthly neighborhood meetings and City Hall meetings to learn what changes are being proposed. Be the advocate for your neighborhood and have your voice heard."
Follow Liliana on Instagram for updates on what she is involved in and to ride along her cross country journey as she sets off this Fall. We are certain there will be big things ahead.
Words Rigby Wrights
Images compliments of Liliana Bakhtiari and Figure and Ground ATL