Liliana Bakhtiari was born into a world of activism. She remembers being 8 years-old marching next to her father at protests against human rights violations. As a refugee, Bakhtiari’s father raised her to always put community first. To stand up for the values she believed in and help people not only survive, but thrive.
“It wasn’t a big stretch to then becoming a teenager passionately working on women’s and children’s issues,” Bakhtiari tells GO. “In my early 20s, as a queer college student at GA State and immediately afterwards, I traveled the world working on the ground in places like Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya and others, working as an advocate for orphans, water access, education, and family planning, and against human trafficking and domestic violence.”
Flash forward 10 years and Lilana Baktiari is now the first lesbian Muslim woman running for city council in Atlanta. To her, running for public office seemed like the natural next step in her activism work.
“I was asked to run by several community leaders that I know and respect for months leading up to my campaign,” Bakhtiari says. “I had been thinking about running ever since I began working in housing justice in college, but I didn’t take those thoughts and suggestions seriously until the first travel ban, when 5 green card holding members of my family came under threat of deportation. I knew that if legislation was going to dictate my life and the lives of those I loved, I needed to be doing more to affect it.”
And she’s perfect for the job. She knows Atlanta well, from growing up in the diverse communities surrounding her as a child. Bakhtiari hopes to help bring those different worlds together, in a more collective way to create equal opportunities for everyone. She sees the potential for an even richer culture and quality of life for every person who lives in Atlanta.
Bakhtiari describes growing up in Atlanta as “two different worlds” for her. She attended school in Gwinnett, where she felt “othered” from a young age as one of the only Middle-Eastern kids in her class. Most weekends were spent working at her father’s pharmacy in downtown Atlanta, where she was enriched with the diverse culture and population most Atlantans know as home. “On deliveries with my dad, it was the poorest families that were often the warmest and most welcoming, and I wanted to do everything I could to give back to that community that had welcomed me and my “otherness” with open arms,” she explains.
LGBTQ and Muslim representation in public office is vital—these underserved communities often get brushed over by elected officials who don’t take community needs seriously. When we have people like Bakhtiari in office, there is a chance at making our communities stronger through diversity. “I did not know this before I started my campaign, but the question has been raised whether I would be the first openly queer Muslim woman elected in the United States,” she tells GO. “While I am running to make sure the hard working families and small businesses of Southeast Atlanta get more than they are getting from their current representatives, knowing that we might make history is not lost on me.”
Breaking barriers in the community is nothing new for Bakhtiari, she learned how to navigate many different spaces from a young age “I learned a lot about how we should treat others by seeing how Metro-Atlanta treated a young Iranian, Azeri-American girl,” she notes. And she plans to use that knowledge—from her youth and travels—to pave the way for young LGBTQ and Muslim kids to see what is possible for the future. She wants to use her voice as a future city council member to be an effective advocate for working families and those communities that so often go unheard.
“Personally, as a lifelong Democrat, I believe it is significantly more important to stand up in times of population oppression than other times. Now is one of those times, and though we must often make compromises in order to pass legislation, those compromises should never be at the expense of our values,” she says.
Since Trump’s election to the highest seat at the table, there has been talk of how important creating change at the local level of politics can be. Grassroots organizers—much like where Bakhtiari’s background comes from—are advocating left-leaning activists to start working with their local elected officials (like city council members), in hopes that they can make ripples toward the state and then federal tiers.
And that responsibility is not one that Bakhtiari takes lightly.
“To hold an office during the Trump presidency would be more important than holding office during the Obama presidency, and I will do all that I can to earn the opportunity to be the representation that challenges his close-minded leadership.”