Liliana Bakhtiari is one of Georgia’s most beloved activists.
Her work locally and abroad shows a commitment to community, accessibility and equality for all humans. A great deal of her name recognition comes from her recent nationally-covered 2017 campaign for Atlanta City Council. Liliana’s new project further drives (literally) her principles of positivity, equity and accessibility in a simple and brilliant way—a bus.
In collaboration with Living Melody Collective, Liliana Bakhtiari and her team have created a mobile mural to bring voter engagement, social justice, and civic engagement straight to the communities who need them with the new project A Georgia for All Georgians.
“This mobile art installation will be traveling around the state, engaging suburban and rural Georgians, and inspiring them to make their voices heard in this critical election for all of Georgia. Because hope is a stronger tool than hate.”
We sat down with Liliana to not only talk about how the project works, but to discuss her thoughts on social engagement and the role her identity as a queer Muslim woman has affected her journey.
Walk us through the mission of the bus.
I want to start with how the bus came to be. I’ve been doing advocacy work my whole life, crisis relief is my passion. After the campaign, I had this idea for mobile advocacy. I wanted a way to reach voters in impoverished areas.
It just so happened that around that time, the deportation bus happened, where one of the republican candidates for governor, really hateful, claimed he was going to drive around Georgia and round up all the illegal immigrants and send them back across the border where they belonged. Super ignorant, and the frustrating part was people were giving this man a lot of mic time and space in the room, and the bus went viral. Naturally after that he lost the nomination.
I thought ‘why don’t I turn a bus into the anti-deportation bus?’ because hope is so much stronger than hate. That’s when I called Jessica Caldas with Living Melody Collective and asked them to help design a bus, basically a hope bus that symbolizes inclusivity and a Georgia for all Georgians. Within two months we found and bought a bus, and got the whole thing painted. Our first trip is to Albany, Georgia, transporting hurricane relief materials down there, later we’re doing a voter workshop, and then Columbus, Georgia. The idea is to use the bus as a conversation piece, to not necessarily tell people which way to vote, but more so get people inspired to vote and show up.
So the bus will be delivering services to the community as well.
Yes, we want to use it to its fullest potential. A lot of people have already expressed interest and a lot of requests are being made of the bus and we’re excited to help in any way that we can.
What made you decide to work with Living Melody Collective?
The five women of Living Melody Collective (Haylee Anne, Angela Bortone, Jessica Caldas, Danielle Deadwyler and Angela Davis Johnson) are all extraordinary. Their work together is beautiful. Jessica and I have worked together in the past, we’ve worked with survivors of sexual assault, worked around immigrant issues, a number of things. So when I thought about making a bus that represented the Georgia we have the potential to be, they immediately popped into my head, and they’ve done an extraordinary job bringing that vision to life.
In all your ventures as a humanitarian and political figure, you remain an advocate for the arts. What do you see as the role of arts in affecting change.
Art is part of any community, it expresses individuality, creativity, its meant to be accessible to everyone, it’s never apolitical, it circumvents the bureaucracy and gatekeepers, its given to people of all backgrounds, traumas, educations, financial status. Art throughout the centuries has been used as a tool against oppression, dictatorships, violence. We’ve seen it in revolutions by people who are queer, poor, victims of genocide. Art has the ability to create experiences in a language everyone can understand. There’s not a single piece of art that’s not political, whether it’s in a gallery or on a highway wall, there’s politics there. Art shapes everything we live in, from the vehicles we drive to the design of our homes. There’s a reason why when a government takes power, the first thing they do is silence art and media, they’re powerful tools.
One of your critiques from your political opponents has been that you’re using identity politics to your advantage. I think that’s a strange to say because I think the body is never not political. I wanted to ask you as a Muslim queer person, what do those identities mean to you and how does it affect the work that you do.
To address the earlier question, I found it absolutely ridiculous to think that I ran my campaign solely on identity politics. It’s just not true. During the campaign, every aspect of my identity was being attacked. My identity wasn’t being represented by any government representative, so why wouldn’t I want to speak on behalf of who I am. But that wasn’t my sole reason for running as a candidate. I always brought it back to my platform. It just so happened that national press covered my race and local press refused to. We sent out countless press releases and nobody published anything about my race.
That being said, what my identity means to me in this political climate, I am a Muslim queer brown woman from an immigrant refugee Iranian-Azeri family. I was raised in public service; charitable work is one of the pillars of Islam, one that my father believed the most in. The Islamic faith that I represent and embody in the work that I do is the one that was taught to me by my father, the one that taught me to never step over someone to get ahead, that you always talk to someone in need of help, that you always take time to get to know someone’s story, and you always put into the community what you wish to receive, because you never know when life is going to take things away from you. Do unto others as you would have done to you, that’s the Islam that I defend, that’s part of my character and upbringing. Growing up, these parts of my identity led to so many things, countless traumas, my parents’ cross-cultural traumas, all those things affected who I was and who I’d become, but it also gave me the gift to be able to relate to people of all different backgrounds. I can better be an ally to people in need, and all that’s embodied In the work that I do and my work in public service.
What would you say to people who are frustrated or passionate and want to get involved to enact political and social change and want to know how to get started?
Show up, there’s power in just showing up. Show up to political meetings, activist meetings, look up the organizations that are doing the work, non-profit meetings, volunteer, be present at legislative meetings. All these meetings for city council and state government, the majority of these are public. Go to them. That’s where the power lies. The government and corporate investors have thrived for decades by making these meetings appear inaccessible to the public. As the wealth gap has grown, as our healthcare has begun to fail, as our focus on education has dwindled, as we’ve shown hatred to immigrants, people of color and lgbtq individuals, people are finding it harder and harder to survive. This lessens a person’s ability to be present, to make their voice known, and so showing up and being heard becomes more of a privilege than a right. I tell people to show up and educate themselves. There’s no secret recipe to figuring this shit out. The power is in showing up.
There is a lot of reasons to be angry these days. What gives you hope in your line of work? What are you most optimistic about?
People’s individual stories. Everybody’s a survivor of something. Life runs you over and it keeps coming. It’s easy to be disgusted, disenchanted and outraged with people at large, but individuals win your heart over every single time. That’s why going door-to-door while campaigning was one of my favorite things. The people you get to bond with, seniors, kids, young parents, teachers, first-responders, getting to hear their stories, you realize they open the door for you because they have hope in you. When people share their stories, it’s one of the most intimate and special things people share with each other.
For more information on A Georgia for All Georgians and ways to support, click here.