If you were walking around the streets of San Francisco in the months leading up to the California elections in March 2020, you might have seen Nima Rahimi. It would have been hard to miss him. He didn’t go anywhere without his campaign sign. Rahimi was on the ballot to try to win a seat on San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee, a position that manages Democratic Party business on a local level, registers voters, and makes endorsements in local races. Although he didn’t win, more than 19,753 votes were cast for him and he came within 0.75% of winning. For a young person without the resources or political clout of some of his peers, Rahimi thinks that was a good start and holds promise for the next election.
Rahimi is not new to Democratic Party politics. Over the past several years, he has served as an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party, where he participated on the resolutions committee, and was tasked with passing value statements that determine and reflect the values of the California Democratic Party. “I joined a local Democratic club in Santa Clara called the Bay Area Iranian American Democrats (BAIAD) when I was 18 years old in response to George W. Bush’s labeling of Iran as a member of ‘the Axis of Evil,’” says Rahimi. “I feared another war was imminent and wanted to do something.” Over the next few years, Rahimi and other BAIAD members met with members of Congress, held community meetings, and drafted and passed the first-of-its kind resolution at the California Democratic Convention, urging diplomacy with Iran over military force.
Rahimi, a lawyer by profession, views the essential role of institutional politics in our society as a recognized and formal mechanism through which citizens can exercise power. “Those who control these mechanisms have tremendous ability to affect the outcomes. They have the power to pass repressive and discriminatory laws, and start wars, but they also have the power to cure diseases, put humans into space, and end wars,” says Rahimi. As a young activist, Rahimi saw what he believed to be egregious wrongs committed by those in charge of our institutional politics on a national level. Rahimi has tried to affect change by getting involved in the political process at the most basic level; his journey has taken him from trying to affect change from the outside to sitting at the table as a decision-maker representing several hundred thousand Americans on a committee that decides the values of a major American political party in the most populous state in the US.
“As Iranian Americans get more involved in the democratic process, we bring a unique and often, under-exposed set of perspectives and experiences to the Democratic Party,” says Rahimi. By becoming involved in mainstream Democratic Party politics, Rahimi believes Iranian Americans can enrich the history of social justice that has defined the party. “Our immigrant experience, our history, and our challenges can be part of the larger US struggle for equality, social justice, and opportunity,” says Rahimi, adding, “and our activist work inside and outside formal politics means the difference between going to war or not, challenging unjust immigration legislation, as well as the repealing laws such as the ‘Muslim Ban,’ that not only acutely affect our community but also Americans as a whole.”
Rahimi is deeply influenced by his upbringing in the Bay Area. He is a first generation Iranian-American raised in a Sufi Muslim household. His mother came to the United States at the age of 23, and his father came at 25 years old. Both his parents grew up in Iran in poverty; they had no running water or electricity and experienced regular food insecurity. Like many immigrants, they came to the United States seeking a better future for themselves. But Rahimi, says, like so many other immigrants, they faced discrimination for their national origin and religion. Their plans to return home for a good job with an American degree in-hand fell apart in the face of the Iranian revolution and the 8 year-long Iran-Iraq War. “So they pivoted, says Rahimi. “My dad went from working for Burger King to being a limo driver to starting a hot dog stand that ended up going under after a vandalism incident we couldn’t afford to fix. My mother worked as a bank teller most of my life. There was a time we lived off of food stamps.”
Rahimi’s family finally cut a break when his dad landed a part-time job at the United States Postal Service. Before long, he was a full-time mail carrier with union pay and benefits. “The timing could not have been more significant. Shortly after miscarrying at five months, my mother was diagnosed with stage-3 colon cancer and given only months to live.” Having to leave her job and with no healthcare of her own, the family depended on Rahimi’s father’s benefits and paycheck. Rahimi’s mother beat the cancer, and now lives in San Jose, working as an extended care teacher. Rahimi’s father survived a heart attack at age 60, but, five years ago, they lost him to leukemia.
Despite the challenges and the hardships his parents faced, Rahimi, an only child, is grateful for his parents’ perseverance and generosity. “I consider myself lucky and privileged. My parents’ immigrant experience, while difficult, blazed a path that allowed me to go to good schools and become a lawyer,” says Rahimi. Grappling with injustice, racism, and identity started for Rahimi in high school. At the beginning of his sophomore year, the 9/11 attacks occurred and ignited what had already been a keen awareness of his difference. “I was this skinny, brown Muslim kid from a poor family attending an affluent, white, Catholic high school. I was an outsider. We became a target and I didn’t know how to talk about my identity. I was straddling two worlds as an Iranian American, and I was lost for a bit,” he says.
But those struggles helped Rahimi to develop “a grit and determination” that only comes from overcoming life’s challenges. “My history motivates me to support our immigrant communities and to tear down the barriers to entry that permeate the immigrant experience, and to confront institutional injustice,” he says.
Becoming a lawyer was a no-brainer for Rahimi, who works as an attorney for Ford Motor Company, specifically for one of its mobility subsidiaries; he specializes in labor, employment, and regulatory work. “Of course, you always hear the joke that our parents would only accept three careers for their kids becoming a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. And I don’t blame them,” says Rahimi. “In their eyes, these jobs were the surest way to ‘succeed’ and avoid poverty.” Although Rahimi has had many academic and professional interests, he is happy with his choice as a legal professional because it has given him the ability to tackle difficult issues comprehensively, breaking them down into parts, and working toward real solutions. This is one of the reasons why Rahimi believes that being civically engaged and participation in political institutions is essential for Iranian Americans at this moment, when under the Trump Administration we’ve seen “increased acts of discrimination and hate crimes.”
Rahimi sees this as both a time for concern and a time for hope. “I’ve seen our community mobilize and unify to right wrongs and I’ve seen more Iranian Americans run for office and get involved in the democratic process at all levels than ever before. I’ve seen our community join other immigrant communities and our fellow Americans in acts of resistance that feel urgent and necessary. I’ve got reason to be hopeful, and I see the need for our participation more than ever,” he says.
Photos courtesy of Nima Rahimi