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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Abdi Soltani, Director of the Northern California ACLU on Being ‘Good’ Iranian Americans and Building a Culture of Human and Civil Rights

By Naazley Boozari, Fall Center Intern 

You probably wouldn’t imagine that acquiring a degree in biology and having a passion for environmental activism would lead to a position at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But for Abdi Soltani, Director of the ACLU of Northern California since 2009, that is what happened. As an advocate for immigrant and communities of color affected by deportation, discrimination, and displacement, Soltani’s fiery pursuit of justice for underrepresented folks led him to see law and legal action as the most direct path to addressing his interests. He has not only been effective in leading the ACLU, but he is also a powerful role model for our Iranian-American community. 

Soltani was born in Los Angeles when his parents were on a fellowship to the U.S., and spent his early childhood in Iran and then immigrated with his family to the United States when he was nine years old. While he has always been keen on the complexities of the immigrant experience, his passion for social justice developed in middle school when he became active on environmental issues. “Both of my parents have a really strong commitment to public service, and so they have always supported me pursuing the path that I did,” Soltani says. He further explains that both his parents were “very supportive of all their children and the decisions and the paths that [they] have chosen.”

Soltani’s drive to help his community grew when he was a Stanford University undergraduate pursuing an interest in biology. But early on in his studies, he realized there were many spaces where environmental and social issues intersected, enticing him to look beyond the scientific profession and to address the more community-centered issues. This was crystallized for Soltani when he helped to organize a campaign with his peers to provide support for residents in the small town of Kettleman City in California’s Central Valley going up against big agricultural companies. Soltani says the residents of this town, mostly Latinx farmworkers, were already being exposed to hazardous pesticides and a toxic landfill, and the company that owned the landfill had plans to build a toxic waste incinerator. Although the campaign to fight against this company was armed with a dedicated crew of professionals, including lawyers and scientists, Soltani says that the community itself and its capacity to organize, inspired him the most. 

“Watching the community organize really changed my outlook on how I could contribute to social change–not by becoming a scientist or a legal expert, but by getting involved in the strategy of community organizing and fostering people’s participation who were most directly affected by the problems,” explains Soltani. 

After graduating from college, Soltani began working as a community organizer and eventually became the executive director of Californians for Justice (CFJ), an organization that combats anti-immigrant policies and uplifts communities of color, immigrants, and young people throughout California. Soltani later became the executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity and served for one year as the Executive Director of PARSA Community Foundation, which was a community foundation focused on the Iranian-American community. He also serves as an Advisory Board member for Pars Equality Center in San Jose. In addition to his long list of experiences, Soltani has also received numerous prestigious awards including the John Gardner Public Service Fellowship, the Gerbode Foundation Fellowship, and the Levi Strauss Foundation Pioneer in Justice Fellowship. Soltani’s well-deserved recognition and extensive experience with advocacy and community-building eventually culminated in his position today as the director of the ACLU of Northern California, where he has worked with many different communities, including those from his own Iranian-American community. 

During his time at the ACLU and previously, Soltani says he has “worked with Iranians from many walks of life.” Identifying the heterogenous experiences of Iranians in this country, Soltani cites that immigration status of Iranians falls across a full spectrum: from those who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens by birth, to those who have been naturalized, as well as those who are legal permanent residents, as well as those on immigrant visas, non-immigrant visas, and undocumented Iranian Americans who are often overlooked. “Depending on how strained the relationship between the US and Iranian governments is,” Soltani explains, “the Iran-US relationship absolutely is one of the drivers of issues affecting Iranian Americans in this country across that spectrum of immigration statuses.” 

Soltani says he believes that several key historical events have brought us to where we are today: the 1979 Revolution, the Hostage Crisis, 9/11, and, more recently, the Muslim Ban. Although all of these events contributed to difficulties for Iranians (as well as other Middle Eastern and Muslim-identified groups) within the United States, Soltani’s tenure at the ACLU has most directly aided those adversely affected by the Trump Administration policies. 

“During those years, there were some really difficult circumstances for some folks,” he reflects. “One family that the ACLU represented had an older father who was living in Iran. He had previously come to the United States to meet doctors in preparation for a really complicated surgery, but when the Muslim ban was instituted, he was barred from entering the U.S. and prevented from receiving this life-essential surgery. Fortunately, we at the ACLU were able to advocate for this family and that father was ultimately allowed to come into the US.”

Soltani is quick to suggest, however, that Iranians are not the only ones affected by anti-immigration/anti-refugee sentiments in the US, noting migrants from Central America and Haiti as two prominent examples, as well as those from Afghanistan. “The Afghan community has experienced a great deal of difficulty especially within the last few months,” says Soltani. “Because the previous administration dismantled so much of the asylum and refugee system”, Soltani explains, “the ACLU is trying to engage in the process of rebuilding that pathway, which is a major priority for many of our partner human and civil rights organizations as well,” he adds. 

Regardless of which political party is in power in Congress or as President at a given time, Soltani provides two main pieces of advice for our community to combat prejudices and discriminatory laws that impact Iranian-Americans, and, interestingly, spends a lot more time on the first than the second. 

“First, and I say this intentionally, we have to be part of the broader movement in defense of the rights of all persons in the United States period. The only reason that Iranian Americans enjoy any rights in the United States and that we enjoy rights being from a minority population, from a Middle Eastern, predominantly Muslim country, is because there are constitutional rights and civil rights that apply to everyone,” he says adamantly. “By showing up to protect the rights ofother communities”, Soltani says, Iranian-Americans can and should build relationships with other marginalized groups, and, in the process, “we learn to appreciate the work and history that previous generations have gone through to make change.” Soltani references the 14th Amendment which was enacted after the Civil War in 1868 and provides people “equal protection under the law”, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as major components in allowing Iranian-Americans (and other marginalized communities) to have many of the freedoms they have in this country. “Because this constitutional amendment and the Civil Rights Act are a direct result of the Black freedom struggle,” Soltani reminds us, “African-Americans have set the groundwork for other communities to have equal rights in this country –including the Iranian community.” 

A further piece of advice Soltani offers is “the need to be vigilant and attentive to the rights of Iranian Americans specifically. This is also part of our responsibility,” he says, “but I think if we do the first thing, then there will be more allies in the second thing.” 

Although each community is unique, Soltani believes that “there are some similarities between immigrant and ethnic groups that left their country due to political upheaval.” He draws the similarity between other groups—Cubans and Vietnamese—for example, who, like Iranians, came of age during revolutions or war. “When immigrants from countries experiencing war or revolution arrive here,” he says, “they often hold the story of their home country at the front of their minds.” And, he adds, “sometimes their views of American politics are shaped or informed by what was happening in US policy in their home country.” But he sees the vision of the next generation, those who are raised here, who start to develop an Iranian-American identity or a Vietnamese-American identity, as thinking differently. 

And while Soltani again emphasizes that each immigrant/minority community has their own unique experience with assimilation and identity development, spaces where we have things in common with others are some of the most precious places to build friendship and unity. Soltani identifies some of the challenges that have manifest in the Iranian-American diaspora, saying, “because there’s a negative view of the leadership in Iran and an image of Iran that’s very negative in the United States, Iranian-Americans really tout their success as a counter to that—but that’s too big a burden to try to carry.” Sometimes being over-achievers, he believes, places undue pressure on children and young adults, to which Soltani says, “I think it would be a lot better for our kids’ mental health if we could ease up a little bit on the sense that we have to be such a success and be exceptional.” He encourages Iranian-Americans to be attentive to mental health issues in our community.

For second-generation Iranian Americans, he says, “simple acts like learning our language, history, and poetry can certainly play a role in cultivating a vibrant and loving community away from the homeland while we can also incorporate some of the best aspects of our American culture.” Ultimately, Soltani believes that by being good allies and looking out for the rights of our neighbors, in the broad sense of the word, we can truly demonstrate the best of our heritage and culture. Soltani says that “as Iranian Americans, we have an incredible opportunity to be involved in shaping neighborhood- to national-level change in this country for the betterment and rights of all.” 

This interview was on a far-ranging set of topics, covering both his work and personal experiences. The views expressed are Abdi’s in his personal capacity. Photos courtesy of Jason Doiy Photography and the ACLU website.

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