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Fluidity: The Intersection of Culture

This blog was written by WIA committee member Mani Ardalan Farhadi. Mani is a Senior Facilities Planner at Stanford University, School of Medicine (SoM), in the Office of Facilities, Planning and Management (OFPM). After thirty years of planning experience in private architectural firms, she continues to impact the learning environment and share her passion for education. Mani lives in Los Gatos, CA with her husband of thirty+ years. They have two grown sons. 



 I’m Mani Helene Ardalan Farhadi, an Iranian-American Muslim Woman – a ‘Triple-Threat’ minority. My story is YOUR story too. How many of you live at the intersection of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, background, nationality, and gender? This is a story for all of us. 

#EQXDV (Equity by Design - Voices, Values, Vision Symposium 2018) brought together a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Honored to be a “Thought Leader,” I addressed “Intersectionality and Intercultural Intelligence” for the first time with fellow trailblazing panelists Prescott Reavis and A.L. Hu, facilitated by Rosa Sheng. On November 3, 2018, threads knit together into a tapestry, as we shared personal stories. 

I’ve since shared this story at SPUR San Francisco on March 21, 2019 with Rosa Sheng, Maia Small, and Helen Bronston; at Mills College on April 20, 2019 solo; at AIA San Francisco on June 13, 2019 with Rosa Sheng, Prescott Reavis and Helen Bronston; at SPUR San Jose on July 31, 2019 with Rosa Sheng, Maia Small, Helen Bronston and Micaela Connery; more to be continued…. 


Born in San Francisco, my journey followed the hippy 60’s through a ‘reverse migration’ to my ancestral homeland. Raised in Iran, the pro-western years of monarchy transformed into the tumultuous Islamic Revolution. Emigrating to Boston, an eye-opening college education and early professional years in Massachusetts culminated full-circle back to the Bay Area in CA. Encountering decades of ethnic bias, I’ve grappled with choosing sides. I ask you: Why do we have to pick? There’s value in both. Can’t we accept the middle ground? BE FLUID. I define myself in the #fluidity of moving seamlessly between cultures. I wrote a short poem to synthesize my thoughts on being fluid:


 To capture the essence of the message of fluidity and intersectionality, I’ve encapsulated my thoughts and advice into 4 categories: 1) Embrace Your Heritage. 2) Use a Menu Approach 3) Be an Ambassador Advocate 4) Spread Positive Messaging. 



It’s not about being “either” Iranian “or” American. I embrace “AND.” I choose to be both of this land AND of the other. With nomadic roots in Iran’s mountainous regions, blended with American ancestors from Idaho, I literally grasp both. I take the rich artistic heritage, cultural traditions, festive holidays, ancient civilization and strong family ties of being Iranian. I take the innovations, progressive attitude, educational investment, advocacy, and unlimited opportunities of being American.


My Iranian grandfather Abol Ghasem Bakhtiar landed in Ellis Island 100 years ago, in 1919. Once he graduated from Syracuse Medical School and began working in New York’s Harlem Hospital, he met my American grandmother Helen Jeffries, who’d been raised in Idaho. He pursuing his dream to be a physician; she following her dream to be a nurse. United by their passion to help others, the “Blonde and the Barbarian” fell in love, wed in NY City Hall, eventually moving to Iran, opening the first private hospital.


Though my mother Laleh Bakhtiar and father Nader Ardalan were born in Iran, each was raised in America. They met in college. Realizing they knew nothing of their Iranian Muslim heritage, they promised to return to Iran someday. My father’s first architectural job was at SOM San Francisco, where I was born, but our family did a reverse migration, moving to Iran to fulfill their promise. Our tribal Bakhtiari/Kurdish roots, together with American ancestors blazing the Oregon Trail, intertwined to create #intersectionality. 


By Mani Helene Ardalan Farhadi
November 2018

Why choose sides?
Why must we abide,
with antiquated ways
in complicated days.
I define anew,
with my own view.
Who am I?
And then ask why? 

If it must be,
I take thee,

Pick one or the other?
Why must I bother?
When one is single
and I am dual.
Both east and west,
picking what’s best;
both city and rural,
because I am plural. 

If it must be,
I take thee,

The land of Iran,
from which I’ve run,
rich with tradition,
full of rendition;
to American soil,
where I now toil.
Living the dream,
of life between. 

If it must be,
I take thee,



My greatest challenge was the chaotic Islamic Revolution, which completely disrupted our lives. After 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, protestors marched, demanding democracy and voting rights. At first, it was exciting to hear different political opinions, and then it became dangerous. When Iranian students took Americans hostage at the US Embassy, and “Death to America” was being chanted, I feared being discovered as a US citizen. Yet how could I deny my American spirit of independence? Though I looked Iranian-ish, I had American blood running through my veins. Yet, I was afraid to acknowledge being US-born to a ‘halfie’ (half-American/half-Iranian) mother. Iranian propaganda was saying one thing; my soul was saying something else.


In our school, we were color-blind and accepted students from all religions and backgrounds. We were interfaith before there was a word for it. Upon graduation from Tehran International High School in 1980, I moved to Boston for college, given the good fortune of citizenship. Having left the revolutionary turmoil, now living in America, was I safe and secure? Not so. With Iranians being attacked in America and the press calling us “terrorists,” now I was afraid of being discovered as Iranian. I’d fabricate stories about my origins, keeping my identity a secret. Yet how could I deny my deep roots and family origins? The American media was saying one thing; my soul was saying something else.



We confront decision-making on a continual basis. From selecting careers to raising our children, we’re faced with choices. To resolve my dilemma, I use a menu approach, choosing which parts to adopt and which parts not to, creating my own definition. You too can choose to define your own identity.


To synthesize the forces leading to the revolution from my personal experience surviving it, I wrote about “The Islamic Revolution in Iran.” My Sociology professor noticed my identity struggle, since I used to keep my head down when asked me where I was from. He said firmly: “You look people in the eye, and you tell them you’re Iranian. How else are they going to change their mind?” Those words had a huge impact. Since then, I’ve welcomed my heritage, selecting which parts resonate. I take Iranian AND American.


Building upon biculturalism, I welcome duality. Raising our sons to appreciate being Iranian AND American, I’d dress in tribal-wear, sharing the Persian New Year story at their schools. The boys went to Farsi School and Persian leadership camp. As moderate Muslims, we practice some of the tenets, such as belief in one God and giving to charity. We also share the joys of being American, with pride in voting and community volunteering. We’ve visited historic sites and National Parks to learn American stories; celebrated Bar Mitzvahs and Midnight Mass.




I became a self-declared Ambassador Advocate, demonstrating the virtues of being Iranian-American by my actions. Dedicating quality time to family and the architectural profession, I also established leadership by volunteering in the local Los Gatos community and in Women in Architecture.


At my son’s school district, I offered to help with theatrical productions or athletic endeavors, while working part-time/full-time in architectural firms. Serving on the Bond Oversight Committee, I earned the AIA “Citizen Architect” Award. Appointed as a School Board member, I served 18 months in that capacity, advocating for education. When my term expired, I ran a campaign door-to-door in the neighborhoods. Though unsuccessful, it was a great source of pride to be on the 2016 ballot, next to Hillary Clinton’s name. An Iranian-American on the ballot! I had tears of joy, despite losing by 500 votes. It was fulfilling to listen to constituents, perform my civic duty, and represent Iranian-Americans by doing good.


To take it one step further, we chose to be cultural ambassadors by putting ourselves into the American landscape. My family ventured into the countryside, traveling to Yellowstone, Montana, renting a cabin in Idaho, and riding an RV through Grand Teton, Wyoming. Not knowing how we’d be perceived, we wanted to have a quintessential American experience. From mountain peaks to shimmering lakes, eerie ponds to gushing waterfalls, peaceful grassland to white water rafting, plus close encounters with bison, we were mesmerized. We encountered no prejudice and were proud to be visible. FLUIDITY was indeed possible.




There’s power in groups to overcome adversity. Through our networks, we lift each other up. 


Throughout childhood, college, and adult life, I’ve relied on networks for encouragement, advice and camaraderie. Whether Girl Scouts, summer camp in VT, Yearbook Committee in High School, International Club at Wellesley College, Wellesley Alumni, Boston Society of Architects, Iranian American Women’s Foundation, Society for College and University Planning, Equity by Design or Women in Architecture, these relationships nurture me. Together we are stronger. Together, we can go further. 

WIA network helped navigate my career change. In return, I’ve organized events, explained salary negotiation, mentored young architects, and helped those seeking employment. Equity by Design is our inspiration, with talks and survey findings. I spoke on “Graphing the Work/Life Equation,” #EQXDM 2016, and “Intersectionality and Intercultural Intelligence,” #EQXDV 2018. It was an honor being selected for the inaugural “Plus One” initiative pairing 5 young architects with 5 mentors; mentoring Meghana Joshi.  


As my consciousness of inequities grows, I use Twitter/Facebook, promoting equity for all and discovering similar voices, advocates, and those fighting for minority rights. This vocal chorus emboldens us. Sharing positive stories of women achieving heights, or Iranian-American accomplishments, or Muslims helping other communities, or interfaith friendships, we change perceptions. Messages of hope, harmony and positive energy strengthen the cause.



By embracing our heritage, defining our identity, serving as cultural ambassadors, and sharing positive energy, we’re changing the dynamics of the professional industry. Bringing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to light, discussing intersectionality and cultural intelligence, it serves as a catalyst for overcoming challenges.

I’ve chosen to welcome the multiplicity and celebrate my duality. Whether 9/11 or Axis of Evil or Muslim ban or telling us to ‘go home,’ the fight continues. Encountering cultural prejudice, I find strength in embracing my heritage at the intersection. I am AMERICAN too. Using that power, I contribute to society and lift others. With FLUIDITY, I take my ancient roots and fly forward on wings.


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