Alumni Q&A: Liana Elliott, MPL/MPP ’14

September 20, 2017

Liana Elliott currently serves as the Chief of Staff to the New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams. In addition, she and her husband, MarkAlain Déry, founded a new community radio station – WHIV-FM – which features programming dedicated to human rights and social justice.

Elliott has spent more than a decade working in community development, nonprofits and social justice causes in New Orleans. She graduated with dual master’s degrees in public policy and urban planning from the USC Price School of Public Policy in 2014.

On launching a human rights-focused community radio station…

What inspired you to start a radio station dedicated to human rights and social justice?

One day my husband came home and declared we were starting a radio station. I think I rolled my eyes and didn’t think much of it until engineering schematics started showing up and I knew he was serious.

Neither of us knew anything about broadcasting, but we know the power of media and how frustrating it can be to hear things in the media that are wrong, misleading, disempowering, or just plain un-relatable. We saw it as an opportunity to create an alternative to what is currently out there, and to make airwaves available to people that don’t typically get any air time. Yes, a great opportunity, but more a matter of equity and leveraging our resources and privilege to empower others.

Liana Elliott, co-founder of WHIV-FM radio in New Orleans, interviews a guest.

What does your current role at the station involve?

I serve as the Chairman of the Board of Directors, so I oversee how the general station develops to make sure it is in line with our mission and reflects our values, including fundraising, partnerships, branding, and overall strategy. We’re still a startup non-profit, so being co-founder and Board Chair means I do a lot of floor mopping too!

What is the most rewarding part of your work there thus far?

Turning on the radio and hearing voices and discussions that I’ve never heard before, and people that aren’t part of my network. We have a show in Haitian Creole, another called Islam in the Crescent City, transgender shows, a show about healthy living for people living with HIV, civil rights attorneys, and a bilingual show called Illegal Voices that addresses workers’ rights.

The content of these discussions is beautiful and inspiring, and I think it is so empowering to hear something familiar, voices that sound like yours talking about things you agree with coming out of the radio – where we don’t have to tiptoe around being polite about climate change – climate changed. Institutional racism exists. Let’s move on to what we need to do about it – that’s the real conversation, and when you give people a platform to get to the point and have those conversations straight up, you get to peel back a lot of layers and get deeper into the issues and nuances.

We named the station WHIV because my husband is an infectious disease physician, and the “W” is fixed (all stations east of the Mississippi start with W), so given the opportunity to pick three letters it just seemed obvious. But truly HIV is a social justice issue and embodies the ethos of our vision for the station – HIV disproportionately impacts marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community and people of color, people living in poverty, over incarceration, and perpetuated by this archaic shame and stigma. Every time we do a station ID and say “HIV” on air, we fight that stigma. One of the most rewarding moments for me is that a lot of people leave off the “W” – I guess it takes too long to say out loud – so they will tell me “oh I heard you on HIV yesterday” without batting an eye. That’s pretty cool.

People were so freaked out by the name of the station at first (we were advised by dozens of people to change our “unfortunate” call letters), we decided to come up with an acronym to assuage some of the discomfort: We Honor Independent Voices. This is more than just our acronym, it’s truly a part of the momentum of what we are trying to accomplish – getting independent voices on air, giving those voices and messages the honor and respect they deserve, and spreading them around the world.

In contrast, what’s been the most challenging part?

Liana Elliott recently received an award for social entrepreneurship.

Radio is 24/7 – we are always on call. We have an amazing family of over 60 hosts and DJs and we couldn’t do it without them! But managing 60 volunteers is not an easy task.

Not only is it a startup, but it’s a very equipment-heavy thing to do. Last month, New Orleans had an unprecedented rain event (not a hurricane, just a bizarre summer storm) that flooded some parts of the city, and there was 8” of water inside the station. We were very lucky, most of our equipment was ok, but when things go wrong there’s a sense of urgency that there are a lot of people depending on us.

Radio is a tough business, and being non-commercial radio is really hard. It’s like it’s purposely set up to be really difficult to get sustainable funding – you have to compete with commercial radio, stations that have been around for decades, or are part of a national network – not to mention the wide world of podcasts. There’s a lot of competition, and a lot more restrictions for non-commercial radio so you have to get really creative about how to fundraise, and build a model that mirrors a commercial station but supports the mission – that’s the part I find the most interesting. Community radio has been around for almost a hundred years, that’s nothing new. The real innovation with WHIV is figuring out how to copy the best parts of a capitalist for-profit model and apply it to the nonprofit sector for social good.

What goals do you ultimately hope to achieve through launching this station?

I see WHIV becoming a pillar of the community in New Orleans, and a source of content for people around the world. I want to make WHIV an engine for people to get access to the types of opportunities and resources that are usually only available for “mainstream” pursuits – but those conversations are stuck in the past, and addicted to pandering to the lowest common denominator. There’s a new generation (of people and media) that skips past all that and says what needs to be said. I want WHIV to be that place where we can talk openly and seriously about sexual and mental health, where important and uncomfortable conversations about racism and inequality are front and center – not an uncomfortable footnote. I want kids to learn how to use our equipment and pursue careers in engineering and production.

Whenever there’s an election, we go through the ballot initiatives in great detail so people can better understand what they’re voting for – elections are set up to be so inaccessible to most people, it’s all written to be so confusing and so hard to understand what is actually going on, and that fundamentally undermines democracy. Educating people about what they are voting on, how to register, when and where to vote – an educated electorate is how we are going to make lasting social change. I want WHIV to be a resource for people to turn to so they can better understand what’s going on civically and how it will affect them.

On your work in public service…

“We get to focus on the really big issues that impact everyone,” says Elliott, Chief of Staff for New Orleans City Council president

Can you explain your role as Chief of Staff for New Orleans City Council president?

My boss is Councilmember At-Large Jason Rogers Williams, so our district is the whole city of New Orleans which means we get to focus on the really big issues that impact everyone. The Councilmember is also a criminal defense attorney, so we work on everything from criminal justice reform, to affordable housing, to infrastructure.

The legislative branch of local government is really different than what people typically think of (which is usually a mayoral role) – primarily, we write and amend ordinances that comprise the city code – everything from short-term rental regulations to inclusionary zoning to pension reform and institutionalizing our police and criminal justice system consent decrees. That’s pretty different from the role of a Mayor, sometimes we are constrained by what we can do through legislation, or challenged to find ways to address an issue the Council doesn’t directly control.

We are also in charge of the budget, which means we hold departments and agencies accountable for their performance and use of public funds, and can shift funds around to better align with our policies and vision for the future of our city – for example, we required all short-term rentals to pay a $1 nightly fee into our affordable housing development fund.

We are also in the middle of amending the City’s Master Plan, which has been crazy interesting – you get to tackle a lot of the “meta” planning questions – literally how do you balance neighborhood scale and historic preservation with transit-oriented affordable housing density within land use planning categories? How do you create a new land use category to make sure people can’t build homes and parks on toxic waste site? What is the best way to protect the City’s green space without creating perverse incentives?

I have also been working closely with the Arts Council of New Orleans to overhaul their Percent for Art program and establishing an art as infrastructure initiative to better integrate the arts into the basic operations of the city, employ artists, and enhance the beauty and character of this beautiful city. We have so much creativity and soul in New Orleans, every time I see a park bench that’s been picked out of a catalog, it seems like such a wasted opportunity. We are also pushing for the creation of a City Artist position within City Hall to serve as a cross-sector interdisciplinary creative thinker who can find synergies between departments and agencies and improve services just by thinking outside of the box.

What you do enjoy most working in public service?

I love my work. When you can make a meaningful difference in someone’s life, it makes it all worth it. I love knowing how things work, because sometimes you look at what a city is doing and it seems so stupid, but it can’t possibly be that stupid, there must be some other reason why the super obvious thing isn’t an option. You get to learn the real inner mechanics of how things work and why – so you really understand the problems and how to effect meaningful change.

I like having one foot out in the community in the world of social justice, and one foot in the inner workings of the city. My goal is to better align both with one another – the world of activism needs to understand how government actually functions (for better or for worse), and government needs to do a better job understanding the real issues people are facing every day and what they need to thrive.

How did USC Price prepare you for the work you’re doing in city hall?

USC gave me the analytical tools that I use every day to understand what is really going on, dig in to the real issue at hand, and find a level-headed, equitable, and practical action. USC also gave me a vision of what the world could be like – if we committed to equitable economic development and affordable transit, and policies that protect the vulnerable without paternalism or sacrificing freedom. USC taught me to raise my standards and expectations – to expect more from myself and others, how to not get complacent or comfortable with the status quo. It gave me the tools and skills to assess, analyze, brainstorm, troubleshoot and move forward with almost anything – from figuring out how to rebuild a radio station after a flood, to writing solid, sophisticated policies and plans that move the city into the future and improve the quality of life for everyone.

I often find myself digging back through notes and textbooks to find a theory or a methodology from my coursework. Actually just this week I had a real practical application of one of the methods for policy analysis we learned!

I also learned a lot from group work – a large part of my job is understanding another person or group’s perspective in a meaningful way. Not just listening to another point of view, but real communicative discourse – truly internalizing their message and figuring out how it fits in to the larger puzzle.

Reminiscing about the Price School…

Was there a Price faculty member or course that you found particularly inspirational?

Lisa Schweitzer is one of my personal heroes. She is unapologetically smart, witty, insightful and genuinely caring. Dr. Schweitzer’s “Planning Theory” class remains one of the hardest classes I have ever taken, and one of my all-time favorites. I hope I grow up to be even just a fraction of her awesomeness.

T.J. McCarthy was the most patient teacher I’ve ever had, and took me from Excel enthusiast to serious Excel nerd.

David Sloane’s work on community health planning should be required for all planning students nationwide and continues to be an inspiration.

What was your most memorable moment as a student at USC Price?

The very first day of class, in our first discussion I looked around the room and realized every single person in there was used to being the smartest person in the room. It made me feel both flattered and challenged – I was honored to be there, but also realized I better up my game!

Is there any advice you’d like to share with students as they begin their own careers?

Titles and salaries matter, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In public service and nonprofits there’s tendency to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. That’s great and very noble, but it’s not sustainable. You don’t need to be a martyr to be a public servant – you need humility and tenacity and an enormous amount of patience.

Public service also means decades of hierarchies and chains of command – those are blessings and curses. Know where you fit in, and find people in other levels of the hierarchy (higher and lower) that know how to navigate the craziness and have the same vision for the world that you do.