Neeraj Mehta

For the past 10 years, Neeraj Mehta has been working with others to build on the strengths of north Minneapolis - first as a Program Manager with Project for Pride in Living, then as Program and Strategic Development Director with the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation. Currently, he works as a Program Officer with Nexus Community Partners. He lives with his family in the Jordan neighborhood of north Minneapolis. Read more about Neeraj Mehta.

Posts about Society

A manifesto for the inside.

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: July 2, 2010 - 7:47 PM

Over the past half century a variety of strategies have been designed in search of solutions to the multiple and deeply rooted problems of America’s central cities.

“The expansion of social services, reorientation of city development policies in progressive directions, the rapid proliferation and growth of community development corporations, the enhancement of human capital investments, especially urban school reform, have all had their (urban) moment.” – David Imbroscio, Urban America Reconsidered

I had a professor in graduate school describe the myriad of strategies used to solve urban problems as “great solutions to the wrong problem”. Granted each of the above approaches has had positive impacts, some greater than others, as a whole many of the communities where these strategies have been used remain isolated and poor.

Today, a new approach and way of thinking is becoming popularized, based on the idea that central cities are too isolated (socially, economically, politically, fiscally, etc.) from the broader region. Proponents of this “new regionalism” argue that the local scale is too small and too limited to do much good. The answer, they say, is to expand the boundaries of the local, “crossing city lines”, to connect inner city communities to the broader region.

I should start by saying, I mostly agree with the framework of this theory. The broken and ineffective way we have constructed many of our communities, has essentially isolated low-income people and people of color from opportunity. Connecting communities like mine, North Minneapolis, to broader economic, housing and social opportunities would be beneficial to the overall health and well being of my neighborhood and its residents.

Here though are some of my main concerns with the new regionalism framework:

It essentially looks beyond the local to solve urban problems. Rather than being focused on finding solutions that come from inside a community or neighborhood, energy and resources are shifted to solutions more distant and external from community.

It privileges individual mobility over local community development. While enhancing individual mobility is a good thing, we must not sacrifice building the economic, political, human and social capital inside communities. We need strong regional connections and strong local neighborhoods, together.

Not everyone benefits. The universal approaches used to increase individual mobility tend flow to those most advantaged in disadvantaged neighborhoods, exacerbating rather than ameliorating place based inequalities. If we are going to ensure greater benefit to residents of poor communities, more targeted approaches must be put in place.

My concern is that if not implemented wisely, a new regionalist approach to addressing urban poverty issues will leaving us measuring success at the regional level, ignoring inequities at the local level. The region will boast an unemployment rate of 8%, while the unemployment rate of a local community within that region might be 45%. The region will boast a high school graduation rate of 80%, while the graduation rate of a local community within that region might be less than 50%.

I want to see us build up healthy local neighborhoods that are strong socially, economically and politically, and with strong connections to the broader region. I want to make sure our strategies are valuing local community and their residents and not just the region. I don’t want to see us shift our resources and energy into building a strong region at the expense of building strong local communities in all parts of that region. I don’t want to see us lift up “re-location” as the way to address urban poverty issues.

I don’t want us to sacrifice the inside for the outside.

Building a strong Twin Cities region, a strong city like Minneapolis and a strong local community like North Minneapolis, should be complementary not conflicting goals. Now granted, I’m not an expert on new regionalism, but I have to believe that there is a way where we can develop the strength and vitality of the local neighborhood and its residents while simultaneously making connections to the assets of the broader region.

 

Maladjusted

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: January 23, 2010 - 9:30 AM

Last week my wife and I had the grand opportunity to leave our two kids in the care of her parents and spend five days on vacation in California. Afterwards we both agreed that it was probably the most enjoyable vacation we’ve had. We walked the streets and hiked the hills of San Francisco and spent time with friends and family at a wedding of one of my childhood friends.

Yet, with all of the fun that we had there was still a dark cloud that sat over us for those five days. It seemed overindulgent to be doing what we were doing when hundreds of thousands of victims were still suffering through the aftermath of the great earthquake in Haiti. Then three days into our vacation we found out that a young teenager was killed in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, just down the block from our house.

While on vacation I was reading some of the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and was struck by the power of his words and “fierce urgency of now” as he led others in breaking down the racial injustice that was pervasive in his time. Reading his words brought to life the intensity of the Civil Rights movement, the commitment of its’ supporters and the evil of the injustice they fought against. All together these things created a deep uneasiness in me.

In a speech given in 1957 in Berkley Dr. King talked about the need to be “maladjusted” to the injustice in our world.

“Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.”

I wonder sometimes if we have become too adjusted and complacent with the suffering and pain that exists around us (both near and far), allowing things to feel normal that should never be made to feel normal.

Wouldn’t you agree that there are some things that we should all get angry about? When a country brutalized by poverty like Haiti is hit by a natural disaster, we should be angry. When a teenager walking down the street in the middle of the day is shot dead, we should be angry. No matter where we live, no matter how comfortable our life is, no matter how rich or poor we are, these realities should shake us, should affect us, should push us to live for and strive for something different.

But instead of journeying to that more difficult place, a place that asks something of us, we push answers too quickly (see the stupidity of Pat Robertson), or too quickly blame others for their plight (see poverty in Haiti and the US). Too often we live our life on the circumference, fearful, unwilling or unable to journey to the center, where things are messy, dangerous and uncomfortable. It is safer to live on the edges, more dangerous to live in the middle.

And more than the anger and beyond the emotion we need to find ways to act, individually and collectively. As I read through more of Dr. King this weekend, I struggled to know what in our world today will move us the way his fight moved so many?

What injustice, what oppression, what evil will we unite around and fight against? Will we come together to alleviate poverty in a developing or recovering nation? Or fight for the human rights of all people in our own country? What does it look like to love our neighbor? Should we work less and spend more time with our families? What is our social and moral responsibility?

In a lot of ways I think that we’ve become brainwashed. Brainwashed into thinking that this is it. Brainwashed into believing that we’re stuck with what we’ve got. This is the way the world is. Work hard, follow orders, stay in line and you’ll get what you deserve we’re told. But is that really it? Is this the road we want to be on? Is this really the best that it is going to get?

I don’t think so. And I hope you don’t either.

I think we need to again hear the words of Dr. King and wonder what it means for us to be maladjusted today. When hundreds of thousands of people can see their lives destroyed in a blink of an eye, or when a teenager can be shot in the middle of the day, we need to ask more questions, wrestle more with what we have and what we give.

Let us together be serious about transformation.

“I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out the words that echo across the generation, ‘Let judgment run down like waters and the righteousness like a mighty stream.’ As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out, ‘All men are created equal and are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.“

 

Hawthorne Eco-Village

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: January 6, 2010 - 6:21 PM

In 1831 a French count, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States. The account of what he experienced and thought can be found in his book, Democracy in America. More than 200 years later, this small book has become standard reading in the fields of political science, history and social science.

In his commentary of this newly forming society, he notes the uniqueness and power of small groups of citizens coming together to form organizations that solve problems.

He noted three interesting features of these groups:

  1. These groups decided they had the power to decide what was a problem.
  2. They decided they had the power to decide how to solve the problem.
  3. They decided they could be a key actor in bringing about this solution.

This type of community, Tocqueville notes, was a revolutionary and uniquely powerful instrument being built in the United States.

I often ask myself, “Where did this type of community go?”

Well today I have to look no further than my own backyard in North Minneapolis. Too often the question we ask about North Minneapolis is “What can we do for North Minneapolis?” but today a more appropriate question might be, “What can we learn from North Minneapolis?”

This Thursday January 7th marks the groundbreaking of a unique cross sector partnership in the Hawthorne neighborhood.  The Hawthorne Eco-Village is part of the Northside Home Fund cluster strategy and is being developed by Project for Pride in Living (an amazing nonprofit organization with 40 years of history in the Twin Cities), in partnership with the City of Minneapolis, residents of the Hawthorne neighborhood and the Home Depot Foundation.

"The Hawthorne EcoVillage development represents shared a vision among Hawthorne neighborhood residents and leaders, community agencies and the City to respond pro-actively to area toughest issues: crime, poverty, rising foreclosure rates and vacant housing, unemployment, and overall resident health.

It is one that uses best practices in community based development, neighborhood revitalization, and sustainable green development which will create a model for more healthy, stable, and livable communities." - From  the Project for Pride in Living Website

 

Too often revitalization efforts in urban areas represent a top down approach that pay little attention to the needs and desires of the existing community members. The Hawthorne Eco-Village represents the opposite, a neighborhood based project being built from the ground up with neighborhood residents playing a central role in the redevelopment process. Uniquely tailored to the needs and conditions of the area, the Hawthorne Eco-Village serves as an example of how neighborhood revitalization efforts should be done.

On Thursday January 7th at 2:30 pm come celebrate the kick-off of the overall development and the beginning of construction on the first two homes slated for completion in 2010. 

There will be a brief outdoor ceremony at the site (400 31st Ave. N.), followed by an indoor reception at Farview Park, 621 29th Ave. N.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      

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