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.

Hawthorne Eco-Village

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta under Society, Government, Politics, Physical infrastructure 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New decade will bring a miracle baby

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: December 20, 2009 - 1:09 PM

Every Thursday for three years my mom has watched my children at her house. The routine we have is simple and consistent, with my wife Erin dropping them off in the morning, and me picking them up in the afternoon. So on Thursday July 9th, 2009, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when I drove from work to my mom’s house to pick them up.  It seemed just like every other Thursday we’ve experienced the past three years.

I’ve been a Christian for almost ten years now and during that span I have experienced many different aspects of God’s love. What drew me to Jesus 10 years ago was the mystery, the questions and the paradoxes. I was fed up with formulas and scripted answers, and was struck by the awe and wonder of what I was discovering in Jesus. What I believe now, more than I did at the beginning, is that Jesus doesn’t invite me to have all the answers, he just asks me to trust him and to journey with him, questions and all.

One question that I’ve been asking to God for years is why my older sister has been unable to get pregnant and have children of her own. For seven years she and her husband journeyed through doctors visits, infertility treatments, the birth of numerous children around them (including my two sons), the news that it was improbable they would ever have children naturally, the beginning of an international adoption process and the hurtful stigma our culture places on women unable (or unwilling) to have children.

I know that God doesn’t answer every prayer and I’m okay with that.  I know the world and God is much more complicated than I can wrap my head around. At the same time I, and others, were hoping and praying and wishing deeply that God might provide the miracle we all wanted for her. Over the years there was numerous times when my sister and I would discuss how she was doing and what she was feeling at that moment. At times our conversations were filled with tears and at other times filled with smiles and a sense of hopefulness that denied reality. I heard her express frustration, anger and sadness. I also heard her express trust, faithfulness and strength as she journeyed through it all.

I was late, that is sort of all I remember as I walked into my mom’s house. I was singularly focused on grabbing my boys and all their stuff, throwing them in the car and getting them home for their naps.  My two beautiful boys greeted me from my mom’s dining table, full of unopened mail, fake flowers, kids toys and remnants of their lunch. My oldest son, Ezra, happily greeted me by showing off his dessert, a handful of bright white and green M&M’s. My youngest, Koen, sat in his chair with a huge smile barely visible behind his mac and cheese face. As I began packing up all their stuff, my sister burst through the front door with all the exuberance that usually follows her. She came storming right to me, stopped just short of me, grabbed my hands, placed them on her stomach and said the three words that still ring in my head today, “I am pregnant!”.

This decade has been full of a lot of things for me. At the beginning of the decade I was just graduating from college. I celebrate the end of this decade with a beautiful wife and two sons. And in between then and now, grateful for numerous joy filled and memorable experiences. But what will mark this decade for me is not all that I have experienced already, but what I am about to experience three short months into this new decade. On that day, sometime in March, I will be greeting my niece into this world. With each moment between now and then filled with awe, disbelief and thankfulness for the miracle baby that grows inside my sister. 

What's next? A brighter future for some, or all?

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: December 11, 2009 - 10:06 AM

This month I watched as folks in Washington D.C. celebrated the dip in our national unemployment rate to 10%. At the same time it was reported that the unemployment rate for African Americans in our country was twice that of the national average. Reading both statistics made me cringe knowing that the unemployment rate in my neighborhood in Minneapolis was twice that 10% number BEFORE the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And the real unemployment rate for African Americans today (and my neighbors back then) is probably much higher since reported unemployment percentages only reflect those that are still looking for work; not those who have all but given up and dropped out of the job market completely.

At a time when everyone in America is hurting, communities of color are hurting even more.

At a White House press conference last spring, President Obama fielded a question about rising Black unemployment by saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” meaning as he addresses unemployment overall, Black unemployment will also be addressed.

Does a rising tide really lift all boats? I don’t think so.

American has a history of putting in to place universal programs with the expectation that everyone will benefit. As the experience of the New Deal initiatives during the Great Depression illustrate, even universal policies, if not well designed, can exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial conditions.

There is a great opportunity for us today as a country to heal not only the wounds of this most recent economic crisis, but also to heal the wounds of decades of racial disparities and injustice.

If we look at some of the most popular universal programs coming out of the New Deal and World War II it is plain to see that these programs by and large benefited whites disproportionately. While the programs may have still benefited non-whites, they often exacerbated the disparities between whites and non-whites. Today, the opportunity exists to build healthy communities where everyone benefits, especially low-income communities of color. But to do so will take a more targeted approach than we have in the past.

In the same way that the post New Deal and post WWII policies laid the groundwork for future generations, today we are presented with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a better future for our next generations.

In order to effectively do this we must take the time to understand how many low-income communities of color are situated differently than other American communities. Then we must put in place more targeted approaches that pay particular attention to the unique situation of these often excluded communities.

This is not just about equality. This is about equity.

“The pursuit of equity today is different from the pursuit of equality.  While civil rights legislation established equality in principle many practical barriers remain to achieving economic and social parity.  You can’t just have the right to sit in a bus. Today, you need a bus that is frequent, connects you to employment, and provides a platform for economic, social, and physical mobility.” – Angela Glover Blackwell, Policy Link CEO

In this moment, we can work towards building a more equitable future, or find ourselves repeating the mistakes of our past. And to succeed in this will take more than just good policies and programs, but a collective willingness, determination and commitment for the type of change that benefits all in our society, not just some. 

 

The Game of Life

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: September 8, 2009 - 10:57 PM

For many Americans our current housing crisis, banking meltdown and global recession is increasing their risk of falling into poverty. You can’t turn on the television without hearing both about who is being impacted and why they are being impacted. What I find interesting about these discussions is the consistent emphasis on the failure of the ‘system’. We’re not blaming the everyday American for his or her current situation, but instead putting a lot of attention on the systems that have changed the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good for us to analyze these systems, since they played such a significant role in the collapse of our economy. I just wish we placed this much attention on the ‘system’ when discussing the lives of the millions of Americans who found themselves in poverty before the global recession and who will find themselves in poverty after the economy recovers.

Historically, when trying to understand poverty in America we spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the individual attributes or demographic/social characteristics that might lead to an individual’s increased risk of impoverishment. We vilify those with less education, fewer job skills or health problems. We characterize entire groups of people like single mothers or minorities living in the inner city as at fault for their own poverty. Our lack of collective response to the issues of poverty is often due to our seeing the problem as impacting a few select groups of people plagued with moral failing or individual inadequacies.

We’re good at critiquing the people who are experiencing poverty and spend much less time critiquing the system that can so often ensnare or even create the situations in the first place. We’re good at identifying WHO is more likely to experience poverty in America, but we do not consistently journey into looking at WHY poverty occurs in the first place. 

If life was a game, it could be said that we like to analyze the players (the winners and the losers) of the game, rather than the game itself. In my mind, we would do well to dedicate equal attention and resources on both sides of this problem.

Mark Robert Rank utilizes a great metaphor while painting a picture of poverty in America in his book, “One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects us All”.

Rank sets the table for discussion with this image:

“Imagine if you will three people beginning a game of Monopoly. Normally, each player is given $1500 at the start of the game. The playing field is in effect level, which each players’ outcomes determined by the roll of the dice and by their own skills and judgments.

Now let us imagine a modified game of Monopoly, in which players start out with quite different advantages and disadvantages, much as they would in life. Player 1 begins with $5000 and several Monopoly properties on which houses have already been built. Player 2 starts out with the standard $1500 and no properties. Finally, player 3 begins the game with only $250.

Who will be the winners and losers in this modified game of Monopoly?

In this new game, luck and skill are still involved, but are deemphasized because of the varied set of resources and assets that each player begins the game with. Of course, Player 1 could still lose and Player 3 could still win, but it would be much more difficult. Played out over hundreds of games, Player 1 would come out on top many more times than Player 3. More importantly though might be the way that these new rules would impact how each player is forced to play the game. In this modified game, Player 1 can take more risks, while one wrong move could end the game for Player 3. And lastly, Player 1 can more easily build upon their assets, leading to greater possibility of future income.

What’s true about both this modified game of Monopoly and America is that we’re not all beginning our lives at the same starting point. Where one begins one’s life has a powerful impact throughout your life. And where you start out in life has a lot to do with where your parents started out.

In 1994 the median white family held assets worth more than seven times those of the median nonwhite family. In order to understand a family’s well being and the life chances of their children, we must also take into account their accumulated wealth (Conley 1999). If you are non-white, your parents were held back from accumulating the same levels of wealth that white families have been able to build in America.

And many of these disparities are due to the effects of unjust and unfair systems. From racist federal housing policy in the 1930’s, the planned destruction of the federal highway system in the 50’s and 60’s, to unequal educational systems and unfair banking practices, all have in some way limited asset building and wealth creation for non-white families in this country.

So as we continue to address the issues of our current times, looking at how systems failed us and plunged many more Americans into poverty, I hope that we might also look at how the systems of our past failed millions of Americans, placing and keeping them in poverty as well. 

Our Hidden Welfare State

Posted by: Neeraj Mehta Updated: August 22, 2009 - 10:01 PM

I’m not sure I completely understand the health care debate. But I’m going to take a shot and put down my thoughts and would love additional education, feedback and thoughts as well.

Let’s start with the numbers. I keep hearing in the news that there is something like 40 some million[1] Americans without health insurance. From what I gather these people don’t have health care for three main reasons:

1.    It’s too expensive and they can’t afford it

2.    They are unemployed and do not have access to employer sponsored plans

3.    They are denied coverage due to expensive preexisting conditions

What the debate is NOT about. From what I can tell, we’ve somehow reached a point in our country’s history where most people are now saying that it is not right for a country of our wealth to have so many people uninsured. Therefore, some change is necessary.

What the debate IS about. So if we all agree that we need some sort of reform, then what the debate seems to get stuck on is whether the private market can move towards insuring all of us, or if we need the government to step in and provide some sort of tax/market incentive to help them, or a public run option to compete with the private market. Secondly, it seems like the debate moves out of simply being about health care and moves towards a debate on what is the role of the federal government in the first place. The biggest fear I hear is that by even simply entertaining a public option for health insurance, we are essentially moving away from being a democracy and are somehow moving closer to becoming a socialist state.

And this second debate is where I begin to really struggle. For those people who argue that a public plan is tantamount to socialism, I am left to wonder about all the other areas of America that our government is already heavily involved, either currently or in our recent past.

Here are some examples where the Federal Government has been a significant player[2]:

1.    Medicare: A federally funded health care option for the elderly

2.    Medicaid: A jointly state and federally funded health care option for the poor.

3.    The Dept. of Veterans Affairs: Provides health care for our veterans

It seems to me, and please correct me where I am wrong, that within these examples the Federal Government has stepped in to provide benefits for those groups of individuals otherwise not adequately receiving benefits from the private market. And all of this seems fine to me. If the private market is somehow leaving out significant, key portions of our population like the elderly, the poor and our veterans, then it makes sense for our government to step in and bridge the gap.

So, to the current debate, if there are 40 some million uninsured in our country that the private market is not able or willing to provide benefits for, then for the government to step in and provide support seems like the correct role for the government to play.

Am I totally wrong here? Help me out…



[1] I heard Former Republican Senator Bill Frist say that of the 40 some million uninsured only 20 million are the “hardcore” uninsured. But I don’t know what the difference is between the hardcore uninsured and the other 20 million. If you know, please tell me.

[2] And these are just health care related examples, there are even more if you were to study Federal Housing Policy in the 20th Century



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