Kevin Ehrman-Solberg erupted in anger one day in March when he learned that a man experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities had been sent back to the frigid streets immediately after he had two of his frostbitten toes amputated.
The 33-year-old scholar and social justice activist sprang into action. Within 24 hours, Ehrman-Solberg hand-built a wooden bed and delivered it to the man's porous tent at one of Minneapolis' many homeless camps.
Before long, Ehrman-Solberg's garage and backyard resembled a makeshift construction site as he began building wooden beds for unsheltered people all over the city.
The anecdote shows the deep empathy Ehrman-Solberg felt for the less-fortunate and the lengths he was willing to go to correct and expose social injustices, from the legacy of racist housing policies to the displacement of renters by Wall Street investment firms.
A polymathic scholar, urban explorer and mapmaking whiz, Ehrman-Solberg was best known for co-founding the groundbreaking Mapping Prejudice Project — a monumental effort to map the use of racially restrictive covenants attached to thousands of Minneapolis homes in the early 20th century. Such covenants barred people of color from buying houses in white neighborhoods and worsened inequality by making it harder for Black families to build wealth. Ehrman-Solberg put together a suite of digital tools that enabled researchers and more than 6,000 volunteers to catalog and plot the racial covenants.
Researchers across the country are now trying to replicate the award-winning project — the first to create a comprehensive map of racial covenants for a U.S. city.
The bright and charismatic young activist had just embarked on another project — building solar-powered showers for homeless individuals — when tragedy struck. Last Friday night, Ehrman-Solberg went missing after telling his fiancée that he was going for a walk. At 2:45 p.m. the following day, his body was discovered in his vehicle five blocks from their northeast Minneapolis home. The official cause of death has not been determined.
"Kevin could not abide the sight of injustice," said Maggie Mills, his fiancée. "Everything he did, he did at full tilt, at 110 percent."
Kirsten Delegard, a friend and project director of the Mapping Prejudice Project, recalls when the energetic Ehrman-Solberg, then a young undergraduate history student, showed up at her office at Augsburg University in Minneapolis with a pencil and paper, and declared that he didn't like computers. Within a year, he had taught himself web design, and was running the digital platform for Augsburg's innovative Historyapolis Project, which used social media to tell the history of Minneapolis.
"Kevin was one of the most brilliant and creative people I've ever met," Delegard said. "Once he saw a need and had the desire to fill that need, he just figured out how to do it."
Ehrman-Solberg excelled at digital mapmaking — earning a master's in geography information science at the University of Minnesota — though his interests were eclectic. One of his studies explored how Minneapolis' pornographic bookstores became early battlegrounds in the struggle for gay liberation. He chronicled how a coalition of gay politicians and community members in the mid-1980s pushed back against a police campaign to target gay men who visited the bookstores for sexual encounters.
More recently, Ehrman-Solberg had turned his scholarly focus to how large private equity firms were buying up rental properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods and driving up eviction rates by imposing new fees.
In addition to his fiancée, Ehrman-Solberg is survived by his mother, Virginia Ehrman; his father, Kenneth Solberg; a sister, Bridget Ehrman-Solberg; and stepbrothers Jacob Wilson and Raphael Wilson. A celebration of his life will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Boom Island in Minneapolis.