Neeraj Mehta is the Director of Learning at the McKnight Foundation.
I grew up in Arden Hills and went to the University of Minnesota for my undergrad. Half way through college I moved in with some friends living in community in the Phillips neighborhood. That is where I was confronted with issues of race and poverty and my sort of middle class immigrant bubble was popped. After that I tried to live in as many parts of Minneapolis as I could, hitting all five planning sectors except downtown before moving over North in 2001.
I started working over North in 2000 for PPL and every Tuesday morning I went to Lucille’s Kitchen on the corner of Plymouth and Penn to attend the KMOJ and Insight News Public Policy Forum hosting. I was 21 years old and I would just sit in the back of the room, drink coffee and be mesmerized by all the Northside leaders who would attend, their conversation, their questions, the history, the depth. I was like: “This is where I want to be.”
I’m the Director of Learning at McKnight. It’s a new position. Every job that I’ve taken has been entrepreneurial in the sense of creating it somewhat from scratch. I got really excited that McKnight was adding this new role and anything with learning in the title — I was like: “Yo, that is me!”
At McKnight our programs all work within complex adaptive systems. Taking complexity seriously means that learning must be built into every cycle of our work, from planning to acting, reflecting and adapting. Through my role, I am seeking to build the culture, strategy, systems, and know-how that will allow us to learn and adapt alongside others, while valuing diverse sources of facts and knowledge, including the experiences and wisdom of our partners and grantees and the communities where we work.
I wanted to build bridges, so civil engineering was the degree path I took. When I started to learn about real-life injustices, something fired up inside of me. My dad convinced me to stick with engineering. “It will teach you to think a certain way. You’re already kind of creative. This will add a sort of linear analytical bend to your way of being.” It was the best advice he ever gave me. That, and don’t yell at your mom. It’s kind of cheesy, but that notion of a bridge builder is now sort of how I see my vocation over the last 20 years — building bridges between diverse people, ideas and systems.
When I was volunteering with Jeremiah Ellison’s campaign on the northside, I got to spend time with lots of organizers and artists of color. That is the future right there. My preferred future is that all those people are in charge.
Go to any liberal person’s office and they’ll have the famous Wellstone quote up: “We all do better when we all do better.” The truth is that we all do better when black and brown people and indigenous people and immigrant people do better. Eliminate the racial disparities in Minneapolis to zero in housing, education, employment — and everyone does better. Equity is not a zero-sum game. But, we’ve got to be willing to accept the fact it will cost something. Part of that cost might be financial, or in our comfort, or in the narratives and mental models that have shaped how we’ve seen the world so far.
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