In response…

Last week I posted a blog for Shelterforce here.

This started a conversation in my community on facebook here.

Here are some of my thoughts in response to this discussion:


Hey everyone. Thanks for the thoughtful conversation about what I wrote, and to Constance for posting a link here (and clueing me in!). I do have a few thoughts I wanted to share in response to some of what has already been shared.

• I totally know I’m not that great of a writer, so I am thankful for the “fun loving” critique of my prose. I especially appreciated the “word salad” comment. That was an awesome way to categorize that crappy sentence. Seriously.
• I also appreciated the comment that pointed out how I mention the demographics of north Minneapolis without mentioning white folks. I’m really glad that got pointed out. I use that sentence a lot and never really took stock of how that minimized a larger part of our population, one that I see as essential to the future well being of North Minneapolis as a multi-cultural community. And yes, as Deb pointed out, my wife is white, as are many of my friends that live in north Minneapolis. I like white people, I promise!
• I should also note I fully acknowledge how much where I live in Jordan has directly benefited from the work of long term residents like Deb and Denny Wagner and countless others who have helped strengthen the area in which I live. My neighborhood is better because of them.

So obviously an 800 word essay doesn’t really give you much space to say it all, so for the sake of those who don’t know me well I will say more here so you can get a deeper sense of where I am coming from. And thank you to friends on here who acknowledge I’m not that bad of a guy!

So I’m actually not opposed to the idea of ‘gentrification’. But I am always interested in having the conversation about who the ‘gentry’ is when gentrification happens. Like many of you I understand the need to strengthen the social and economic well being of individuals in north Minneapolis and for the community as a whole. The consequences of concentrated poverty are real and limit the opportunities for too many households through a variety of mechanisms. To improve the social and economic well being on the Northside it will take BOTH attracting new residents to North Minneapolis AND strengthening the well being of those who are already here.

Right or wrong, left or right, I am more of an advocate for the low-income communities in North Minneapolis than I am for the folks moving here from elsewhere. I guess I am unapologetic of that maybe similarly to the way many of you are unapologetic about using your voices to talk about the future of North Minneapolis in the ways you do.

I’m interested in working towards is a just city, or to use a phrase I heard elsewhere, “gentrification with justice”. Much of my views come out of a structural analysis, which grounds me in a history of failed policies (with intended and unintended consequences for people of color in America), systemic racism and the reality that we have patterns of opportunity and benefit in our cities and country that is still largely defined by race. The concept of structural racism may not immediately resonate with everyone in our diverse society but for me without fully accounting for the historical and ongoing ways in which racial dynamics produce inequities between whites and people of color, the social justice and antipoverty field risks pursuing strategies that are misguided, incomplete, or inappropriate to the challenge.

Another place that I come from is a general cynicism and disbelief in core national values in America of personal responsibility and individualism, meritocracy and equal opportunity, all of which too often we assume to be race neutral. While I do believe that personal responsibility and choice matter when it comes to issues of poverty and justice, too often I think we overemphasize that without taking into account the dynamics of the systemic and structural realities facing so many low income people. The tension for me is that these values often emphasize social and economic philosophies that are centered on the individual, while the structural racism framework illuminates the ways unequal group outcomes are reproduced.

We are good at critiquing the people who are experiencing poverty (and its’ effects) 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, but we do not consistently journey into looking at WHY poverty occurs in the first place.

We spend an unbalanced amount of time analyzing the individual attributes or demographic/social characteristics that might lead to an individual’s increased risk of impoverishment at the expense of looking at the system. We vilify those with less education, fewer job skills or health problems. We characterize entire groups of people like single mothers or people of color 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 treasure notions of individual accomplishment, meritocracy and equal opportunity, believing that these values translate directly into the daily experience of all Americans. This overly individualistic approach to race and poverty fits nicely within our overall individualistic approach to many life issues. In our imperfect world with its many inequities, however, these values inevitably lead to different outcomes for different individuals. 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.

I feel like my commitment to north Minneapolis is to try and fight the trend of what you see in other cities that some people call the “iron law of upgrading”, which essentially means that to improve a place means that one group of people have to move out so as to make way for the new people. I hope we can create a north Minneapolis that strengthens from the inside, ensuring the well-being of existing residents and strengthens from the outside, by attracting new residents to our community.

And I hope that new residents who move here come with a vision for community vitality that includes the people who already live here.

Can we revitalize north Minneapolis in a way that ensures that lower income residents and cultural communities who have lived here for decades, and who want to remain here, have a stake in the revitalization? Or will we become like too many other cities across the country where the standard definition of gentrification emerges and the revitalization and upgrading of traditionally poor areas by middle class people results in the displacement of lower income people?

I want to believe there is a better way for us in north Minneapolis.

May 29, 2013

NoMi? NoBe? No Go

A few years ago, we had a movement of people who tried to rebrand our Twin Cities community as “NoMi”—a shortened take on North Minneapolis, where I live and work.

North Minneapolis is the heart of the African American community in Minneapolis, and home to a growing diverse group of Latino, Hmong, and Somali residents. It’s a community with an important history, a strong sense of self, and one expanding through hope and optimism. While it has abundant assets and irreplaceable qualities, North Minneapolis also has challenges that are impossible to ignore. Our neighborhoods were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and devastated by a tornado that ripped through the center of the community two years ago.

The “NoMi” push for revitalization drew a lot of criticism and polarized people across racial lines. To be fair, I knew many of the residents and realtors leading this effort and while I understood their commitment and passion for the strengthening and betterment of our community, it lacked a connection and rootedness to the culture, diversity, and history of our community. Many people saw the work as primarily creating benefit for new residents, not existing residents. Put another way, people saw it as a benefit for white folks and less for communities of color.

So when I heard about a video by Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Company in California promoting the rebranding of North Oakland as “NoBe”—North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville—I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Following the realtor company’s video, Phat Beets Produce of North Oakland made acounter video, as its community garden was featured as a selling point for “NoBe.” Phat Beets took scenes from the promotional video and combined with their version of the community to, as they say on their website, “…Challenge this attempt to rebrand North Oakland in order to make the neighborhood more attractive for new homebuyers moving up from San Francisco and businesses that cater to the young, affluent and hip.”

Watching these videos really hit home for me.

A Critical Lens

As a person working in the field of community development, the attention and energy North Minneapolis receives makes me both excited and nervous. Excited, because I know it will bring together a multi-sector collaboration that draws on the diverse skills and assets of multiple partners. Nervous, because whenever you talk about revitalization efforts in our community, you also inevitably begin to talk about displacement and gentrification.

That’s why everywhere I go, and in every conversation I participate in, I keep asking questions about our efforts to strengthen and revitalize. Who participates and who benefits? Who are the people who help shape the ideas, the definitions, and the strategies we are using to strengthen a place?  And as a result of our efforts, who ends up benefiting?

In the Twin Cities, we take pride in our belief that all people have opportunities to become successful. But for every success we have, there are real problems as well. While the region benefits from a number of social and economic assets, it is unable to translate these benefits to everyone, specifically to communities of color, who make up the fastest growing segment of our population and an increasingly large part of our workforce.

Unfortunately, data shows that these members of our community are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty; more likely to suffer from chronic illness; less likely to graduate from high school; and less likely to own their own home.
In 2010, Minneapolis had a 3:1 black-to-white unemployment rate, the worst disparity in the nation. Young black males are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated in Minnesota than to live in college housing. Adding to poverty rates, employment and educational disparities, we have staggering racial disparities in mortgage lending and in homeownership rates in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities, race, place, and a person’s well-being continue to be highly correlated. Where you live affects whether you have access to the resources you need to thrive, like quality schools, trustworthy banks, and access to healthy food, good jobs, affordable housing, and transportation.

Forming Our Communities

If we’re being honest, we should be willing to acknowledge that we do not have a strong history of creating equity in the making of our places, specifically within the context of our central cities. We have, over the past century, created different places and spaces in our cities for different people. We create and design, invest and disinvest, include and exclude different parts of our cities in different ways. Every area across our cities has places for the rich and places for the poor. Places for the powerful and places for the weak. Places for those people and places for these people. Places for people who are white and places for people who are not.

Efforts to improve conditions in America’s central city neighborhoods have been ongoing for decades. There are raging debates about what exactly our goals and efforts are aiming to achieve and how to best achieve these goals. The debate has grown more complex and dynamic over time with the onset of the recent foreclosure and economic crisis; the growing awareness of the suburbanization of poverty; an increasing focus on connecting low-income neighborhoods and their residents to broader regional opportunities; and a demand for housing in urban areas that are transit friendly, walkable and near job and cultural centers.

Today, neighborhoods in our central cities continue to face internal and external pressures to change. We know that we need to improve the social, economic and physical well-being of places and the people who live there. We must elevate the principles of equitable development as we look to improve schools, better public transportation, build new housing, or create more jobs. This can be done by:

  • Preventing displacement;
  • Approaching community engagement in such a way that those residents most impacted by our decisions are included in the decision making process;
  • Honoring local culture and history and;
  • Because race has played such a distinct role in shaping our neighborhoods and region, creating places that offer unequal opportunities to their residents. It must continue to be a central consideration for our community development and neighborhood revitalization efforts in the future.

At the end of the day, the success of our efforts should not only be measured by what we did, but by who benefited.

Connecting Through Development

I am optimistic about the ability of our diverse community to come together across differences to build upon our strengths, even in light of the “NoMi” debacle.

When the tornado hit our community, hundreds of houses were destroyed and many lives were interrupted in unimaginable ways. Since then, I’ve witnessed various groups of people across culture, race, and economic status partner with each other, the city, nonprofits, the philanthropic community, and others, to move forward the rebuilding efforts. I have come to believe that the act of journeying together as a community these last two years has done more for solidifying and strengthening our identity as

“Northsiders” (as we’ve proudly called ourselves for decades) in ways that a realtor-driven rebranding effort never could have. Of course, we have not perfected anything, and we continue to experience bumps and bruises along the way. I remain hopeful that a diverse group of people working together can build a thriving, mixed-income, multicultural community where people are connected to each other, engaged in community life and have the resources, capacity, power, and access to opportunities that are necessary to strengthen our individual and collective well-being.

(Tornado destruction in North Minneapolis. Photo by Alleycat Studios CC BY-NC)

(originally posted:

May 24, 2013

I was 19.

it’s easter. well tomorrow it is. so today is that in between day. the day after, when we mourn how jesus died, and the day before, when we celebrate that strange bedrock of our faith that he wasn’t dead at all, that he was alive, and well and ready to keep on working with us and the world.

I was 19 when i became a christian. is that how you say it? the word ‘became’ doesn’t ring right with me somehow though.

I was 19 when i converted to christianity. that doesn’t sound right either, since i wasn’t really anything before hand, minus the cultural ties I had to both hinduism (my dad’s faith then) and sikhism (my mom’s faith). plus the word ‘conversion’ has so much cultural baggage.

I was 19 when i gave up and became a christian. that actually starts to sound a bit better. seriously i was so tired of being something. being liked. being cool. being smart. being important. being, being being. i never did like who i was. i didn’t like how i looked, how i dressed. i didn’t like what i was studying in school, i didn’t like being alone. so maybe i did give up. maybe i gave up trying so hard to be something, and instead gave up and became who i already was because of who jesus kept telling me i already was.

seriously, somedays it felt like he was yelling and screaming at me. of course the screaming and yelling was only in my head (and with love). neeraj. you’re wonderful and beautiful. and beautiful. did i tell you that you’re beautiful? and you’re not beautiful because of your clothes or because you can do math well. you’re beautiful because i made you beautiful.

i made you. beautiful.

I was 19 when i got in a fight with jesus. that sounds weird, but maybe just a bit closer to the truth. for a year or so I was wrestling with my aloneness, my general lack of anything moving inside of me. i spent some time reading hindu scriptures and some time reading the bible. i had conversations with friends of different faiths and sometimes i would talk out loud to ‘god’ in my bed. then one day i was walking home from studying and i just stopped on the corner and screamed. out loud. not so everybody could hear, though i’m sure they did, but because i wanted god to hear. to hear me. to really hear me. to hear how much i hated myself, how much i hated my life, how much i hated him.

i screamed, hoping he might scream back. and to tell me. what is up. with me. and the world. and him. and love. and beauty. and brokenness. and pain. and fucking everything else inside of me that felt totally torn apart and gross.

I was 19 when jesus showed me that the world was bigger than me. gently, he just began showing me that all that was inside of me, quite possible was also inside of others. maybe even that when i thought i had it bad, others had it worse.

I was 19 when jesus showed me my privilege. I was 19 when jesus showed me that i was doing better than a million other people in this world. I was 19 when jesus showed me that he loved me and those other million people. the exact same.

I was 19 when jesus picked me up and body slammed me. And then he sat on top of me and looked me in the eyes and said with the most grace and love and hope that anybody had ever spoken to me in my whole life, “i love you”.

Then he picked me up and body slammed me again. this time just for fun. which is what i love most about jesus, he’s a funny guy/god.

I was 19 when jesus interrupted my life with his love.
I was 19 when jesus helped me look at myself in the mirror and like myself.
I was 19 when jesus took some of my brokenness and made it whole.

it is said every good movement inspires each individual to make sacrifices for the greater good. and that every good movement invites people into something greater than themselves – something they would not be foolish to sacrifice everything for. I was 19 when jesus invited me into his movement. I was 19 when i stopped living for myself and started living for something way bigger.

i remember a few years later after my first set of fighting/becoming/converting/showing with jesus, i screamed at him again. this time because of all the injustice in the world i was witnessing all around me. the first time when i screamed asking him where he was (for me), he responded with a quiet ‘here i am’. this time, the second time, when i screamed asking him where he was (for the world) he responded with a provocative ‘where are you?’. where are you neeraj? i’m where you are, so if you think i’m not doing anything about the injustice in the world, then it’s probably because you’re not doing anything about the injustice in this world. funny jesus, i responded. real funny. but i got it. i hear you loud and clear. where i am, you are, where he is, i should be. note taken.

seriously, i’m starting to feel like only in my screaming have i learned the two things i need to most know about jesus. jesus loves me. jesus loves the world.

Today i’m 34. And i admit i’m not quite sure i’ve got much more figured out than when i was 19. but i think that may just be the point, because i think what i figured out that day was all i really needed to figured out. and something i have to keep with me moment by moment, day by day, year by year. god has a love for me and he has a love for the world and he wants me to join him, and others, in putting all the broken pieces together into something more beautiful. I’m broken, you’re broken, we’re broken, it’s broken. but i don’t and you don’t and we don’t and it doesn’t have to stay broken. it can be put back together. maybe even into something more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.

March 30, 2013


I do not live a very compartmentalized life. The things that I am passionate about and care about bleed into all areas of my life, work, family, vocation, community, friends and faith. There are times when someone will ask me, “What are you working on that for?” Sometimes the answer to that question is clear and singular in nature, and at other times the answer to the question “what is that for?” touches on multiple different identities and parts of my life.

On the negative side people might categorize my lack of compartmentalization as having no boundaries, and a slippery slope to loss of purpose, focus and balance. On the positive side I might say I am living out of my undivided self, giving my whole life to my whole life! Of course, I do have boundaries and consider myself strongly in touch with what my family and I need at various times (though not always).

Here is what I know… that while the demands of my time and leadership are on the increase, there is no “end to the work” in sight, and there will always be good and fun and important work to be involved in. So the question I keep asking myself is, “as the work keeps calling, will I actually be around to answer?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to work 60 hours a week, check emails every night and weekend, neglect my wife, kids, family or friends, or be so exhausted and stressed out that what I am giving to the work is less than my best.

It’s no secret that we live in a fast paced world, focused on efficiency, production and getting and staying ahead (or get left behind). The tendency to strive and fill our days with busyness can by tempting. We spend ourselves trying to make a difference, but in the midst of all of our tireless work and busyness, it is easy to drift away from what we truly need. We become disconnected from our faith, our family, friends and all of the things that make life enjoyable and worth living. And then the real problems begin as we become increasingly exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated to know what really matters and what to really give ourselves to. We become unable to distinguish what is important to focus on and what to let go (or drop or break?).

So far, in my life and career I feel pretty good about how I have been able to balance it all and find a rhythm that works for my family and I. Increasingly though, especially in the past year since receiving the Bush Fellowship, I am aware of the need to develop new skills, practices and disciplines that will help me be a more resilient and sustained leader.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as, “the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and from sources of stress such as work pressures, health, family or relationships problems.”

I have two definitions that are guiding my understanding and definition of the word resilient:

  1. The ability to shift from reactivity to a state of resourcefulness in moments of stress or crisis. (Rockwood Leadership Institute, Art of Leadership)
  2. The ability to keep going. (Me)

I understand myself to be quite complex and “needy” of lots of things. I have both a public and private self. I am equal parts extrovert and introvert. I need time to study and learn new things. I need time to play with my kids and love my wife well. I need rest, and times when I am doing nothing. I need extended times away from “work”. I need to care for my physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional self.

So what will it take to do become a more resilient leader? I’m not totally sure, but here are four areas that I am beginning to look at:

  1. Look after myself. I need to take care of my physical, spiritual and emotional self, recognizing that they are dependent on each other for wholeness and none should be ignored.
  2. Pause & Reflect. When the pace of life is moving so fast it’s hard to tell which plates to spin and which ones to let drop. I want to create more space for reflection as a way to take an honest account of what is important right now, what should stay or go, and equip myself to make real time shifts in my rhythm, pace and focus.
  3. Intentional rest. Do nothing. Often. Consistently.
  4. Say No (sometimes). I’m not a believer in saying no just to say no. But I am self aware enough to know that sometimes saying yes to something serves my need to feel important or becomes a way of avoiding the real work that needs to be done, be that personally or professionally.

And finally (#5), here’s a big one for me right now… Work on my triggers. The concept of triggers was first introduced to me while attending the Art of Leadership Training in June 2012, hosted by the Rockwood Leadership Institute.

Triggers are events or situations that tend to catapult me instantly into higher emotional reactions, often way out of proportion to the event itself. When triggered, I lose clarity and am less effective. They can be very personal, can stem from something deep in my past, and can be “small or big”. When triggered my response is often automatic and without conscious choice. Triggers disable my ability to be resilient and effective in my work. By working on my triggers I hope to a) develop the ability to not react when triggered and b) learn how to shift into a more resourceful state of acting.

Here is a list of triggers that I’ve identified thus far:

  1. My wife tells me I did something wrong (i’m not perfect, so me doing something wrong happens here and there!).
  2. I try to fix something around my house, only to struggle or fail.
  3. When somebody minimizes my relaxed approach as somehow being ‘less committed’ to whatever it is we’re working on together.
  4. When somebody says something that questions my engagement or way of involvement in my community.

I suppose I could go on and on. The easy work for me has been identifying a bunch of triggers, the harder work has been journeying deeper into my reactions to these triggers, the layers of feelings that come with it and identifying the core feeling from which they arise. Somebody call a doctor, I need some help!

 What practices do you need to put in place to be a more resilient leader? What triggers do you have in your life? 

December 11, 2012

The first steps to meaningful community engagement




A town hall meeting in West Hartford, Conn. Credit: Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons

The question of how to meaningfully and authentically engage community members in planning and development efforts is both difficult and important. Achieving equitable neighborhood revitalization takes fusing the hopes, dreams, wisdom and creative problem-solving of community members with the expertise, resources and knowledge of planners, community developers, artists, public officials, the private sector and others working to strengthen our communities.

Creating more sustainable solutions that effectively address tough local challenges will take new ways of community engagement while simultaneously building on the power of communities to create, as Bill Traynor puts it, “homegrown, locally owned, action-oriented solutions to a neighborhood’s problems.”

Much of the challenge, as I see it, is based in reflection of what we actually believe about the public and about the role and value of engagement more broadly. There is a distinct difference between assessing people’s opinions or attitudes and actually sharing planning and decision-making responsibilities. There’s a difference between real partnerships and simply asking people to rubber-stamp decisions we’ve already made.

As it is, there too much placation, manipulation and tokenism in our engagement efforts. We ask people if they want a dishwasher or an air conditioner in their apartment (a fair question), but we don’t ask them what kind of affordable housing they want in their community (a different, but similarly good question). We ask people if they’d like a playground for their children without telling them that the other possibility for the site is a health care center. Too often, our efforts are centered on wanting people to participate without giving them the opportunity to make real decisions. We devalue investments in time and relationship building, which often leads to us more easily devalue the contributions and expertise of those we engage.

Sherry Arnstein captures our challenge well, writing in 2006 article that “[t]here is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power to affect the outcomes of a process.”

So, how do we do it? How do we move up the ladder of community engagement from disempowered opinion-gathering to collective problem-solving and shared decision-making? I am not an expert and do not pretend to have the three keys, or the four steps, or the two magical ways to achieve this type of engagement by Friday. Plus, the reality is that every community project needs a unique approach based on its context. But here are some principles that I think can guide us in the core of the work and elevate us above the technical realities of any specific situation:

Acknowledge our interdependence and need for increased diversity. We need to understand that the problem we may be trying to solve doesn’t only affect “those people over there” and not “these people over here.” As we become more comfortable with our growing interdependence, the goal of our engagement efforts can be better focused on how, in working together, we draw upon the differing expertise, wisdom and experiences of different kinds of people, sectors and ideas. By bringing together the richness provided by differing perspectives, interpretations and ideas, we begin to capitalize on a growing awareness that diversity trumps individual ability, and that are futures are more connected than we like to believe.

Be honest with the complexity. As soon as we have to work with and even share power with people from different cultures, geographies, educational backgrounds or sectors, the more complicated work begins. Working within this complexity requires us to ask different questions and to value different things. The need to develop more trusting relationships and a shared analysis about our work together may need to trump speed and efficiency. Questions centered on simple data may need to be balanced with questions that require much more of us, like “How it is we want to be together?” and “What is it we want to create together?”

Be comfortable with uncertainty and controversy. Defining problems and coming up with solutions becomes that much harder as we try to understand the complicated ways in which our interdependence is blurring the lines of our previously compartmentalized notions of the world. Answers don’t come as easily, and when they do they come with lots of questions attached.


(this post originally appeared here:

November 1, 2012