Leading foundation appoints Indian-American as director of newly created position

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Neeraj Mehta, appointed ‘Director of Learning’ at McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based organization that gives out approximately $90 million a year in grants. (Photo: McKnight Foundation)

The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation which gives out some $90 million in grants annually, has named Indian-American engineer and community activist Neeraj Mehta as the director of learning, a new position created by the organization.

McKnight describes its mission as one of seeking “to improve the quality of life for present and future generations,” and says the new position will deepen its program-wide commitment to cultivating a highly integrated practice of ongoing learning and lead its work to be more credible, relevant, and effective. Mehta starts in the new position effective July 16.

Mehta told News India Times his mandate was to support all of the programs and the organization as a whole while the Foundation develops its strategies, in a bid “to be more nimble, flexible and responsive,” in a fast-moving world.

“I am thrilled Neeraj will be joining us as our new director of learning,” McKnight President Kate Wolford is quoted saying in a press release. “He is a highly regarded community leader, connector, and catalyst who has demonstrated the ability to use emergent learning and adaptive action skills to drive planning, strategy, and impact,” Wolford added.

Born and brought up in Minnesota to Seema and Rohit Mehta who immigrated to this country in the 1960s, Mehta indicated he was brought up in a shielded environment that was not exposed to the inequities in the country. “The issues of poverty were hidden from us and we could easily ignore them,” while growing up, he said, “But in University these structural inequities were apparent to us,” he said explaining his switch from being a civil engineer to becoming fully engaged in social justice issues.

Mehta has spent the past two decades working to advance racial, social, and economic justice in neighborhoods and communities across the Minneapolis-St.Paul area, the press release from the Foundation says.

Trained as a civil engineer, Mehta pivoted to the field of community building and development and since 2012, he has served as the director of community programs at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota. At UM, he has used research to help organizations develop intentional learning agendas and adapt their work based on what they learn.

He also serves as an adjunct faculty at the Humphrey School, where he teaches courses focused on equitable neighborhood revitalization. Prior to his role at CURA, Mehta worked at Nexus Community Partners, where he helped lead the expansion of their work in North Minneapolis.

Mehta is a graduate in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He was awarded the Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship in 2011.

Mehta told News India Times his parents were extremely supportive of his work . “It took them time to understand my work. They saw it when I took them to the low-income neighborhood where they had lived for the first 6 to 12 months of their arrival, and how it had changed with new housing and amenities, etc.,” Mehta said. “I grew up with their support and willingness to expand boundaries,” he added.

“Neeraj is passionate about building stronger, healthier, and more equitable communities everywhere,” says the press release, especially in North Minneapolis where he lives with his wife Erin, and their two sons Ezra and Cohen. He is on the board of Juxtaposition Arts and the newly formed Center for Economic Inclusion.

The McKnight Foundation’s program interests include regional economic and community development, Minnesota’s arts and artists, education equity, youth engagement, Midwest climate and energy, Mississippi River water quality, neuroscience research, international crop research, and rural livelihoods. It was founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, and has assets of approximately $2.3 billion.