Izzi Greenberg ’05 never considered Middletown as just her college town. As a student, Greenberg left campus every day to return to her off-campus house and her job at the North End Action Team (NEAT). Greenberg now serves as the Executive Director of NEAT, a community revitalization organization dedicated to improving the safety and health of the North End of Middletown.
NEAT, a grassroots organization founded in 1977 by residents, business leaders, property owners, and stakeholder groups dissatisfied with local conditions, works to reinvest residents in the health and safety of the neighborhood by developing community leadership, resources, and strategies to improve the quality of life in the North End. Greenberg described NEAT’s current structure—improving home ownership rates, increasing the safety of the streets, and strengthening the education of community schools—which has been made possible by private foundations and federal block grants.
The 2000 census, the most recent data available, recorded that the average median income in the North End ranges roughly from $12,500 to $25,000 for a family of four. Comparably, the census found that Middletown, with a population of 43,167, averages a median income of $70,000 for a similarly sized family.
Greenberg, a New Jersey native, never thought she would have a career as a community organizer—a position she first heard of only when she was hired by NEAT in 2001. After receiving a general studies degree from Middlesex Community College, Greenberg enrolled as a Government major at the University in 2003. A married adult and a student, she had to balance both work at NEAT and her government courses. Greenberg was allowed to live off-campus and to waiver her meal plan—after much insistence.
“It was a little strange to me to be an older student at Wesleyan, and I wasn’t even that old,” Greenberg said, noting the change from Community College tailored towards working people. “The campus life experience is limited as a nontraditional student… I was working and my last semester I was even pregnant.”
Greenberg, who served on the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), found it difficult to stay involved with student groups and activities that met so late in the evening. Ultimately it was her government courses and professors—such as Professors of Government John Finn, Marc Eisner, and Nancy Schwartz—that positively defined her college experience.
“It was a great department,” Greenberg said, recalling her particularly memorable courses. “John Finn’s classes I found to be deeply moving; the law was really inspiring… Marc Eisner taught me to look at issues from all sides in a less partisan way.”
According to Greenberg, housing in the North End has deteriorated over the years due to low rates of home ownership coupled with a huge number of absent landlords. To combat the subsequent widespread neglect of houses, NEAT offers free workshops on foreclosure prevention, promotes tenants rights initiatives, provides homeowner and credit counseling, and pushes property owners to maintain the upkeep of their land and to adhere to Middletown housing codes. NEAT also focuses on improved education and safety. Through community gardens, redevelopment initiatives, and an emphasis on empowering local businesses, NEAT provides resources and strategies so that residents can transform their neighborhood into a community that provides them with healthier and safer lives.
“We believe that our elementary school [McDonough] should be as good as all the others,” Greenberg said. “The North End should be held to the same safety and health codes.”
Through partnership with Green Street Arts Center and other community associations, NEAT exposes local children to a different mediums of art, provides opportunities for math tutoring, and organizes a hiking club to explore the region’s natural preserves.
Greenberg described one situation that typified the problems faced by NEAT and other concerned residents. According to Greenberg, the city changed its policy this past summer regarding bulk weight pickup, but failed to inform local citizens that furniture and other large items left out on the street corner, which previously had been cleared away by the city, would no longer be removed. As residents commonly rent homes from absent landlords who were therefore unaware of the situation, weeks passed, during which trash accumulated on the streets, before the issue was formerly addressed.
“Though it seems really minor it was a huge issue of the summer,” Greenberg said. “It was a quality of life issue. The area looked rundown. It was very unsafe and people were very unhappy.”
Greenberg noted that churches have often provided financial support and social services for underserved neighborhoods. Prior to NEAT, however, no religious or government institutions had specifically targeted the needs of this low-income community. According to Greenberg, NEAT’s emphasis on serving the neighborhood for the benefit of current residents through initiatives that directly address their needs and empower community action has been a powerful force in filling this void.
Since she first joined NEAT, Greenberg has noticed an increase in community involvement in the future of the city’s neighborhoods. She noted that the Green Street Art Center and the University Center for Community Partnership have facilitated many of these connections. However, as the only full time staffer at an organization that relies on the volunteer spirit of residents, Greenberg is realistic about the constraints she faces.
“There is a lot to do and we could do a lot more with more staff,” Greenberg said. “I don’t have any aspirations for changing my job anytime soon.”
For Nick Petrie ’12, NEAT’s emphasis on a homegrown approach to social activism was a similar attraction. A volunteer since last December, NEAT has offered Petrie the freedom to work on projects of personal interest, such as assessing crime within the community and organizing among teenage groups.
“What is really incredibly important is that NEAT provides an organized voice of those that are usually left out of the dialogue,” Petrie said.
Petrie additionally spent this past summer living in the North End, playing volleyball with residents while working on outreach into the Latino community.
“What’s so wonderful about the work is that rather than just talking about those issues you can see how they play out in real life,” Petrie said. “There’s a lot to be said about the real world application.”
Greenberg advocates that issues of social justice can be most effectively addressed locally in Middletown.
“The focus in local issues is a place were Wesleyan kids can really have a tremendous impact if they could see the glamour in them,” Greenberg said. “I guess I always wished my fellow students would focus more on local issues where they could make a greater impact.”
Despite being limited by competition for funding and staffing, Greenberg is confident in NEAT’s community members and their ability to revitalize the health and safety of the neighborhood and for advancing the rights of residents.
“I love my job,” Greenberg says. “This job keeps me on my toes. I live in this neighborhood, too.”