It's a rainy Friday night at the Paseo Verde Community Hall in North Philadelphia. Naida Elena Montes, a Temple Geography and Urban Studies PhD candidate and career community engagement practitioner, is delivering a presentation about the nature of her research. She unpacks a history of housing inequity, discriminatory redlining, community disinvestment, and their current-day consequences.
At its conclusion, she grins at the room and says, "Okay, now I'm going to make you all a little uncomfortable."
Attendees are separated into "story circles" and prompted to share experiences relative to their home and community face-to-face. Montes picked up this practice from her time working with Just Act. Participants are exposed to a variety of perspectives from their fellow Philadelphians across multiple districts, neighborhoods, and backgrounds.
That focus on personal experience and facilitating understanding between residents is central to Montes' work — work that has earned her a place among AL DÍA's 2022 40 Under Forty class.
AL DÍA is a Philadelphia-based news organization that, since 1994, has aimed to highlight the contributions of Latin Americans in the United States. The 40 Under Forty, in particular, recognizes up-and-coming leaders and young professionals making a direct impact in their communities.
Community engagement has always been a passion for Montes. Among many other things, she's been a youth mentor for the Norris Square Community Alliance, a Policy Fellow for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and she's currently a Research Assistant on a National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Communities Planning Grant.
Her years working with Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), however, were particularly formative.
"There, in the Community Economic Development office, I could see many of the different areas where people were trying to work through in order to improve communities," says Montes. "One experience that really stood out to me was working with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia."
In 2015, APM partnered with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia for the "Block Build" project. Over two days, 200+ volunteers gathered to help rehabilitate 13 North Philadelphia homes in need.
"That work with APM was really a start for me to think about housing and the impact that it has on residents when you take the time to say we're doing an initiative to actually work on your home," she recalls. "Along my academic journey, that experience brought me back to the focus on the home."
Her journey at Temple University began with a position as Community Engagement Coordinator for the Center of Urban Bioethics at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. She eventually transitioned to pursuing a PhD in Geography and Urban Studies. Naturally, her research is informed by her experience in community development, and it emphasizes the role of the home.
"Many of the residents that I've been interviewing, when I ask them, 'Do you feel safe in your home?' say yes. But when asked if they feel safe outside of their home, many say no," says Montes. "What you hear people talking about is the disinvestment [in neighborhoods], but no one takes the time to ask about people's experience within the home. How is it a space of safety and emotional health and wellbeing?"
In spotlighting the home, Montes also aims to explore the intersection between housing and Environmental Justice. The Environmental Justice movement calls for the equal implementation of environmental protections and regulations, regardless of demographics.
For Montes, born and raised in North Philly, this gives a certain immediacy to the dialogue around environmental issues.
"I'm basically saying that we need to look at the scale of the home as a place of resilience, as a place that we need to consider when we think about climate change, climate adaptation," Montes explains. "Looking at the history of racialized planning practice, the socioeconomic demographics of certain areas, an incredibly old housing stock, and people doing what they can on lower or limited incomes, residents are already facing issues trying to maintain their homes.
"Now we're talking about climate change in Philadelphia — more heat, more rain, things like that. How is that going to affect our residents on a greater scale? I'm honing in on this idea of climate change."
The future is wide open for Montes, but following her PhD, she hopes to maintain the flexibility to continue aiding communities and youth. She continues to uphold her own community in her work.
"When there was white flight, when there was disinvestment, when we were hazardous neighborhoods for investment, there were residents who already lived here sustaining these neighborhoods. It may not look like what your idea or definition of sustainability is, but they were sustaining these neighborhoods when the city didn't care," says Montes.
"What do we actually value? Do we only value groups that talk about environmental technologies and things like that, or do we come back to the basics and value those who were already here?"