Meet the Next American Vanguard: Neba Noyan

An interview with Neba Noyan, a member of the research faculty at the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University.

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Next American Vanguard is the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders. For two days in 2009 and 2010, two such groups of leaders had the opportunity to network with each other, engage with experts in their field, hear from seasoned changemakers and jumpstart their ideas for improving cities. But the Vanguard’s work continues year-round in the government offices, nonprofits, corporations and communities they work in. Leading up to the 2011 conference, which will take place in late 2011, we will feature an interview with a member of the Vanguard. To read more of these interviews, click here. To learn more about eligibility, click here (the application period will begin in mid-2011). To read a recap of the 2010 event, click here.

Neba Noyan is a research faculty member at the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at the College of Urban & Public Affairs at Portland State University.

What is your typical workday like?

I am involved with different projects, so it changes from day to day; mostly writing reports about indicators and models to highlight true characteristics of neighborhoods I work for; meeting with clients, colleagues and graduate research assistants. I just started to work as a research faculty for Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies (IMS) at Portland State University, so I am still getting a hang of things.

Before IMS, I used to work for a non-profit in Washington, DC, as the Director of Innovation and Research Applications, my days included coordination and management of quantitative aspects of day-to-day research activities for certain projects, a lot of brainstorming within the research team in the organization as well as throughout the weekly meetings with clients and partners during the life of the projects.

Also, most of the days, I had to think, create and react very fast to respond to certain requests by our clients, which included development of spatial and statistical models, analyses of micro-level and alternative data sets; interactive and out-of-the-box data visualizations translating research findings into a language that would provide means for action informing initiatives such as: foreclosure crisis, identifying homeownership opportunities in underserved neighborhoods, healthy food initiatives, financial services provision to underbanked populations, small business development, retail attraction and retention in underserved neighborhoods. I also traveled quiet a lot to talk about my organization’s work and for training different communities across cities in the US about the asset-based market analytic tools and reports we produced for them.

Why do you do the work you do?

My father was in politics for a while and ran for mayor twice. He was a liberal socialist, and too progressive for my town to be able to get elected, and was a target for uncivil and unfair propaganda during each election. He wanted to create a fair system for everyone, helped people all the time; he valued education so much that he paid for so many kids’ education from his own pocket. So I witnessed, firsthand, a struggle of a man with strong morals and high ideals, and what it did to his person. That struggle is engrained in me, not really politically but in more personal and subtle ways. My work makes me feel like I am on the right path to hopefully honor it. I want my work to be about creating better opportunities, increasing quality of life for underserved, undervalued communities nationwide and internationally.

What is your proudest achievement?

Going to the college of my dreams, Bosphorus University in Istanbul.

What is your favorite thing to do in your city?

Weekend mornings, I listen to music and walk around different neighborhoods, visit local shops and vintage stores. Portland’s vintage stores rock! I also love walking by and on the bridges, there are so many in Portland. During my first year of college, I used to commute by a small boat from Asian part of Istanbul to European part every day, and loved watching Istanbul’s bridges in the mornings and at nights. Since then I have an affinity for their larger-than-life characters, so proud and elegant.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

I come across wonderful people from very different backgrounds all the time. As I change, how they inspire me changes also, no lists.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The broader politics of urban development in the US does not always align with my ideals and at times lack some heart, but it is important to persevere to see a brighter day. Sometimes my work feels so abstract and methodological, and very distant from the outcomes I want to see and create. My work is about trying to understand how places and people interact with each other. This is much more complex than just statistics and data. I try to be involved with projects where evidence-based, data-driven strategies can be used for actionable change and with more qualitative research to really understand hidden enclaves of human potential, informal economy, and marginal and neglected identities of neighborhoods.

What would you like to have achieved in ten years?

I would like to create a worker-owned cooperative with really smart and genuine individuals who value what they create and give more than what they take. I would like to innovate flexible, progressive methodologies applicable to different populations to expand my work internationally.

We are very connected virtually, and relate to one another in amazingly creative dimensions using social networking sites and apps. I would like to bring that hyper-connectivity and vigor to ‘share’ to the street; create participatory and qualitative information platforms, cultural and local economic development strategies that are drawn from place-based action where people are more invested in their neighborhoods and more connected to where they live and to each other.

The goal of these platforms is to facilitate and elevate local dialogue about issues such as: increased partnerships, investment and support in local talent, innovation and small businesses; education among youth about urban issues; creation of local strategies to claim space, preserve authenticity of neighborhoods and stop gentrification.

What would be your advice to young people who want to make a difference in their cities?

Know what you want to create, draw passion and drive from it, be generous with your time, surround yourself with people who get you.

How would you define the “Next American City”?

Progressive, aspiring, super innovative in terms of the events, programs, news they create, very supportive of and engaged in the culture of next generation thinking about cities!

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