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Tariq Saqqaf

As Madison's neighborhood resources coordinator, Tariq Saqqaf holds one of the most crucial jobs in helping to improve the quality of life in fragile areas of the city.

He may have the most arresting name in Madison government and holds one of its crucial jobs in helping fragile neighborhoods.

Tariq Saqqaf (TAR-rik sa-KHOF), born Syed Salahuddin Tariq Pasha Saqqaf, works from the mayor’s office as the city’s neighborhood resources coordinator, leading efforts of city staff teams assigned to deliver services, promote equity and improve the quality of life in nine areas.

Born in the Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, Saqqaf was raised in New Jersey, Madison and Saudi Arabia. He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from UW-Madison and attended medical school there for three years — he was also a coxswain for the university rowing team — before leaving medicine for a social services career.

He started at Nehemiah Community Development Corp., then ran youth programs for Common Wealth Development before starting his current job in December 2012. He's also working with other volunteers to create the city's first skate park in the developing Central Park. He likes to garden, spot birds and play tennis, and is looking forward to helping overcome isolation of the city’s Muslim community.

Saqqaf, 39, lives with his wife, Heidi, on their beloved Near East Side with a band of mutt rescue pets that includes “four wily cats and one very complicated pooch.”

Q: How many people know your full name?

A: My parents, probably my sister but not my brother, and Heidi. Other people have heard it but there’s no chance they could repeat it.

Q: There are other physicians in your family. Why did you leave medical school?

A: It was never really a passion for me. I always knew I wanted to work with kids, with youth.

Q: Why did you seek the neighborhood resource coordinator’s position?

A: For years, Madison has been getting all these awards – Best City, Best Place to Raise a Family, etc. – but, as we know, that hasn’t been the case for a significant portion of our population. This position seemed like a way to be able to help government work better for some of the communities we don't typically serve as well.

Q: Why are Neighborhood Resource Teams (NRTs) important?

A: They are one way the city has been doing work in equity since Mayor Soglin started them in 1991. They help focus municipal services for neighborhoods that most need it. Beyond that ... they break through silos of government and create relationships among city staff along with neighborhood residents and other stakeholders. They help to do what the city’s supposed to do, better.

Q: What have you learned in terms of assets and challenges?

A: There are many great leaders in our neighborhoods and lots of people who care deeply about where they live and take pride in it. Even though residents often feel a positive sense of community, a lot of the neighborhoods with NRTs have negative reputations. It’s a shame that’s what comes first to other people’s minds. Folks in these neighborhoods have big challenges regarding basic needs — employment, affordable housing, access to healthy, affordable food, or places to come together as neighbors. There are also many properties not being kept up by landlords as well as they should be.

Q: What are some important NRT achievements?

A: NRTs have made recommendations, based on community input, that contributed to: improvements to a number of neighborhood parks; a bus route that serves Owl Creek, whose residents previously had none; and the neighborhood center that's going up in the Theresa Terrace neighborhood. Also, we just finished sessions with community members from eight neighborhoods to try to tune in to what matters most and what their daily experience is like. This will inform how we direct resources going forward.

Q: What's the appeal of skateboarding?

A: I love the feel of cruising. It's freedom.

Q: What about you would surprise people?

A: I have an inexplicable fondness for miniatures; you know those little Christmas snow villages. I love them — no idea where that came from. I don't even celebrate Christmas!

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.