Fifteen Years and One Big Legacy Later: An Exit Interview with Street Roots’ Israel Bayer

After over a decade of advocacy for the homeless community, Israel Bayer is stepping down from his post as Executive Director of Street Roots. XRAY in the Morning had the pleasure of sitting down with Israel to discuss his decision to leave, and to reflect on his fifteen years of dedicated work for our city’s beloved street newspaper.

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Jefferson Smith: Joining us now is local legend, beloved figure… Media mogul? Maybe not. Advocate for the human beings including human beings who are struggling to find homes and houses, Israel Bayer, Executive Director of Street Roots, Portland’s flagship publication. Israel announced last month he’s going to be stepping down after over a decade at Street Roots. Good morning, Israel.

Israel Bayer: Thanks for having me.

Jefferson Smith: Why are you leaving?

Israel Bayer: I’ve been working with the street newspaper movement for 15 years and probably will continue to do so, but in the interim I needed a mental break, and Street Roots is in a fantastic place right now, both as the newspaper and the quality of the content and the vendor program and financially we’ve never been in a better place, so it felt like a good time to let somebody else take the lead.

Jefferson Smith: How did you get started at Street Roots?

Israel Bayer: Oh, my story is I came up off the block and I have no formal education or nonprofit training, so it took me a long time to get to a place where I felt like I found my groove. Ultimately the success of Street Roots is about the entire team and all the vendors, so oftentimes I think I am pegged as the face of Street Roots, but we’re a team that’s all moving in the same direction and really doing some great work right now.

Jefferson Smith: You said that you want a break and so you decided to use the time as, use the time when Street Roots is doing its best to take that break. Am I supposed to buy that?

Israel Bayer: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that I probably ran out of steam about the time we had gone weekly, but …

Jefferson Smith: You’ve been tired.

Israel Bayer: I’ve been tired. Working on those streets is a traumatic experience and navigating the politics of Portland and trying to thread a fine needle to be able to move the issue of homelessness forward is, you know, it takes the wind out of you. We went weekly two years ago and that was a successful venture and then we, a long stride into a yes for Affordable Homes Campaign. That took a lot of effort. I think that for me, I’ve been doing this work long before Street Roots really came to be what it is today, so by the time we had reached the mountaintop so to speak, I was out of steam to begin with.

Jefferson Smith: You had two big mountains to climb.

Israel Bayer: Yeah, and Street Roots has a very bright future. I think the opportunities ahead of the organization right now are many given the media climate and the political climate. I think that there’s a lot of directions the newspaper and organization could go. I just didn’t have the juice in me to make those lifts and needed a break. I think that any good leader knows when it’s time to step aside. For me I didn’t want the organization to be driven by my lack of energy. I felt like it was just time to be able to hand over the reigns.

Jefferson Smith: You mentioned the challenge of navigating the politics of Portland. What was the biggest challenge or what were some of the biggest challenges in that area?

Israel Bayer: Well, Portland’s a very passive aggressive place and the town’s small. I think that any time you’re an effective advocate you get put in a situation where you’re trying to move the dial forward on the issue that you’re working on, including the larger social justice community.

When you’re speaking truth to power and trying to move an issue forward and being critical and working together in partnership with a variety of different characters, it can take a toll on you. I think that ultimately I think that we live in a phenomenal city. I love Portland. I love this community, but ultimately it felt like I didn’t have the juice to continue on in the rat race, so to speak.

Jefferson Smith: Give an example of where you were advocating, speaking truth to power where you would get a passive aggressive result or response.

Israel Bayer: Oh you know, take the camp sweeps that we’re currently working with. This is my tenure as an advocate with my fifth mayor. In some ways I feel like it’s Groundhog Day, and so that’s not to take any respect away from the current mayor, but ultimately we’re having many of the same conversations that we’ve been having for the past two decades around the livability issue. It gets to be very tiring to be able to try to break out of this micro-thinking around how we work with people on the streets and try to bring it up to a place where we’re driving something big. Yeah.

Jefferson Smith: I want to stick with that for a second. Is it Groundhog Day, does the dynamic repeat because it stays hard or because we fail to learn? Is it because of resource limitations or is it because we failed, or is it because of turnover?

Israel Bayer: I think it’s probably a combination of all the above. As we’ve talked before, the result of homelessness is 40 years of disinvestment from the federal government and we currently have a president that took the House that was on fire and threatens to burn it to the complete ground with up and coming federal budget cuts to HUD. You have a very complex dynamic where local communities are carrying the water for what was once a federal priority and we just don’t have the ability to scale to solve the problems, so we get put in these situations where we have to manage the problem.

I think that Portland liberals in some ways want to have their cake and eat it too, you know? Oftentimes it’s the very people that are against a border wall in Texas or supporting Syrian refugees that are working to get the homeless out of their neighborhood and that can become very fractured. I think it’s also a sign of where we are as a country. I think oftentimes people are dumbfounded and baffled at why we have a president that we do in the office. Ultimately I think that the left continues to be fractured and we need to be able to all move in the same direction on the issue of poverty.

It’s very complex and hard and nobody obviously wants to see people sleeping on their streets in their neighborhoods, but ultimately we’re talking about a population that are our neighbors, our residents, our fellow Americans that are down on their luck. Look, poverty isn’t pretty. Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody grew up or graduated high school wanting to be homeless. It’s a hard knock life and so we live in a thriving city of haves and have nots. Ultimately out on the streets is where we see the rubber hit the road.

Jefferson Smith: You said something interesting. Compassion and its relationship to proximity. Typically one would think love your family, but there might be too much disregard of a foreigner. What you said is among liberal Portlanders there is some instinct to be compassionate far away, harder to be compassionate when the person who’s going through a human struggle, who might not smell great, who might not look great, who might be on your block, is real close, it’s harder to express compassion when it’s up close. Any further reflections on that?

Israel Bayer: Well, I think that it’s all about how we frame the issue and how we … It takes courageous leaders to be able to take a fractured community. You have your bleeding heart liberals that of course going to support the homeless no matter what. Then you have your more fiscal conservative liberals that don’t want to see the homeless in their neighborhoods.

It takes great leadership to be able to take both of those fractured sides and drive them in the same direction. I think Street Roots is a perfect example of being able to have an organization that offers a positive interaction with people on the streets in a way that people feel safe and engaged and they cannot only get educated through the newspaper, but they can do good for something, for an individual.

It takes, the issue of homelessness has plagued politics locally since the 1980s. You can go down the list of mayors in Portland, in San Francisco, in Seattle and Los Angeles who promised great things, but understood and realized very intentionally that they were walking into quicksand. It’s a hard issue where all of these different industries have a bone in the fight and so you’ve got your Chamber of Commerce, your tourism industry, your labor groups, your advocates, social service providers, neighbors, common concerned citizens all engaging and trying to tell the mayor what to do.

It’s very easy to get spun around. You have to have conviction and drive, drive the bus so to speak in a direction where everybody can get on. That takes some time and it takes sometimes learning on the job to be able to do that.

Jefferson Smith: Is that Groundhog Day reality part of what got you tired?

Israel Bayer: Yeah. Well, I mean I think just the … Again, I’m a poor kid who overachieved and I don’t have much capital in this town. It’s hard for me to be able to set root. I’m not a home owner. In many ways the economy is affecting me and so take that, coupled with the trauma over the years of seeing dozens and dozens of people die on the streets and try to move these issues forward, it’s just, it’s simply I’m tired. I need to reboot and I’ll come back strong.

Jefferson Smith: How does a place like Street Roots manage pay structures? To make sure that a leader could afford to, I don’t know, buy a home, but on the other hand the people who are distributing the newspaper are doing it for the dollar that you or I or Tom or somebody else gives them when they sell it.

Israel Bayer: That’s right.

Jefferson Smith: How do you balance that?

Israel Bayer: Well, at Street Roots we work very hard and we’re very proud to pay all of our staff a living wage. I’ve taken the tack that I don’t want a big salary. I’d rather have more staff at a living wage than taking a big check. I think that all of the leadership at Street Roots feels that way and so we try to balance it to the best of our ability to have a good quality of life while also the housing crisis affects all of us in one way or another.

So the vendors are able to gain an income. We’ve got vendors that are both experiencing homelessness, they’re in survival mode and people that are in low income housing that are using the money to supplement their quality of life. So we’re trying to lift everybody up to the best of our ability.

Jefferson Smith: What are two things you’re proudest of?

Israel Bayer: I think the thing that we’re the proudest of is being able to really I think change the face of the way people think about homelessness in Portland and the quality of the content of the newspaper under the leadership of our managing editor Joanne Zuhl and others. I think people expect less of a street newspaper and I like to believe that we’ve delivered more.

I’m very proud that not only Street Roots, but our larger advocacy community has stayed a steadfast and are believing in the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. It’s not a popular thing, but we’re not a city that completely criminalizes people on the streets and I’m proud to say that we’re a part of an ongoing dialogue to be able to make sure that people do have their basic and human rights, even though they’re going through hell on the streets.

Jefferson Smith: Anyone you haven’t said thank you to enough?

Israel Bayer: Wow, there’s so many people I would say thank you. Obviously the team at Street Roots is gold and all the people that have ever been involved with Street Roots, and the supporters,  are really the heart and soul of the organization. There’s lots of people. Mr. Marshall Runkle over in Chloe’s office now is one of my first political mentors and really helped me navigate the waters.

Our former publisher Brian Pollard who now runs The Cherokee Phoenix. Joanne Zuhl, the managing editor and me have been at it for many years, so there’s lots and lots of people that I have not been able to thank enough, but ultimately Street Roots is a community effort.

Jefferson Smith: Anyone you haven’t said sorry to enough?

Israel Bayer: Well, I think that I’ve tried to the best of my ability to always do the advocacy with integrity, in a way that I never try to undercut somebody or bad mouth somebody or just knock them out of nowhere. I’ve tried to always build a relationship and keep my enemies close, so to speak. I have no problem building relationships with people that have different views than Street Roots and we’ve tried to the best of our ability to do that in a way that has integrity.

Jefferson Smith: Biggest mistake you made?

Israel Bayer: Oh, biggest mistake I made. You know, I think that I’ve worked really hard over the years and probably the biggest mistakes that I’ve made is not self-care. When we were starting Street Roots and continuing through the years, I prioritized Street Roots over love and friends and family at times where I was putting in 70, 80 hours a week. Sometimes you look up and you realize that the small things in life that matter have been pushed to the wayside because you’re trying to drive an agenda forward. That’s something that I think we all grapple with as advocates.

Jefferson Smith: Let’s stick on that for a minute. I do the same thing. The same thing happened to me and in trying to build the Bus Project it was, I saw similarly with friends of mine who went and worked at top law firms or went and worked at investment banks. They were working similar hours, but they would have enough dough to then hire a staff, right? Have people to take care of all their stuff at home, to make sure that okay, they didn’t get to spend time with their kids, but they had an au pair.

They would just take an Uber everywhere, whatever. Whatever made life easier. How do you balance? I don’t even know if balance is the right word. How do you navigate trying to be a legitimate change agent to work just as hard as a would be oligarch, but to fight against oligarchy, to fight for compassion when you can’t charge all the people that you’re giving that compassion to what the market might charge them for something else?

Israel Bayer: Hey, if you have that answer you could make a lot of money. I think ultimately that’s been very much a challenge, to be able to get ahead or to at least be stable in ways others might have the privilege to do so. When I was younger, I was a poor kid off the block who had a chip on my shoulder, but I’ve learned over the years it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or you’re poor or what background or experience you come from, that ultimately we’re all trying to make the world a better place.

I’ve kind of let that chip on my shoulder go over the years and found respect. Ultimately you do find yourself in situations where you’re struggling to maintain while others around you are financially moving forward. You can choose to look at that in many different ways. I’ve always tried to take the high road and understand that we all come from different experiences and it’s nobody’s fault of the place we’re in. We’re all just trying to do the best that we can.

Tom Johnson: I really appreciate what you’re saying about the toll that it can take and what you said Jefferson, about the Bus Projects, that similar experience getting a theater started. When you’re trying to build something and you really care about it, it’s very easy for to just consume everything else.

There are costs you pay that you’re not aware of at the time maybe and then sometimes by the time you accomplish, get where you want to be, you’ve expended an enormous amount of energy and then have to keep going from there. If you’re lucky that’s when you have a larger team and staff and people you can pay to do things that you did yourself because you didn’t want to ask someone else to do them without getting paid. I bet you’ve had that experience.

Israel Bayer: Yeah, absolutely. For the first few years of Street Roots it was just a couple of us. Joanne Zuhl and I doing more or less everything along with the vendor program. Now that we’ve been able to scale up and actually have a staff, it’s not us running around literally doing everything. That’s nice.

Look, I’m a fire starter. I’m great at starting projects and seeing them through and then handing them off to a larger team. I’m 41-years-old. When I say I’m taking a break, I’m also going to write a book during that time.

Jefferson Smith: You got a title or a concept?

Israel Bayer: I don’t have a title, but it’s going to be a series of vignettes about my experience of poverty and homelessness and politics surrounding homelessness and some of the behind the scenes realities that hinder us, and also some of the ways that we could actually solve the problem. I look forward to do that.

Then I look forward to getting back on the horse and riding. In no way, shape or form am I not dedicated to this work. It’s just a time and a space to be able to take a break.

Jefferson Smith: A final lesson you want to leave people with, something that you’ve grappled with over the last 15 years or if it’s dawned on you recently that you hope could be something that other people could learn from?

Israel Bayer: I think as advocates it’s really easy when you first are involved in a movement to really come in and you start swinging at everybody and thinking that people don’t care about the issue that have been engaged with it for a long time. I think being able to understand the larger landscape, that we all have roles to play in this work and to not be frustrated when you have somebody working the inside game and somebody working the outside game.

I think we’re all trying to work and move in the same direction. Oftentimes on the left we can get nit picky and fractured and throw rocks born out of emotion. I think any lesson to be learned is not to lead with emotion, but to carry that emotion in the work that you’re doing.

Jefferson Smith: Israel Bayer, I want to say thank you. I want to say thank you for your time, but mostly I want to say thank you for your service and even more personally than that, watching you, and I think I can say this genuinely, watching you and how you try to intersect the challenges of being a social entrepreneur in a tremendously challenging context in a way that is authentic to your own values, your own personal story and be not only a strategic leader, but a moral leader, that has been something that has at the risk of quoting from a movie, made me want to be a better person. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I really appreciate everything you do.

Israel Bayer: Well, thank you. It’s a team effort. We’ve all got a long way to go and I look forward to working with the larger social justice community to bring justice to the people.

Jefferson Smith: That was an exit interview with Israel Bayer. I’m Jefferson Smith with our friend Tom Johnson. This is XRAY.  Radio is yours.