Street Roots’ New Executive Director Kaia Sand

Jefferson Smith spoke with Street Roots’ new Executive Director Kaia Sand about her path to the paper. You can listen to the interview here or read it’s transcription below. 

The conversation follows our exit-interview last summer with outgoing Street Roots E.D. Israel Bayer. You can find the transcript and audio of that interview here: transcriptaudio (interview starts at 01:33:06). 

November 27th, 2017

Jefferson: One of our … I was going to say, one of my, but I think it’s fair to say, one of our favorite local institutions is Street Roots, Portland’s local street newspaper. Last summer, we interviewed our friend and outgoing Director Israel Bayer, as part of our exit interview series. Now we’ve got KS in the studio, the new Executive Director of Street Roots. Good morning.

Kaia Sand: Good morning.

Jefferson: It’s a pleasure to meet you. I don’t think we’ve met before in our lives.

KS: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jefferson.

Jefferson: How did you get into this mess? Where are you from? Why are you excited about doing the job? I have so many questions.

KS: Okay.

Jefferson: Where do you want to start?

KS: Well, I think when you were saying that Street Roots is one of your favorite institutions, it’s one of my favorites. Ever since the announcement came out that I’m going to be the new Executive Director, I’ve heard from so many people around this city who say the same thing, and who specifically talk about their relationships with Street Roots’ vendors.

Why I got into this, is, I think Street Roots is one of the best things going in Portland. It’s also really close to my heart.

Jefferson: It feels hard to trust so many, the motives of so many media entities. Street Roots is one that I think we can trust. What did you do prior to this?

KS: I am a poet, an artist, a university educator. Most of my career I’ve been in university classrooms working with people who go on and do fabulous things in the world. I’m a community organizer.

As a poet, I’ve been someone who is really interested in finding what’s possible and what seems impossible. That translates directly to community organizing.

How I’ve ended up moving more into community organizing is, I’ve been so moved by the leadership in so many places in Portland, and how people use creativity to find some kind of solution to what seems intractable.

In 2016, I helped found The Right to Survive Ambassador Program. The Right to Survive is an organization that’s lead by houseless people, and formerly houseless people, and then allies. I was really interested in how to create situations in which housed people have encounters with houseless people and learn from houseless people, learn from their expertise, from their experiences.

We’ve been doing that through art. Last year, really worked on creating tiles for Right to Dream Too, so that we could have hundreds and hundreds of people put their hands on clay that would eventually go to supporting Right to Dream Too.

This year we’ve been working on People’s Plans, which, we’ve been going into neighborhoods and asking people, “How can your neighborhood be more hospitable to the health and rest of houseless people?”

I’m really interested in that. I’m really interested in how to create those encounters. I think Street Roots does this so beautifully. Street Roots is set up so that the newspaper, this fabulous publication, is something that connects people who are houseless, or who are poor, to people who, maybe aren’t, maybe come from very different situations.

Jefferson: It reintegrates us a little bit.

KS: Yeah, it does, just a little bit. It creates that kind of connection between people, a relationship. It opens up a conversation. It puts a face on people for other …

Our city, we have some neighborhoods that are doing very well. When you look at the State of Housing report from 2016, we have some neighborhoods on the east side of Portland, where the median income has gone down dramatically in the last 10 years. We have some, where it just keeps going up. I think it’s really important to figure out ways in which people who live in very different realities can come to know each other.

Jefferson: I think I have underappreciated that element. I realize when we have an interaction with a Street Roots vendor, it is a mutually beneficial … It is tangibly and mutually beneficial in that transaction, in that interaction, that can equalize power, at least for a moment.

When did you … I’ve got so many questions. Let me start with this one. This seems like a very interesting job …

KS: Mm-hmm.

Jefferson: And a challenging one to pick for. It seems like there’s several skills that would be nice to have. No leader has all of them. You end up picking somebody to do it, then having to build around that leader, for the other stuff.

It seems to me, that it would be valuable to have a background in journalism. It’d be valuable to have some skill and background in marketing and fundraising, certainly in team management.

Then, also in connection to that vendor community, the trust and authenticity, and issues relating to homelessness. Any of those that you think are more or less important, any that I missed, in terms of what it takes to do the job? Then I want hear where you feel stronger and where you need more help.

KS: Oh, it’s a huge job. Israel Bayer is a community hero. He’s one of my heroes.

Jefferson: Likewise.

KS: That said, it’s an incredible opportunity to walk into this beautiful creation. He’s working, just with the integrity that Israel has, he’s working so hard on the transition to make sure that it’s really, really strong.

One of the things he’s done on his way out is, help launch this coffee project. There’s some folks in town, Ideaville, that wanted to come up with a way to market, to use our marketing design skills to support Street Roots. They teamed up then with Marigold Coffee to create a new coffee line that’s going to be launched on December 1st, called Street Roast.

Near and dear to my heart, one of the brews is called Poet, The Poet. People can actually support Street Roots that way. That’s just to say Israel is doing all kinds of things in his last days to make sure that things are really, really solid going into the future.

In terms of all those different skills, yeah, it’s a huge job. When I think of an underlying thread, I think that being a listener actually courses through all of that. As a writer, I am a listener. As an organizer, as a person who brings people together, I’m a listener.

To raise funds, Street Roots isn’t just it’s vendors, it’s not just it’s staff. It’s this large community. It’s actually being really, really in-tune with people all over this city, who care about Street Roots.

Jefferson: As you identify the places where you are going to need the most help, where the organization … Obviously people buying papers, becoming members, saying nice things about Street Roots, those are things that are useful.

But, as you’re thinking about structurally, the things that Street Roots needs now, where you’re going to need the most help, what are those things?

KS: I will just underline the fact that this is the time of year, with the Willamette Week Give Guide, please do give to Street Roots. Ultimately we just need to keep having those funds be strong.

Jefferson: Okay, I will.

KS: Thank you. I know there’s a lot of great organizations on that. In terms of where I need the most help, I would say just where our city needs the most help.

We are in a housing crisis. I am walking into this situation where I am concerned about advocating for both affordable housing, but also the human rights of people on the streets. Also, amplifying the voices and the creative solutions that are going on all around us.

I would say, I know this is stepping back a little bit, but I would say, it’s about everyone in this city is, all hands on deck, in terms of our housing crisis, everyone trying to pitch in. How I think about it is, that we’re part of this urban fabric. When people want homelessness to disappear, I actually, I don’t want the visibility of homelessness to disappear, unless homelessness itself is gone.

I want us to actually see it because, when we say that cliché, “Out of sight, out of mind,” I think about in my sight, on my mind. I want to see it. I want us all to see it, and I want us all to pitch in to solve it.

Jefferson: When Tim Boyle, from Columbia Sportswear, comes out and tells the Mayor and tells the city, “My employees at Columbia Sportswear downtown don’t feel safe enough … ” Then afterwards, it appears that are greater crackdowns in the Portland Police Department around people who might live on the street and who might make a Columbia Sportswear employee feel uncomfortable, what’s your reaction?

KS: Well, first of all, I don’t discredit anyone’s fear. Fear is a real emotion. But, when I see that, I think about the fact that our city center actually has the lowest median income in the city. When you move into the downtown area, you’re moving into a larger community. You’re not in a vacuum. You take the good, and you take the struggles. Our downtown businesses are part of something larger. I want them to be part of solutions.

I think Columbia Sportswear makes incredible clothing for our climate. I think a lot of people on the streets would really love to be clothed in that. There’s a lot of ways to be helpful.

I was so happy to see Ashley Henry’s piece in the Oregonian, where she’s with the Businesses for a Better Portland. She was talking about how there’s a lot of businesses, a lot of small businesses, that are joining up and actually they’re not calling for increased police presence. They’re calling for the larger, the concern for addressing the structural causes of homelessness, and then its symptoms, its symptoms of people suffering on the street.

I don’t think … I think it’s important that we know that not all folks in the business sectors are asking for more police. They know that actually, that’s not getting at the crisis. That’s not getting at the suffering of the people on the streets. It very likely could increase the crisis.

Jefferson: You said creative solutions. What’s a creative solution that you would like, that you think the community that you work with would like, that Tim Boyle and Tim Boyle’s employees might also like?

KS: Yeah, well when you think about anything that someone is mentioning as a concern, that’s flaring up on a next door post or in a comment box, say it’s someone going to the bathroom outside. Well, if you take a step back from that and you think, “Why is someone going to the bathroom outside?” I would doubt that very many people actually want to be in that position. But, when you don’t have 24 hour access to a toilet, you don’t have a choice. I think people need to step back and look at that.

Just as an example, this is kind of a whimsical example. A group of women in Salem started these Arta Toilets down in 2015. They basically figured out, okay, if we have $500 a toilet, $150 a month to maintain it, we can have 24 hour access for people on the streets. That just expanded to Oregon City.

I look at that and I think, wow, yeah, if you, in our neighborhoods, if people are concerned about that, we have these really powerful neighborhood associations. People can come up with these local solutions. If you’re concerned about people going to the bathroom outside, get more toilets. If you’re concerned about garbage, we need more possibilities for people to throw away their trash.

All of these things … In terms of hygiene, the fact that it’s so hard to get a job when you’re on the streets, when you don’t have an address, you don’t have a phone, and it’s not easy just to keep clean every day. How do we just all, as a society, look at those are the symptoms of homelessness? How do we actually creatively figure out, if this is a concern, what’s a solution? There’s so many things that I haven’t thought of, but people in our city can think of, and they can come up with, and that they can do on a pretty local level.

Jefferson: Some of this, I’ll just be asking the same question in different ways, because I do feel like it’s all one question, but it might be a question that requires a book length question to in-fact ask.

I see it as such a challenge, because much of the energy, and much of the creativity, and much of the localization of the challenges we see are impacted by things beyond our power. For instance, if I were Tim Boyle, what I would like to do is go back to the Reagan Administration. Maybe he wouldn’t like that, but I would like, and stop defunding housing services and homeless services in the ’80s.

If I were a regional planner, I would want Washington County and Beaverton to pay, invest, a little bit more, not necessarily to catch up in Malheur County, but at least to get past Clackamas County, I would ask Clark County to do similarly, so that the local resources spent on human beings who don’t have a place to live, are more robust and not only funded by Multnomah County and the city of Portland.

KS: Mm-hmm.

Jefferson: What are things that frustrate you, that feel like they’re outside the reach of Street Roots, but that you know would impact the Street Roots community? Or, does that just get you off subject, because what you really need to do is focus on where you can have leverage?

KS: I love the way you laid that out. For listeners who want a little, quick description of that history of modern day homeless, Israel Bayer actually does a really nice [inaudible 00:14:39] talk on that. We go back more than 30 years, to the Reagan Administration. We can see all that, the ways in which modern day homelessness has a history.

I think just starting there and realizing this is not an intractable, centuries long situation that we’re particularly in right now, is helpful. I would say, when you’re asking, what do I focus on? Are these problems not part of the purview of Street Roots, no, they are.

We chip away and we do the daily work of Street Roots. We make sure that there’s 160, right now, vendors out there every week, selling the paper. For listeners who don’t know, they buy the paper for a quarter, sell it for a dollar. When you buy a Street Roots paper, you’re helping them with their earning power.

We do that work. We make sure the paper is strong. It’s a weekly paper now. It’s one of only a handful of street newspapers in the world, that’s a weekly paper. It’s really cutting-edge in our city. We make sure there’s good journalism in it.

Just for staying in tune with Street Roots, right now, we’re launching an incredible series for the next two years. Meyer Memorial Trust and Street Roots is approaching the rural housing crisis in Oregon, and doing a series. Make sure you don’t just buy it, but you read it, because there’s a lot of really good journalism. It’s actually not happening anywhere else in Street Roots.

I would say, yeah, my job is to make sure that Street Roots continues to be as strong as it’s ever been, and continues to get stronger. At the same time, I keep my eyes on the larger conditions, and we advocate. We look at, exactly like you’re saying, some of it’s a federal concern. Sometimes some of it is a very local concern. We keep chipping away. We’re a larger movement locally. We can be complex. We can look at things in a complicated way.

Jefferson: You said one place, and that was rural. Where else do you want, or do you think Street Roots needs, to grow?

KS: Well, I would say with the rural initiative, that’s an issue of journalism. Street Roots …

Jefferson: It’s not of a distribution, it’s about content.

KS: Right. It’s about content. One of the …

Jefferson: What do you think Street Roots needs to grow. I didn’t mean to cut you off. Also, where do you think Street Roots needs to grow?

KS: Well I would say, I just on the level of content, one thing that I think is really interesting that Street Roots has done in recent years is it focuses on a number of issues.

We can look at things in an intersectional way. We can look at things where just someone who’s homeless, is poor without shelter. But, they have all kinds of other aspects of their identity. Street Roots really recognizes that with its content, so that someone can be out there on the streets selling the paper, and they have a whole lot more to talk about than just homelessness.

Street Roots rural housing still connects to housing, but Street Roots focuses on prison issues, police reform, immigration, racial justice, there’s a lot of different threads, as well as pretty fun entertainment. I am just looking at this week’s issue. There’s comedian Russell Brand on the cover. There’s always a little bit of pleasure in the paper.

Jefferson: Speaking of pop-culture, were you born in Dorne? And, KS, were you one of the Sand Snakes from Dorne in this series, Game of Thrones?

KS: You know, I have plenty of pop-culture that I enjoy.

Jefferson: That’s not one of them?

KS: That’s not one of them. I’m a dud with Game of Thrones references. I’m really sorry.

Jefferson: What should I have asked you that I didn’t?

KS: Oh that’s a good question. Well, I think it’s been a nice conversation. I would just say in terms of looking ahead, Street Roots is focused on making sure that as many folks get this kind of earning possibility.

Right now we have about 160 people a week. We’re focused on having really strong journalism. I’m really interested in both advocacy, but also amplification. Around the city, if you’re doing really interesting local projects, around addressing our housing crisis, I want to hear about them. I want to make sure other people hear about them too.

Jefferson:  KS, new Executive Director of Street Roots. Thank you so much for your service. Thank you so much for spending some time. I hope you’ll be willing to do it again soon, because I have a bunch of other questions I want to ask.

KS: I’d love to. Thanks Jefferson.