We at ^Housing Futures believe in highlighting those who dedicate their careers to the provision of social housing. Today we learn about the Executive Director of Home Forward in Portland, Oregon.
Q: What is your background (place of birth, place of residence, education, profession)?
I grew up in a small town in Washington state and moved to Portland in 1994, where I started working and volunteering in nonprofits. Today, I think of myself as a bureaucrat in the body of a grassroots rabble rouser.
Q:Why did you choose to work in the social housing sector?
When I was working in a nonprofit called Sisters of the Road, which focuses on building relationships with people experiencing homelessness, I came to appreciate social housing as the systemic solution to the issue. When HUD was appropriately funded prior to the 80’s, we didn’t have the kind of homelessness in the country we see today, and people have come to believe it’s an intractable problem. I’m determined to do what I can to remind everyone we’re making a choice to allow people to suffer without a safe place to call home, and we can make a better choice. It’s in our power.
Q: What do you most hope to achieve in your position?
We’re in the process of financially and physically repositioning our entire public housing portfolio. I want to do everything possible to make sure this community’s critical housing assets for people with the lowest incomes are healthy and stable for decades to come. I also want to help build an organization that recognizes how it contributes to systemic oppressions like racism and classism, and does the work to fix them.
Q: What motivates you to push for the achievements you are looking for?
I’m primarily motivated to serve my community, but I’d also like to help increase trust in the public sector. If we can do good work, admit when we make mistakes, and communicate openly with the community, we can do our small part to repair what is damaged in the country right now.
Q: Looking back at your career so far, what societal impact can you point to that means a lot to you?
I’ve had some people tell me it’s meaningful that I’m accessible and vulnerable in a role that can feel intimidating to people. There are lots of ways to be a good leader, and if I can provide an example that’s a little offbeat, hopefully we can expand our view of who can do this kind of work.
Q: Can you give an example of a moment when you realized the work you were doing made an impact on a family, community or group of people?
I remember a moment several years ago when I was in a different role and a local politician recognized me. I understood that meant something about my career development and my profile in the community, but it didn’t necessarily make me feel important. A few months later, when I started working at Sisters of the Road, a woman experiencing homelessness saw me walking towards the office and yelled out, “Hey, it’s Michael!” That did make me feel important, because I mattered to her. That’s the kind of impact I hope to keep having.
Q: What advice would you give someone who would like to grow in their career and have the same job as you some day whether it be an Executive Director or advocate. (Career advice, education advice, professional organization?)
My career path has been unconventional and I don’t have the typical credentials you might expect in an executive director of a large housing authority. It’s more important to be authentic to who you are than to strive for a certain title or position, and it’s important to remember when you’re hiring people that sometimes our traditional ideas about who is qualified to do certain work creates barriers to really talented people. Think expansively about your possibilities and the possibilities for others.