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Editorial: In need of leadership, The Street Trust faces daunting road


The Street Trust (formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) is going through a major transition. With 15 paid staff and an annual budget of $1.3 million, the organization is currently looking for a new executive director and a communications director, forming a new 501(c)(4) political organizing committee, and launching a new strategic plan to guide their work for the next five years.

These major initiatives come on the heels of a name-change and expansion of their mission last summer.

No matter how you slice it, this is a lot of change for an organization that continues to search for that magic mix of leadership, vision, political power and community support that will allow them to lead the ever-growing transportation reform movement in Portland and beyond.

And it comes at what The Street Trust describes as “a critical time for the region and Oregon.” Here’s a snip from the description of their executive director position that gives us an idea of where the organization sees itself now and in the future:

In recent years, we have seen the limits of focusing our work solely on bicycles. As a result, we made the decision in 2016 to expand our mission to include all modes of active transportation. Our mission expansion comes at a critical time for the region and Oregon. This region is in the midst of an intense growth period, and our transit, bike and pedestrian investments are not keeping pace with the needs. Seattle and Los Angeles have invested billions in local transit, for example, while Oregon continues to fall behind. We believe Oregon and the Portland Metro region needs to think bigger, if we’re going to remain competitive and ensure that every community has access to safe and high-quality bike, walking and transit facilities.

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As part of our strategy, we will launch a 501(c)(4) advocacy arm and Political Action Committee, to strengthen our hand as we seek to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for investments in safe streets.

The Executive Director will lead our efforts to build a broader coalition of non-profits, governments and the private sector to advance transportation investment needs. This will involve research, campaigns, regional leadership and representing the Street Trust in high profile opportunities.

As The Street Trust searches for two new director-level positions, they have also just launched an online survey to garner input for their five-year strategic plan. The survey will help the organization gain a better understanding of the people it serves, what types of projects are important to them, and what their top transportation priorities are.

Founded in 1990 as a small and scrappy activism group, The Street Trust has shifted in recent years to a more staid approach. Willing to cede street-level activism opportunities to all-volunteer groups like Better Block PDX and Bike Loud PDX, The Street Trust has focused primarily on three fronts: delivering programs like Safe Routes to School classes and Vision Zero advoacy; hosting and promoting the annual Bike More Challenge; and advocating for funding at the regional and state level.

The Street Trust’s former leader Rob Sadowsky acknowledged the group’s chosen tact in an in-depth story we published in 2014. “I could go scream at Steve Novick and I could go get 1,000 postcards or phone calls,” he said, “but that’s not going to help me the next time with [former City Commissioner of Transportation] Steve Novick. I’m not going to lock my neck to City Hall with a u-lock.”

This year the organization has spent considerable time in Salem as their Policy Director Gerik Kransky works to make sure that active transportation is a top priority in the funding package being put together by lawmakers.

The challenge facing The Street Trust — and its new directors once they’re hired — is to build the organization’s power and relevance in the eyes of elected officials and people who walk, bike and take transit. It’s hard to have the former without the latter.

A focus on program delivery and long-range funding goals is laudable and important; but those initiatives mostly happen behind-the-scenes. And they rarely make headlines. Provocative rallies, high-profile events (like locking oneself to city hall with a u-lock for example), and watchdogging politicians and bureaucrats to get better local projects and policies are the type of “wins” most people notice — and that help frame the narrative.

There’s value in having an advocacy group that’s seen as more conservative and part of the power establishment; but it’s also important to carry a pitchfork in the back-pocket of your suit. And not be afraid to use it.

The classic, in-your-face activism that defined The Street Trust’s beginnings in the ’90s and the more conservative diplomacy that defines them today don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Doing them both well however, is easier said than done.

If they can find the right leadership and manage that balance, and combine it with the formation of a new political action committee and a coalition-building approach to advocacy that isn’t centered solely on bicycling or inner-Portland, The Street Trust could usher in an exciting new era of success.

We’re waiting and hoping that they figure it out.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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