Oregon’s Groundbreaking First Lady

By Carolyn Shea

Cylvia Hayes ’94, MES ’97 grew up poor in the rural Duvall-Carnation area east of Seattle.

She left home at 16, living with friends until she finished high school. Before enrolling in college, she worked in a series of tough jobs that included apple picking, catching fryer chickens, and operating heavy equipment.

Today, Hayes lives in Mahonia Hall, the governor’s mansion in Salem, Oregon. Hayes is now the first lady of Oregon. As the longtime partner of Gov. John Kitzhaber, she’s come under particular scrutiny from the media over the last few years, not only for the couple’s politically non-traditional relationship, but also for how she’s reshaping the first lady role. What is often overlooked is that Hayes had become a mover and shaker in her own right well before January 2011, when she and Kitzhaber took up residence in the governor’s mansion. By that point, her credentials as an environmental leader were already established and she was known throughout the state as a visionary and an agent of change.

Cylvia Hayes ’94

Outside the Oregon governor’s mansion, Mahonia Hall, environmental consultant and advocate Cylvia Hayes ’94, MES ’97, with her Rhodesian ridgeback, Tessa.

Photo by Shauna Bittle ’98

Foundations of Success

After high school, Hayes went on to become a first-generation college graduate, transferring to Evergreen from Bellevue Community College to get her bachelor’s degree. At Evergreen, she played on the women’s soccer team and won academic and athletic scholarships. She stayed on to earn her Master of Environmental Studies in sustainable development, in part, she said, because “I wasn’t done with Evergreen yet!”

Upon completing the MES program, she relocated to Bend, Oregon with her unfinished master’s thesis on her laptop, her poodle and her Rottweiler. Initially, they lived in her “old beater car.” She finished her thesis and dove into the local environmental scene, at first doing “piecemeal contract work,” as she puts it, for the Central Oregon Environmental Center. “They embraced me and gave me the chance to get a foothold in central Oregon,” she said. From there, her career blossomed.

Environmental Work

In 1998, Hayes founded 3EStrategies, a Bend-based clean-economy consulting firm. The firm’s name refers to its focus on promoting strategies incorporating three fundamental aspects of sustainability: equity, ecology, and economy. Her areas of expertise include green building, sustainable energy, and sustainable economic development.

3EStrategies grew out of the nonprofit organization Hayes launched two years before, called Earth Connections. It was devoted to raising local environmental awareness and accelerating the transition to sustainable living practices through education and advocacy.

Hayes also co-founded Friends of Bend, a smart-growth organization. During the course of her career, she’s been named a fellow of the Clean Economy Development Center, the Center for State Innovation, and the American Leadership Forum. She sat on the Sustainability Committee of the Oregon Progress Forum and graduated from the League of Conservation Voters Environmental Leadership Institute.

2002, Hayes ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature. She was contemplating another run a couple of years later when she sought out Kitzhaber for his advice, soon after his second term as governor ended (he’s now serving in his third, nonconsecutive term). “I left that meeting realizing I would have a much better impact if I kept doing what I was doing.”

She went on to co-chair the Oregon Renewable Energy Working Group, which developed the state’s renewable energy and fuels standards, as well as other clean energy policies during former Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s term. She also authored the “Green Jobs Growth Plan: An Eight Year Map to a Green Economy in Oregon” and “An Analysis of Clean Energy Workforce Needs and Programs in Oregon.”

Over time, her relationship with Kitzhaber evolved from professional to personal.

Continuing Work and Advocacy

Now that she’s Oregon’s first lady, her in-state consulting work has gone by the wayside, at least for the duration of Kitzhaber’s term, and 3EStrategies has only a few out-of-state clients. One of them is Demos, a New York City-based public policy organization, where she’s consulting on the Beyond GDP initiative to develop new indicators for measuring economic and social progress. This is very important work to her because she said, “We need to fundamentally alter the structure of our economic system to better account for fiscal capital, natural capital, and human capital.”

She certainly hasn’t lost sight of her love for the environment and her desire to protect it by building a sustainable society. She advises the governor on clean energy and green economic development issues and she counts ocean health as one of her professional areas of action. Early in her career, she considered becoming a marine biologist, and her concern about the condition of the planet’s oceans—particularly with regard to ocean acidification and climate change—has led her to address ocean stewardship on the West Coast, which has a big stake in preserving its important coastal and marine resources.

Her major project as the first lady is the Oregon Prosperity Initiative, an antipoverty program launched last year. Through a number of strategic partnerships, she’s spearheading the development of a game plan to reduce hunger and increase prosperity for residents of the state, where one in five children live in a food-insecure household, and more than half of the students live in families that earn so little that they qualify for free and reduced price meals at school.

She said the initiative’s goal is “to ensure that every Oregonian has a pathway to economic security, a healthy life, and engaged citizenship. It recognizes that poverty is not just a human tragedy, but also an issue that is both critical to economic and workforce development and stems from a complex set of systemic factors, all of which must be addressed as a whole.” The initiative aims to lower the current poverty level from 15.5 percent to below 10 percent by 2020 and below 5 percent by 2025, raise income levels to above the national average by 2020, and reduce income inequality by 2025.

Breaking New Ground

Hayes’ professional rise didn’t make being Oregon’s first lady any easier. Traditionally, the role has been low profile in nature and social in responsibility. “It hasn’t caught up to accepting a professional, policy-driven woman,” said Hayes, an active person who runs, does strength training, and meditates daily. “It’s been harder to do substantive work than I expected.” Nevertheless, her days are varied and busy, often spent with her Rhodesian ridgeback, Tessa, by her side, and often involving frequent phone calls, meetings, appearances, planning sessions, her professional policy work, her “first-lady type duties,” and quite a bit of writing for speeches, articles, and blogs.

While her unmarried but committed relationship with the governor is unique and has attracted attention from the media, she said most people don’t care about their marital status. Furthermore, it’s pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. “In some ways, having a nontraditional unconditional relationship in this situation is a little helpful as we evolve socially. At some point,” she predicted, “we’ll have a gay couple in the governor’s mansion and then the role will be stretched a little bit further.”