Hugo House Director Departs, but Writers of Color Alliance Says Demands Unmet

by Andrew Engelson

Responding to a strike and campaign by more than 200 writers of color and members of the community, the Seattle nonprofit writing center Hugo House announced on Friday that its Executive Director Tree Swenson is stepping down. The campaign began in July of 2020 in response to what the Writers of Color Alliance (WOCA) says is a long term, persistent pattern of structural and systemic racism, tokenism, performative statements, lack of equity in pay, and a failure to provide a welcoming space to all races. Leaders of the strike by more than 180 writing teachers at Hugo House welcomed the departure of Swenson and the announcement that the organization’s development director position would be reopened to a competitive hiring process.

However, WOCA, which has been leading the strike, and includes writers Anastacia-Renee, Claudia Castro-Luna, Dujie Tahat, Harold Taw, and Shankar Narayan, said that much more work is required within the organization before the strike by teachers at Hugo House is called off. WOCA wrote a public letter on Feb. 8 calling for Swenson’s resignation. Since that time five members of the Hugo House board of directors have resigned.

“Tree’s departure and the reopening of the Development Director position are positive steps forward, but they do not fulfill all of the demands we have made of the Board,” said Claudia Castro-Luna, Washington State’s current Poet Laureate, in a press release from WOCA. “Moving forward, Hugo House’s community, not just the Board, must have a seat at the table and share real power in selecting the new ED and creating a transformative race equity process — in addition to clear, open and transparent communications.”

Though two of the WOCA’s demands have been met — the director’s removal, and the reopening of the development director position to a competitive hiring process — two others have not been implemented: the creation of a community-led equity process within Hugo House and fair compensation for those doing the work of equity.

WOCA also noted in a press release sent Friday that Hugo House’s announcement of Swenson’s departure said little to contextualize the widespread community movement for change at Hugo House and that the existing board plans to select a new executive director on its own.

“Our key demand has always been for Hugo House to share power with and be accountable to the diverse literary communities of this city,” said Shankar Narayan in the WOCA statement. “But even as the Board announces Tree’s departure, they have ignored that basic demand, and instead kept all process and decision-making authority for themselves. It is critical for those community voices to have real power and a final say over who will lead Hugo House in its transformation — and we will keep the pressure on until that process is created. This moment — that we have achieved through the tireless work of many volunteer community members — is too precious to waste.”

In a recent opinion piece for the Emerald, Luna Reyna detailed the patterns of gatekeeping, token gestures to BIPOC writers, and systemic racism at the literary center on Capitol Hill, which made $5.4 million in revenue in 2019 and is worth $7.7 million in assets.

In the announcement of Swenson’s resignation, Hugo House board president Dick Gemperle said, “The past year has taught us much about the need for humility, perseverance, and — most importantly — equity. We realize the pain we have caused. We know we are part of a literary world that has habitually disregarded and blocked entry to BIPOC writers, and we know we need to do better. As a Board of Directors, we are committed to doing the hard work to ensure Hugo House becomes an anti-racist organization.”

Narayan says WOCA isn’t convinced that the current board is committed to transformative change within the organization.

“The Board has unilaterally appropriated to itself the power to create a process to hire the new ED,” Narayan told the Emerald, “and that is unacceptable to us simply because this is the very same board that over the past seven months has been equally problematic in terms of blocking efforts toward equity, a complete lack of transparency, and largely being tone deaf to what including community in the process and what being responsive to community really means.”

“Because of those things,” Narayan said, “we aren’t satisfied that our demands have been met. This is a halfway measure. And so we’re continuing with the strike pledge that has already begun and has over 180 teachers signed on right now.”

“In the last few days we’ve gotten over one hundred impassioned letters that were sent to Hugo House and copied to us, talking about what equity really means. And that is in no way reflected in the board’s outward facing statement. In fact, the board’s statement doesn’t acknowledge equity except for one quote … the entire context of the movement that has led us to this point is missing. That’s exactly the kind of performative equity statement led to this point to begin with.”

WOCA’ s website, Our Hugo House , documents the campaign for community-led equity reforms at Hugo House, which includes the support from Seattle UNESCO City of Literature, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Open Books poetry bookshop, the Bushwick Book Club, and many members of the Seattle literary community.

Andrew Engelson is News Director/Deputy Assistant at South Seattle Emerald.

Featured image by Alex Garland

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