In a lot of ways, the new Hugo House is still under construction.
In a lot of ways, the new Hugo House is still under construction. COURTESY OF HUGO HOUSE

A day ahead of a major Hugo House board meeting scheduled for this evening, and a week after sending a letter calling for the removal of executive director Tree Swenson, a group of writers of color with longstanding connections to the organization sent yet another letter to the literary institution's leadership.

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In this letter, the group noted that five Hugo House board members had resigned since last week, and announced that over 110 current and former teachers signed a pledge to strike if the board refused to remove Swenson. They believe such a strike would "paralyze" the organization, which primarily runs (now online) classes and literary readings, and has been since its founding in 1997.

The letter's signatories included former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee, Washington state Poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna, teacher and former fellow Dujie Tahat, author and planning committee member Harold Taw, and teacher and former fellow Shankar Narayan. Collectively, they referred to themselves in communications with Hugo House leadership as the Writers of Color Alliance (WOCA).

WOCA also attached dozens of letters from local writers and former Hugo House employees testifying in support of the call to remove Swenson, or else offering more general support for the group's efforts to meaningfully transform the literary organization into an antiracist institution.

In her message to the board, former Hugo House grants and family engagement manager Sarah León Moreno praised Swenson's work ethic but suggested she often made "offensive remarks" by conflating race and class, expressed a "limited and limiting" worldview about the extent to which the org could adopt certain antiracist models, and argued that "no changes to [racial equity] policy or culture ever came" about during her two years with the organization, from about 2014 to 2016. "She's not evil, she's not the most racist person any of us know. But she is ill-equipped to lead Hugo House in its next iteration," Moreno said of Swenson.

As an example of Swenson's allegedly "dismissive" attitude toward achieving racial equity within the organization, several writers mentioned her decision to sign her own name to a July 2020 letter addressed to her that expressed many of the same grievances WOCA listed in their letter to the board last week. In the July letter, the group argued that Hugo House lacked diversity at all levels of the organization, hadn't tried hard enough to work toward that end, tokenized the writers of color they did work with, presented accessibility issues for writers of color, and lacked transparency in diversity initiatives. Swenson signed her name, "Tree Swenson | Human Being on Planet Earth, Ally, also day-job at Hugo House as E.D."

Other writers lauded Swenson for her work leading a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to transform Hugo House from a crumbling old funeral home into a relatively ginormous (and permanent) facility on Capitol Hill while still urging her and the board to see WOCA's demands as an opportunity for the institution to change and to lead on racial justice issues, rather than view their (free) work as antagonistic to the organization's mission.

WOCA said they hoped to "avoid a bruising public battle" by initially issuing their demands in a letter sent privately last week, but they ended up going public after the board cut off information about recent deliberations, swore board members to secrecy, and kept Swenson in her role, according to the most recent letter.

In an email, Narayan said two board members told him Hugo House "forced all board members to sign a written confidentiality pledge before their meeting last week."

A representative from Hugo House didn't respond to request for comment on any of this.

Last week the South Seattle Emerald published a piece highlighting the effort to address structural racism at Hugo House.

Over the weekend the Seattle Times reported on the letter the group sent on Feb 8, and outlined the timeline of their recent work.

In that letter, they accused Swenson of the following:

• Consistently undermined our efforts by questioning our credibility as representatives of Hugo House’s constituent communities;
• Hoarded power by pushing back on any efforts towards meaningful power sharing;
• Engaged in outward false urgency while delaying progress;
• Falsely projected progress towards equity to the Hugo House community on multiple occasions while failing to acknowledge our critiques or credit our work;
• Resisted the most fundamental changes of collaboration and power sharing while engaging in performative tweaks without consultation;
• Ignored demands for greater transparency and clear communications; and
• Displayed microaggressions literally too numerous to count.

As the Times reported, the group cited as a breaking point the Hugo House's decision to hire a Development Director from within last December without issuing a public notice for the position, and "only days after" the org issued a statement acknowledging its role in perpetuating structural racism and committing to becoming an antiracist organization. "We've done harm. We vow to do better," the statement read.

That commitment came in response to the July letter signed by 200 writers and teachers (including Swenson), and a 120-person community forum on racial equity hosted in early December 2020. A report from that forum included several pages of responses from Hugo House students, fellows, and teachers about their experiences with racism at the Hugo House. Students said they were sometimes the only person of color in the room, or only one of a few. Some students said the lack of diversity made for an alienating, patronizing, and tokenizing experience in the classroom.

After that forum, Hugo House followed up with a long list of promises and action items. Those action items included commitments to offer more training, to add more free classes, to "ensure easy access to scholarships," to refine protocol for "problematic issues," to reevaluate programs, and to hire an equity consultant "to develop a new racial equity plan" and "conduct an internal evaluation of policies, decision-making practices, and current leadership capabilities."

In emails to Swenson and the board, WOCA demanded to be directly involved in the process of hiring that person. The board largely rebuffed their request, according to Narayan.

Narayan said creating an external accountability process via the equity consultant had been WOCA's "top goal" since last summer. Rather than loop WOCA into the process, the Hugo House board "created a committee they didn’t tell us about," and then drafted a request for proposal (RFP) for the diversity consultant. When WOCA eventually saw the request, they disapproved of the language, redrafted it, and then sent the new version back to the board at the end of December. After "six weeks of silence," Narayan said, one board member told WOCA Hugo House planned to send out the RFP in two days but without key pieces of WOCA's proposal, which involved making the hire a community-led process and then paying those community members for their work. "At that point it became clear that Tree wasn’t interested in including us in the process," Narayan said.

Hugo House Board President Dick Gemperle told the Seattle Times "things will resolve" at the board meeting tonight. I'll update this post when I hear more.