The Hugo House board of directors, led by member Shahina Piyarali, will soon begin a "clear and transparent" search for a new executive director following the resignation of Tree Swenson, whose nine-year leadership of the organization produced a permanent (and ginormous) home for the literary center on Capitol Hill and also a fat stack of complaints regarding structural and not-so-structural racism at the institution.
In a press release, board president Dick Gemperle praised Swenson as an "asset" and a "mentor and facilitator to many Seattle writers, of all types." He also said Hugo House has "a lot of work to do as an organization to address our failures around equity and inclusion" and pledged to move "forward in that work with intensified urgency.”
According to Shankar Narayan, one member of the Writers of Color Association (WOCA), a group of local writers of color who have led a months-long campaign to transform Hugo House into an antiracist organization, Hugo House will also reopen a search for a development director position. The current director will serve in an interim capacity as the board conducts that search. The decision to promote a white employee from within to that position in December in part prompted the group to go public with their demands and to organize a strike pledge signed by over 100 current and former Hugo House teachers.
Aside from Narayan, the WOCA includes 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.
Though Swenson's resignation and the reopening of the development director position meet two of the group's demands, WOCA's teachers' strike pledge lives on, as core demands remain unmet and as the board still retains "unilateral" control over the hiring process.
"Tree's departure was the bare minimum," Narayan said in a phone interview. "It creates the possible conditions for equity and transformative change, but it is not itself that equity and transformative change."
Before demanding Swenson's resignation, Narayan said WOCA had been working with the Hugo House board in good faith to create a community-led process to hire a diversity consultant and to offer a fair compensation package for that work. Those demands remain unaddressed in the press release and in communications between the board and WOCA, according to an email the board sent to the group.
"The board intends to create a process unilaterally led by the same board member who two weeks ago was defending the development director hire vociferously, and there's no room for community engagement in that process," Narayan said. "We think it's critical that community voices have power over who becomes the ED of this organization moving forward. The previous demands for an accountable race equity process and fair compensation still stand."
Narayan said WOCA will give the board "a certain amount of time" to meet the new and unmet demands, and until then the strike pledge will remain in place. WOCA believes the strike would "paralyze" the organization, which primarily runs (now online) classes and literary readings, and has been since its founding in 1997. Teachers who would take a hit from the strike have discussed using an alternative platform where students could directly pay their teachers for classes, Narayan added.
"Hugo House will absolutely find mechanisms to involve the community when selecting the new ED. Our search process is just beginning, so we’re still determining what it will look like, but our ultimate goal is to move forward with a spirit of collaboration with the community,” said a spokesperson for the literary center.
Since WOCA went public with their demand for Swenson's resignation and for a community-led process to address racism, other local literary groups and Hugo House partners such as Seattle City of Literature and Seattle Arts and Lectures have written in support of WOCA's mission.
"We honor the labor of our community’s activists in their continued work for access. And we hope that Hugo House, as it strives for racial equity, will listen when held accountable, provide leadership that can meet the current moment, accept the gift of transformation, and model what organizational growth can be," Seattle City of Literature wrote in a statement.
"We all must be part of the movement towards building a more just future. We stand in solidarity with writers of color calling for racial equity and transformation @HugoHouse and support the work to create cultures of belonging in our literary communities," SAL wrote in a Tweet.
And as WOCA waited for news from the board, on Thursday evening they sent along a now 113-page document full of letters from writers, current and former students and teachers, and donors in support of WOCA.