Tree Swenson, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit writers center Hugo House, announced her resignation Friday morning, seven months after a group of local writers sent an open letter calling for greater transparency and racial equity at the organization.
Swenson’s resignation is effective immediately, according to a news release from Hugo House. “We have a lot of work to do as an organization to address our failures around equity and inclusion,” board president Dick Gemperle wrote.
Swenson, who said in the news release that she supports Hugo House’s mission and believes her departure will enable the organization to move forward with building a more inclusive and equitable future, could not be reached for comment. Under her tenure, the organization says, Hugo House saw nine years of steady growth — according to tax filings, tuition and other program income more than doubled between 2012 and 2018 — and conducted a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to move into its new home on Capitol Hill three years ago.
Writer and Hugo House teacher Shankar Narayan, a member of the Writers of Color Alliance (WOCA), which sent the original July letter calling for greater transparency and equity, said Swenson’s resignation is a step in the right direction, but not sufficient to address all the changes needed at Hugo House. (The WOCA signatories included Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna and former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee, among others.)
“This was the bare minimum, creating the conditions for change,” Narayan said. “We had been trying to work with the board for seven months prior to this on a set of transformative changes and switched to call for Tree’s resignation only when it became clear she was an obstacle.”
Over 180 Hugo House teachers, he added, have pledged to join a strike in the coming weeks if they don’t see significant progress — and said some teachers are talking about migrating to other platforms, where students can pay them directly.
“We don’t want that because we want Hugo House to succeed,” Narayan said. “But that’s contingent on leadership getting it quickly. It’s really out of time, and the board has to make a decision about whether they are willing to share power.”
WOCA, Narayan said, is calling for a suite of changes, including more affordable classes; greater diversity among staff, members, teachers and students; and greater community input, including the search for Swenson’s replacement.
“The way this has been run is more reminiscent of a private country club than a publicly supported nonprofit,” Narayan said. “This can’t be business as usual.”
Hugo House spokesperson Katie Prince said the nonprofit is dedicated to including the broader community in its search for a new executive director. “We’re just beginning our search process, so we’re still determining exactly what it will look like,” she said. “But our goal is to move forward with a spirit of collaboration with the community.”
The nonprofit has also reopened its search for a new development director. The filling of that position was another point of frustration for WOCA. The hire was quietly made in December, internally and without a public process, just days after the organization released an acknowledgment of systemic racism and vowed increased transparency and accountability in the future.
In January, Hugo House released a racial equity statement with action items, including engaging an equity consultant; conducting an internal equity evaluation; regular trainings for teachers, staff and board members; more free adult programming; and ensuring easy access to scholarships.
“They’re doing these tweaks without consulting or talking to anybody,” Narayan said. “We say that’s not an equitable process, and not even an equitable result. The problem is, the community has not been brought in and they have not had a chance to articulate what would be helpful to them. Just doing something with a race equity label isn’t equity.”
WOCA’s efforts have attracted public support, including dozens of letters from students, teachers and members, as well as statements of support from Seattle Arts and Lectures (SAL) and Seattle City of Literature.
“We all must be part of the movement towards building a more just future,” SAL’s statement read. “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.”
Gemperle, the Hugo House board president, said five of the board’s 18 members have resigned since the Feb. 8 call for Swenson’s resignation, though many cited personal, non-related reasons for leaving. He declined to answer further questions.