Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) announced Oct. 21 that its interim executive director, Rebecca Hoogs, will retain the position in a permanent capacity. Hoogs has worked with SAL for 17 years, including as a writer in residence and director of public education programs. Hoogs, a graduate of the University of Washington’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, is a published poet and a teacher, adding to the many hats she’s worn during her SAL tenure. We spoke to Hoogs about her history with SAL, continuing to work with youth, increased accessibility and equity within the organization and more.

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This conversation has been edited for length.

You’ve been serving as interim executive director at SAL since Ruth Dickey was tapped to head the National Book Foundation. How did you get involved with SAL, and what’s it been like to fill that role?

I have been a staff person at SAL for 17 years. Before I was a staff person, I was a writer in residence with the WITS [Writers in the Schools] program when I was getting my MFA in poetry at the University of Washington. That was 20 years ago. … I’ve had three acts at SAL. The first act was that I ran the WITS program. I oversaw all of our education programs for the first eight years. The second eight years, I worked with our previous executive director, Ruth Dickey, and I ran our public program — I curated our programs, hosted programs and also worked on our communications, our marketing, our outreach and the storytelling of the organization. So over the last eight years, I’ve really been focused on the public event side of the organization. Then, last February, the board asked me to step into the interim role because I had been lockstep with Ruth for so many years. Especially, during such a tumultuous time, to have a lot of internal consistency made sense. I was so delighted that the board chose to invite me to stay on in the permanent capacity.

What is your vision for continuing the work of the WITS and Youth Poet Laureate program, and generally engaging with youth in the schools?

It’s a program that’s near and dear to my heart as a writer and as a teacher. Our vision is to make sure that we are serving schools in areas which have traditionally not received as many resources or [systemic] support. We are really focused on schools where the free and reduced lunch program is 50% or higher, in Title I schools. So we are focusing on serving those schools with the greatest need. Because of systems of oppression, those are schools where Black and brown students are a big part of the population. So, that is where the focus of our program is, and the focus of our future is, and where we’re really putting a lot of effort. This year we’re serving 23 schools, and that’s a little bit lower than pre-pandemic. We’re just meeting schools where they are right now. So, we are excited to get back up to 30 schools, which is where we were pre-pandemic, and then hopefully keep growing. We know there’s a lot of schools that would like to work with WITS and a lot of schools that we would like to be serving.

What other current SAL programs and partnerships are you most excited about working on or expanding, and what ideas do you have around programming and partnerships?


One of the cool things that we’ve initiated over the pandemic is a partnership with the Marguerite Casey Foundation. We have been partnering on a series of free events focusing on racial equity and social justice with key speakers. Also, Marguerite Casey has a partnership with publishers to give away several hundred copies of the books by our speakers. So, those who sign up for the free event can also sign up to get a free book. Last month we had Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, just a couple days before she won a MacArthur [Fellowship]. We have an event in December with Dr. Lucy Bernholz, who has a book about the future of philanthropy from an equity perspective. We had an event last spring with Heather McGhee, who wrote “The Sum of Us,” about the economic system and how that impacts brown and Black folks. So, we’ve just had this amazing series of speakers focused on social justice and racial equity. That’s one of the innovations of the pandemic that I’m really excited to continue more. And it really aligns with our mission and our focus on equity.

The SAL website states, “We envision a future in which story and language continuously and courageously revitalize equity, justice, and belonging.” I know SAL already has a four-year strategic plan, but how do you plan to carry this mission forward?

Our lowest ticket price pre-pandemic was $20 and we dropped it down to $10. We also instituted a pay-what-you-can model for online tickets. That was something we decided to do as part of our strategic plan pre-pandemic. When the pandemic hit, we realized that more people are going to need the sustenance and connection that our events can provide, and they’re going to need it in a financial format that works for them. We are committed to that coming out of the pandemic, too. We are trying to make sure that SAL really feels like a place of belonging for all people, and that everybody feels like they can come in and try us out. And, hopefully, feel that SAL is a place for them.

The other thing, of course, is that when we had to pivot to online events last year, people were attending our events who had never before attended. So it wasn’t just serving the current population of people who had already bought subscriptions and tickets. It was serving those who were housebound, maybe with kids or with elder care. We are hearing from disabled folks, we are hearing from folks who live outside of the traditional geographic area that couldn’t formally come to our events before. We are not going to retreat from the innovations that we were forced to make, because we’ve seen it open up SAL to a huge new swath of people and I’m not going to leave those people behind.

Who are some of your dream guests that you would want to bring to SAL?

I mean, Dolly Parton — I think that what she did over the pandemic was really amazing. She’s also such a superfan of literacy and literature. I would love to have her come speak. Stanley Tucci has a new book out [“Taste: My Life Through Food”]. I think cooking and food is such a comfort for so many of us over the pandemic, and I’m a longtime fan of his work. Louise Penny is a dream of mine. She is apparently hilarious, and I think laughter is some of the best medicine. Amanda Gorman, the poet laureate, is on my dream list, too.

What’s been your favorite thing about working at SAL?

My favorite thing about working at SAL has been the fact that we are such a small but mighty team. There’s a lot of variety, and it’s always been a fun place to work because we’re all wearing five different hats. It’s a place that has let me learn and grow. Every day is different. Last Friday night, we had an event with an Iranian poet, Kaveh Akbar. And then Sunday night we had an event with Lauren Groff, who’s a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. And, meanwhile, we’re having WITS students read their poems on stage. It’s just like a plethora, like a cornucopia of ideas and art and connection. That is really sustaining as a writer and as a person.