A group of local writers is calling for the resignation of the executive director of Hugo House, a nonprofit writers center on Capitol Hill, saying the organization has exhibited a pattern of racially exclusionary policies and practices.
The writers, including former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee, Washington state Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna and others, called for the resignation of Executive Director Tree Swenson in a Feb. 8 email sent to Swenson and the Hugo House board.
“While we have made every attempt to work with Tree to envision and enact a future in which Hugo House equitably and inclusively serves the full diversity of our region’s writing community, there is overwhelming, documented evidence that Tree will not and cannot lead that change, which is critical to the future of Hugo House,” the email states.
Swenson, reached on Friday, said she had been consulting with board members and “We will have news to share next week. We are working on internal changes right now, and this work was going on before the press release [calling for Swenson’s resignation] was put out today.” She declined to comment further.
Board President Dick Gemperle said on Friday that there would be a board meeting on Tuesday and “things will resolve at that time.”
The writers’ call comes seven months after a group of more than 200 members of the Hugo House community — members, teachers, students — signed an open letter to Hugo House in July, expressing concerns about structural and systemic racism in the organization and calling for a public conversation about change.
Among the allegations: that Hugo House lacks diversity (in staff, members, teachers and students), that its classes are not easily accessible to writers of color, that the organization has not made efforts to ensure diversity and has tokenized writers/teachers of color, and has not been transparent about diversity, equity and inclusion, nor about structural and systemic racism.
According to data provided by Hugo House, the organization’s board is approximately one-third BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) — six members, up from two in 2018 -— and its back-office staff is about 17% BIPOC. Among those teaching classes, the figure is approximately 23% BIPOC.
Officially opened in 1998, Hugo House offers classes, lectures, workshops and other events geared to readers and writers. In 2018, the organization moved to a newly built and much larger Capitol Hill building, designed to allow more room for writers. Unique in Seattle as a writers’ haven, Hugo House serves thousands of writers and would-be writers every year.
But the July open letter said that “for far too long, Hugo House has fallen short of being a welcoming and supportive place for writers of all races, economic backgrounds and for those who write in languages other than English.”
Shankar Narayan, a Hugo House teacher and one of the signers of the email calling for Swenson’s resignation, said that, for example, “There has been a long history at Hugo House of not paying community members of color for their labor, and that has also extended to speakers of color.”
He cited a poet friend who agreed to speak at Hugo House for a fraction of her normal honorarium, “and even with that, Hugo House told her that she would have to teach a class and on top of that, after the fact, there were even challenges getting her paid … At the same time, Hugo House has paid white writers much larger honoraria than was the case here.”
In a report compiled after a December Hugo House community forum, a number of survey respondents and forum attendees added their concerns. A number spoke of feeling isolated as a person of color at Hugo House (“It’s like I’m invisible”), or of dismay at the organization’s classrooms filled with mostly white students (“When BIPOC are absent, everyone is left with an incomplete experience”).
Others expressed concerns about barriers created by the high cost of classes, or a perceived lack of interest in making classes available in neighborhoods more diverse than Capitol Hill.
After the December community forum, Narayan said he was hopeful that progress was being made. Hugo House made a public statement Dec. 17, headed with “We’ve done harm. We vow to do better.” And then came what he described as “the last straw for some of us”: the internal hire, just days later after that statement, of a white candidate for an open development director position, without a public posting of the position that would have allowed candidates of color to be considered. “It generated a lot of anger,” he said.
In the wake of a board meeting Feb. 9, Narayan said that at least two board members have resigned. One of them, Seattle writer Garth Stein (“The Art of Racing in the Rain”), announced his departure in a letter, noting that the board was “deeply divided” on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and that he believed the divide to be “irreconcilable.”
Corinne Manning, a teacher at Hugo House since 2012, said that during her time there the organization has gotten less diverse. The letters, she said, were the result of “years’ worth of problems — the harm that I watched, my colleagues of color and also my students, who would come to me with the harm that they experienced, being tokenized by the organization.” Change needs to happen, she said, “at the very top,” noting that if the demands of the letter writers aren’t met, a group of teachers are organizing a labor strike.
Narayan, who emphasized that he and the other signers love Hugo House and want it to succeed, said he is concerned about the current organization’s ability to change. “I’ve overseen and been part of change in established nonprofits,” he said, noting that often “there’s a culture of secrecy because they see people calling for change as the enemy, the minority, and they believe the majority of the people support them. But we have a different view of the world, and we actually think the community of Hugo House is far more interested in equity than its leadership is.”