Calls for change at Hugo House have led to the resignation of executive director Tree Swenson, the organization announced Friday morning:
The Hugo House Board of Directors today announced the resignation of executive director Tree Swenson, effective immediately. Swenson leaves Hugo House in strong financial health after nine years of steady growth under her leadership, including a new home for the organization on Capitol Hill.
Swenson said she wholeheartedly supports Hugo House and its mission, and believes her departure will enable the organization to move forward with building a more inclusive and equitable future.
“Serving as executive director of Hugo House has been an honor and a pleasure,” said Swenson. “I have deep respect and admiration for the organization and its mission to be a space for writers to come together, learn and grow. I look forward to watching Hugo House continue to flourish, repair relationships, diversify and thrive.”
UPDATE 1:22 PM: Organizers called the resignation part of “positive steps forward” but said “previous, unmet demands for community-led change at Hugo House” remain an issue that must be addressed.
“Tree’s departure and the reopening of the Development Director position are positive steps forward, but they do not fulfill all of the demands we have made of the Board,” Claudia Castro-Luna, Washington State’s current Poet Laureate, said in a statement from the Writers of Color Alliance. “Moving forward, Hugo House’s community, not just the Board, must have a seat at the table and share real power in selecting the new ED and creating a transformative race equity process—in addition to clear, open and transparent communications.”
In addition to Swenson’s resignation, the Hugo House board said it was reopening the hiring of a development director position after criticism the job was filled by an internal, non-BIPOC hire.
CHS reported here on the effort from writers, teachers, and members of Hugo House calling for the resignation of the literary nonprofit’s leader for failing to adequately respond to calls for change over “structural and systemic racism” and the nonprofit’s failure to serve as “a welcoming and supportive place for writers of all races.”
“This latest push came as a pushback to (Hugo House’s) performative statement on race equity sparked by the events in summer of 2020,” Shankar Narayan, an advocate involved in the effort, told CHS.
Among the complaints were “low teacher pay and lack of support” and how artists are compensated for participating in Hugo activities.
Swenson joined Hugo House in 2012 after previously serving as the executive director of the American Academy of Poets in New York City.
She oversaw recent years of remarkable growth including the opening of Hugo House’s new writing center on 11th Ave powered by more than $1 million from the state’s Building for the Arts program and a $7.5 million capital campaign.
“Tree Swenson has been an asset to Hugo House over the past nine years, and the board greatly appreciates all of her many contributions,” Hugo House board president Dick Gemperle said in a statement on the resignation.
“We have a lot of work to do as an organization to address our failures around equity and inclusion,” Gemperle said. “We are moving forward in that work with intensified urgency.”
Hugo House said the board of directors led by member Shahina Piyarali will start search efforts “right away.”
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