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Director faces call for resignation amid demands to make Capitol Hill’s Hugo House ‘a welcoming and supportive place for writers of all races’

Writers, teachers, and members in the community around Capitol Hill’s Hugo House are calling for the resignation of the nonprofit’s leader for failing to adequately respond to calls for change born out of the Black Lives Matter marches and occupied protest this summer on the streets outside the 11th Ave literary center across from Cal Anderson Park.

UPDATE: Representatives for the group calling for the resignation tell CHS their “advocacy to reform Hugo House has been ongoing for several years.”

“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, writes. “So it was a response to HH’s false effort to capitalize on BLM, not BLM itself” that inspired the effort.

In an open letter from July, a group of writers and members were joined by a list of around 200 signatories criticizing executive director Tree Swenson and Hugo House over “structural and systemic racism” and the nonprofit’s failure to serve as “a welcoming and supportive place for writers of all races” —

We believe it is time for immediate change at Hugo House. As the largest writing-centered non-profit in our state, partially funded by public dollars, Hugo House has power and takes up space in this community. Hugo House must see POCs as critical constituents. And given that POCs are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to writing resources (as with other kinds of educational resource), Hugo House must center its future plans on those writers, rather than continuing to cater comfortably to its established white, affluent members.

Swenson (Image: Hugo House)

Among the complaints were “low teacher pay and lack of support” and how artists are compensated for participating in Hugo activities. “Hugo House has also failed to monetarily support efforts to bring in diverse voices, even when writers of color have done the work of recruitment—for example, a recent eminent POC poet from the East Coast was offered an honorarium far lower than that offered to white writers reading the same month,” the letter reads.

Any goodwill earned from Hugo House’s responses to the complaints — including a December community forum and this “public acknowledgement” of “racism at Hugo House” from the organization — has quickly eroded, the Seattle Times reported over the weekend, with renewed calls for Swenson’s resignation:

After the December community forum, (Hugo House teacher Shankar) 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 a new letter, writers including former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee and Washington Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna are calling for Swenson’s resignation.

Local writers including Luna Reyna say that situations like Hugo House’s “lack of representation” are “a common theme in poetry and publishing communities all over the country.”

Among Seattle arts nonprofits, Hugo House is a surprisingly powerful entity. It reported revenue near $1.7 million in 2019 and end of year assets of more than $7.7 million. In 2018, CHS reported on 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. That September, Hugo House signed the deal to purchase the street level commercial condominium space in the new mixed-use apartment building at the corner it had called home — except for a short stint on First Hill during construction — since the 1990s.

Twenty years earlier, a group of writers searching for an “urban writer’s retreat with readings and services for readers and writers,” found the property across from Cal Anderson Park that could serve as a home for their budding organization. Writer Linda Breneman, and Linda and Ted Johnson bought the property and the former Manning’s Funeral Parlor mortuary that called it home. Hugo House lived there rent free.

The generosity continued with the plan to develop the property and build new housing at the corner. Breneman and the Johnsons offered to sell the nonprofit a 10,000 square-foot ground floor commercial condo space for about half of its estimated market value.

Designed by the architects at NBBJ, the new Hugo House is centered around a 150-seat auditorium and the front salon with built-in writing nooks, seating areas, and a small stage on the ground floor of the six-story development.

The issues at Hugo House come as Capitol Hill’s arts nonprofits have been hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout. In December, CHS reported that Velocity Dance was leaving its 12th Ave home studio due to financial hardship.

Swenson and the Hugo House board, meanwhile, are expected to meet this week regarding “internal changes” and “things will resolve at that time,” board president Dick Gemperle tells the Times.


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9 months ago

Has anyone first hand seen hiring decisions based on race before? I can say I’ve never seen it first hand, other than personally I have biased towards women, where I wouldn’t have given a man the same slack. Sometimes it didn’t turn out well, a lady quit on me due to her husband not wanting her to work, and other times I got someone who had a better math background added value. Just wondering what folks have seen.

9 months ago
Reply to  KGR

I hope these activists know that it’s illegal to make hiring decisions based on race/gender/sexuality etc. Hugo house can and should make efforts to recruit from a diverse candidate pool, and if they really just hired a Director without externally searching, that seems wrong.

But I personally do not want to live in a world where my only value is the color of my skin, something I had no hand in choosing. Please judge people by the content of their character, not their skin color. Someone famous for civil rights activism said that….

9 months ago
Reply to  DrKingWasRight

How do recruit from a diverse pool? Is a public posting not sufficient?

9 months ago

In the example of the compensation it would be helpful to know what the counter offer was. Did they not accept it for example? Typically compensation is pretty straightforward and well documented as to what the reasons were, even at small orgs.

9 months ago
Reply to  Marco

This article seems to have holes in the story. No comments from the board or the director. The compensation issue does not seem to have both sides of the story laid out very well.