Revision Process

The Push for Racial Equity at Hugo House, Explained

The writing center's executive director has resigned, but systemic problems aren't solved.

By Stefan Milne February 24, 2021

Hugo House in 2020. 

There’s a certain woeful irony in a literary writing center itself struggling to communicate about vital things. But that seems to be the case with Hugo House. For months a group called the Writers of Color Alliance (WOCA)—composed of writers Anastacia-Reneé, Claudia Castro Luna, Dujie Tahat, Shankar Narayan, and Harold Taw—has been working to transform the Capitol Hill literary hub into an equitable and diverse arts nonprofit (work that’s been accelerating at organizations across the city and country lately).

Since July, the push for change at Hugo House had been largely internal, but in the last weeks the discourse reached a boil. Earlier this month, WOCA and over 180 signatories (mostly writers) called for the removal of Tree Swenson, Hugo House’s executive director of nearly nine years. They warned of a teachers’ strike. On February 19, Swenson’s resignation came. Five board members supporting WOCA—on a board of 18—have also left. But a strike in April is still possible. 

Here’s what’s going on and why.

Where Things Stand

The writers’ strike had two demands: for Swenson to resign and for the board to institute “a transparent process for moving Hugo House toward racial equity.” Calling for Swenson’s resignation was “a last resort” and not WOCA's actual goal, says Shankar Narayan, a writer and Hugo House teacher. WOCA only called for her removal when it grew clear they couldn’t make progress with Swenson leading.

To prevent an April strike, they still want the board to sign a “power sharing agreement" that'll facilitate community input as it seeks a new executive director and five new board members. They also want to help find a race equity consultant to “conduct a holistic and thorough examination” of the writing center so it can come up with a plan to change the actual structural stuff of structural racism. (So far, the board has invited some WOCA members to help search for a new executive director, though Narayan has concerns about the current process.) But "no one wants a strike," Narayan says. It'd be bad for teachers (no pay) and the writing center. 

Partly the trouble has stemmed from communication failures: Hugo House making changes without consulting those calling for them or making “performative” public statements. Over the last seven months, Narayan says, “We would send communications. They would kind of disappear into a black hole. And then we learned from our allies on the board that people were very upset.”

Those pushing for the change have constantly asserted that their work is done out of love for Hugo House. "I love teaching there, I love my classes," Narayan says. He’s hopeful for a real shift now, since he’s heard from existing staff and “many of them agree with the goals we have for Hugo House.” I wasn’t able to interview anyone at the center, but its marketing director Katie Prince did answer a few questions over email. She wrote that the communication process going forward “will be collaborative and inclusive of all BIPOC voices (those that have spoken as well as those that were silent but may have something to add).”

The Background & the First Letter

Last year, Hugo House released a racial equity statement on May 5, then followed it with a racial solidarity statement on June 3, as Black Lives Matter protests roiled the country. Such statements rang "hollow" for the writers behind WOCA, who'd already been discussing systemic racism at the center. On July 14, they sent a letter to Swenson and the Hugo House board expressing “our longstanding concerns regarding Hugo House’s structural and systemic racism.” By July 31, over 100 writers and others had signed the letter in support (including “Tree Swenson – Human Being on Planet Earth, Ally, also day-job at Hugo House as E.D.”). The letter listed five categories of problems:

  1. Hugo House "lacks diversity" in staff, members, teachers, students.
  2. The “classes are not easily accessible to writers of color.” For instance: the writing center is in a gentrified neighborhood, offers few satellite classes in more diverse areas, and has expensive classes.
  3. The center hasn’t invested in and built relationships to foster greater diversity.
  4. The center “tokenized” writers of color, putting the equity onus on them without support (in money or culture).
  5. Hugo House wasn't transparent about what it was doing to foster diversity and equity. 

The Work Continued

Over the next months, WOCA and others worked with the writing center towards internal change. WOCA outlined the next steps the organization could make—including publicly stating the harm it’d done, holding a community forum, and communicating transparently throughout the process. They also wanted concrete structural changes: more diverse leadership, an annual equity report detailing specific changes, payment for those doing equity work, and an internal evaluation of operations and power.

On December 11, Hugo House held that community forum. Hundreds of responses were recorded in a later report, things like: 

  • “Hugo House looks white… It’s like I’m invisible.”
  • “For many years Hugo House only had one BIPOC board member.”
  • “I was dismayed to learn of the POC poet who was paid a smaller honorarium than white writers reading at Hugo House that month. I was not surprised, having been invited to interview an author for Word Works with no honorarium.”
  • "Whenever there is a writer of color present, the class or whatever is only about their experience as a writer of color. There is so much more to culture, knowledge, and perspective than that." 

A week later Hugo House released an acknowledgement of racism at the writing center, saying it would “work actively to become an anti-racist organization.” 

The Problems Continued

A few days later WOCA sent an email noting that little at the center has been fixed; there was a continued lack of transparency about processes, a lack of compensation, and attempts to “substitute watery vagaries for the work of real change.” Two days after that email, a white person got promoted to development director from inside Hugo House without any public hiring process.  

On February 8, in a letter to Swenson and the board, WOCA called for Swenson’s removal because of “overwhelming, documented evidence that Tree will not and cannot lead” the change Hugo House needs. The board met in private the next day; the day after that two members, including author Garth Stein, resigned. Stein’s letter provides some insight into board discussions: He wrote that the boards’ divides—over “issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion” and its relationship with WOCA—were “irreconcilable.” Systemic change was coming across nonprofits, he submitted, and Hugo House needed to transform “swiftly and boldly.” But for that to happen he figured the board needed to change: "Since I can only control myself, I must step away from the board at this time." That week three more board members, also WOCA supporters, left.

News stories piled up. Public support swelled. Swenson stepped down. On Monday, Hugo House updated its website, acknowledging that it had "misstepped” in finding a new development director and that it’d been too slow to hire a professional for an internal review, due to “confusion and bureaucracy.” It's starting to search for a new executive director, and the development director position has been reopened for people outside of the organization. 

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