Richard Hugo House and the Writing Community

February 19, 2021
Splabman

It is with great sorrow that I sit to compose this post about the Seattle writing community.

For many years now, perhaps for its entire existence, the Richard Hugo House has been a quintessential Seattle organization, and we’re beginning to see what that means. A coalition of writers, many of them good friends to SPLAB for many years, have determined that the Hugo House operates in a way similar to the institutional white supremacy that defines the U.S. and especially the last four years (Jan 20, 2017 – Jan 20, 2021) and that is unacceptable. They have in good faith attempted to help the Hugo House change its ways and give Seattle the writing center it deserves and, like any powerful and unaccountable institution, the Hugo House has dragged its feet, offered vague pronouncements and treated the Writers of Color Alliance as if they were disposable. This is a grave mistake, as the alliance includes the current Poet Laureate of the State of Washington, the current Civic Poet of Seattle, the past Civic Poet of Seattle and three other members with outstanding credentials, one of which has a long history with the ACLU. This is telling.

My own experience with the current Hugo House Executive Director, who has been asked to resign or face the threat of a teacher’s strike with an immense deal of support, has been similar to the experience WOCA describes in their email below, sent late last night. (I could provide details to anyone truly interested in the character/ethos of RHH leadership, if necessary, but suffice it to say SPLAB has not been involved in the Hugo House despite being a non-profit in the community for 27 years with a huge commitment to literary arts.) This is a common theme among people who have responded to my emails alerting them to the situation and getting responses like” “We gave up on the Hugo House 20 years ago…”

And this is at the core of this conundrum. Had Richard Hugo House been active to build a community while building an asset base ($7.7M according to published reports) it would be seeing a flood of support, but it is not. It is akin to an organization “circling the wagons” – a clichéd metaphor that looks all too accurate in an age where BIPOC activists (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) specifically allude to the indigenous community and the indignities they continue to suffer.

SPLAB made its own statement in 2017 about issues like these and we stand by that:

https://cascadiapoeticslab.org/about-splab/splab-board-statement-of-openness-and-inclusivity/

We urge all concerned writers who have ever had a connection to the Richard Hugo House to step forth now and be represented on the side of justice and community. There is so much the Hugo House could accomplish, but not as they have acted over their history and especially not as they have been led by current leadership. The time for Tree Swenson to retire with grace, with recognition for all she has done for this state’s literary community, including her expert and elegant bookbinding, her co-founding of legendary Copper Canyon Press, and many other invaluable contributions. All of SPLAB’s current board has signed on to the WOCA petition. You’ll also find four of the five Washington State Poets Laureate on that petition, which is a statement in itself.

For more details, see: https://www.ourhugohouse.com/

And for those who care about these issues and want to help create an organization that is committed to racial equity and sees its own history as sincere, but inadequate, we invite you to be involved in SPLAB.

Paul E Nelson
SPLAB Founding Director

The most recent WOCA email:

Dear Tree and Hugo House Board:

We write to follow up on the communication we received from Shahina Piyarali two days ago, and to name the continuing lack of equity or acknowledgment of us in this process.  Following your Board meeting on Tuesday night—at which Dick Gemperle let the media know he believed issues relating to Hugo House’s lack of equity would be “resolved”—we received a communication from Shahina in which she said an announcement responding to WOCA’s demands was forthcoming, and that a small number of board members (unnamed) wanted to provide us “details” of the announcement as a “courtesy” the following day.  We asked directly whether Tree Swenson had been removed; Shahina let us know an announcement within 48 hours was forthcoming, and that she was “not authorized” to reveal anything to us in writing.  Today, 48 hours after our exchange, we learned from the media that no announcement is forthcoming this evening.  In the meantime, the hundreds of people who have expressed a desire to see a more equitable Hugo House have remained in the dark, and Hugo House’s website continues to ignore this issue entirely.

In the past we have avoided naming the various microaggressions aimed at us in the hope of convincing the Board to work constructively with us, but in this instance, we will name those microaggressions.  To us, this sequence of events encapsulates all that has been deeply wrong with Hugo House’s leadership for a very long time: non-transparent and unaccountable to community, reflexively secretive without explanation, and steeped in a sense of privilege more reminiscent of a private country club than a publicly supported nonprofit whose community demonstrably cares deeply about equity.

That after seven months of engagement we should have to find out about Hugo House’s revised announcement timeline—which appears to be an attempt to avoid making the current news cycle—from the media, rather than directly from  you, speaks to the disdain with which Hugo House’s leadership holds BIPOC communities.  That that leadership should be unwilling to reduce to writing the “details” they were willing to share with us verbally is merely the continuation of a pattern we have observed over the last seven months, of a strong, legalistic preference for unaccountable methods of communication that don’t leave a paper trail and can later be denied.  That the Board refuses to answer a simple yes-no question regarding whether the ED was removed on Tuesday night shows a failure of basic transparency rendered even more glaring by the fact that we, and other community members, have previously named it as problematic.  For the record, transparency to community is not a “courtesy”—it is a core part of equity and of your duty as Hugo House leaders.

This pattern makes us wonder if the Board has read any of the letters sent to them with our last communication (an updated version of which is attached, now weighing in at a whopping 113 pages) or taken note of the many partner organizations and teachers now pledged to withhold their labor and partnership from Hugo House—all of which remain unacknowledged in any form by Hugo House leadership.  The Board could perhaps bring to mind the powerful statement posted by Hugo House’s partner organization, Seattle City of Literature, which reads in part:

“In its approach over the last year, Hugo House has not only undercut the work of individual staff members and teachers who have pushed for racial equity, the House’s leadership has also disrespected the writers who started the racial equity pledge. It has failed to receive this situation for what it is: an opportunity to not just appreciate the richness of the community it serves but to grow as an organization with the entirety of our community in mind.”

https://www.seattlecityoflit.org/seattle-city-of-literature/2021/2/18/seattle-city-of-literature-stands-with-the-writers-of-color-alliance

Or by Seattle Arts and Lectures’ statement this afternoon:

“We all must be part of the movement towards building a more just future. We stand in solidarity with writers of color calling for racial equity and transformation @HugoHouse and support the work to create cultures of belonging in our literary communities.”

Hugo House continues to fail to respect its own community of BIPOC writers, former employees, donors, teachers, allies, and students, or to see the current situation as an opportunity to address the issues that divide us and move forward with openness and equity.  To quote the subject line of a powerful letter sent to Hugo House yesterday, “Hugo House’s delayed response is an act of harm.”  The Board continues to compound that harm with its disdain for basic transparency and any shadow of accountability.

Sincerely,

Anastacia, Claudia, Dujie, Harold, and Shankar.

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