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ParentMap 2019 Superhero Tree Swenson: The Word Nerd

A Q&A with the executive director of Hugo House

Published on: March 28, 2019

Tree Swenson
Tree Swenson | Photo credit: Will Austin

Tree Swenson wonders how different her life would have been if there had been an organization like Hugo House when and where she was growing up, in Great Falls, Montana.

“There wasn’t even a bookstore. Mass-market paperbacks were sold in the tobacco store,” says Swenson, the executive director of Hugo House, a nonprofit community writing center located on Capitol Hill.

“Tree’s history in the literary world — from cofounding Copper Canyon Press to her tenure as the executive director of the Academy of American Poets in New York — and her deep-seated belief in the power of the written word makes her especially qualified for her role,” says John Peterman, Hugo House’s youth program manager. “From day one, she expressed a passion and vision for Hugo House that was palpable and contagious. She’s the kind of leader who makes you want to put in the work to make the organization the best it can be,” he says.   

Since Swenson came on board in 2012, a successfully completed capital campaign led to the construction of a permanent facility with a dramatically increased capacity to convene a community of writers to read words, hear words and make their own words better. Now that the new facility is open, Swenson is excited about the expansion of their youth program offerings. For example, the upcoming Scribes Writing Camps will serve more teens, with increased funds available for scholarships and financial assistance.

“One reason I moved here from my dream job in New York was knowing that Hugo House could be a place for kids who are ignited by language. It is a place for kids who might not fit in elsewhere — those kids with notebooks clutched to their chests who love books and are looking for kindred spirits,” says Swenson. “When I was a teen, poems made sense of the world for me. Now I’m a quite contented reader and I love helping writers.”

Meet our other 2019 Superheroes!

Who is your personal hero?

Emily Dickinson. Within the confines of her bedroom, she created vast worlds. Through her engagement with language, she shaped a rich life that endures and speaks to so many people.

What do you want people to understand about your work?

Hugo House is like a lot of jobs. I spend a lot of time on email, in meetings, talking on the phone and working through problems. But what makes it an extraordinary place to work is its mission and vision: opening the literary world to everyone who loves books or has a drive to write. I so fiercely believe in our mission.

What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?

Set aside 10 minutes a day to think or write about what really matters to you. What do you want to be thinking about and investigating? Where do you want to spend your energy? You don’t necessarily have to become an activist to change the world. By changing yourself, you are changing the world. This process begins with asking yourself what really matters to you. Then you can make change in so many small gestures.

What one thing did an adult or mentor do for you as a youth that helped you succeed?

My dad taught me to put my whole heart into everything: Don’t hold back. People spend so much time avoiding doing even the most mundane things. Jump into everything like it’s a swimming pool on a hot summer day that you can’t wait to immerse yourself in. Then play! I think people should try to enjoy whatever it is that they must do.

Best advice for kids with big ambition?

I’d say figure out what you really want to do. Ambition can be too broad unless you know precisely what it is that you want to do. Not where you want to get to or how much money you want to make. If you want money, ask yourself what it is you really want to do with a lot of money.

Favorite read of the last year?

“Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff just blew my mind. The beauty of the language marks a good book for me. There is one sentence in this novel that makes sense of the rest of the story for me. Also, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a powerful re-centering of the conversation around race.

Fill in the blank:

What the world needs now is more word nerds.

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