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Why the Poetry Foundation Shake-Up Is One to Watch

Leadership at the storied cultural institution resigned this week. That’s just the first in a series of demands penned by an all-star coalition of Chicago poets.

Henry Bienen, who resigned as president of the Poetry Foundation on June 10, pictured at its River North headquarters in 2016   PHOTO: Abel Uribe / CHICAGO TRIBUNE

On Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of historic uprisings over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and a pandemic that has disproportionately affected African Americans, the Poetry Foundation followed the lead of other cultural institutions around the country and weighed in on the times.

In a four-sentence statement, the organization, which publishes Poetry magazine, wrote that it “[stood] in solidarity with the Black community” and was “committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism.” How it plans to do so? Like many such platitudes issued in recent weeks, it didn’t say.

Reading the statement, Eve Ewing’s first reaction was “profound disappointment.” But the University of Chicago assistant professor and longtime Poetry Foundation collaborator wasn’t surprised.

“So many of these institutions rely on the cultural capital and work of Black people but are woefully unprepared to respond to this national crisis,” Ewing says. “They haven’t invested in Black leadership. They haven’t engaged meaningfully with Black communities. People [feel they] have to rush and put out a statement, and it’s a source of a lot of handwringing, because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say. Oftentimes, these statements come across as very hypocritical.”

On Saturday, Ewing and 29 other poets — including Nate Marshall, Jamila Woods, Fatimah Asghar, José Olivarez, and Emily Jungmin Yoon — formally responded to the Poetry Foundation’s statement. Their letter called the June 3 statement “worse than the bare minimum” and demanded the “immediate” resignations of President Henry Bienen and board of trustees chair and investment bank executive Willard Bunn, III.

“As poets, we recognize a piece of writing that meets the urgency of its time with the appropriate fire when we see it — and this is not it,” the letter reads. “For years, your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists, to make concrete commitments to and change-making efforts in your local community and beyond.”

As of June 10, Bienen and Bunn have resigned from their positions, according to a new statement from the Poetry Foundation. Kathleen Coughlin, currently the Poetry Foundation’s CFO, will serve as acting administrator of the foundation until the board appoints a new president. Meanwhile, Caren Yanis, the vice chair of the board, will temporarily replace Bunn as acting board chair.

In social media posts, some signatories say Bienen’s role in the organization courted special controversy. Prior to becoming president of the Poetry Foundation in 2015, Bienen served as president of Northwestern University from 1995 to 2009. Before moving to the Chicago area, he was a political science professor and consultant for national security organizations like the Department of State and the CIA. Though praised by some for raising the international profile of Northwestern — which named its School of Music after Bienen and his wife, Leigh — his administration made national news early in his term for resisting student activists’ calls for an Asian American Studies program, which culminated in hunger strikes. Later, while sitting on the Chicago Board of Education under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he voted with his counterparts to close 50 schools on the South and West Sides — a move that similarly prompted a 34-day hunger strike from Dyett High School parents and activists.

The letter’s other demands include a tangible plan for helping to “eradicate institutional racism,” as the Poetry Foundation’s June 3 statement pledges; increased investment in the Community and Foundations Relations department; and dedicating part of the Foundation’s $257 million endowment to “protect and enrich Black lives.” Most notably, the letter suggests doing so through direct giving to community organizations like Assata’s Daughters, a radical organizing collective, and Brave Space Alliance, a nonprofit providing social services to queer and trans South Siders.

The call for resignations comes amid a larger wave of reckoning within established arts organizations. On June 7, Andrew Alexander, the CEO of Second City, stepped down after former performers challenged the organization’s stated commitment to Black Lives Matter with their own stories of racism experienced there. And at Victory Gardens Theater, both the chief executive director and the board of directors’ chairman resigned after they boarded up the theater facade in response to citywide protests.

More than 2,100 people have undersigned the letter, agreeing to stop engaging with the Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine until the demands have been met. Programs that now weigh in the balance include Danez Smith and Franny Choi’s podcast VS, Paige Lewis’s Ours Poetica YouTube series, and Ewing and Marshall’s poetry incubator, which Ewing says is “not something we’ll continue doing in good conscience right now.”

Nate Marshall reads from his collection Wild Hundreds at the 2016 Poetry Block Party.
PHOTO: SARAH-JI RHEE

Even as the Poetry Foundation has implemented community engagement initiatives and published more poets of color, the letter implies that much of that work has been more optics-oriented than meaningful. “Like many institutions, they’re able to give a front face of representation and appear they are making substantial changes, but behind the scenes, in terms of what the leadership looks like and the institutional values at play, there is not a lot of motivation to change,” Ewing says.

“Institutions often say they care about diversity, and in more recent times, Black Lives Matter, but they do next to nothing to actually implement those ideals,” says Erika L. Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, who cosigned the letter to the Poetry Foundation and has tweeted about discrimination she experienced at the Poetry Foundation Library. “Most of us are fed up with tokenism.”

On Saturday, Bunn, who has since resigned as board chair, released a statement “[accepting] the criticism,” with a promise to respond fully by the Saturday deadline given in the letter.

“Specifically, through all that is happening across the nation and world in support of Black lives, our fellows, contributors, and collaborators have generously taken the time to propose a way for us to move forward,” Bunn wrote. "We… have been and will continue working to create a detailed plan of action to be announced.”

If the Poetry Foundation acquiesces to all the letter’s demands, it would do more than shake up the existing leadership and culture. Since acquiring a $200 million gift in 2002 from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company fortune, the Poetry Foundation has rapidly scaled its budget, magazine circulation, education programming, and executive salaries: According to a 2018 IRS filing, Bienen earned $388,165 that fiscal year. To donate or reallocate the $257 million endowment — with the ultimate goal of giving back “every cent to those whose labor amassed those funds,” according to the letter — would represent a radical form of wealth redistribution not typically seen in the multimillion dollar nonprofit world.

“People who have amassed huge amounts of wealth get to set the terms about what public engagement is allowed to look like, what it means to do good in communities, what it means to help people,” Ewing says, calling the demand a “broader referendum” of nonprofits and philanthropy as they exist now.

“Oftentimes people who have been most historically harmed by the process of that wealth accumulation are excluded from [access]. That needs to be part of the conversation about racial inequality.”

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