According to the 2019 Chapter Benchmarking Study, the trend looks more like it’s about closing chapters. But that’s not the story over at PEN America, a literary organization with nearly 100 years of history. They launched new chapters in six focus regions: Austin, Birmingham, Detroit, Piedmont North Carolina, Tulsa, and Dallas/Fort Worth. The idea: to ensure that supporters of literature and free expression have a home across the country and to unify communities at a time of deep divisions. Jennifer Egan, president, shared their journey, in an interview PEN America Chapters Unite Readers, Writers Nationwide.
Their journey reflects a new approach to chapters that starts with the mission and is driven my members.
Driven by Mission: Fostering dialogue has been essential to PEN’s mission. Their mission is championing the freedom to write – to protect freedom of expression. We are experiencing distressing schisms since the 2016 elections in our country which makes their mission work urgent. Their reaction: bring the mission alive in communities.
Led by Members: They began talking to most active Members. They came with an collective wish not a model or a mandate. “We all share a collective wish to celebrate great books, spark local dialogue, and promote free expression, but what exactly that will look like in each place is up to the individual chapters,” according to Egan.
They initiated PEN Across America as a way of uniting folks of all political persuasions around literary events, and in support of free expression and a free press. Within this initiative, they started the Literary Engagement Fund to offer modest support for events and programs.
What comes next, Egan says is up to the chapters and the members really. Pen America will provide support and cheer from the sidelines.
Welcome to the new chapter model. Flexible and mission-driven.