Less than six months after being named the Association of Writers and Writing Programs' permanent executive director, Chloe Schwenke has been fired from the position effective September 7. Cynthia Sherman, the literary organization’s director of conferences, and Diane Zinna, its deputy executive director for the past six months and longtime director of membership services, are serving as interim managing co-directors. Sherman has worked for AWP since 2012, and Zinna since 2011.
AWP’s board chair for the past year, Robin Reagler, the executive director of Writers in the Schools (WITS), a literary organization in Houston, stepped down from the board at an August 27 executive session—the same meeting at which the decision was made to terminate Schwenke by the board officers. The board, which in past years averaged 15-17 members, is now down to 12, with Bonnie Culver, who directs the MFA program at Wilkes University, currently serving as chair.
In response to PW’s query Thursday morning, Schwenke, who was first hired as AWP’s interim director in April 2018 after long-time executive director David Fenza was fired from the position by then–board chair David Haynes, confirmed that she was no longer affiliated with AWP. Describing the separation as “involuntary,” Schwenke subsequently authorized her attorney to release to PW a letter that was sent to the entire board on Tuesday evening. In this letter, as well as in an open letter posted Thursday morning on the LGBTQ Writers Caucus' Facebook group page, Schwenke alleges that she was fired primarily on the basis of discrimination against her as a transgender woman, adding that financial management issues after AWP severed its official relationship with the University of Maryland last year also contributed to the move.
The attorney's letter to the board denies any mismanagement of finances, stating that Schwenke had informed the board early on that "the increased costs of being independent (with more administrative and financial management overhead) and the associated costs of raising staff salaries to an equitable range for the Washington D.C. area might take as long as three years before reaching financial equilibrium."
All expenditures were authorized, the letter states, "Dr. Schwenke denies that any spending was unauthorized or improper."
The attorney's letter alleges that the decision to terminate Schwenke was propelled primarily by Rob Trott, a Virginia-based realtor/attorney and board member since 2015. Schwenke claims that Trott refused to attend board meetings in person after Fenza's termination, and never met Schwenke or even spoke on the phone with her until September 7, when she met with Culver and Trott, who told her that she was fired.
"Her record of performance, Rob Trott’s resistance to meet her, the use of false reasons, the rushed pace of her removal, and the timing after board upheaval"—a reference to a contentious July conference call between the entire board about AWP investments —"all support her claim that her termination is the result of unlawful discrimination," the attorney's letter to the board stated. "Dr. Schwenke believes that Mr. Trott could not tolerate having a transgender woman lead AWP. This intolerance would explain why he declined to meet her—until he could instigate a campaign among board members to fire her."
Schwenke also alleges that both Reagler and Haynes resigned from their positions on AWP’s board in direct response to the board's decision to terminate her. Neither Reagler nor Haynes responded to PW's requests for comment.
Asked for comment Thursday morning before PW reviewed the attorney's Sept. 10 letter to the board, Culver did not respond to PW's requests. The two new interim co-directors, however, called PW to confirm that Schwenke was no longer affiliated with AWP, and that the board intends to undertake a restructuring of the organization, which will commence at its early November board meeting.
“We’re continuing as we have always done,” Sherman said. “Everything is on track.”