In the days after the election of Donald Trump, poet Erin Belieu called on Facebook for writers and readers to not give in to despair and to “actively help make the world we want to live in.” Her appeal quickly went viral, evolving into a series of nearly 80 coordinated readings around the world on Sunday January 15th. Those readings are the launch of an organization called Writers Resist. I talked with the organizers of Seattle’s Town Hall event, journalist Kristen Millares Young and novelist Sam Ligon, about their work creating the Seattle faction of Writers Resist.
So what, exactly, is Writers Resist?
Kristen Millares Young: Writers Resist is a national movement with international allies to further the cause of a just and compassionate democracy.
Sam Ligon: It's made up of local organizations that are expressing their ideals. And in the case of Seattle Writers Resist, we're interested in celebrating free speech and the American ideals of freedom and equality.
What local organizations are you working with?
KMY: First and foremost, we're working with Town Hall Seattle as a partner and a venue. Our first nonprofit that we're helping to rally support for is the ACLU of Washington.
SL: The reason we think it's important to support the ACLU and free speech is because as writers, that's what we deal in — we deal in speech. And it's our duty and obligation to exercise the right of free speech and to celebrate free speech.
KMY: There are Writers Resist events around Washington state: Bellingham, Ellensburg, Spokane, Olympia, Bainbridge Island, and Port Townsend. And each one of these events has a different social justice issue as a rallying cause. Each city is taking a different approach to their idea of what's needed for democracy to function.
SL: Ellensburg is particularly interested in immigrant rights, for example, so location is determining focus.
Why is free speech the focus in Seattle?
KMY: I think Seattle as a city needs to have a voice in the future of our nation, and it’s important that we exercise and celebrate our right to be known despite our progressive values not being in power at the moment. We as a city have a responsibility to our nation to hold these things up and keep them visible until our elected representatives see fit to celebrate them along with us.
SL: I also think in Seattle we have an incredibly rich and diverse literary community. We've got a wealth of voices in this town to speak and we want to bring those voices into play.
What is the future of Writers Resist?
KMY: I see Writers Resist keeping our community engaged in discussing civic ideas, and turning the conversation towards what we must sustain and preserve and champion. Our values are under attack in a very real way from the highest reaches of government, and as an organization, we're here to bring people together to remind them that we know what it is that makes America great.
SL: And we have an obligation to say something. You know the post-9/11 admonition to say something if you see something? We'd like to encourage writers to do that. We're all going to be seeing things — we all are seeing things — that require our speech, require us to comment upon them.
How do people get involved?
KMY: You can tweet at the national organizers. We are putting together a Facebook group. There are hashtags that people can use. One thing that people are doing is that on Fridays there is a #ReadersResist hashtag where people are finding inspirational quotes that celebrate ideals of democracy and sharing them to act as a pushback against this vitriol and empty condemnations.
We need to come at the world with something to offer, not just condemnation. We need to say, "these are the values that we believe in,” to remind people why that belief is so necessary. I think people are stirred by ideas, and so we want to stir people and to do what they can during this time.
Thanks to these Writers Resist events happening all over the world, there are about two thousand people, two thousand writers, two thousand communicators, two thousand teachers of all kinds who are now in contact with each other who weren't before. What I'm seeing happen is we've opened up communication, so that if someone has a great idea it can rise to notice quickly and be implemented.
It’s about the idea of bringing people together for teach-ins and having open channels of communication. [Those channels] essentially have been closed down as people are keeping themselves to their smaller networks and withdrawing from the horror of every day's news. We're bringing people back to that table and saying “no, there's things we can do here that are positive. It's not just feeling battered by each day. There's something we have to do.”
SL: We want an alternative to despair. Despair is not the answer right now, nor is silence. People say, "what do writers resist?" Each local organization will determine that, but we think writers resist despair. Writers resist silence. We see this as the beginning of a conversation locally, regionally, that we hope to continue. And we hope this evolves into a larger, richer discussion.
KMY: We don't know how people are going to respond to this. One thing we suggested they could do would be to bring these ideals into their book clubs. It doesn't necessarily have to be a Writers Resist-themed thing, but if people in book clubs say "we're going to be reading writings on freedom, writings on equality,” they’ll be encouraging people who are already talking to each other to discuss things that are important to our democracy.
SL: We’re already rallying support to places like the ACLU that's a national organziation. Going forward, we want to support local organizations like Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
KMY: Here in Washington state, we have a state legislator who proposed to categorize peaceful protest as economic terrorism. That's not going to fly, but at the same time, it’s important to say that we condemn that, that this is wrong. There are things we need to do to raise up the values that we want to see. If we don't do it, who will?
SL: We want to make America great again, is what we're saying.