Launching a chapter network has helped PEN America, a literary organization with almost 100 years of history, recruit new members and reinvent opportunities for member engagement at the local level.
Reaching 100 years old is a milestone for any association, and it naturally prompts thoughts about how to reinvigorate the organization as it begins its second century.
For PEN America, a literary organization approaching its 100th anniversary, the moment led to a strategic focus on growing membership and injecting energy into the organization at the local level. Last month, PEN America announced a member expansion plan to create regional chapters.
So far, six local affiliates have been announced in Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Detroit; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Dallas-Fort Worth; and the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The strategy reflects a significant shift from the way PEN America used to operate, says Director of Membership Rebecca Werner.
“There’s no denying that we’ve been fairly New York City-centric in terms of programming since we were founded in 1922,” she says. “That began to change in 2017, when we opened a Washington, DC, office, and in 2018, when we unified with the former PEN Center USA, which had previously existed separately in Los Angeles. As we’ve grown, our membership has expanded both in numbers—we now have nearly 7,500 members—and geographic diversity, with members in every state.”
The decision comes at a critical time for the organization, which represents writers.
“The 2016 election has made the creation of more PEN America chapters more urgent,” Werner says. “As we all know, that election opened up distressing schisms in our country. New threats to free expression, press freedom, and discourse have emerged.”
How did PEN America identify where to locate its first six chapters? In a nutshell, they went where the interest was.
Since 2016, Werner and her team have been noticing pockets of highly engaged members with a desire to get more involved. They saw an opportunity to build on this momentum and conducted a listening tour in more than two dozen cities to hear directly from members.
The tour “confirmed that PEN America was meaningful to our members and there was an eagerness to do more,” Werner says. “People really understand the powerful role of literature in addressing today’s complexities, and they are ready and eager to be activated.”
In some cities, a dedicated corps of members was already prepared to move forward with new initiatives. PEN America created a small grants program to help fund some of their ideas.
“We made small grants available to build constituencies in support of press freedom, using themes and issues that our members thought resonated locally, from the hollowing out of local journalism to the need to connect reporters with communities underrepresented in the media,” Werner says. “Rather than dictate from New York City, we’re eager to let individual communities define for themselves what PEN America’s mission can mean for them.”
This process helped Werner and her team identify the first six chapters. More are coming soon.
“As members share their feedback and let us know what moves them to act in their local communities, we’ll be aiming to activate additional PEN America chapters across the country,” she says. “We have no doubt that our new chapters will make our organization even more dynamic.”