FAQ: PEN America and PEN USA Unification
PEN America was founded in 1922, as a national organization with headquarters in New York. PEN Center USA was founded in 1943 with headquarters in Los Angeles and a special focus on writers living west of the Mississippi. The organizations have been entirely separate, but both are members of the global network that forms PEN International and both subscribe to the PEN International Charter.
PEN America, with a membership of more than 5,700 members and their allies across the country, and PEN USA, with about 900 members, have worked through the years each on their own to advance a shared mission to protect and celebrate free expression, but —frankly—there has often been some confusion between the two organizations among writers and supporters. This unification will straighten that out.
Our conversations about joining forces were born of a shared sense of urgency to fortify our collective efforts at a time of unprecedented challenges internationally and here in our own country. With new communications technology and offices on both coasts and Washington, D.C., as well as activities in communities across the country, our new unified national organization will be larger, more influential, and fully mobilized to defend free expression, amplify marginalized voices, and foster dialogue that transcends differences. We will maintain and build our current programming in both New York and Los Angeles. For PEN members in the Los Angeles area, the local office and staff will continue to be available.
PEN America and PEN USA will be joining forces under the banner of PEN America and the website pen.org. PEN America has invested significantly in building its brand and visibility in recent years and, as the larger of the two organizations, is the logical name for our unified organization. Accordingly, in connection with the unification, it is expected that PEN USA will change its name to PEN America Los Angeles.
PEN America will be led nationally by PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel. An internationally recognized expert on human rights, Suzanne joined PEN America in 2013 and has overseen significant expansion of the organization’s free expression advocacy, literary programming, membership, and base of supporters whose contributions make our work possible. You can learn more about Suzanne here. She writes frequently on free expression and human rights topics, with links available in her bio.
PEN America Los Angeles will continue to be led by Michelle Franke, a writer and editor who has been with PEN USA for nearly a decade, the last three years as executive director. Michelle brings significant stature and contacts in the literary community in Los Angeles.
The PEN America Board of Trustees, led now by President Andrew Solomon, will continue to oversee PEN America. In connection with the unification, the Chair of the PEN USA Board of Directors, Marvin Putnam, Vice President Jamie Wolf, and Director Franklin Leonard will join the PEN America board. PEN America Los Angeles will be governed by a small board appointed by PEN America.
After several months of planning and the exercise of due diligence by pro bono lawyers representing PEN USA and PEN America, the boards of both organizations have voted in favor of unifying the organizations. For PEN USA, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation, the contemplated unification requires some changes to its current bylaws; these changes have also been approved by PEN USA’s current board. The proposed bylaw changes are subject to the approval of the membership of PEN USA, as required under California law.
Throughout the unification process, the pro bono services of three law firms, Schulte Roth & Zabel in New York, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Latham & Watkins in California, were invaluable. Attorneys specializing in M&A, securities, tax, and employment & employee benefits drafted revisions to organizational documents and negotiated a transaction agreement, which involved matters of corporate, tax, employment and employee benefits and real estate law.
In compliance with California law, PEN USA’s professional membership (members with voting rights) is being asked to ratify a recommendation by the PEN USA board of directors to proceed with the unification, which entails changes to the organization’s bylaws. The proposed changes to PEN USA’s bylaws include, among other things, making PEN America the sole member of PEN USA. All the current members of PEN USA, regardless of type of membership, will be offered membership in PEN America automatically and at no cost (see What will happen to PEN USA’s membership? below for more information). PEN America’s bylaws are not changing and, hence, a membership vote is not necessary.
More than at perhaps any moment in PEN’s history, we face potent challenges to free speech, press freedom, the right to dissent, and the open flow of information here at home, in the United States. Members of the writing community have a vital role to play in shaping public discourse, resisting encroachments on treasured freedoms and standing with those on the frontlines of the battle to safeguard the values at the heart of our mission. These treacherous times prompted a far-reaching discussion about how we could maximize our collective impact here in the U.S. and around the world. The availability of technology and the rise of online communication also give rise to opportunities to streamline areas including membership management and renewals, digital media outreach, social media, and administrative operations. Last spring, with all that in mind, PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel reached out to PEN USA’s Michelle Franke to ask whether a unification was something PEN USA might consider. Michelle and the PEN USA Board were intrigued by the possibilities and the conversations moved forward from there.
Together we will be able to consolidate and strengthen administrative functions, communications capabilities, digital platforms, and membership services. In so doing, we will free up resources and energies to devote to the continued expansion of our program and impact on both the celebration and defense of freedom of expression.
The unification of our New York and Los Angeles offices and membership strongholds enables us to accelerate efforts to build a truly national organization. With tent poles on both coasts, we will continue efforts undertaken by PEN America over the last year to engage and mobilize members across the country through events, activities, and leadership development. So far, we’ve gotten to work in more than a dozen cities including Tulsa, Tucson, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, and New Orleans. Also, in 2017 PEN America opened an office in Washington, DC, allowing us to bring our advocacy more directly to policymakers and collaborate with counterpart organizations active in the national and international debate. Now PEN USA members also will be able to be heard in the capital through our office there.
As a cohesive nationwide constituency of writers and readers, we will draw strength from unity and emerge more active, more inclusive, and more creative as we rise to the challenges of our times.
The Unified Organization
PEN America’s mission to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible is consistent with PEN USA’s mission to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.
Both organizations subscribe to the PEN International Charter, which can be found here.
Much will remain the same—our research and advocacy focused on protecting press freedom, the right to protest, and other hallmarks of free expression in the United States and internationally; our slate of provocative public events to promote informed discourse on issues such as campus speech, fraudulent news, and the future of truth; our literary programs including the World Voices Festival of International Literature and opportunities to hear from leading authors; and our initiatives to elevate voices that would otherwise be marginalized including those of emerging writers, those affected by mass incarceration, and DREAMers. Our Los Angeles-based programs including the Emerging Voices Fellowship, PEN in the Community, and Literary Awards will all continue to exist and evolve.
As a unified organization, an expanded community of writers and readers will power our organization, amplifying our work and mobilizing our combined activism. Our goal is to build and nurture a cohesive nationwide constituency of writers and readers who are informed, equipped, and energized to rise up in defense of open discourse, to foster the exchange of ideas across political, geographic, and ideological bounds, and to stand with writers and creators who face persecution.
PEN America will continue to be headquartered in New York City. PEN America Los Angeles will serve the local literary community with programming, member recruitment, outreach, and fundraising, as well as opportunities to engage in free expression work. Activities will be carried out in both cities, as well as in Washington, D.C., and increasingly in communities across the country as our national chapter-building initiative continues. PEN America opportunities for members such as the Press Freedom Incentive Fund and discounted subscriptions and event tickets will be offered to all members of the unified organization. We will continue to use our digital communications platforms to share information, such as our Daily Alert on Rights and Expression (DARE) and mobilize members to participate in advocacy.
The unified organization will continue to be a member of PEN International and work in partnership with other PEN Centers around the world. PEN America also will sustain its initiatives to support the strengthening of fellow PEN Centers in countries including Myanmar, Ukraine, Belarus, South Africa, and Haiti.
PEN America Los Angeles will continue to manage an array of programs and events. PEN USA’s rich history, distinguished track record, and valued programs will endure intact, as the Los Angeles presence builds from strength to strength as a hub for writers and writing professionals in Southern California. Over time, with your support and the expanded participation of foundations and other funders, we hope to be able to enlarge the initiatives coming from the Los Angeles office.
PEN USA Executive Director Michelle Franke will become an employee of PEN America and will continue to serve as the Executive Director in Los Angeles, committing to the unified organization the energy and expertise she has brought to our shared mission during her decade at PEN USA. In addition, several other Los Angeles-based staff members will be offered employment with the unified organization to continue the Emerging Voices, PEN in the Community, and Literary Awards programs they have built over the years.
In connection with the unification (and subject to receipt of the required approval of PEN USA’s members to the proposed bylaw changes discussed in more detail above), the current PEN Center USA Board of Directors will resign and PEN USA (to be renamed PEN America Los Angeles) will be governed by a small board appointed by PEN America (as the sole member of PEN America Los Angeles). Three members of the current PEN USA Board of Directors have agreed to join the PEN America board as Trustees: Chair Marvin Putnam, Vice President Jamie Wolf, and Director Franklin Leonard.
A new committee of PEN America, the PEN America Los Angeles Committee, will be formed to support our efforts to respond to the distinctive features of the literary community, fundraise for expanded programming, and participation in mentoring and other PEN initiatives.
All current PEN USA members will automatically be welcomed as members of the new unified PEN America, for the duration of their existing PEN USA membership. The requirements for the two levels of membership at PEN America will be utilized:
- Writing Professional: for published writers, translators, agents, editors, and publishing professionals
- Reader: for anyone who advocates for PEN America’s mission
The unified organization will continue the programs that have been so important in Los Angeles, including the signature Emerging Voices fellowship that has unlocked entry to the literary world for so many deserving writers. PEN in the Community activities will carry on, as well as the Literary Awards (see below).
We also will be able to amplify the free expression initiatives that PEN America has greatly expanded over recent years. There will be access to our original research, including our recent signature report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, our ongoing monitoring of incursions on press freedom and other expression rights, our petitions and other advocacy campaigns, and our public events such as our upcoming edition of the M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic series to be held in Los Angeles on March 1.
LitFest will continue as a celebratory fall event recognizing the literary excellence of Los Angeles in its many forms and bringing together the literary community and its supporters to affirm their commitment to the defense of free expression. We hope to continue to expand the event and make it even exciting in the coming years.
The 2018 Los Angeles Awards cycle that is already accepting submissions will continue unchanged. The PEN America Literary Awards in New York, presented in the spring, have always been open to writers living anywhere in the country, and that will continue as well. Over the next year, the unified organization will consider how best to bring the two awards programs together, with special attention to continuing recognition of the achievements of scriptwriters and writers in the west.
Becoming part of PEN America
Please take a look around pen.org to get an idea of our broad range of activities and activism. Check out the latest free expression news and our slate of upcoming events. Our groundbreaking work on the challenge of maintaining free speech on campuses while recognizing the historic exclusions that have meant some are heard less than others is laid out in our report And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities and our recent white paper, “Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire.”
Learn more about PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, bringing together more than 600 organizations worldwide helping writers, painters, performers, and other artists who are under threat for their creative expression, and the far-too-many individual cases of writers at risk for whom we conduct advocacy. Read about PEN America in the news to learn more.