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Ruth Dickey reflects on the pandemic, power of books as she starts new chapter

Photo courtesy of Ruth Dickey
Ruth Dickey is the executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. She has been chosen to lead the National Book Foundation.

Friday is Ruth Dickey's last day as head of Seattle Arts and Lectures. Dickey has been at the helm of the literary arts organization since 2013. She will soon be the new executive director of the National Book Foundation, which is the presenter of one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world — the National Book Awards.

Dickey sat down with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick to reflect on what she has accomplished in the Seattle arts community and what she hopes to do on the national stage. Dickey begins her new job as head of the National Book Foundation on May 17.  Listen to their conversation above, or read highlights below.


On the power of books during a year of racial reckoning and a pandemic: I think for so many of us, books are a source of learning and inspiration and challenge. They're a way for us to deeply learn and engage with topics, with other people's experiences, with history, with science, with facts. I think that role of books is even more important in this time, when all of us are reckoning with racial justice and with understanding the history of our country and the history of white supremacy and all the different ways that our systems and processes have been a part of racism. And understanding what that means and what it has meant and also what we can all do about it. I think books are an incredibly important piece of that work.

On arts organizations and COVID-19: This has been such a challenging time for nonprofits, for arts organizations all around the country. I think all of us are asking that question, "What does forward look like?" And how can we not just rebuild and recover, but also use this as an opportunity to build back better. For us at Seattle Arts and Lectures, people had asked for years for us to have an online way for people to participate in our programing and lectures if they weren't able to be there in person. And we just never had the bandwidth to figure it out. One of the silver linings of this pandemic is that now we have figured it out, and I know for SAL going forward, there will always be an online component to programing. 

Her list of must-read local authors: Writers on the SAL staff — Alison Stagner, Woogee Bae, Piper Daugherty, Letitia Cain, Bre’Anna Girdy, Sarah Burns and Rebecca Hoogs. A few local writers I particularly admire are Donna Miscolta, E.J. Koh, Kristen Millares Young, Claudia Castro Luna, Laurie Frankel, Anastacia Reneé, and Theo Nestor. I got to hear Rob Arnold, who is the acting director of Hugo House, read a few of his poems just over a year ago and I’m still thinking about them. 


What she’s reading: "The Sum of Us" by Heather McGhee; "Just Us"  by Claudia Rankine, which explores with great vulnerability and candor what it means to have conversations about and across race; "The Beauty in Breaking" by Dr. Michele Harper about the possibility of healing and beauty after violence and trauma; "Anxious People" by Fredrik Backman; and "Postcolonial Love Poem" by Natalie Diaz.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.