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Leadership shake-up at Young Chicago Authors follows warning of ‘danger to the thousands of young people served’

Artistic director Kevin Coval was ousted, and executive director Rebecca Hunter resigned, the organization said in a statement.

Kevin Coval was ousted as artistic director of Young Chicago Authors. 
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Young Chicago Authors announced major leadership changes Thursday after accusations that some top executives ignored allegations of sexual assault and were cultivating what one staff member called a “culture of silence.”

Longtime artistic director Kevin Coval was ousted and executive director Rebecca Hunter resigned Thursday, according to a Young Chicago Authors statement. Hunter, who had been with the organization since 2011, had previously announced plans to leave in June.

The shake-up was a “direct result of actions by staff on the behalf of the community we serve,” the group’s board of directors said in a statement.

“We acknowledge community members have been advocating for improvements in YCA’s safe space protocols going back as far as 2014,” the statement continued.

Demetrius Amparan, an alum of the group, will serve as interim executive director. Previously, he was manager of donor relations and director of publications and communication.

Founded nearly three decades ago, Young Chicago Authors seeks to promote creative writing among teens and young adults.

The shake-up comes one day after Button Poetry founder and president Sam Van Cook issued a statement, contending Coval didn’t take accusations of sexual assault seriously.

Van Cook said he informed Coval during a 2015 meeting that several college students alleged they had been sexually assaulted by a Young Chicago Authors mentor. Van Cook said Coval allegedly showed “disinterest in the allegations and was dismissive of the issue, the specifics and the risk to his own students” during their encounter.

“I believe that Kevin Coval’s leadership at YCA is a clear and present danger to the thousands of young people served through YCA and Louder Than a Bomb,” Van Cook said in a statement.

Louder Than a Bomb is a youth poetry festival that Young Chicago Authors has held for more than 20 years.

Attempts by the Sun-Times to reach Coval and Hunter for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

Other members of the poetry community have demanded accountability from Young Chicago Authors leadership, whom some say swept sexual assault allegations under the rug.

In a video on Instagram, Amparan acknowledged the individuals who came forward and shared their experiences at Young Chicago Authors, which sends professional writers into Chicago schools to teach and talk about writing.

“Your voices are heard, clearly, and I want to respectfully say my heart is with you,” the interim executive director said. “Since I can remember, YCA has been a platform for people who have felt unseen and unheard. The moment we begin to not listen to these stories, is the moment we become a direct disservice to our mission.”

In light of recent events, Ana Wright, the organization’s director of programing, said all programs have been paused as the staff creates a “90-day safe space plan” intended to “reverse the culture of silence that previous leadership decisions cultivated.

“We realize that we have to reestablish your trust and we understand that we have a lot of difficult and meaningful work ahead of us,” Wright said on Instagram. “We are very energized and unified in our collective reimagining of YCA and we will continue to keep you updated on our goals, progress and initiatives as they become available. You are the focus of the work that we plan to continue to do.”

It’s unclear how or if this program suspension will affect Louder Than a Bomb, the five-week youth poetry festival founded by Coval in 2000. That event, widely considered the world’s largest youth slam, is scheduled to take place virtually, starting March 13.