David Song • Courtesy

Seattle Town Hall’s new Executive Director David Song has been on a lifelong journey to his current role. After immigrating to the United States from South Korea and spending time during his childhood in Pennsylvania steel country, rural Louisiana, southern Illinois, and Chicago, he has traveled to Europe and Asia, and eventually relocated to Seattle in March, 2020, just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But his route to Town Hall began even before he moved to Seattle. “I became aware of Town Hall in 2019 when I interviewed with them for a different role, and I was lucky to meet their longtime Executive Director Wier Harman for coffee,” Song remembered. “I am admittedly someone who is a nerd for ideas, debate, comedy, and music, and I was struck by the passion Wier and the team had for the organization’s work.”

Town Hall’s reputation preceded itself. “I admired their mission of prioritizing access to lectures, music, and events with low-cost tickets available for even the biggest names,” Song said. “I heard great things about their partnership with other community-based organizations, offering a platform for local voices, artists, and communities of all kinds.”

Song didn’t join Town Hall then, but kept it in mind. “I followed Town Hall, viewed some virtual events and previously recorded events during the pandemic,” he recalled. “They used their stage to share important social justice perspectives from intellectuals I wanted to hear from, Ijeoma Oluo, Ibram X. Kendi, Anand Giridharadas, and Danielle Sered.”

He appreciated the service that Town Hall provided to the region. “As a transplant to Seattle, I viewed it as the kind of community, one around ideas, art, culture, debate, that would make me feel at home in Seattle,” he relayed. “It seemed like the kind of community that every city should have, a place that connects people around their interests.”

Previously, Song spent about a decade at Chicago Debates, and following that, time at Kandelia, focusing on immigrant and refugee success, and at The Stability Network, honing in on eliminating stigmas associated with mental health. “I learned everything about leadership from my 15-year career in non-profit service and working with great missions that connect to my lived experience,” Song recounted. “I was lucky to learn from thousands of intrepid students and hundreds of inspiring teachers in Chicago about how to amplify the signal of those we need to hear most.”

Song is quick to laud his colleagues at Kandelia. “As a first-time Executive Director and proud foreign-born Korean-American, I learned about this city from a grassroots Kandelia team that understood and represented immigrant and refugee communities,” he said, “and rose to the occasion during a pandemic that uniquely impacted immigrants and refugees in ways that many might not understand.”

And then he stepped into a new challenge. “The Stability Network gave me and many others courage to lead with storytelling and vulnerability in the workplace,” Song said. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that non-profit service is hard work done by good people who are true experts in their fields.”

Throughout his years, Song has explored the world, through both words and physical travel. “I started elementary school speaking no English, and I found my voice as a teenager through music, speech, and debate,” he reminisced. “I learned to find something interesting in everyone’s story, since I was often the only one who looked like me.”

Growing up, he really appreciated Chicago’s diversity. “I remember being turned on to electronic music in high school by a friend who would get mix tapes at a Polish record store and copy them for Korean, Filipino, Pakistani, Assyrian, Taiwanese, and Ukrainian kids,” he said. “Some were the same kids I met in music class learning viola a few years earlier, only now our bond around the symphony of Dutch and British beats led to us thinking we would become DJ Tiesto.”

From left, David Brewster, Town Hall Seattle’s founding executive director; David Song, the new executive director; and Wier Harman, executive director from 2005-2022 • Photo by Dan DeLong for Town Hall Seattle

And then his palette widened. “I was turned onto Chicago punk rock by older classmates on my speech and debate team, Greek and Latvian kids who seemed like the coolest kids in the world, the first teenagers I met who read Marx and Foucault,” he recalled. “I think every subculture I sought and found my identity in was ultimately tied to my lived experience with global cultures.”

More recently, Song has been able to explore Asia in person. “In 2018, was so fortunate to travel with my partner Cynthia to a family event in her father’s hometown in Bataan province in the Philippines, a place mostly known to me previously for the tragic Bataan Death March during WWII,” he said. “I loved experiencing Bataan, the contrast between its small cities compared to a massive city like Manila, or our next destination to my birth city of Seoul.”

And since travel has re-opened again, Song has visited Singapore and Japan. “I’m grateful for our privilege and good fortune to be able to see Japan’s beautiful sights, including on a bus tour to Takayama and the Japanese Alps countryside where we were the only non-Japanese speakers,” he said. “We had no shortage of help with how to wear traditional Japanese yukata attire to a lovely, formal kaiseki dinner.”

But global travel entails global history, which isn’t always as beautiful. “We considered going to a peace museum in Osaka, until I read that it had become embroiled in nationalist controversy censoring exhibits about war crimes, including those against Korea and the Philippines, our families’ cultures of origin,” he said. “I was also reminded of how different our experience might have been only one generation prior, for people the age of our parents or some of our new Japanese tour friends.”

Back home in Seattle, Song began his current role at Town Hall on April 24. “Most of my time in my first ninety days will be spent learning and building relationships with my team, as well as meeting our supporters in the community,” he said. “I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know, and I know not to try to articulate my big vision in my first week on the job!”

But he won’t be alone. “My predecessor and friend Wier Harman has been generous in offering me his time and wisdom after 17 years in this seat, and I value him as a source of institutional knowledge and friendship for a long time to come,” Song said. “I’m going to be at a lot of events, taking in our content to get a sense of the broad offerings on our calendar.”

Big dreams are already starting to form. “I’m told that I’m palpably excited when I tell people about my new dream job,” Song shared. “I’m going to listen, a lot. I’m going to show up and learn from our partners in the arts and culture space in Seattle.”

Song is clearly inspired by these impending conversations. “I’m committed to continuing Town Hall’s legacy as a civic treasure for Seattle, one that is accessible to everyone and has something for everyone,” he said. “I’m geeked about working with our team to create a diverse, challenging, inspiring, fun, funky, and memorable calendar of events that’s the best offered anywhere in Seattle.”

And he wants people to continue those conversations with others. “I’m going to talk to all kinds of people about what Town Hall has meant to our community and where we can grow authentic relationships,” he said. “I hope to grow our audience as we become even better known as an intellectual and cultural home for all of Seattle, a place where every week you can go to a different event that sparks a conversation at dinner after the show or sharing a new discovery with others.”

These dreams don’t ignore the challenges, though. “Like most organizations that depend upon an audience for performances, we’re still navigating how to get back to pre-pandemic levels of in-person attendance,” Song said. “We want to have a great calendar of events that both bring people back and bring new people in as they’re welcomed to Town Hall as an intellectual and cultural home.”

And there are practical matters. “We know that we have limited parking options in our area, so we’ll need to think creatively about making it easier to get to Town Hall,” he admitted.

Appealing to a broader audience will be key. “Seattle has become a city with many young people from increasingly diverse backgrounds, the future of our audiences,” Song observed. “As someone who has spent most of my career listening to the voice of young people from many places, I’d love for Town Hall to be the kind of place that grows with our audience.”

In expanding Town Hall’s reach, Song’s travels will likely prove formative.  “I take away from these experiences the importance of being open to these constant, inevitable exchanges between cultures and making space where these creative encounters can be informed and energized by history, ideas, and art,” he said. “Seattle is one of the best cities I can imagine for global, multicultural, and intercultural experiences, and Town Hall is a home where they can be found.”

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