by Lisa Fruichantie
Since 2015, Alma Mater has been a gathering place for the Tacoma community, housing restaurants, music and event spaces, coworking space, a recording studio, and more. Last year, when co-founder Jason Heminger stepped down as executive director, I was both humbled and honored to step up and fill the role. Yes, we were in a pandemic that had shut down our two popular restaurants, our gallery, coworking space, concert venue, recording studio, and our offices. And yes, the experience was challenging for every restaurant and public space in Washington State and around the world. However, we couldn’t just close our doors and wait the virus out.
Instead, the Alma Mater team decided to shift focus and utilize our physical space in being a strong community partner in the Tacoma area food relief and social justice movements. We partnered with Beacon Youth Center, Rainbow Center, Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective, The People’s Assembly, LegallyBLACK, and many more community havens. The entwined relationship between Alma Mater and the community it resides in is what first attracted me to be part of the organization, so it made sense to shift our focus to meeting the community’s needs. I saw this as our mission and a reflection of our team’s collective values.
I was born on Ute land in southern Colorado but when I moved to Alaska, gradually, over time, I was also adopted into the Kenaitze culture and fishing community. My own ancestors are Seminole, Creek, Muskogee, Sicilian, and Irish. I was fortunate enough to have lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents as a young child and in my adolescent years, I traveled to visit my relatives in various other states. These experiences helped me see, at a young age, the connective tissue between peoples and cultures. They fostered not only my own sense of belonging but also my desire to make sure every person feels like they belong, no matter where they are, geographically and on their life’s journey.
My path to Alma Mater has not been a straight one. I have held many jobs and curiosities. With each phase of my career I have picked up not only more skills and competencies, but also co-conspirators and allies. I gained some of my earliest skills when I started a 70s vintage thrift store called Brandwashed in my little Alaskan town at the age of 13. I not only filled a need for fashion conscious neighbors who wanted another option besides Kmart and the Salvation Army, I also learned how to approach sponsors for community-based events like concerts. Even when I had to close my shop, I found the silver lining: I donated my inventory to families who’d lost their possessions in fires. This early lesson taught me much about connecting business to community with purpose. I aim for Alma Mater to do the same.
While our space will continue to blossom into a true conduit between arts and culture, a place for good food, great company, and strong connections, a few things will be changing in the coming months. The biggest change you’ll see is in our name. From now on, we’ll go by Alma. The word “alma” has many definitions, including “soul,” and the shift to this name is also a rematriation of sorts, an honoring of both the feminine and masculine energies that go into an endeavor like this one. Alma has strength. Alma is a nurturer of its community and a gatherer of hearts, minds, and creativity. Alma has always been a place of connection, and this has become even more apparent during the pandemic.
You will also see a change in our menu. We have introduced our first several Native menu items, a preview of what our full menu will look like in 2022. This menu is a collaboration between myself and Chef Ramon Shiloh. Ramon joins us with decades of experience in the food industry, as well as countless hours shared as a mentor and teacher of food sovereignty and more at Red Eagle Soaring and beyond.
One thing that excites me most about collaborating with Ramon is that our shared mixed-race heritage (Ramon is Creek, Cherokee, Filipino, African) provides us with rich cultural culinary learning from which to draw inspiration. As we began exploring what our new menu could look like, he asked me, “What’s the food that you remember that your mom and your aunties made that you’ve never had anywhere else?” The first thing that came to my mind was grape dumplings, which are made from possum grapes. But I had to stop and ask myself, “How do you put that into a restaurant? Will other people eat it?” Ramon and I agree that with a little education, the customers who have trusted and shown up for us over the years will not only try these new offerings but love them.
The shared mission of Alma’s three founders (Jason Heminger, Rachel Ervin, and Aaron Spiro) was always to work in a very authentic way with the community and with artists, creating room for cross-cultural exchange through food, beverage, and entertainment. Now it’s my intention to lean even more into Indigenous principles, particularly reciprocity.
Reciprocity is commonly understood as mutual dependence and an unspoken promise to give and take in equal amounts. The Indigenous meaning of reciprocity is nature-based, rooted in the understanding that when we take care of Mother Earth, she takes care of us back. It leads to conversations and actions related not only to recycling and food waste but also to food sovereignty and local agriculture.
This is why you’ll see the team at Alma formalizing the food relief programs ramped up during the pandemic. You’ll also see us creating stronger relationships with local BIPOC-owned farms. The more we nurture our local partners, the more they’ll be able to provide us with quality produce, which further empowers us to create delicious and healthy food for our community, both the paying customers and those who need help on any given day. You support the community when you are able, and then the community supports you back. This is the way of Alma.
The new menu at Alma is available on our patio, and we are currently planning to reopen the interior venue of our 22,000-square-foot space to the public in October of this year. If you stop by before then, you’ll notice that we’re making some renovations to enhance functionality and flow. One of our most beautiful new additions is our new land acknowledgement sign by local Afro-Indigenous artist Paige Pettibon. Alma’s transformation is truly from the inside out.
This is a time of change for many of us, not only shifts in business plans or careers but also shifts in community needs, personal goals, and relationships. For this reason, we need each other more than ever. If you, like us, are in the midst of shifting from one state of being to another, consider these things: Be open. Be yourself. Be authentic. Ask questions. Know that if you have a passion, you don’t need a degree or formal invitation to pursue it. Believe that if you state your purpose enough, someone will hear you and either join you or uplift you. Rely on the strength of your physical, in-person community and culture, and put at least as much energy out into the world as you ask for. The first step toward any journey, toward any success, toward any other person, is just showing up. Being there, when it matters most, speaks volumes.
I hope to see you at Alma very soon.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Lisa Fruichantie is a daughter, mother, sister, auntie, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, and queer Indigenous woman. She’s a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, resides on the traditional lands of the Puyallup people, and is the executive director at Alma in Tacoma, Washington.
📸 Featured Image: Alma Executive Director Lisa Fruichantie and chef Ramon Shiloh at Alma. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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