ASHHO Cultural Center Brings Community Together Around Good Food and Brave Conversations

by Heidi Smith • Photos Courtesy of ASHHO

For 12 years Khurshida Begum has been envisioning a space where people could unite through food and create a shared sense of belonging. While all would be welcome, she visualized a cultural community center focused on communities of color, and a place where issues that are usually cloaked in silence – domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and mental health challenges – could be safely and bravely brought into the light. 

The moment she set foot in the former Pellegrino’s Catering & Event Center in 2020, she knew it was the place to realize her dream. In the past year, Begum has transformed the site into the headquarters for ASHHO Cultural Community Center, a hub for events, training, sharing meals, inspirational speaking, community groups and soon, workforce development. 

Before the pandemic, Begum delivered keynote speeches and situational training across 30 states within the U.S. as well as in Egypt, Morocco and Bangladesh. The subject was often human trafficking, a social ill she knows all too well. As a seven-year-old, she was brought to Washington State from Bangladesh under false pretenses for what turned out to be years of forced labor and abuse. “I feel passionate about sharing issues that are disturbing, uncomfortable and hidden,” she explains. “When I started speaking professionally, it was against domestic violence, sexual abuse and trafficking.”

When the pandemic put a halt to speaking engagements, Begum’s mind turned to the community. As a volunteer in downtown Olympia working with the houseless and others in need, she quickly realized that soup kitchens that served essential meals were closing. Out of her home, Begum and her husband began providing healthy, hot ethnic meals. “We created a Pay it Forward meal program,” she says. “Anytime someone bought a meal for $15 or a side for $3, we would match it and donate a meal to a person who needed it. We started doing that every week.” 

Before long it became clear that a commercial kitchen would be necessary to continue the program. That’s when Begum learned that the Pellegrino family was planning to vacate their former business premises, which were a perfect fit for what she had in mind. “We met and they were so wonderful and kind,” she says. “They walked me through every step of the process, and I started using their kitchen as of August 2020.” 

Since then, while she continues to provide weekly Pay it Forward meals, the scope of her work has grown and the vision she’s held since 2006 is coming to fruition. ASHHO is a social purpose corporation with a nonprofit arm, a type of organization that has been in practice in Washington State since 2012 but is less well-known than nonprofits. “It’s where you have a social purpose that you’re filling,” says Begum. “You’re for-profit and you’re also thinking about the environment, about transparency, about the common good and making sure people get paid living wages.” 

Under the social purpose corporation, ASHHO brings in revenue through catering services, hosting groups like TOGETHER, rotary clubs and other nonprofit groups for monthly meetings, holding events and eventually serving meals at the refurbished coffee bar and cafe. 

On the nonprofit end, ASHHO holds training sessions to provide resources to communities that often lack them. “We’re just forming the nonprofit but that’s a small portion that’s really for the cultural events,” Begum notes. “When we do training on the equity series or on these hidden issues for state agencies or government groups, we’ll donate a training to a nonprofit organization for folks who are on a strict income or don’t normally have access to hear a keynote speaker.”

The nonprofit arm will also encompass workforce development. Begum plans to incorporate job training programs into every aspect of the cultural center, including the coffee shop, event space, custodial and maintenance, and cafe. 

“We’re going to be working with folks who have different barriers to employment, who are undervalued, under-resourced and don’t typically have access,” she says. “Whether there are cultural barriers or language barriers, we want to provide inspiration and motivation. It would be great to partner with other nonprofits and WorkSource.” 

Aside from job training, Begum plans to offer workshops on issues like financial literacy, including how to fix your credit score, how to buy a house, etc. “These are things that black, brown, and Native folks don’t usually have access to,” she notes. “These are not things that are generationally passed on.” 

While the cultural center will hold festivals, she intends that they’ll serve a purpose beyond simple celebration. “We want to know what these communities need,” Begum maintains. “We don’t want to do Native Heritage Month and then just forget about it for a whole year. What kind of ongoing support do they need? What is it that we can do to heal moving forward?” 

She now has a two-year lease on the property and intends to buy it once the lease is up. The community has been supportive, she says, especially communities of color. “I don’t care if they write a $5 check. When they intentionally want to support, any money is good. I’m so grateful that my kids will be able to come here and get to know other black and brown and Native folks. This is a place to build bridges and create relationships.” 

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