On mailers and in candidate forums, city council candidate Sara Nelson presents herself as the “practical progressive” in her race against Nikkita Oliver. To support that claim, Nelson points to her experience co-owning Fremont Brewing, where she runs external affairs, a role that puts her in charge of the brewery's support for causes.
To the extent that the phrase "practical progressive" carries any meaning at all, it might refer to a candidate who proposes uncontroversial and therefore easily accomplishable policies that incrementally improve peoples' lives. But when it comes to racial justice initiatives at her own company, last year Nelson came up short even on those terms.
Both Nelson and Matt Lincecum (her husband and fellow co-owner) proposed three "actions" Fremont Brewing planned to take in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020: Create a mentorship program for BIPOC craft brewers, join the #BlackIsBeautiful beer campaign and donate the profits to “local organizations working within the black community,” and require Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training for all employees. It's been a year and a half since the couple promised to take those actions, but they've only followed through on one of them.
"We do not engage"
The day after the Seattle Police Department's longest and most violent response to the summer protests, Nelson and Lincecum "joined the call for change" — but it took some doing.
According to emails, the company's social media manager at the time, Zan McColloch-Lussier, wrote to Nelson and Lincecum to ask for guidance on how the company should engage "in conversations about Black Lives Matter," noting that other brands such as Nordstrom and Aslan had expressed their views on the issue. (Disclosure: McColloch-Lussier supports Oliver in the race.)
The next day Lincecum replied, "Unless specifically called out for some reason, we do not engage in the conversation. We make beer. We do not make social change at times like this. I want no chance that we may be seen as taking advantage of this moment."
Despite Lincecum making that strong statement against trying to co-opt a movement to their social/financial benefit, McColloch-Lussier said the next day the company's marketing director told him to post a black square on Instagram without any other commentary. McColloch-Lussier said he didn't want to do it but told the director he would and then report back on the comments. Lincecum said, "to the best of my recollection I authorized Zan to do it because he insisted we do it," but McColloch-Lussier offered a much more detailed account of exactly what happened and when.
Unsurprisingly, people on Instagram pushed back on the black square post, seeing it as a meaningless gesture. Some asked what the company actually planned to do. In an email to staff on June 3, Lincecum doubled-down on the silence-and-bearing-witness plan: "Our work is to see, to truly see the anger and rage in our fellow human’s hearts within the lens of history so that when the time does come for a corporation to act, we act with clarity, we act with compassion and we act with commitment," he wrote.
A few days later, McColloch-Lussie said the brewery had yet to act, and so he emailed the owners to let them know that the company's social media was "blowing up" and that people were "upset" about the issue. At that point, McColloch-Lussie said, staff was also asking leadership about a plan of action. The next day Nelson and Lincecum posted their three proposals:
A few months later, in August of 2020, Lincecum offered more details on the mentorship program, telling the New York Times the brewery planned "to offer a six- to eight-week internship, with a room and board stipend" in early 2021.
But that program didn't launch in early 2021, though Lincecum said he already has a "curriculum" prepared for it. And the company hasn't yet paid for DEI training, either.
Over the phone, Lincecum said Fremont did participate in the #BlackIsBeautiful beer campaign — which was launched by Marcus Baskerville, owner of Weathered Souls Brewing Co. — and donated profits from the sale of its Imperial Stout to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Nelson said Baskerville selected Fremont to participate in a larger version of the program this year, this time partnering with Crowns & Hops in Englewood, CA.
When asked why Fremont couldn't swing DEI training or the mentorship program, Lincecum said COVID “destroyed” the company, that the brewery has been “just trying to stay alive,” and that there is "only a certain amount of energy we have in the world.”
He added: "Hopefully we’re all coming out of this, our business is starting to come back under normal feet, and we can focus on not just staying alive as a business but getting our community values back in place and reaching out beyond survival."
Nelson and Lincecum, of course, made those three promises during COVID-19. Since then, more than $1.9 million from two Paycheck Protection Program loans helped keep the company afloat. For the first time in the company's history Fremont also ranked on the Brewers Association's Top 50 Brewing Companies by Sales Volume for 2020. They also installed eco-blocks around their production facility, renovated the beer garden with some new scaffolding that supports misters, and in October they appear to have sent at least one person to Copenhagen for the Mikkeller Beer Festival for two days. (A sexual harassment scandal related to the festival prompted some breweries to cancel, but this list shows Fremont present.)
Meanwhile, a day of DEI training typically runs between $2,000 and $6,000. Six-to-eight weeks of room and board costs plus a stipend for the BIPOC brewer mentorship program could run much higher than that if they don't have a spare room.
Neither Lincecum nor Nelson responded to requests for comment on the brewery's spending priorities.