Can Detroiters Make A Better City With Soup?

One micro-grant project in Detroit is gaining a lot of traction. Every month, the group Detroit SOUP hosts a dinner, and for five bucks you get soup, salad, bread and a vote to give the night's proceeds to a community project. Director Amy Kaherl talks to guest host Celeste Headlee about the power of neighbors talking to neighbors.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, holiday shopping season has officially started. If you can't stand Black Friday's long lines and huge crowds, don't worry, there's an app for that. We're going to talk about the mobile shopping revolution just ahead.

But first, let's talk soup - specifically, Detroit soup. It's a simple idea that's gained a lot of traction. Every month in Detroit, there's a public dinner. For five bucks, you get soup, salad, bread and a vote. You hear a handful of pitches about projects ranging from art to urban agriculture to social entrepreneurship, and at the end of the night, you vote on which is the best public service project. The winning pitch gets the funds from the door.

Detroit Soup gives Detroiters a chance to talk about how to make their city a better place to live, and it's just one part of a revival taking place in the Motor City. With us to talk about that and Detroit Soup is director Amy Kaherl. Welcome.

AMY KAHERL: Hi.

HEADLEE: So walk me through a typical night of Detroit Soup. What happens?

KAHERL: So, I think you pretty much nailed it right on the head. So our doors open at 6:30. We've been meeting in more of abandoned warehouses - not so much abandoned and there's nothing around there, but large spaces that people don't normally congregate in. And the doors open at 6:30, and people start walking in and they give their $5 at the door.

Sometimes they'll be greeted with my wonderful iPod playlists, and sometimes live music or local artists will kind of share their work. Now, Detroiters, we're not known to be punctual, nor do we RSVP. But in my world, I start it right at 7:30, and you'll hear from four pitches. And then they get four minutes to share their idea, and then they get three to four questions from the diners.

From there, our voting booth opens, and it's just a really amazing time just to connect with people, because you have had the shared experience. You have a really easy way to just say, hey, what project did you like? And start a conversation with maybe somebody you didn't know.

And from those conversations over the almost three years, we've watched a couple meet and get married. We've watched people get jobs. We've had people work and collaborate on different artistic projects. People are now knowing each other, and it makes what is a small city - though very large in square mileage - seem very small.

HEADLEE: I have to ask you: What are, like, a couple of the best soups you've had?

KAHERL: The best soups. Oh, gosh. You know, I'm going to be honest. I rarely get to eat the soup, because the food acts as more of, like, a gesture. And when you become the facilitator of a project, oftentimes you end up meeting the wonderful people that are in the room more than you eat the soup. But there is a man who made - the Dow Mucho(ph) food truck. He made a really awesome lentil soup the other day that was incredible. And sometimes we'll get, like, three - I love butternut squash soups, and sometimes we'll get those, like, all at the time. It's delicious.

HEADLEE: Well, it is autumn. But we're not going to talk specifically about soup. Let's talk about the pitches instead.

KAHERL: Sure.

HEADLEE: I understand one project actually got the funds it needed through support from Detroit Soup. It's called the Empowerment Plan.

KAHERL: Yes.

HEADLEE: Explain to me what the Empowerment Plan is.

KAHERL: Sure. It's our friend, Veronica Scott. She's a recently graduated CCS student, so College of Creative Studies. And she makes a coat that turns into a sleeping bag. She also employs...

HEADLEE: A coat that turns into a sleeping bag.

KAHERL: Sure. And it's really directed for homeless and disaster relief victims, so a coat that is a temporary solution to a bigger problem...

HEADLEE: Obviously.

KAHERL: ...in regards to homelessness. So she's been able to hire - soon to be - eight women that will be making these coats. And they already are making the coats in the Corktown neighborhood in Detroit.

HEADLEE: And give me an example of another pitch that was really kind of innovative and got help through your soup-selling funds.

KAHERL: Sure. One of my other favorites is the Pay it Forward Initiative. And our friend Charlie helps empower those who have less education, get them some job training, some financial skills, and then sets them up with internships that hopefully then turn into jobs, and has now helped create a very large - about $3 million job act bill for the state of Michigan.

Another one of my favorites is the Detroit Youth Food Brigade. And their whole thing is to help empower students learn how to grow their own food, as well as make food and then sell it at Eastern Market. And now they've been able to get into a local high school and start doing food education, food prep. And those are just some of the projects. I mean, I could go on for such a long time of just the beautiful projects that people are presenting and then voting on, which is really fascinating to me, because it doesn't have to be that way. We could really support, you know, just one person doing one thing, but we're choosing to support projects that are often led by people who want to do better for all people.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the power of soup. A micro grant-giving project called Detroit Soup that, for five bucks, gives you soup, salad, bread and a vote to give the night's proceeds to a community project. Our guest is Detroit Soup director Amy Kaherl.

So there's one project each night that gets picked from a handful of pitches. What happens with the projects that don't get picked? Do they just kind of die?

KAHERL: Just the matter or the nature of the project. I think some projects were designed or orientated maybe to pitch at Soup. Some projects are going to keep going whether they get Soup funding or not. A lot of people tell me, you know, this was just a really amazing opportunity for us to get in front of a group of people and share my idea.

And a lot of times people get - are challenged by: Did you know that this existed in the area? Did you know that this resource is available to you? And, you know, that makes the city just feel very friendly and very open. And that - my friend Tim likes to say we're all in this together, and I think it's really true about this community, specifically in Detroit, that we are in this together and that we aren't hoarding the ideas and that we have to keep it for ourselves. But if we all know these things, we can start working together.

HEADLEE: And, you know, I'm fascinated by how this happened to you.

KAHERL: Sure.

HEADLEE: You have a graduate degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.

KAHERL: Sure.

HEADLEE: You studied religion, obviously. In what way does this project, Detroit Soup, connect you to your faith? Or does it?

KAHERL: I think it absolutely does. I think, for me, I've always been very passionate about spirituality and politics, how those two things often work together. It normally doesn't, but in my world, they just seem to do that. And churches don't often provide safe spaces for all religions to gather and have conversation. As well as democracy, I think we've put up a lot of roadblocks to get people inside that voting booth.

And I think, for me, I think Soup has the most beautiful ability to draw those two things together, to create safe space, to create dialogue and to create connection. And those things are why I continue to do Soup, and why I want to do Soup. I think it's been a really powerful experience for me, and I think it's been a powerful experience for a lot of other people.

HEADLEE: You've described Detroit as magical. That runs kind of counter to the typical media portrayal of the city. I buy it, but I love Detroit.

KAHERL: Yeah.

HEADLEE: There's been a lot of talk recently, though - in the media, as well - about a revival going on and young people really kind of taking the lead in changing the story about Detroit. Do you think that you're part of that?

KAHERL: I like to think that I am. Yes, I would. I just - I feet this - like, you brought up magic, and that city is magical. There are just these moments that haven't happened to me any other place. I mean, the people here, I can't even stress to you, are so loving and so kind and so open and want to fail and want to make mistakes, but also want to learn from what we've failed on and what mistakes we have made and continue to push ourselves forward with, you know, the time and energy and money we might've put into our education.

I think there is a strong, powerful, you know, young 20s, early 30s, 40-year-old connected group that are fighting for what they believe in, a city that is absolutely open, you know, to dream really big. Detroit is - I just honestly just think it's so beautiful and absolutely magical.

HEADLEE: Well, speaking of dreaming big, you just got an $80,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for Detroit Soup. That allows you to kind of dream some big dreams. What do you plan to do with that money?

KAHERL: Absolutely. Yeah. So my dream for Detroit Soup is that, eventually, the name Detroit Soup isn't just one dinner, but it's the idea of Soup that's happening in different neighborhoods throughout the 138 square miles of this massive, massive space. And neighbors are talking about neighborhood solutions over the idea of soup and salad and bread, and young and old are meeting together, talking about it.

And we're seeing that happen at our dinner, so I can - you know, I know it can happen in other communities. So it's just taking the time and building those relationships and not playing savior for these different communities. I mean, you know, I live in the midtown-ish area right now, and I'm about to move to the north end, but that doesn't mean I know what happens in these other communities.

But it's just empowering people, giving them the tools, setting up apprenticeships and learning from each other, and then sharing these ideas around the city, just making sure that we're a connected hub of neighbors.

HEADLEE: Amy Kaherl, the director of Detroit Soup. She joined us from the studios of member station WDET in Detroit. Happy Thanksgiving, Amy.

KAHERL: Thank you.

HEADLEE: I hope you get some good butternut squash soup.

KAHERL: Oh, me too.

HEADLEE: Thanks.

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