NationSwell 2015 AllStars

Nourishing an American City’s Comeback, One Bowl of Soup at a Time

Amy Kaherl is the Executive Director of Detroit SOUP, a micro-granting dinner supporting creative projects in the Motor City. So far, the program has helped residents give back more than $100,000 towards art, social justice, social entrepreneurs, education, technology and urban agriculture.

August 20, 2015
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Nourishing an American City’s Comeback, One Bowl of Soup at a Time
Matt Reznik, Thomas Shomaker, Sybile Penhirin, Sean Ryon
Detroit's on the rise and this resident is feeding its renewal.

A lot has changed in the seven years Amy Kaherl has lived in Detroit. “In 2008, it was a lot more lawless. Blight was at, probably, its all-time high. Streetlights were getting shot off, not turned on,” says Kaherl, who grew up outside the city in suburban Sterling Heights. A few years back, the city “was so quiet. And I think that that quietness in this urban center can be very scary.”

Most of us are familiar with the broad strokes of Detroit’s decline — car companies lost sales to competitors overseas, suburbs siphoned tax dollars from the urban core, riots erupted, residents fled en masse, homicide rates spiked and, in 2013, the city became the largest American municipality to file for bankruptcy. But few know that the Motor City’s rebirth began over spoonfuls of soup — specifically, over one pot of potato leek on a frigid Super Bowl Sunday in February 2010.

That evening Kaherl, a young, idealistic deejay sporting large glasses, co-founded Detroit SOUP, a monthly gathering where residents share a bowl of soup at the same time they’re funding local initiatives. Kaherl, who serves as the initiative’s director, explains, “For $5, you get soup, salad, bread and a roll, and you hear four pitches that are trying to make the city better.” Each presenter gets four minutes to share an idea and then fields four questions from the audience. “Then the diners get a chance to eat, share, connect and vote,” she continues. “Whoever has the most votes at the end of the night wins the money that was gathered at the door.”

Some SOUP events focus on the entire city, while others are centered on specific neighborhoods. In the past five years, more than 800 ideas have been presented. The pot for a citywide night averages roughly $1,000; winners at the smaller gathering usually net around $700.

SOUP’s “microgrants” run the gamut of civic projects, including art, urban agriculture, social entrepreneurship, education and tech. One college student designed winter coats that could double as sleeping bags and founded the Empowerment Project by hiring 20 formerly homeless women to sew them. Another group, Rebel Nell, employed women living in shelters to make jewelry from chipped graffiti paint. Funds have also supported poetry and writers’ groups, bike mechanic training classes, a local travel guide, a documentary film, free Shakespeare performances and benches for bus stops.

Another project, D.A.N.C.E., Inc., offers affordable, high-quality dance training to the city’s underserved youth. “A lot of our children are counted out, they’re just checked off. ‘You’re not going to amount to anything: You’re from Detroit,’” says Jonathan Clark, whose daughter is enrolling in her third season of classes. “But here at D.A.N.C.E., Inc., they give these kids an option, something to strive for, something positive. Programs like this shine a huge light on our city, bring a sense of hope, a sense of” — he pauses — “pride.” D.A.N.C.E., Inc., received over $2,000 from SOUP last year.

SOUP is essentially crowdfunding, sure, but it doesn’t have the disconnect that comes with backing a Kickstarter project online. SOUP’s communal dinner rivals the actual funding in gauging the project’s success. “I love watching people be passionate,” Kaherl says. “I love hearing people’s stories. I love how humanizing it becomes. Ultimately, she adds, it’s “about making human connections with each other.”

Even as a little girl, Kaherl had no interest in making “a ton of money,” and instead, had plans to “change the world.” She left Detroit for college, attending a conservative school in Grand Rapids, and later, enrolling in a theological seminary. There, she wavered. “In the middle of it, I stopped going to church,” she recalls. She questioned if she should be out there doing something, championing for social justice, not studying in a dorm. “I don’t think you could have faith without understanding the time and place that we live in.”

Kaherl graduated in 2008, the same year her mother lost a prolonged battle with cancer, and went home to Michigan, living with her dad in the suburbs. When a high school friend who deejayed invited her into the city for dance parties, “I kind of fell in love with the people here. I mean, it’s easy to do. Detroit just felt like home,” she says. “It felt inviting. It felt warm.” Kaherl started DJ’ing too, honing her ability “to bring people into a room.” From there, emceeing SOUP dinners was natural next step.

Like Kaherl, the theologian turned track-spinner, the city of Detroit has long specialized in second acts. Devastated by fire in 1805, its citizens quickly rebuilt downtown and established a thriving commercial hub. The disaster inspired the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.” Detroit’s comeback this time around won’t be as easy as reheating cold soup, but it will require the concerted effort of SOUP’s diners and donors. “When you live in poverty for so long, you can accept that it’s a great reality when it can be better,” Kaherl says. “We have a chance to make a healthier, different Detroit, and the time is now.”

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