Mastering the art of shared experience and community engagement

The model for Detroit Soup, an experiment in shared experience and micro funding, is simple; guests pay $5 at the door and over a meal of Avalon International Bread, locally made vegan soup and salad, they listen to proposals from creative projects. At the end of the evening, the audience casts a vote and the winning idea walks away with the evening’s revenue (minus the cost of soup supplies: about $60). Detroit Soup grants have garnered from $200 to $800 to fund projects as diverse as photography books to programs that work toward reintegrating the formerly incarcerated back into the community through urban agriculture. Hosted by the Bakery Loft in Mexicantown, Soup has developed an aesthetic that reflects Detroit; old doors serve as tables, tea lights cast a warm glow on friendly faces and, at every event, artists are invited to transform the space, making it feel very comfortable and inviting. The next installment will be this Sunday, Sept. 25 in support of the Detroit Design Festival.

Detroit Soup is no stranger to media attention, if you Google the word “soup,” the project will appear fifth in the search results, just behind Campbell’s Soup and a Wikipedia entry for soup, which reads, a “generally warm food. ”The year-and-a-half-old project, originally started by artists Kate Daughdrill, Jessica Hernandez and a handful of dedicated friends, seemed to explode when the New York Times ran the article “Wringing Art Out of the Rubble in Detroit” on Aug. 3 2010. I was part of that handful and would like to share what it was like the night before the article released.

At the Woodbridge Pub, a small group of us huddled around computer screens, while we compiled documentation and prepared a website, all the while trying to wrap our heads around the rollercoaster that was sure to arrive by morning. Since then, founding members have been featured, exhibited and given lectures all across the country. Several other Soups have emerged, radiating from the city center out. These events are filling needs and funding creative projects that communities are choosing for themselves. Detroit Soup’s facilitator and co-collaborator Amy Kaherl took a moment to meet with me and answer some questions considering the future of this expanding project.

Vanessa Miller: How do you feel the project has evolved since it started a year and a half ago?

Amy Kaherl: When we started it was a small group of friends who wanted to introduce a new idea and believed that there were projects that needed a little bit of money to help a city that they absolutely adore. Now it is a large dinner with many people from all over the community. The faces changed, but the heart of people desiring to see Detroit grow is so impacting and powerful. It has been amazing to see how people are coming together.

VM: Detroit Soup can be viewed as a community fundraising effort, however the art and design element seems very important. How is Soup encouraging and embracing the creative?

AK: The creative has been the heart of the dinner. Kate Daughdrill brought the idea to the city as part of her art practice. We always like to bring in installations and art to be integrated into our dinners. We have been lucky to work with such creative and thoughtful artists as Dan Demaggio, Lauren Smith and Christian Sienkiewicz. We have a group of people who are so creative and have the energy and willingness to take risks, making each dinner so much fun. In the earlier Soups, we had a lot of musicians who would use the instruments in the loft space and just start to jam. It’s a magical feeling.

VM: How do you feel about other emerging Soups?

AK: I love it. I think it’s an easy way for voices in particular neighborhoods to engage [and share] how it is developing or redeveloping. I found this quote from Cornel West the other day, and I think it is so fitting to what we are contributing to our communities: “Intellectual and political leadership should be neither elitist, nor populist; rather it ought to be democratic, in that each of us stands in public space, without humiliation, to put forward our best views for the sake of the public interest. And these arguments are presented in an atmosphere of mutual respect and civic trust.” Soup allows a democratic approach to getting ideas moving forward. It also, more importantly, has shown how great of a networking resource [it is] to find other people who are like-minded and passionate about Detroit.

VM: What is in the future for Detroit Soup?

AK: We hope to be able to do a lot more follow up and documentation of what has been happening with the projects once they received, or didn’t receive, funding. We love knitting the community together and celebrating the successes and road bumps in getting something off the ground.

VM: What is your favorite thing about Detroit Soup?

AK: I love how the relationships formed. I love how people show how good they are. I say good, because people are sharing their resources, their time, talents and craftsmanship. I love that people take a risk to share when they walk into the door and are willing to meet new people, share ideas, process through ideas and trust that we are growing our community slowly.