A Reflection on Soup

by Triana Kazaleh-Sirdenis

Perhaps you have heard of Soups but are not sure what they are or where they happen. A number of them have popped up in Detroit and across the state.  There are a few held in Corktown, Mexican Town, and Hamtramck, as well as Dearborn, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor.  Soup coordinators say the idea stemmed from community organizers in Chicago, as well as a Portland-based community enhancement organization called Our United Villages.

Soup is for people who want to make small, local projects a reality. The basic premise goes like this: People pay a small amount of money for some soup. While folks are eating, people from the community will pitch projects that they need money for. There are usually two to three presenters and in the end everyone votes on the project they think is most worthy of funding. The pot of money from the beginning minus the cost of making the food is given to the voted winner. These micro grants can range from $40 to several hundred.

There is no one way to run this and undoubtedly each Soup is run differently.  In many ways it can be a positive thing. The process is fairly transparent and simple. People choose exactly where the money is going. It’s an alternative to other common forms of funding–corporations and foundations–which can have constraints on a group’s vision and action.

There are some forms of accountability built into the process, though not enough. Winners usually have to report back on what they’ve done with the money. Attendees ask questions where the presenter has to genuinely reflect on their intentions. I think Soup as a fundraising strategy is a positive thing in theory.

I have spent some time supporting the organizers of the Spaulding Court Soup which takes place for the winter months at the Spirit of Hope Church. Spaulding Court is a set of townhouses in Corktown on Rosa Parks that were once abandoned because the slum lord stopped caring for the units. At the SC Soup, you are given three minutes to pitch your idea and presenters aren’t allowed to use any visual aids to promote their idea because there are people who can’t afford these extra things.

Instead of giving all the money to the voted winner, the money is split between the chosen project and funding the redevelopment of Spaulding Court. The organizers of Spaulding Court then help make a video about the winning project to go on Kickstarter, which is a fundraising website. The project winners keep the money they win from Soup regardless of whether or not their Kickstarter efforts make the donation match. At the core of their vision is the belief that community members should guide the changes that must occur in their neighborhoods.

Money has gone to small businesses, artists, and organizations including: Detroit Dirt, a local composting company; Spirit Farm, the farm that serves the Spirit of Hope neighborhood and congregation; and Heritage Works, which works to promotes youth and community development by preserving African traditions. Other micro grants have funded backpacks for the homeless, a lead soil testing kit, a geodesic dome for gardening, a bike rack for Spirit of Hope Church, to repair public park benches, and for a real estate/housing zine. People do not get funded if their idea is poorly developed, aims for privileged members of the community, or primarily serves self interests.

Let’s back up. What is the issue with Spaulding Court? Over the past several decades, through the negligence and absence of the landlord combined with housing and economic crisis, Spaulding Court has deteriorated quite a bit.

There were a number of people squatting in the building during this time. A couple of fires and the general lack of maintenance of the building prompted many of tenants to move out when the water was cut off in 2008. Friends of Spaulding Court (FSC), which is comprised of Corktown community members, many of whom live within a block or two of the townhouses, began boarding up the buildings in October of 2009 and later bought the buildings in February of 2010.  There were a number of groups that aided in this process including the Corktown Residents Council, Greater Corktown Development Corporation, Young Detroit Builders, and other social service/aid organizations in the city.

Though I did not witness this process, I am told considerable efforts were made to reach out to the squatters and connect them with social services. They were informed of the change in ownership of the building and their eventual removal. Some of them were original Spaulding Court tenants, others were not. Those who were able to make ends meet and find maintenance support for the units were able to continue  living in their homes.
Although no one was arrested in this “clearing out”, the police were involved to some extent. I have apprehensions about these transitions, as they took place amidst the backdrop of continual displacement of homeless populations in the city.  Individuals who were squatting in the buildings, particularly those who were selling drugs, and/or had substance use and mental health issues were removed in a way that most likely left them back on the streets.

A family who had occupied two units through this period of transition continues to live there today. With personal grants, as well as funding from the US Social Forum, FSC replaced the roof above these two units and made it a priority that the family be able to continue living here. These two units also received new electrical and water services, as well as new plumbing, several small repairs, and continual general maintenance.  A member of their family is one of the construction workers that work for FSC.  The future vision for Spaulding Court is to offer affordable housing and business space for low-income people.  The short term goal is to create financial stability by repairing two units at a time, where the rent from these first two units help fund repairs and reconstruction of more units. Whether or not this housing will draw families or community members in real need of low-income housing or more privileged Detroit settlers has yet to be determined.

I will say that FSC puts a Soup on every week with very little people power. To put this event on every week in the effective and truly meaningful way that they first imagined, there is too much work and too few people. There are almost no presenters or voter representation from the east or northwest or west side, because the coordinators don’t go there. On the other hand, they don’t need to venture far to find projects that need money.
FSC-funded projects are hyper local. About 80 percent of the projects that are funded stay within the neighborhood, and two thirds of those are within a few blocks of Spaulding Court and the Spirit of Hope Church. Presently it is unlikely that non-Detroiters end up coming to Soup at Spaulding Court or “winning” money, but this current mode of operation is set up to accept that as a possibility. There is some social networking promotion, but in the end, it is mostly word of mouth and because of that you end up with a largely homogeneous group of people. Yes, it is often young, more economically stable, white people. Occasionally individuals come in with “savior” mentalities and presumptuous attitudes which is incredibly frustrating.

That brings us to representation.  Who is it exactly that’s deciding what is best for Detroit, and what are their intentions? If we are coming together to address inequities of power in our communities, how do we purposefully and genuinely address it in our organizations? Whose voices are really being heard?

For every voice you hear, there are many more that you do not. This is often the case in Detroit. There is not enough outreach, particularly to Corktown community members who need money the most. This being said, I think FSC is in a position to enhance their vision and framework through some serious shifts in accessibility and outreach.

After a month of holding Soups, the coordinators realized this it was not what they imagined the process would look like, yet there was no capacity to do serious outreach and media work. They are currently in the process of hiring an organizing intern to address these issues. FSC has a unique opportunity to re-evaluate their outreach strategies and reflect on who is representing the Corktown community. In doing so, this organizer must do genuine outreach with all community members, not just young, white people. Will this new organizer use communications other than social media to reach Detroiters? Will they be talking to people who live in the housing projects, and connect with the homeless population that comes through the Spirit of Hope Church? Moreover, will these changes in outreach and accessibility reflect FSC’s vision for community members to guide the changes that must occur? To make the shifts in representation so that the voices that are not heard in Corktown are amplified in a way that is just and fair?

Soup at Spaulding Court is held Thursdays at 7 pm in the basement of the Spirit of Hope Church.  They are currently looking for people with finish carpentry skills and always, volunteers.

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