For most of the twentieth century, it was the engine of the western world. The industrial heartland of America, the steel belt, the post-war destination of choice for waves of migrants escaping repression in eastern Europe and elsewhere. For decades, the north eastern corner of the USA was the poster child for both private capital – all those factories didn’t build themselves, after all; and the power of organised labour – the rewards of financial success shared widely among a large, skilled, blue collar workforce.
But all good things must come to an end. The manufacturing moved away, first to the south and then to the east. The people followed the jobs, and the cities shrank. Chicago alone lost a million residents between 1955 and 2005. Imagine that – 20 thousand people a year left the city, every year, for sixty years. 20 thousand fewer jobs, every year. Thousands of houses emptied, thousands of shops going to the wall, dozens of neighbourhoods becoming ghost towns. And then repeat across the whole of the region, across eight or nine states, across hundreds of miles. Repeat for sixty years.
Factories closed. Schools closed. Roads and bridges fell into disrepair. Children were worse off than their parents. Whole cities went bankrupt.
America’s famous steel belt became the rust belt.
And so the realisation dawned in aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis that there was not going to be any knight on a charger coming to rescue them. There was really only one way back. Rally the community spirit of the people themselves, and build the places back up themselves, scheme by scheme, street by street, shop by shop, brick by brick. And so they set about it. This is the story of one of those schemes and how the smallest seeds can grow into the most beautiful flowers.
Back in 2007, InCUBATE, a small arts organisation in Chicago, started hosting weekly get togethers for the folks who frequented their space. Artists, dreamers, the vanguard of the new, they would gather once a week to break bread, eat soup, plan how they would change the world. At one of these gatherings, a plan hatched to raise money for new projects, things that might make a small positive difference to the city.
And so SOUP was born. Everyone would chip in some money, listen to a few people pitch their ideas for a new project, and vote for the one they liked the most. The winner would get the money raised. A nice, simple idea. The sort of thing that might spontaneously happen in any city at any time. And like a lot of nice, simple ideas, it only lasted a few months. Enthusiasm waned, people stopped turning up, it could easily have been a nice idea that just didn’t work.
But for one thing.
In amongst those bohemian dreamers was one Kate Daughdrill. Moving to Detroit soon afterward, Kate decided to host the first Detroit SOUP. On the steering group were, amongst others, Jessica Hernandez and Amy Kaherl, and they helped lead Detroit SOUP from its early days. In its earliest days, maybe twenty people would, one day a month, meet to eat together, help fund and raise money for interesting projects. One by one, the steering group changed, life intervened, new projects took up too much time. But through it all, Kaherl kept the show on the road, kept the events going, and kept raising money for new projects.
When we discussed the SOUP project with Kaherl, she told us, “I am so glad that the model we have created has been accessible to people, that the stories that we share in building the model feels like something they can do!”
Six years later, Detroit SOUP has now blossomed. 150 events and $118,000 raised later, it is now a charitable organisation with a remit across the whole Detroit area, holding events downtown and out in the suburbs too. There are four events every month, a new project for the city funded every week, and the concept has spread far and wide across the globe.
For the first four years of its existence, people would come across Detroit SOUP randomly, hear about it from friends of friends, wonder how to go about doing their own version. And then in 2015, the BBC broadcast a two part documentary “Can Soup Change the World?” and Amy Kaherl’s world exploded. There were trips to Nepal to help a rural community set up their own version, recognition as a Champion of Change by the White House, knowledge transfer missions across Europe, all while still running regular events in her home town, still making a change at the smallest scale.
But what makes Kaherl happiest of all about her work? She’s happy with the global expansion of SOUP “as long as you are following the SOUP ethos of building a safe environment for community connectivity and exchange.”
No longer just a nice idea in a corner of Chicago for an event that would run for a few months and be forgotten, SOUP is now a global movement, with informal branches in dozens of countries. At the time of writing, there are over thirty variations in the UK alone.
Kaherl is keen to impress that there is so much more to SOUP than just raising money for new ethical projects: “the money, in my interactions, are the least interesting thing that gets exchanged at the dinner.”
Much more important is the sense of community building that goes on at the events. “The dinner allows for community collaboration, connection, and exchange,” she says. “We will continue to do the dinner as long as there are ideas and people know how to receive and engage in information about community building. Detroit has a long way to go and I am glad we get to play a small role in helping create safe space for empowerment.”
This can be seen as a story of how the little guy fights back against the impersonal forces of industrial decline. Or a story of community building making a difference on a global scale. Or even a story about how one person’s tenacity can pay off in the end. But really, it’s about all of those things and more. It’s about the winners of the events who went on to do great things with their projects, and those who came second, only to make connections and get their projects off the ground anyway. It’s about the man in the corner of the room who turns up every month and pays his $10 donation, but nobody knows who he is. It’s about the ones inspired to set up their own SOUP events in their own home towns, and the projects they’ve funded. It’s about the fact that hope doesn’t die, and that even in the teeth of adversity, a glimmer of an idea can still make all the difference.
On its own, the SOUP movement might not halt the off-shoring of manufacturing from the developed world, it might not reverse economic entropy or bring an end to rough sleeping, educational under achievement or systemic unemployment. But as part of a patchwork of provision, it plays a part in building a new type of economy far away from the world of tax havens, venture capital and global trade negotiations. It plays a part in the long, slow process of turning the land of the rust belt back into gleaming steel again. And long may it do so.
Image Credit: David Lewinski – www.davidlewinski.com