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Graffiti artists fight over territory
I promise this piece will not shock you, Leave you breathless, or feel like I have found the solution to poverty, or racism, or sexism. I feel like everyday I open my computer to one more story that is supposed to shock me into compassion. I hope I am never shocked by acts of thoughtfulness, but hope to encounter them everyday. I happen to run a project called Detroit SOUP which helps empowers solutions to our problems. Daily I am left to feel inspired and empowered.
I live in a city where everyone seems to have an opinion about how it needs to change. I live in Detroit; aplace where words like ‘blank canvas’, ‘needs saving’’, ‘ rehabilitation’, and ‘apocolyptic’ are all words used to describe this place where I call home. It is a broken place, a history of mismanagement, racism, job loss, and education decline has defined the narrative of the people in this place for the last 50 years. It’s the story of what happens when the American dream isn’t for all of us.
I moved into the city in 2010. My mother had just passed away from a cancer battle that had lasted 14 years, I had just completed a Masters degree in Theology and pop culture, and the housing market crash had just taken the down turn and felt locked into staying in Southeast Michigan. I grew up just a mere eighteen miles away from the city center and grew up only venturing into its bowels for concerts, sporting events, or a fancy meal.
Returning, I knew I had walked into a tipping point of the city. Residents were fed up with bad press coverage and wanted to the story to change. People were excited to do work. Whatever the work was to change the dialogue and the narrative. There was an energy to the people to try to do anything to fill the gaps for city services, so community projects, art, or anything really outside of basic services was outside of the cities abilities to help and create. I stumbled into a group of women artists who were asking questions of belonging and being. Here I found a home of people who wanted to ask questions while exploring through an artistic practice of gathering together to explore community arts funding through conversation and democracy.
SOUP was born in 2010 from that same group of women artists and is a micro-granting dinner celebrating and supporting creative projects in Detroit. For a donation of $5 attendees receive a potluck style meal and a vote. The diners hear from four presentations ranging from art, urban agriculture, social justice, social entrepreneurs, education, technology and more. Each presenter has four minutes to share their idea and answer four questions from the diners. At the event, attendees eat, talk, share resources, enjoy art and vote on the project they think benefits the city the most. At the end of the night, we count the ballots and the winner goes home with all of the money raised to carry out their project. Winners come back to a future SOUP dinner to report their project’s progress.
I think deep down every community ‘wants’ to see poverty eradicated but how we go about doing this is difficult, uncomfortable, data heavy, and people are not the center. The utopian, and yet, possible dream of all humans living and working together peacefully is alive and well here in Detroit. The gaps are very apparent. Very wide and deep. The needs sometimes is almost too great. In the last ten years billions of dollars have poured into the community to build back infrastructure, build a foundation of transportation, get old and new money to work together. Foundations hold communal money in Detroit. They put on large contests yearly for art, entrepreneurs, and brick and mortar buildings, shovel ready place-making projects. You must have your ducks in a row to apply to these grants, have a fiducuary who will be able to filter the dollars. You must know someone who can help make it happen. Barriers to entry.
The barriers seem high. For a community entrenched in poverty we hold people to standards that those looking for a million dollars to those looking for $1000. Regionally we are risk averse. We want change to be safe, to be monitored, and to be fit into tidy baskets. Giving isn’t happening in truckloads. It is trickling and those who are strong and well connected are getting more than those who might not have found that doorway in.
SOUP is allowing for something to change, the barriers to be removed, the conversations to happen, to help a fellow human without a middle-man, and allowing for mistakes to happen. We share our journeys together through our dinner. SOUP happens because it empowers, connects, shares, and gives. We work under the idea that our dinner is
● a collaborative situation
● a public dinner
● a platform for connection
● a theatrical environment
● a democratic experiment in micro-funding
● a relational hub bringing together various creative communities
● a forum for critical but accessible discussion
● an opportunity to support creative people in Detroit
We work with only two rules. The first being you cannot use powerpoint to present and the second your idea has to be about the 138 square miles of the city plus two municipalities that inhabit the area. With this model we have raise over $92,000 to date and have awarded over 100 projects with dollars to live out their ideas. Some our one time only while others have created jobs and challenged our perceptions of how to work with homeless parents, rehabilitated prisoners, foreclosed homes, and urban farms.
The best part of all of this is that these aren’t my choices for winners. These are the communities and the only question they are asking is, what idea makes Detroit better? Some ideas are ready for the money at the dinner, while most just want to connect with other humans and hear what they could be doing better, connecting people with ideas and opportunities, using the artist in future performances, and connecting a once so divided city with literally, the power of the people.
Change is hard. You have to look right, act right, talk right. Be right, or white, or male, or rich, or empowered. We want things to change but we don’t know who to trust to guide and steer the ship. Institutions and corporations are making choices of where the money should go. They do it for the tax break and yet it’s a small group of people who are making decisions about the communal future. At SOUP, all are welcome, all are welcome to vote (even children, if they tell their parent why they wanted to vote for that idea), and you don’t have to be a resident to vote. We do our dinner on a Sunday because the people still live, work, and think here, even if the city is shut down for the day.
I make art out of conversation and dialogue. To do this you must have safe space. Push others to a place of understanding. It’s hard to be a bully when the person who has the idea is standing right in front of you. There is a fine line between cheesy and anarchist. There is a fine line between entrepreneurial and grassroots. The line is finer when you want to practice a new spirituality with ancient ritual. Yet, this is what we seem to do in a monthly gathering in Detroit. People are speaking up, connecting, sharing. Some have even met and gotten married. This is community. It’s not just young people either. It’s a diverse group of individuals who are coming together on a Sunday evening to talk about what matters to them.
Since we have started we have been able to mimic the model in nine neighborhoods throughout the city to spark conversation, connections, and neighborhood level idea change. The city of Detroit is massive, and many folks who live outside of the city core feel left out of the change that is happening in the downtown area. We are now hearing the voices of the people who are actively making change, trying to connect, and attempting to use a little bit of money to do a lot.
SOUP isn’t perfect but it seems to be changing the way we think about active response. It’s a new town hall, it’s the new church, it’s the new communal dinner experience. It’s happening now throughout the world and seems to be happening all over the UK. It’s functioning to fill in the gaps the system so grossly has left open and we are proud that we are active participators of the change.