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UIX people and projects profiled: Amy Kaherl

On the first Sunday of the month, while many Americans settle in for dinner and TV at home, Amy Kaherl and a team of volunteers turn an empty space in Southwest Detroit into a communal living room. Not to kick back and watch football, but to host Detroit SOUP, a monthly fundraising dinner to support local projects.
 
Described as a “democratic experiment in fundraising,” SOUP has become a favorite new Detroit tradition – a place to meet neighbors, talk about the city, and vote on creative ideas to make it better. Here, it is not unusual for strangers to share a meal and leave as friends. It is a thing to watch, this infectious community unfolding around you, drawing you into conversations and new relationships.
 
Energetic and frank, Kaherl exudes both passion and purpose – but with a refreshing lack of pretention. Ask her about SOUP, or the “shenanigans” she orchestrates for theDetroit City Futbol League and the Marche du Nain Rouge, and her eyes light up with joy. A resident of Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood, she keeps silly string in her glove compartment for spontaneous block parties, deejays in dive bars around town, and never misses an opportunity to dance.
 
If the City of Detroit had a Department of Fun, Kaherl would be a shoe-in for Director; but for this 30-year-old former theology student, living in Detroit is about something much greater than good times. It’s about building community.

Kaherl is quick to make clear that she did not start SOUP; she became involved after its founding. The dinner evolved out a graduate school project by Kate Daughdrill, a Masters student at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Started in February 2010, it was inspired by a group in Chicago called InCUBATE that provided Sunday soup dinners to local area residents, with all proceeds supporting creative projects.
 
Daughdrill, along with singer Jessica Hernandez and an extended family of local musicians and artists, began the Detroit gathering in the loft above Mexicantown Bakery, owned by the Hernandez family. For a small donation of $5, attendees received soup, salad, bread and a vote. Projects were presented, votes were cast, and the winner received all money collected that evening.


 
Kaherl was drawn to SOUP to, in her own words, “do something important for the city.” Since then, she has taken on a larger leadership role, guiding its growth to create more opportunities for funding.
 
As word has spread, the proposals have become more diverse, moving beyond creative endeavors to issues of social justice, urban agriculture and community-based enterprise. From Replanting Roots, the entrepreneurial training program to support former prisoners, to The Empowerment Plan, a social venture to manufacture coats for the homeless, SOUP has provided hundreds of local projects a forum to share ideas and get funded. While the dinners exist ostensibly to disperse micro-grants, Kaherl contends that the community SOUP fosters is just as important.
 
Thanks to a strong network of volunteers, Kaherl thinks SOUP has opened a new avenue for crowd-sourced ideas, allowing fundraisers an opportunity to test their ideas through the pitch process. She describes this as “bilateral” learning that educates both the audience and the presenter. While the audience learns about community challenges and corresponding solutions, presenters are given feedback on the viability and impact of their proposals. The informal conversations that follow can prove even more valuable, yielding additional in-kind contributions and fruitful connections.
 
By providing a safe space to share ideas, SOUP has helped fund 16 community projects to date, distributing a total of $9,300. In some cases these micro-grants, usually ranging between $500 and $1,000, have proven to be the difference between idea and implementation.
 
Having grown from a few dozen attendees to over 400 at their 2nd Anniversary event in February, SOUP is now taking it up a notch. Not only have they moved to a new venue in Corktown to accommodate more people, they are also working with a growing network of community-based fundraising dinners to share best practices and procedures. A grant from the Knight Foundation will help Kaherl & Co. continue to increase their capacity and impact.
 
In just two years, Kaherl has gone from serving as a volunteer to representing the effort locally and nationally, including a recent appearance at SXSW. She doesn’t do it for the recognition – in fact, she has mixed feelings about nods from The New York Times andGOOD, which raised SOUP’s profile but added some strain. For her, it’s about staying true to the spirit while offering more people the opportunity to engage and connect with the community she loves.

Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.
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