Southside SOUP nourishes community projects

May 1, 2017

By Sheila Julson

In 2010, a group of social visionaries in Detroit formed Support Our Urban Projects (SOUP), a community-based micro-funding dinner celebration to support small and medium-sized projects in the arenas of social justice, the arts, urban agriculture, and more. The SOUP model has quickly spread to other cities. It debuted in Bay View April 9 at Lazy Susan.

Southside SOUP was born of a desire by some Bay View Neighborhood Association members to provide better connections within the community while supporting smaller, easily attainable community projects. Southside SOUP board members loosely based their first effort on Detroit SOUP’s successful model.

Attendees paid $10. Admission included soup, salad, and bread that was donated by local businesses, a vote for one of four projects that would receive the proceeds generated by the admission fee. Mary Ellen Hermann, co-owner of The Muse Gallery Guesthouse and a Southside SOUP board member, said 57 people attended.

Each presenter was given four minutes to pitch their project to the SOUP attendees. After a presentation, no more than four questions were taken from the audience. SOUP organizers used a timer and strictly enforced the four-minute presentation time limit.

“These things only work if we respect peoples’ time,” Hermann said. “Who wants to go to something boring like an awards dinner and try to stay awake during a long speech? That’s a thing of the past and we wanted to get down to the point.”

A public address system was provided for presenters but no PowerPoint presentations were allowed.

“The fact that they weren’t polished presenters flipping through slide after slide of data and flashy pictures made it feel as if everyone could identify,” Hermann said.

The top vote getter was Lazy Susan owner Amanda “A.J.” Dixon, who presented a plan to upgrade some of the equipment used for cooking classes at the Bay View Community Center. She and others teach culinary classes at the center.

“A.J. hauled things from her own kitchen and taught on a card table. She gave a beautiful education about who and what our Bay View Community Center is. Sometimes the individual projects aren’t as interesting as the presenters’ stories about their little piece of Bay View.”

Another factor that may have given Dixon an edge, Hermann said, was that Dixon had already reached out to Boelter, a Waukesha-based supplier of kitchen gear. She explained her SOUP proposal and asked if they would reciprocate in some fashion if she were to win the SOUP prize and spend the funds at Boelter. They told her they would donate $500, matching what Dixon estimated would be the amount raised at SOUP. “I have a feeling that [match] had a lot to do with the decision of people to vote for her,” Herman said.

Fellow Southside SOUP board member Dillan Laughlin agreed that the stories behind the projects were intriguing. “It wasn’t so much about which project that was going to win, but more about exposing people to more awesome projects they didn’t know about. I had no idea of some of the projects going on at the Bay View Community Center and now I have more awareness of what’s going there,” he said.

The Bay View Community Center, 1320 E. Oklahoma Ave., is an independent social services organization run by sisters Linda Nieft and Barbara Nieft that has been operating since 1978. PHOTO Katherine Keller

The Bay View Community Center is an independent social services organization run by sisters Linda Nieft and Barbara Nieft that has been operating since 1978. Their programming gamut includes an emergency food pantry and infant formula pantry but also programming for children, adults, and families.

Adult programming includes cooking classes that are presented by local cooks and chefs who Barbara Nieft said are paid contractors. Participants pay $18 per class for lessons that range from Japanese and Korean food to cooking with foraged ingredients. Nieft is the center’s director of adult programming, marketing, and development.

On average, the cooking classes draw 30-40 participants. Rather than in the center’s kitchen, the lessons are given in a classroom.

When Nieft learned they would be the beneficiary of new gadgets and other kitchen tools, she said, “We’re thrilled to death that the people thought us worthy of the donation.” She said their equipment needed upgrading and would make the presentations more appealing to the cooking instructors and participants.

Revenue generated from the classes supports the center’s programming including the food and infant formula pantry. She stressed that the center does not receive government support, and that it is a United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County Agency Program Partner.

Dixon will be required to return to the next SOUP event for a follow-up presentation to describe how she used the funds and how they contributed to the community center. The Southside SOUP board received nine submissions and narrowed it down to four for the final event.

Making SOUP

Hermann and Laughlin, both BVNA board members, said they noticed that while BVNA excels at getting people to attend events like Chill on the Hill and the Pumpkin Pavilion, sometimes people still didn’t seem to connect.

“People are coming to the shows,” Laughlin observed, “but they stay within their own group, or talk with neighbors they already  know, but there’s a lack of new connections.”

When Hermann learned about Detroit SOUP from her daughter, she was intrigued by the idea, which seemed to be an ideal format for people to connect via a safe forum and bring up topics important to them.

Hermann, along with BVNA past president Christopher Miller, decided to form a separate SOUP board, while keeping it under the BNVA umbrella. Southside SOUP uses BVNA’s website, Facebook page, and payment system for SOUP events, thus keeping down costs and the time and labor of maintaining an additional website and social media channels.

The event and call for proposals was advertised on social media, through an email campaign, and on posters distributed throughout Bay View. Submissions began to arrive in February.

Rather than focusing solely on Bay View, the Southside SOUP board decided to include all of Milwaukee Aldermanic District 14, which encompasses the Polonia District west of the Kinnickinnic River. Hermann said the planning process happened naturally and the event came together organically through casual conversation and word of mouth. Dixon donated event space. Café Centraal, Lulu’s, Hello Falafel, and The Muse Gallery Guesthouse donated soup.  Brewers Organics donated the salad ingredients.

Outpost Natural Foods provided a gift certificate, but Hermann said that gift came in after other donations. The gift from Outpost will be saved to purchase items for the next SOUP event that is planned for fall at a yet-to-be determined location.

Both Hermann and Laughlin received positive feedback about the premiere Southside SOUP event. They have also fielded inquiries from people from outside District 14 who wanted to know how to start a SOUP event in their own neighborhoods.

“It’s about using food as the glue of communications,” Laughlin said.

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