How one of Detroit's top social entrepreneurs practices the soulful capitalism of staying put.
Breaker Amy Kaherl has the Triple Crown of establishment accolades: she's been recognized by The New York Times, The White House, and Oprah. She’s also been on NPR, NBC, and on the front page of The Detroit Free Press. The city of Warren, Ohio proclaimed October 5th Amy Kaherl day. Really.
The genius of her project, Detroit SOUP, is undeniable. It’s a microgranting operation that works somewhat like a live Shark Tank. Attendees pay $5 for a shared meal at a church or community center. Local entrepreneurs take the stage and give their pitches to the diners. The diners then vote for their favorite pitch, and the winner is awarded the sum of the donations for the evening. It’s the ultimate grassroots community improvement mechanism, that to date has generated $120,000 from Detroiters to Detroiters.
It’s not just the brightness of the idea, however, that sets Kaherl apart. She grew up religious, went to seminary school, and participated in many missionary trips. She’s intimately familiar with the pitfalls of the savior complex, which haunts many Detroit transplants just as it does missionaries.
Kaherl’s cure? Sticktoitveness. If you donate your time, money, or labor to help a struggling community, then run immediately to the next thing, the progress you made probably won’t stick. In this interview, Kaherl proves that real change takes real sacrifice, something we all know, but nonetheless often fail to practice. This is what it means to have skin in the game, and keep it there…
So, you love the Tigers.
Baseball, baseball, baseball. I think what I love about baseball is that it’s timeless. There’s no shot-clock. Being an entrepreneur, it’s just go-go-go, yesterday was a four o’clock, a five o’clock, a six o’clock, a seven o’clock… I had a ten o’clock! But if you’re at a baseball game, you can’t say, “Oh, I’ll be there at five,” because the game might not be over. I stick through all nine innings.
All nine? C’mon, you never try and beat the rush to the parking lot?
No way, I don’t leave. Fuck that. Look—you are rewarded greatly if you stick around. I’ve seen multiple grand slam home runs the bottom of the 9th. What if there’s a no-hitter?! I’m not some fuckin’ pussy! I wanna be there in the middle of it. When I’m there, I’m there a hundred percent.
Is that a metaphor for your work ethic?
That’s a great definition of who I am. You’re gonna get the best of me…depending on how many cocktails I’ve already had. And you’re still gonna get the best of me after that too.
You went to theology graduate school. Are you religious?
No. I don’t go to church anymore, I’m not a pastor anywhere. I’ll officiate people’s weddings, and DJ them, but that’s it. I will say that I bring a lot of the values of ritual and practice to the SOUP; I bring a lot of theories from theology, church history and methods of how churches bring people together and the reasons why.
Were you once religious?
What do you mean by religious? I want to know what your definition is so that we’re both on the same page.
“I stick through all nine innings.”
I guess I mean prescribing to organized religious practices.
Yes, I was. My background was Lutheran. I grew up Presbyterian. I became a Christian, an Evangelical in a non-denominational church that had black church roots. It was charismatic—speaking in tongues, raising hands. Then I went to a Baptist-based college while working at a Christian Reform church. I was super evangelical for a minute there.
If it’s not too personal a question, why aren’t you religious anymore?
Seminary was healthy for me because I got to ask a lot of questions and I got to study a lot more philosophy. Philosophy lets you see the language, the scripture, and your interpretation of the scripture differently. You start reading Islam, reading Hindu, reading Judaism, Buddhism, and you start seeing these connections. You see overlapping values and you reinterpret them. You start understanding the value of church history and missionary history, and you see these cultural practices in a new way. Can we create events that are more about what we have in common than what separates us? Can the church act as a community connector rather than a snake oil salesman? How do we bring those things together? I’m not selling capitalism through the ideas of Christianity. I’m more of a socialist, saying we all belong in the same room, talking together, finding values that overlap and are shared.
So with SOUP, you’re using some of the community aspects of religion while removing some of the religious aspects?
I’m removing the barriers to entry, that’s my biggest thing. That’s what we do with SOUP, we just make it super simple. You don’t have to sign up or prescribe to anything. I don’t give a fuck what you believe in. I just want you to be human and come with all your junk because I sure do know that I have a lot of it. It’s through those interactions that we find we have a lot more in common than what separates us.
How did the SOUP start?
It started with a group of artists. A friend experienced a similar dinner in Chicago and thought it could work in Detroit. So a bunch of women, we all just really enjoyed working together, decided to go for it. We wanted to see if we could all eat dinner together and hang out and be in a space, talk critically and thoughtfully about what was going on within the art community. Can I pitch this land use idea? Can I pitch this dinner idea? Can I pitch this science idea? From there it’s turned into what it is today.
What has it turned into today?
There’s a monthly citywide SOUP that happens from September until June and then we have nine neighborhood soups that meet quarterly. So it averages about thirty dinners a year. At a citywide dinner there will be anywhere from 175 to 300 diners, and anywhere from 35 to 135 at a neighborhood dinner. Our neighborhood dinners are averaging about $500 per winner and our citywide is averaging about $1,000.
How exactly does it work?
So there are four entrepreneurs or artists with ideas from any sector at any level of their ideation, and they have four minutes to share their idea. Then there are questions, then the diners get to eat, share, and vote on whether or not they think that project should win the money from the $5 suggested donation from the door.
Is the award really enough to help them out?
In some ways no, but money is the least interesting thing being exchanged at SOUP. It’s really about creating an environment where folks from all different walks of life come together and share resources. You don’t just get money; you get names, contacts, volunteers. There’s a soulful capitalism that’s being exchanged that’s more valuable than the actual money.
“There’s a soulful capitalism that’s being exchanged that’s more valuable than the actual money.”
How does it blend into SOUPs in other cities?
So, our citywide SOUP is basically the main thing that we do. It gets a higher caliber of idea, while our neighborhood SOUPs are really more of a step one. When a different city takes on a SOUP, there’s nothing that says, “This is how you have to do it.” They can download a forty-five page guide off of our website, and I can guarantee they can get a hundred people at their SOUP if they follow our directions. Now, most people get overwhelmed because forty-five pages is a lot of information to digest and so they kind of go, “Well we get it, but we’re gonna do our own thing.” We’re working on a way for them to buy into our intellectual property and become members of a larger SOUP network, but we’re still working on a lot of those pieces.
Are the SOUPs outside of Detroit different than Detroit SOUPs?
I’ve never been to one outside of Detroit. Well, that’s a lie; I have in the past year but not in the first couple. I think for me, I didn’t want to go because I had the deeper sense that in the community you have to make some really large investments to make it happen, in terms of being present and showing up. You have to make a choice as an activist and an organizer to either talk about the work over and over and over again, for a long time, or do the work a few times and abandon it so you can go do new work. It’s up to you how you really want to interact and be engaged.
Some people start initiatives to help, but then move onto something else really quickly?
I think a lot of people want to do that. “I want to really go out and help Detroit, but I only wanna help for three weeks.” “I want to do an ‘intervention,’ and my intellectual prowess is so important that they will continue to do this work after I’m gone.” But the thing is, none of that work stays.
What do you think people who want to help can do to be less fleeting and more impactful?
I think a lot of it comes from the nomadic sense that a lot of entrepreneurs have. At Breakout Miami, it was really exciting to participate and hear about how other people are intervening in their communities, but I was there as a voyeur and I knew that going in. I think that sometimes our ego gets in the way. Don’t forget, I grew up being a theologian and I went on a lot of mission trips and I hated them because it’s this exact thing. I’m there to be a missionary—I’m there to proselytize my views and how life should be, and then I leave. I always find it fascinating when white suburban churches go to Jamaica. Why don’t you go into your own city? Lots of Detroiters go to Jamaica to serve Jesus and his Kingdom, and yet we don’t like black people here and here poverty is really scary. Yet it’s “not as scary in Jamaica.”
Still, I’m fascinated when people want to do the right thing and actually have the ability to do so. I’m game if they see the bigger picture and it isn’t a three-week thing, but a thirty-year project. That was the difference with me, and why I knew I was going to stay in Detroit. It wasn’t going to be for three years, it was going to be for a very long time. So every year winter comes and I wish I was in L.A. and I get bored here because there’s only so many challenges that you can take on and everything moves so slow. But I’m tough; I’m a Detroiter; I’ve got a pretty thick skin. I don’t have any fucks to give, I have nothing to prove to anybody. That’s what Detroit turns you into. You have to be able to roll with the punches. You also give your magic to each other and I think that’s why Detroit has become so special.
What is the problem with Detroit that the SOUP helps solve?
I think it’s access to connections. I think that’s why I do it. That’s not how we started; I don’t think I could have said that February of 2010, but when I started writing grants in February 2012, I think that’s the why. Connections to people, connections to capital, connections to resources, lowering barriers to entries.
“I always find it fascinating when white suburban churches go to Jamaica. Why don’t you go into your own city?”
What do you view as some of the biggest successes, specifically, in terms of projects?
One of the longest standing projects that we align ourselves with is the Empowerment Plan. They make coats that turn into sleeping bags for disaster and homeless relief, and they hire homeless women out of shelters. They do education, so if you don’t have your GED they’ll help you get into GED courses. If you have your GED and want a higher education, they’ll give you hours and time and money to take college classes. They do a financial literacy program. They do health and nutrition. They do a lot of social and emotional well-being. They have a social worker. It’s so expensive to be poor.
What else? Any others?
Last year there were two: Rebel Nell and Shakespeare in Detroit. Rebel Nell, which makes jewelry out of graffiti, won $1,400 from SOUP, leveraged it to $7,000, and hired first employees. Shakespeare in Detroit pitched probably four times before getting selected, and from there they were able to pay for the costumes for a performance at the recycling center.
“It’s so expensive to be poor.”
Where do you see Detroit in 20 years?
I’m gonna say what I dream Detroit to be, whether we get there or not. It’s an every day struggle, but I hope it becomes the leader in how we desegregate communities, how we transform failing public schools into top-performing schools. That’s what I dream for this city. People will always be entrepreneurs, but I hope that we’re talking about race, talking about integration, talking about creating equitable safe spaces for people. That’s my dream, but who knows. We’ll see.
How will it sustain itself?
All the small stuff adds up to the big stuff. If we’ve learned from our past, we shouldn’t be looking for another Ford or Chrysler or GM. We want to be industry leaders in all different sectors.