Over Bowls Of Soup, Donors Find Recipe For Change

Feb 9, 2012
Originally published on February 9, 2012 6:15 pm

The Soup Movement in America is based on a simple recipe: Bring a bunch of people together to eat soup. Ask each person for a modest donation — say $5. Listen to a few proposals about how people might use that pool of money for a worthwhile project. Vote on the best proposal, and give all the money to the top vote-getter. Go home full and fulfilled.

With the national surge of microfinancing and social entrepreneurship, soup groups have bubbled up in Detroit, Fort Worth, Los Angeles and other cities around the country. FEAST, founded in Brooklyn in 2009, has awarded more than $17,000 in small grants. Louisville's posSOUPbility group convened for the first time on Jan. 29. You can find a loose-knit network of active — and not so active — groups at the Sunday Soup website.

Many of the confabs have a special focus. Sprout Seattle, for example, provides funds for emerging artists. In Philadelphia, an organization called PhilaSoup concentrates on education.

PhilaSoup was founded in 2011 by two Philadelphia sisters, Claire and Nikka Landau, with help from their friend Jason Tucker. "The vision for PhilaSoup," according to Nikka, "is a monthly microgrant dinner meant to bring innovative and dynamic Philadelphia-area educators together, highlight the great work they are doing, and fund some innovative education projects."

Nikka brought the idea home with her from Detroit, a key city in the Soup Movement. "I loved the idea of coming together with strangers over a meal," Nikka said, "and finding out more about our shared community."

Breaking Bread

On a recent Sunday night, the trio of friends welcomed about 45 teachers and other members of the local education community to a cozy gathering at the University Barge Club, a 19th-century boathouse on the banks of the Schuylkill River. As folks walked in, they were asked to fill out name tags — with their names and the names of their favorite children's books.

"Teachers all over Philadelphia are doing terrific projects," Claire said. "It's really exciting to gather and break bread with teachers from across the city doing exciting things."

Out the window of the Barge Club's cozy meeting room, the silver-blue and glassy waters flowed below as the sun set in the midwinter sky. Inside, people mingled over wine and clementines. Warmth was provided by a gas-log fire and genial conversation.

Mounted on the walls — alongside a ginormous moose head and various memorial oars — were old photos of rowing teams, working together in concert to accomplish a greater task. Metaphor in black and white.

Four soups — lentil, tomato bisque, beef barley (made by the Landau sisters' father) and ginger carrot — were served, along with French bread and pumpkin muffins.

As people slurped their last spoonfuls, Jason and the Landau sisters welcomed everyone, explained how the evening would unfold, and called on the first presenter. Presentations were limited to three minutes apiece. Questions were allowed.

In striped blouse, dark skirt and glasses, Lacey Boland, a 7th-grade English teacher at Independence Charter School, spoke very fast. She said she would use the money for a student publication program. Students had written retooled versions of fairy tales and turned the stories into books. She read an excerpt of one of the retellings, Snow What: The Remix.

" 'There's something wrong with her,' the doctor sighed. The mother was in a daze. She let out a small mix between a scream and a gasp."

Lacey said she planned to use the night's money to pay a visiting author to give a workshop. And she said that when it comes to her students, "it's really hard to underestimate the power of having seen their word in print."

The second presenter was Brian Kerner, a high school art teacher at Prep Charter High School. Brian — in black jeans and black shirt — waved his hands here and there as he spoke. He said he wanted to use the microgrant to buy art supplies so that his students could make family crests in a metalworking project. "Metals are cool," he said. And by helping students create medieval shields with crests that reflected meaningful parts of their lives, he could teach them about symbolism in art.

Alyssa Boyle, a young principal at Camelot Excel North Academy, beseeched everyone to consider her appeal for a dropout prevention plan. She hoped to use the money to buy black vests — to spruce up school uniforms — and to use those vests to encourage marginal students to improve their attendance records. "I can single out the kids who are always there and put them in a nice vest," Alyssa explained. "Any way to make their uniform a little more snazzy is always welcome."

And The Winner Is ...

After the three proposals — each met with enthusiasm, support and a few questions — someone passed around a plate of homemade cookies.

As people discussed the pros and cons of the projects, and the presenters stealthily lobbied the crowd for votes, Jason handed out stones to everyone and asked them to place their stone in one of the milk jugs — each labeled with one of the night's proposals — on the table near the exit door on their way out.

The Landau sisters thanked people for coming and bid them all a good night.

Once the crowd had left and the soup was put away, Jason and the Landau sisters tallied the stones. The evening's winner — of about $225 — was Lacey Boland, and her "Fairy Tales Remixed."

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Now to a burgeoning soup movement here in the U.S. It's based on a simple recipe. Bring a bunch of people together to eat soup. Ask each person for a modest donation, say $5. Listen to a few proposals about how people might use that money for a good cause. And then, finally, vote on the best proposal and give all the money to the winner.

These soup groups have bubble up around the country. In Philadelphia, an organization called PhilaSoup concentrates on education.

NPR's Linton Weeks takes us there for a bowl of tomato bisque.

LINTON WEEKS, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday night, about 45 members of the local education community gather at the University Barge Club boathouse on the banks of the Schuylkill River.



WEEKS: PhilaSoup was founded by two sisters, Nikka and Claire Landau, with the help of their friend Jason Tucker.

NIKKA LANDAU: Welcome everyone. Thanks for coming to soup tonight. I'm Nikka.

CLAIRE LANDAU: And I'm Claire. We want to try and do a little roll call. If you are here from a charter school.

CROWD: Here.

LANDAU: If you're here from a public school.

CROWD: Here.

WEEKS: Outside it is icy cold. Inside, the room is warmed by a gas fire and conversation. On the wall, a huge moose head, its antlers hung with Christmas lights.

LANDAU: We're hoping that PhilaSoup will be a monthly micro grant dinner that starts and ends with teachers, but is an access point to education for the whole city.

WEEKS: On the menu, four soups, all donated: lentil, tomato bisque, beef barley and ginger carrot. As people slurp their last spoonfuls, Claire Landau goes over the rules.

LANDAU: The way it's going to work is that we'll have three presenters from three different schools who are doing great projects that they would like you to fund tonight with our micro grant. They're going to have three minutes to present. And then, after the three minutes...

WEEKS: And then, as dessert is served, everyone will vote on the best proposal. To the winner will go about 225 bucks.

LANDAU: So, let's see. Who would like to go first?


WEEKS: Lacey Boland, a 7th grade English teacher, steps to the front. She talks pretty fast.

LACEY BOLAND: OK. So I'm going to start with a reading. This is a story from "Snow What: Snow White the Remix."

WEEKS: Lacey's students have written new versions of the old fairy tale and turned them into books.

BOLAND: (Reading) There's something wrong with her, the doctor sighed. The mother was in a daze. She let out a small mix between a scream and a gasp every time the...

WEEKS: A professional writer came in to help. Lacey wants some money to do it again.

BOLAND: It's impossible to underestimate the power that just him being in the room and working one on one with them and in a large group. And so I'm hoping to get funding to bring him in for at least one visit back to our classroom.


WEEKS: Next is Brian Kerner, an art teacher at Prep Charter High School.

BRIAN KERNER: I came up with an idea for a metals project because, well, metals are cool. So...

WEEKS: Brian wants to buy art supplies so his students can make medieval shields that reflect meaningful parts of their lives. He's teaching them about symbolism in art.

The last presenter is Alyssa Boyle, the energetic principal at Camelot Excel North Academy. Her students wear uniforms. And Alyssa wants to reward those who have good attendance records by giving them black vests.

ALYSSA BOYLE: Any way to make their uniform a little more snazzy is always welcome. And then that will just sort of send a message out to the rest of the school that you can become eligible for these vests. And you can be proud of what you've accomplished. So that's why I'm here tonight. Thank you.


WEEKS: After the three proposals, a plate of cookies is passed around. Jason hands out small stones and tells everyone to vote for the project they like the best by putting their stone into milk jugs. There's a jug for each proposal.


WEEKS: Once the crowd has voted and left and the soup is put away, Jason and the Landau sisters do the tally.

LANDAU: Woo, they're getting stuck.

LANDAU: Oh, I think we have…

LANDAU: We have a winner.


WEEKS: And the winner is: Lacey Boland. "Fairy Tale Remixed."

Linton Weeks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.