Thanks to the recent coverage of Detroit Soup by the BBC (and to the efforts of our media savvy friends at Colchester Soup – who have been busy doing the most amazing PR job) the Soup movement is gathering momentum in the UK.
There’s guidance for setting up a Soup, but no definitive rules. And people are adopting a range of approaches – some are setting up social enterprises and, in at least one instance, employing a paid worker to develop and maintain Soup as a community resilience project.
I’ve been asked if there are plans to turn Southend Soup into a more formal enterprise.
My response is a resounding no. Here’s why. (NB; other opinions are available and equally valid; what works for you works for you. The world would be a dull place indeed if everyone thought and acted alike. This relates to Southend Soup.)
1) Once you have a paid leader of a group, it becomes by you for us rather than by us for us. It changes the dynamics and affects how people participate. With a movement that’s about galvanising grass-roots action, one wants to encourage participation and ownership. We want let’s plant wild-flowers! and I will plant wild-flowers! not You should plant wild-flowers! or tell us how to plant wild-flowers! The them/us divide is even greater if the event is viewed as for-profit.
2) If a group is officially recognised in some way, there are inevitably rules. A committee is needed with minuted meetings, there need to be financial reports and a bank account. Those on-the-night micro-grants need to be scrutinised. Proposals may need to be screened by a committee to ensure they meet funding criteria. All money needs to be accounted for and evidence given about the outcomes achieved. There will be paperwork, administration, and people wanting answers.
3) I was advised that the paid worker was necessary as there were numerous problems in that particular community that needed fixing. If you’re a statutory body, or NGO, and are working to address problems such as health inequalities, poverty, crime and other things harmful to quality of life, I understand that having a dedicated Community Officer is a good idea. However, to me, that’s not what Soup’s about. It’s not about fixing things for people, nor indeed, fixing people. It’s about providing a space for people to come together – if they wish – to talk about what they feel passionate about, to meet new friends, and to do stuff that they choose to do. Which might lead to ‘fixing the community’ – but that’s not where we’re starting from.
4) As soon as you put constraints – no matter how well-intentioned – around something like Soup, you lose the magic of self-organisation. There is something wonderful about people randomly coming together to change the world through small acts. Furthermore, if you don’t have a committee – if you allow people to come and go as they wish – the Soup stays fresh. You avoid ‘group-think’ and the stagnation that can sometimes happen in groups.
I notionally organise soup, but, although people say all sorts of nice things to me about ‘the great job you’re doing’ I really do very little. I am lazy by nature. You’d marvel at my sloth-like abilities.
Soup – at least Southend Soup – is people.* A fluid mix of people, who are under no obligation to be involved, or to be involved every time. They need commit to no meetings, fill in no paperwork, and are free to give as much or as little time as suits them. As with pretty much everything else to do with Southend Soup – there are no rules.
All I do is source a venue, book a time and date and invite people to join in. As people get to know about Southend Soup, I’m increasingly getting help even with this. People are looking for and contacting venues, spreading the word once meet-ups have been booked, and encouraging friends and acquaintances to pitch ideas.
As anyone that’s attended a Southend Soup will know, the event builds itself. This was apparent even at our very first soup. I asked people to bring ingredients – as we had a venue where we could make soup on-site. With the minimum of coordination, we quickly had a kitchen bustling with people who had self-organised – vegetable choppers, bread butterers, soup chefs, tea makers, order takers. Children are particularly keen to have a Job and we employed a roller-skated waitress to deliver cold drinks to people. Other helpers greeted people (the more sociable types mix people up, make introductions and ensure no one’s left looking lonely) took contact details, payment, votes, counted votes/money, tidied up, and generally did anything that looked like it needed doing. People tend to find a role they’re happy to do.
Each Soup has a theme as it’s always been the intent that each Soup be a slightly different experience – a different flavour, if you will. The hope is that this diversity will attract a different mix of people each time – helping to build community connections across the town. People are getting the idea that it’s a participatory event. Soupers bring musical instruments, ingredients for the soup when applicable (sometimes people volunteer to make and bring soup when we have limited facilities – and on one occasion we had innovative ‘raw’ soup) home-made items to share or sell, books or magazines to swap, colouring books, pens and other things to entertain our younger participants.
Local acoustic duo Warty Hubbard and His Magic Cupboard have become our house band (although, as ever, they are under no obligation to always attend – they choose to make efforts to do so) and, at the last soup, we had performance offers from a punk duo from Kent and a local escapologist. As it transpired, we also had a magician visit from Romford. As it seems to be what people want to do and enjoy, we’ve added a ‘performance space’ to the soup agenda. It might not always be appropriate, but we’re flexible. That’s the strength of a ‘no-rules’ approach. Anything can happen, anyone can be involved. Whoever turns up are the right people, whatever happens is the right thing to happen.
Presenters are also welcome to bring whatever materials they wish to share with people. A Spanish group, presenting in November, created a festival atmosphere with balloons, a colourful stall and ad hoc Spanish lessons. CAST (Communities & Sanctuary Seekers Together) bought a stand to highlight their previous community events and their ‘Victoria Bear’ art exhibition. Essex Feminist Collective delighted everyone by bringing face-painting, design your own super-hero kits, and vegan biscuits.
The micro-funding is kept simple too. People donate on the night – we ask for £5 or what people can afford. We want no one to be excluded, so if you can’t pay, you’re still very welcome. Children are free, as are performers, although they generally donate anyway. Some people give more. Whatever goes into the pot gets given to the winning presenter. No paperwork, no need to provide evidence to a grant-giving body about how the money has been spent and what outcomes have been achieved. We ask people to tell us about how they used the money, but no one is held to account. We operate on trust. Which I believe is a vital ingredient of a flourishing community.
I often allude to my favourite Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin – a polymath with zoology amongst his many disciplines – who extensively studied cooperation and altruism in social animals. Unsurprisingly, he found that groups that worked together survived better than those that didn’t. In human communities, he found that people would voluntarily come together to achieve things – without the state or anyone else directing them to do so. This I believe is what we’re witnessing with Southend Soup; a little pocket of positive anarchy of which I hope Kropotkin would approve. People choose to get involved, choose how to get involved, choose how much to donate, choose who to support, and choose how to support – being free to offer whatever help they wish, with many offering help beyond financial support; eg volunteering their time on a local community allotment.
Perhaps, because of our self-organising fluid approach, Southend Soup will always stay small. And perhaps it’s perfect that way, because the hope has ever been to inspire individuals to take small achievable actions: to help people to recognise the power they have to make a difference on their doorstep.
So I hope you’re with me in wanting to continue to eschew order and formality in Southend Soup; because I’m not Southend Soup’s leader – just an accelerant to the fire.
If you’re unconvinced that Southend Soup’s brand of anarchy works, please come along to our next event on 18 April.
Be prepared to chop a carrot.
* Not in a Soylent Green sort of way. It’s all vegan. Honest.