Stockton SOUP at the ARC: Connecting, Changing, Inspiring
As the chilly minutes passed, each minute engulfing the town in a darker shade of black, Cat made her way to the ARC. There was always something of promise within the bright interior, shaded yet flaunted through the concave glass windows. An inviting barrier showcasing customers at No.60 Café engrossed in drinks and laughter. A space you naturally wanted to share in. A globe emitting the welcoming glow of Art. And it was Art, an unashamed celebration of creative spirits that invited you in.
On that ordinary Wednesday night Cat knew there was also a promise of homemade soup and a bun.
In my previous post on discovering the wonderful yet unknown region of Cantabria in Spain, I mentioned that amidst the other ‘unknowns’ I had experienced in life, Teesside featured rather spectacularly. One of the first places that came to symbolise this ‘unknown’ to me was the Arts Centre in Stockton. The reason was simple: they cared for art, they cared for culture, they cared for it in a rather extraordinary way. But it wasn’t just that. It was the way in which they supported their community that really made an impression on me. Stockton SOUP is one such example.
Once a month the ARC reserves one of its floors for this intiative, one that aims to make the public aware of new and ongoing community projects. The foundation of the organisation is straightforward. Driven by the maxim: ’a bowl of soup can change your community’ and led by a dedicated team of volunteers, it promotes community engagement through crowdfunding, networking and the sharing ideas over a cup of soup and music.
I attended the last SOUP event in November 2018. These events normally take place in four parts. As I arrived a member of the SOUP team directed me upstairs where other attendees were mingling over drinks before the live music started. Each SOUP gathering promotes the music of a different musician, and on that evening it was local singer-songwriter Shaun Lawson who entertained us with a range of popular and original songs on acoustic guitar.
After the first set of live music, four project leaders pitched their ideas, each within a time-limit of four minutes. It was intriguing to listen to each leader explain how their ideas could or would eventually contribute to the wellbeing of the community and, even though learning more about community projects might not seem like a typical way to relax on a weekday night, it turned out to be an inspirational respite from everyday worries.
Projects were diverse and ranged from initiatives like Cross Rhythms Teesside, a Christian radio station and their goal to give voice to those who didn’t have one; or an integration programme aiming to establish positive cultural bridges between refugees, asylum seekers and the wider community. There was also a project, Building Blocks, which aimed to set up a lending library to help meet the needs of parents and carers with special needs.
As we went to collect soup and bread during the break, I felt a different kind of contentment because I knew a more about what was going on in my community and I was glad that I could be part of it in a small way. What struck me was the genuine passion and optimism of the leaders and their dedication to doing something good for others. What made it even better was that I was surrounded by like-minded people with the same interest and passion for their community.
And that is what inspired Emily, the founder of Stockton SOUP, to put the initiative together: the need of community members to know what was going on in their area and have the opportunity to be involved.
“In a nutshell, the aim of SOUP is to connect community projects,” Emily explained. “We wanted to create a save universal space, non-threatening and neutral, that became a direct link with projects within the community, where the community connect with the community.”
The idea of SOUP began in Detroit. When Emily saw a feature about it on the news, she pitched her idea of trialling SOUP in Stockton to those running a similar initiative in Middlesbrough. For the first event, they put out 30 chairs, thinking they were ambitious and 75 people turned up. Now, they normally get up to 150 people attending their events. In fact, Stockton SOUP has been deemed particularly successful. They have had 12 events so far, giving away almost £12,000 to local projects and have received funding from an organisation to grow SOUP elsewhere in the UK.
During the break, we had a chance to vote for the project we wanted to support while enjoying a hearty cup of soup and a bun. Each of us would have made a donation (normally about £4) at the door that we could allocate to any project. Furthermore all donations were doubled by the charity, meaning for every £1 we donated £2 would go to the projects. The evening started drawing to an end with a second set of live music (and second cups of soup) while votes were being tallied and then the revelation of how much funding each project would receive.
The Soup event concluded with a ‘Recap Slot’. We heard from a project leader, who had previously received the most funding, about how their share of donations had been used and what they were planning for the future.
When I asked Emily what she envisioned for Stockton, she replied: “I’d love to see projects working together, connecting and supporting each other. I’d love to see the community stepping up, thinking about what they can do to make a difference in our community.”
What makes Stockton SOUP so successful is the passion of those who attend, the project leaders and the team itself. The events and those involved are the small building blocks that don’t just bring community projects together, connecting various like-minded people, it gives everybody the chance to spend some of their time simply caring for where they live and being part of what could make it better. It is not difficult to be involved. Simply show up at the next event. Listen to the projects. Listen to the music. Socialise. Have a drink. Vote. And enjoy the soup.
The next Stockton SOUP event will be held Tuesday, 22 January. For more information, see their Facebook page.