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A look at how Columbus SOUP has influenced social change over past 6 years

J.R. McMillan

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Columbus SOUP started as a simple concept, borrowed as great ideas often are. Audiences come together to share bowls of soup from local restaurants, listen to pitches from a collection of community advocates, everyone votes with their signature green spoons for the project they want to fund, and the ones with the most votes receive a small grant. Imagine Kickstarter with a supper club spin meets Shark Tank for social change.

“It really struck a chord with me, as something we could pull off, and that would really resonate with the Columbus community,” explained Liz Martin, executive director of Columbus SOUP. “Our city is really receptive to people with a passion for new ideas.”

Introduced through a friend to earlier efforts in Illinois and Michigan, Martin connected a cadre of folks involved in various local community-building efforts over tea on a cold winter’s day to see whether there were enough combined skills and bandwidth to launch a similar SOUP in Central Ohio. Six months later, on June 9, 2013, Columbus SOUP hosted its first event, amid more than a little uncertainty.

“We thought if 35 people showed up, it would be a success. We reached out to people we thought might be interested and received six applications,” she recalled. “All of them were invited to pitch, and we packed the house with more than 100 people at Brothers Drake.”

The idea undeniably resonated and grew to nearly two dozen events in the years that followed—and nearly $60k in grants so far. But it also offered the invaluable experience of distilling an idea down to its essence, then selling it to an audience of strangers with a succinct and inspiring pitch.

“The heart of SOUP nationwide is to fund projects that may not be eligible for traditional funding. These micro- grants give people exactly what they need to achieve something small, yet impactful, in their communities,” Martin explained. “Most of us grew up in an age of giant checks where it seemed like only the wealthy could be philanthropic. SOUP brings philanthropy down to a level where anyone can make a difference.”

Themes quickly became a concept unique to Columbus SOUP. Chicago’s version was created to support arts and culture, while Detroit’s was adapted to serve social justice. Columbus SOUP is both, yet neither, providing access and an audience to a variety of community-led projects that don’t always fit easily into obvious boxes.

Also there since the start is Bryant Miller, director of Columbus SOUP, and among the first folks Martin recruited to the cause. His infectious enthusiasm and knack for putting everyone at ease was also the perfect match as event host, welcoming new and familiar faces, ensuring presentations run smoothly, and sharing the results of voting in a way that recognizes everyone’s efforts—not just those who receive funding at the end of the evening.

“The magic of Columbus SOUP is that it’s very different than any similar organization because we allowed it to morph into what Columbus needs. We just tend to say yes to a lot of things,” Miller revealed. “When we were at the Idea Foundry a couple of years ago, there were some folks who could help them host an event for teenagers, and we had never been to one before who asked us afterward if we could help them host an event for teenagers, and we said ‘YES!’ It was an event that reached an audience we hadn’t before.SOUP is about saying yes, giving people a chance, and not trying to put everything in the same box.”

Crowdfunding and collective philanthropy only seem like a novel idea inspired by the internet. But the notion of ordinary folks doing extraordinary things with a humble investment is hardly new. Back in 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was still a small and obscure organization that needed a boost, even in the midst of a polio epidemic. That’s when radio and film comedian Eddie Cantor asked Americans from all walks to send 10 cents to the organization’s founder, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The response was unprecedented, with tens of thousands of letters pouring into the White House the week of FDR’s birthday—just as Cantor requested when he coined the phrase, the “March of Dimes.”

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The indelible idea stuck, eventually becoming the name of the organization now focused on providing a healthy start for new mothers and their infants. That sounds like a tall order, but so too was curing polio with pocket change.

Without hyperbole, Columbus SOUP is not so different, offering a solid start to ambitious initiatives with a donation many of us have in our wallets, pooled together to achieve something no one could do alone. SOUP has likewise accomplished its original goal to inspire grassroots ideas and small-scale investment, which is why the next Columbus SOUP will be the last, putting a proverbial lid on the concept and making room for what’s next.

“It’s easy to get hung up on the idea, and many do, that organizations need to go on forever to be significant, and I just don’t believe it. I tend to think of it like a story. What story did we set out to tell? We wanted to share philanthropy in a completely different way,” Miller explained. “We loved the concept behind micro-grants, because they create the opportunity to be the very first group of people to believe in an idea. We feel really good about what we’ve achieved and have accomplished everything we wanted to do. That’s our story.”

Everyone has watched a television series or film franchise that effectively ended long before it was over. Columbus SOUP didn’t want to make that mistake by presuming everything worthwhile extends indefinitely. But they’re really only half right. If every event was like a pebble thrown into a pond, the ripples continue to make waves that grow, intersect, and change shape long after the stones were cast. Quantifying the lasting impact six years of SOUPs have had on Columbus is impossible, because the ripples just keep going.

“I think about how distraught everyone was when Independents’ Day ended. All of that energy didn’t go away, now it just goes somewhere else,” he noted. “When you look at all of the new events and festivals inspired by Independents Day that only started after it ended, you can still see the impact.”

The final event, billed as “SOUP’s Last Hurrah” was originally set for November. But an accidental scheduling snafu afforded the opportunity to extend the application deadline, ensuring everyone from presenters to donors won’t miss their chance to celebrate, say goodbye, and raise their spoons one last time.

“We decided the final Columbus SOUP should end how it started, without a theme. We’ve had projects reach out to us that never quite fit into one of our recurring events or common categories,“ Martin explained. “It’s a chance for all of those ideas to finally be heard. This will be the last Columbus SOUP, but it’s still the beginning of something new.”

For details on Columbus SOUP’s final event, or to apply to pitch your idea, visit columbussoup.org

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Arts & Culture

Now Streaming: Columbus entertainers find virtual ways to perform

Mitch Hooper

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As Columbus entertainers prepared for warm weather and folks returning to the bars, COVID-19 came in and put it to a halt. The bars being closed indefinitely not only impacts owners, servers, and bartenders, it impacts the performers who rely on these places as a platform to showcase their talents. When folks can't come support local entertainers, what can they do?

What if they bring their talents to them? That's what many Columbus entertainers are doing during social distancing. While "work from home" wasn't much an option before this, comedians such as Amber Falter and Ian Miller are taking to Instagram Live and other streaming platforms to perform.

The first virtual show the two did was with Alexis Nelson of BarkBox, and admittedly, they were a little nervous about not having an audience for feedback.

"I was actually scared to start," Miller said. "Jokes don’t have what I call 'standalone timing.' You need a give and take with the audience, you build it into your jokes. The thought of telling jokes without immediate feedback was terrifying."

The two said the show went great and it didn't take long for both of them to enjoy streaming their comedy. Falter quickly did another virtual show, A Hamantha and Brisket Comedy Hours, with Samantha Sizemore and Bridjet Mendy themed around dating stories via Zoom. Miller, on the other hand, started a weekly story telling show on his Twitch channel Glass Cannon Comedy.

Falter, co-host of ACLU Stand-Up For Choice, says there's even been some silver linings to streaming her comedy.

"I was joking with one of my friends that is always like, 'Hey, I'm going to make it to the show! Can't wait to see you at the show!' and then they never make it out," Falter laughed. "Now you have no excuse, honey!"

As for the future ACLU Stand-Up For Choice comedy events, Falter said she and others involved, such as co-host Pat Deering, are figuring out how to do so through streaming.

Miller said he has seen many of his shows canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. He had six shows slated across 13 days, all of which have been canceled. Additionally, his monthly story telling show as well as Glass Cannon's quarterly-themed shows are suspended.

"It’s been rough. There may not have been of ton of Columbus comics “paying the bills” with comedy, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt the impact," Miller said "Times are tough, and it’s really hard to have a side hustle of any kind when you know leaving your house could put yourself and other in danger."

And that's why he believes it's so important to support entertainers in anyway you can. Whether that be through a share or follow on social media, every little bit helps grow their platform.

Falter echoed this sentiment, too.

"I want this to become a source of income and I've been extremely, extremely grateful for the people that have even sent like $2," she said. "Or not even that, if they just followed me on Instagram or told me I had a good set. [By just] saying, "Hey that was really fun, thanks so much," that alone is making me super emotional."

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We Will Do It: Dr. Amy Acton is determined, not afraid

J.R. McMillan

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The announcement was shocking, even to the pool of hardened reporters gathered in anxious anticipation. On March 12, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered the closure of all schools in the state for at least three weeks to hopefully halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

With only a handful of confirmed cases, based largely on statistical models and patterns emerging from cities and countries around the world, Ohio was among the first to signal, almost prophetically, that life as we all knew it was about to change dramatically, perhaps forever.

Then skepticism suddenly turned to stunned silence as Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton stepped forward to reveal the possibility that more than 100,000 Ohioans were already carrying the virus.

But this dire presumption wasn’t delivered with cold calculation by a career bureaucrat who dithers or withers in front of the cameras. Instead, Acton did something remarkable, in real time. In her signature white coat and without a whiff of wonk, she calmly and confidently broke down the math behind the decision and the prediction, at one point comparing the delay in reliable data to the light of a distant star whose brightness we can only see long after the moment has passed.

And with that, Ohioans discovered the light of a different kind of star, and her moment is now.

Even before Acton was a household name, she was already an unlikely hero. A physician since 1994, she honed both her approachable bedside manner and public policy persona at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and as an assistant professor at Ohio State. During her brief tenure at The Columbus Foundation, Acton was instrumental in raising nearly $2.5 million in just six weeks to combat youth homelessness, blowing past every expectation. It was a philanthropic success that was also hauntingly personal.

It isn’t without irony that as Ohio businesses close their doors, many for the last time, that Youngstown’s venerated daily newspaper, The Vindicator, published its final edition this past August with an intimate portrait of Acton. Then, she was still the local homecoming queen who had beaten the odds, gone on to college, ultimately becoming the top public health official in the state.

The “grit and grace” we see today, so noted by Doug Kridler, President and CEO of The Columbus Foundation, was undeniably born of a chaotic, often tragic, childhood. Acton’s parents separated when she was just three, and in the decade that followed before reuniting with her father, she lived in a constant state of uncertainty. This included living in more than a dozen places in as many years across the country, some less desirable than others; she lived once in an unfinished basement, and even spent a winter in a tent. Only after abuse at the hands of one of her mother’s string of boyfriends did life for Acton finally start to turn around. Her father was granted full custody, and she’s never seen her mother again.

But even this backstory only surfaced in retrospect. The newspaper’s website also shut down a day after the final edition hit the streets. No likes, shares, or tweets. Only later were the archives posted online, with that closing interview receiving overdue attention in recent weeks, much like Acton herself.

“Lots of powerful souls walk among us,” noted Todd Franko, former Editor in Chief of The Vindicator. “Last August, she walked in and walked out of our office, and no one knew her. They know her now.”

Yet in darkness, there is still light, with dutiful denizens across the state tuning in daily for afternoon “Wine with DeWine.” But even that fierce following may pale in comparison to the more than 50,000 members of Acton’s entirely unofficial Facebook fan club. The conversation waxes and wanes from harrowing accounts to rays of revelry, from the testimonials of healthcare providers on the frontline of the crisis to heated debate about which actress should portray Acton in some future Hollywood feature. (For those keeping score, Allison Janney, Dana Delany, and Anne Hathaway are currently the top casting contenders.) Local apparel company Homage also honored her with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Not all heroes wear capes.”

Even Acton herself is not above public levity amid unprecedented circumstances. A photo from a recent morning meeting in the lower level of the statehouse went viral, with staffers seemingly orbiting a laughing Acton from a safe social distance. It was a rare and candid glimpse of the loyalty she fosters among the small army she inspires, no longer
in anonymity.

Her candor coupled with compassion is at the heart of her appeal. The mother of six, one of whom offers her his own daily briefings on her online following from his home in Menlo Park, has been called “Ohio’s Mom” for the tough love that belies every escalating restriction that unfolds aimed at minimizing the worst case scenarios.

It’s the same honesty tempered with hope that won DeWine over barely a year ago. Acton neither sought nor expected to become the governor’s final, perhaps his most crucial, cabinet selection. In discussing the role with him, she offered an unvarnished, apolitical assessment of Ohio’s challenges and opportunities to improve public health, and prepare for unforeseen threats to it.

Thankfully, he hired her anyway.

The hasty cancellation of in-person voting the day before the state’s primary and extension of absentee voting by mail was deemed politically untenable, until it wasn’t. After what was expected to be an uncontested delay erupted into a last-minute legal reversal, Acton’s authority to protect citizens in the midst of a public health emergency found precedent in an obscure provision of the Ohio Revised Code from 1886 in response to an outbreak of tuberculosis. 

Now, Ohio leads the country in its response, with fellow states following suit, though not without criticism. The impact on businesses directly and indirectly is as controversial as it is unavoidable. DeWine is charged with an impossible task, desperately trying to land a plane safely, despite the fact that it’s coming apart in the air. There will be casualties, actual and economic. But reducing the former requires increasing the latter. Acton is not only his copilot, but is additionally charged with assuring passengers that they are doing everything they can just
to survive.

This is why we need Acton right now—she’s a guiding star in what often seems like an endless night. When human nature and history tend to suggest turning on each other, she’s quick to remind us that we’re all in this together. She’s the hero we didn’t know was in our midst, the same powerful soul who walked up to a podium and into our lives barely a month ago practically unknown, but who is now a part of our daily routine. When all of this is behind us, we’re going to look back on how we have changed. And when that day comes, we will surely have Acton to thank for telling us exactly what we needed to hear, when we needed to hear it, just to get through another day. We should all be forever grateful for her words.

“I don’t want you to be afraid. I’m not afraid. I am determined,” Acton famously confessed. “All of us are going to have to sacrifice. And I know someday, we’ll be looking back and wondering what was it we did in
this moment.”

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Columbus Does Good: Westerville designer creates t-shirt to honor Ruby Owens, Dr. Amy Acton

Mitch Hooper

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As Dr. Amy Acton leads Ohio's charge against COVID-19, local makers like Megan Owdom-Weitz are doing their best to say thanks.

Using the words written by Ruby Owens, a nine-year-old who made headlines for the optimistic and thankful letter she sent to Dr. Acton, Owdom-Weitz designed a t-shirt. With approval from Emily, Ruby's mother, Owdom-Weitz added the letter in addition to a sketch illustration of Dr. Acton.

"I'm so happy to have you and have hope," both the shirt and Owen's letter reads.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-XZa4Uo8KK/

While the sales of this shirt are currently on pre-order, a portion of the money received will benefit the Ohio Chapter of the Red Cross. As a local- and family-owned business in Westerville who has been hit hard financially due to the COVID-19 outbreak, these t-shirt sales will also help Megan Lee Designs during these difficult times. The t-shirts will ultimately be completed once the two are able to return to work.

You can find Megan Lee Designs on Instagram or at her website.

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