| Follow Us:


A great meal + community + a great idea = STEW

A STEW event - Edward Winter
A STEW event - Edward Winter

Combine just the right ingredients: start with three locals, add in socially conscious community groups, and then mix in hungry diners. Let the ingredients simmer together and suddenly you've got STEW, an organization whose mission is to promote social justice and fund local initiatives.

Established in November 2009, STEW is a project run by the Baltimore Development Cooperative and Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. On announced dates, volunteers, including a professional chef, cook up and serve four-course dinners to guests at a space run by St. John's United Methodist Church in Charles Village, a venue otherwise known to regulars as 2640.

Between courses, invited local activists present social- and cultural-based initiatives in hopes of raising awareness for their cause. At the end of the meal, guests cast ballots for the project they deem the most worthy and in need of funding. After ballots are collected and then counted, STEW distributes the proceeds of the event to the groups in proportion to votes cast.

Stewing up social consciousness

The recipe for STEW first developed when Red Emma's began collaborating with local groups like the Baltimore Development Cooperative and the Indypendent Reader to coordinate exhibitions, book fairs, and other community oriented projects. Though members often showed up to events and conferences together, they noticed a sort of fragmentation when everyone disbanded after events.

In March 2009, STEW co-founders Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski were brought together to help organize The City from Below, a national conference held at 2640. The three-day event invited housing activists, urban planners, architects, geographers, and artists from across the nation to discuss their work contributing to social justice initiatives.

During the conference, the three began to collaborate on the idea of a network-based dinner, inspired by other dinner-and-grant themed projects like Sunday Soup in Chicago and Brooklyn's FEAST. It was then that the first group dinner was born, its primary goal at that time to facilitate relationships among community groups and members. The idea of raising both awareness and funds for social justice initiatives outside of the non-profit grant system developed later.

"STEW was based on the model of bringing people together around an inexpensive meal, inviting artists to present projects or proposals, and allowing the public to vote on who should get the money that was raised," sums up Berzofsky.

So what exactly is social justice as championed by STEW? Well, it's fairness and equality among society members, including the idea that Baltimore should be run for the masses instead of for an elite few. In other words, locals should have equal access to resources and opportunities regardless of race, class, gender, and, really, any other characteristic that may create divisive distinctions among people.

John Duda, a resident of Baltimore for over seven years, helped to establish and develop STEW as the idea began to take off. He recognized that, though local groups may support varying initiatives, they all share the goal of working towards a better community. "It's just realizing that groups of people are seeing the same things, the same holes, the same needs, but are coming at it from different angles," he says, "different but complimentary."

Voting power

STEW dinners typically last about three hours, which provides ample time for guests to chat about political and social issues within Baltimore. An informal political atmosphere naturally brews among hungry diners as they contemplate which local cause deserves their vote.

"One doesn't normally sit down to share a meal with someone you're going into a voting booth with," says Duda, "you get a chance not just to hear what people want to say but to get a chance to know them. You're also talking about how good the salad is."

The donation method of STEW is a social experiment in and of itself: the financial power sits in the hands of the source, the people. "Introducing choice back into the equation to determine what priorities are is a powerful thing," Duda states, "there are few systems of funding that are perfect and allow people to decide where they want the money they've paid to go, and that's an experience one really gets to have here. "

STEW further recognizes the correlations between how a group is funded and how it operates. More often than not, seeking funds for projects is bureaucratic and impersonal as the process involves a lot of forms and layers of red tape. "The target was to experiment and to try out ways of funding that doesn't have this kind of alienating character, that aren't intrinsically bureaucratic," Duda explains.

Adds Berzofsky: "It's about raising awareness about the important artistic and political work that is being produced in the city and developing a model for how that work can be supported autonomously without being dependent on large foundation grants."

In following the theme of social equality, STEW is adamant to steer clear from creating an exclusive event, where only the privileged and rich can afford to attend in order to help the less fortunate. Tickets cost a mere $10 -- a price tag that ensures the event is accessible to all.

One bowl at a time

Chef Matt Day writes the menus and coordinates the preparation and cooking of the meals. At past dinners, attendees enjoyed peasant bread and garden herb pesto, followed by honeyed-pears, braised greens, and thyme-roasted mushrooms. The main course is always, of course, bowls of a hearty stew. Dinner guests may spoon up the likes of clam and bacon stew during one event, or chicken and dumplings at another. And let's not forget the finishing touch – dessert -- with choices like homemade ice cream, sweet potato pie, apple dumplings, and salty oat cookies.

The meals served at the events are always locally sourced and organic. The Baltimore Development Cooperation grows and cultivates the food at one of its urban farms, Participation Park. Other sources include the Real Food Farm, Calvert's Gift, and Truck Patch Farms.

Duda points out that it's a privilege for most to be able to eat organically grown foods that aren't doused with chemicals. "Oftentimes when you think about going out to eat and order something locally sourced and organic, all of a sudden you're talking about $30 to $40 a meal. Interestingly enough, it turns out that these things aren't that expensive and do not cost that much more money. It's a model for thinking about how we eat and of our economic and environmental systems," he says.

Baltimore: not too big, not too small, but just the right

STEW often invites presenters to functions if their works strike a chord with volunteers, or they may invite random groups active within the community. STEW volunteers have begun to notice a cyclical trend among presenters and supporters—locals may present their cause at one event and then later show up at the door at another event to show their support.

Funds raised from the dinners won't sustain most community organizations. Still, many groups often coordinate projects on the smaller end of the scale, and funds from STEW support a significant chunk of the projects. As a result, activists are able to gain momentum to nurture ideas for existing ideas and may even develop new projects.

"You know, I think Baltimore is a wonderful city for different kinds of projects in terms of the scale of costs involved. I think Baltimore is big enough to make things possible but not so big that those things aren't meaningful," says Duda.

At the first STEW event in November 2009, the Annex Theater & Gallery received $175 to contribute to the purchase and installation of over 50 feet of fresh gallery walls. "It's not like any of us can afford to drop that amount of money," company member Rick Gerriets states. "It's nice to have friends."

The Wide Angle Youth Media, whose mission is to provide media education to Baltimore youth, used the money raised by STEW to take students to SuperFly Filmmaking at the Seattle International Film Festival. Executive Director Susan Malone explains that raising funds to allow students to travel is an often overlooked expense. "The money went towards our travel budget," she says. "It's hard to support travel funds, especially if you're going out of Baltimore."

What does the name STEW stand for? Though the name itself is not representative of an acronym per se, the group fell keen on the double entendre of the name, pertaining to the main meal of the events but also relating to the projects they hope to stew, or cook up, among other social activists in the community.

At the end of the day, Berzofsky sums it up saying that to share food is a powerful experience, because it builds solidarity among activists in Baltimore. "The connection forged over a dinner table is a powerful thing," Duda adds.

Got a comment? Let us know what you think about this article, philanthropy and social justice in Baltimore on Twitter, Facebook or by email. Want to suggest a possible story? Send us you idea!

Sign up to receive Bmore in your inbox every week! And read more about philanthropy in Baltimore!


A STEW event - Photos by Edward Winter

Signup for Email Alerts
Share this page
Signup for Email Alerts