SERVING GOODNESS at the Southside Cultural Center.
"How many of you like plants?" Kate Venturini shouts. "Fruits and berries?"
It is Sunday evening and she is standing in front of a roomful of packed tables at Trinity Repertory's former theater space (now the Southside Cultural Center) on Broad Street. The banjo-and-guitar trio playing Appalachian folk tunes is temporarily silent. And the wait staff is quietly clearing plates and bowls that once held greens, honey whole wheat bread, and curried lentil soup.
This is Providence Provision, a roving locavore potluck-meets-microfinance-meets-American Idol experiment. Every few months, guests donate $10 for "admission" to an event offering a home-cooked meal and conversations with neighbors they perhaps didn't know they had. As they eat, they listen to pitches for all manner of eclectic, well-intentioned projects.
Venturini is telling the crowd about her plan to plant berries and herbs like St. John's Wort in a Providence "food desert" near Roger Williams Park — a neighborhood that lacks access to fresh produce. She has projections for what the plot will look like in 2017 and 2042 and she sprinkles her presentation with technical terms like "permaculture" and "edible forest garden." But mostly, she keeps the message simple: if the audience awards her the proceeds from the evening, her team will plant stuff that can be picked in the spring.
Among the crowd are Provision's three founders and organizers. Jori Ketten, the media lab director at Community MusicWorks and creator of the viral "Joey Quits" video, is scurrying around the room, snapping photographs and helping coordinate the event's volunteers. Jeremy Radtke, assistant director of youth programs at AS220 and M.C. for the evening, is making sure Venturini transitions smoothly from her four-minute presentation to her three-minute Q&A session. And Neal Walsh, AS220's gallery director, is doling out cold, sweating cans of Harpoon and Narragansett at the bar in the corner of the room.
The event series began in February 2011 as a local adaptation of "Sunday soup" gatherings practiced by organizations like InCUBATE in Chicago and F.E.A.S.T. (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics) in Brooklyn. Since then, participants have pitched projects like a stereopticon "Wonder Show" about the history of Providence or a photography expedition aiming to document the culture of the Dominican Republic. On any given night, as the meal is winding down, guests rank the most compelling proposals on ballots and drop them into a box. The winner — "grantee" is Provision's preferred term — walks away with the proceeds from the evening.
"We're like a safe space, where people with not that much experience in getting grants can come and kinda get started," Radtke says.
"It's not a ton of money that we give, but it's enough to get something going," Walsh says, "And then the other aspect is, we're having this dinner. We're creating this really nice setting. We're bringing people together."
This particular Providence Provision, the sixth to date, draws one of the biggest crowds yet. Venturini's pitch goes up against a line of handbags and wallets called The Utopia Collection made from vintage and repurposed materials; a quest to turn an abandoned basement room at the Brown Co-Op into a community darkroom; a theater production called "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," scheduled to premiere before the presidential election in November; and a canned-food art installation to raise awareness of hunger in Rhode Island.