Alumni News

Making a Difference

After graduating from Bennington, Ben Hall ’04—this year’s recipient of the Elizabeth Coleman Visionary Leadership Award—says he moved back to his home city of Detroit to live cheaply and “try every single thing that he wanted to do.” Some 13 years later—now a chef, musician, artist, and activist—his to-do list involves reversing children’s food insecurity and empowering minimum wage employees in the food service industry.

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Entrepreneurship, Activism, and Art

Hall and Jason Murphy ’09 own the Russell Street Deli, a heritage restaurant and soup manufacturer in Detroit, where they both started as dishwashers and rose up through the ranks, eventually buying the business from the former owner. Under their leadership, the Russell Street Deli pays wages well above the normal for restaurant workers and provides benefits, like health care and a retirement plan.

In addition to providing their employees a living wage, Hall and Murphy are deeply invested in addressing food insecurity. The two have raised more than $125,000 for Gleaners Community Food Bank—the equivalent of 375,000 meals. They are the only local independent meal producer for Detroit Public Schools, providing free soups to 55,000 students. Recently, Hall was in DC advocating for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, as part of his work addressing children’s food insecurity.

Hall and Jason have also testified before Congress on the challenges surrounding entry level jobs in the foodservice industry and the limits of growth for workers subjected to minimum wage.

When he’s not running a business, lobbying Congress, or feeding Detroit school children, Hall is an artist and composer. He has a forthcoming solo show at the end of this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit entitled Slow An Alarm Until It’s A Tone. He has performed at Lincoln Center and MoMA, and he was a 2014 Kresge fellow in composition.