Earlier this week I shared my tips on how to Make Your Vegan Activism POP. I mentioned that this was the student presentation I prepared for the Main Street Vegan Academy. I asked a fellow academy student, Dianne Wenz (who you know as VeggieGirl), to share her presentation here. She is a force of nature and I know her wise words on how to create a vegan community will inspire you!
My high school art teacher used to encourage her students to look to other artists’ work for inspiration by saying “Artists cannot work in a vacuum.” Those words have stayed with me for many years, and I believe they ring true for vegans as well. Begin vegan in an omnivorous world can be tough, so it’s important to have other vegans around for inspiration and support.
When I first went vegetarian many, many years ago, I was in art school, and although a lot of my fellow students were vegetarian, I wasn’t close friends with any of them. The people I was close to tolerated my diet, but they didn’t understand it. This was in the early days of the internet, so there weren’t websites like ThePPK and VeggieBoards for me to turn to for support. Years later I met a wonderful vegetarian man and we decided to vegan together. Going vegan with another person made it much easier than it would have been if I had tried to do it on my own, and I’m not sure if I could have broken my cheese addiction without his support. We knew other vegans, but again, they weren’t people we were close to. Living in suburban NJ, we occasionally trekked into Manhattan for vegan events, but we felt disconnect with the vegan movement.
Enter Montclair Vegans. I had an idea to create a MeetUp group for vegans in my area, and I wanted to call it Montclair Vegans, since I was living in Montclair, NJ. I procrastinated, thinking no one would join and that my apartment would be too small to have gatherings. While I was dragging my feet, someone else started up a vegan group and actually named it Montclair Vegans. How strange! After about a year, she stepped down and closed the group, and I immediately jumped up and restarted the group. I valued the gatherings and potlucks I had been attending with like-minded people and didn’t want to see it end. I had also finally mustered up my own courage to run a social group.My original plan for Montclair Vegans was to create a community were vegans could meet, share food, exchange recipes and support each other out in the non-vegan world. The idea was to have potlucks and restaurant nights so vegans could gather in a safe environment without being harassed about their protein intake. To my complete surprise, after just two years with me at the helm, the group has grown into so much more than that! We have 400+ members and while we still have our potlucks and restaurant nights, we now do so much more. We have hosted events with such vegan visionaries as Gene Baur and the ladies from Our Hen House. We’ve had book signings with authors such as Victoria Moran, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
and Terry Hope Romero. We’ve had massively successful bake sales where we earn money for local animal charities. We were the top fundraising team at the 2011 Walk for Farm Animals in NYC.
And we’re earning a name in the rapidly growing vegan world. Organizations in both the local and vegan communities now ask for our help with fundraising and events.
Communities are needed to not only support people who are already vegan, but to help those who are on the fence and need a little nudge in the vegan direction. I’ve met many of my good friends in Montclair Vegans and I’m not sure how I survived without the group for so long. To join a vegan community in your area, check MeetUp.com. If there isn’t anything nearby, start your own! Here’s how:
- I highly recommend starting your vegan group on MeetUp.com. They have over 11 million members, and once your group has been created, they will send a notification out to locals with similar interests. It’s not a free site, but I ask for everyone to chip in a dollar at each potluck to cover the cost.
- The group’s first event should be a potluck. It might be tempting to meet at a restaurant, but people can’t mingle and chat with each other when sitting at a large table. At a potluck, everyone can move around freely and talk to each other. If your home isn’t big enough, ask local community centers if they have a space you can use.
- Once the members of the group have gotten to know each other, ask local veg-friendly restaurants if you can have a dinner or lunch in their space. It’s pretty rare for a restaurant to say no to a large group of hungry! They will probably suggest having the event during off-peak hours, so it’s good to be flexible. Even if it’s not a vegan restaurant, the owners will most likely be happy to adapt their menu a little. A few months ago a new veg-friendly pizza place opened in Montclair, and I asked if the owners if they would be willing bring in Daiya cheese for a lunch with 20 hungry vegans. They said yes and the lunch was so successful that they’ve kept Daiya on the menu!
- Reach out to local businesses in the community about using their space. The changes are they will say yes. What business owner wouldn’t want a large group frequenting their establishment? Not only will you be helping their business, but you will be planting tiny vegan seeds out in the world, because people will hear you talking and want to know what it is that you’re so passionate about. Montclair Vegans has a book discussion group and professional networking group that meet at local tea houses and coffee shops. We’ve held bake sales outside of a local vegan café. We’ve had book signings at the local independent bookstore. Even Barnes and Noble has been extremely open to hosting vegan book events, and the events coordinator has told me that she’s changed her eating habits since our first talk there.
- Have a bake sale! Bake sales may sound very 1970s suburban PTA, but they’re an excellent form of activism. Not only is it showing the world how delicious vegan baked goods are, but it’s an opportunity to raise money for animal charities in the community. Montclair Vegans bake sales bring in around $1,000 each and we donate the money to local animal shelters and rescue groups. World Wide Vegan Bake Sale has been taking the world by storm over the past few years, and their website has great resources for people just starting out. http://veganbakesale.org/veganbakesale/index.html
- Look for local vegan experts and ask them to hold a workshop or give a talk to the group. If you can’t find anyone, do one yourself! Teach a cooking class, talk about how you went vegan or just share your hobby. People love to learn and chances are that you know more than you realize.
- Make postcards advertising your group and leave them in vegan friendly establishments in your community such as health food stores and coffee shops. Local vegans might not be on MeetUp.com and people who are vegan curious might not know where to turn for support.
- Don’t be afraid to set up ground rules if necessary. I’m not going to lie, running a group can feel like a part-time job at times, but the results of it have been so rewarding that I feel it’s worth the effort. Things run better with a few rules in place. Let other people host potlucks if they want to. This will take some pressure off of you. I do not post anyone’s home address online. That can lead to all kinds of trouble. Instead I email the people who have RSVP’ed yes a day in advance with the host’s info. People will always RSVP yes and not show up. Remind your members that if something comes up, they should let you or the host know. Don’t be afraid to remove people from the group if they’re chronic no-shows. And it’s good to remind people that your group is supposed to be a safe-haven for vegans. I’ve had vegetarians come to potlucks and try to debate dairy with me. Meat-eaters have tried to debate the subject of “carbs”. And I’ve also had vegans lecture non-vegan spouses of members. I now have a disclaimer that I put into event description stating none of that is allowed. The goal of our potlucks is to relax, eat delicious food and enjoy each other’s company.
Dianne Wenz is a Holistic Health Counselor, Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Plant-Based Nutrition Specialist. She’s an avid cook and baker and has taken classes at The Natural Gourmet Institute. She can be found at VeggieGirl.com. She’s not blogging or taking pictures of her food, she can probably be found hosting a potluck or bake sale for Montclair Vegans.