Monday, October 4, 2010

Pushing the wave (Chicago VeganMania)...

Back when I started with this business of being vegan, back in the Mesozoic era of the mid-1990s when terrifying winged beasts beat their wings in circles above us and all the milk in local coffee shops came from udders, life ticked along at a distinctly different syncopation. In Chicago, there were usually between twenty and thirty of us who were consistently active, and we met monthly in church basements or spare rooms at the library. Photos from the time were, to put it bluntly, strange: fervent activists in their twenties working side-by-side with sad-eyed animal lovers in their sixties, with few ages represented in between. Back in the day, we got loopy from marker vapors together when we made our protest signs, we looked through an endless stack of boxes in a volunteer's basement to find the musty old chicken costume and played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would almost faint while wearing it at the World Vegetarian Day leafletting, we licked envelopes, people, and lugged all the newsletters to the post office downtown four times a year. We passed our favorite catalogue around the table at Mandy's house and put in group orders together for t-shirts, buttons, stickers. I still have one of those shirts, worn in and cozy like a favorite baby blanket, a black ink Rorsharch splotch on a sleeve from one of our marathon sign-making sessions. It's in the drawer of t-shirts designated only as sleep wear these days. It just has words on it: No, I don't eat meat. Yes, I get enough protein. No, my shoes aren't leather. Yes, I have a life. This shirt encapsulated the experience of a vegan animal advocate, and that particular time in my life, perfectly. Every time I pull it out, it's like I'm transformed back to the day, and I'm standing outside of a circus again or I'm in front of the McDonald's in River North, standing with my friends, rolling our eyes at the dirty looks, making our far superior snide comments about the idiotic snide comments. It's a t-shirt, and a time, that always makes me smile in recollection. 

Although I am nostalgic for the sienna-toned quaintness of that time, for the passionate connection that face-to-face hands-on work creates, I am very grateful to be able to enjoy this particular time right now perhaps because i remember what it was like before veganism had gained a little foothold in our popular culture. We are still very small in actual numbers, but somehow, we've become a force to be reckoned with over the past decade, and the ripple effect of our influence is keenly felt. Recently, for example, I went with my son to an apple festival in the city. Back when I lived in that very same neighborhood of Lincoln Square, it was all about the German delis. (At the Brauhaus on a date, I asked the server if they had anything vegetarian and she recommended hasenpfeffer, rabbit stew, but thankfully I had seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon where the king angrily - and with imperious sibilance -  demanded it so I was nobody's fool. Who says cartoons have no value?) In other words, Lincoln Square was pretty much the opposite of a vegan mecca. Today, the German food and culture remains, but shuffled between everything is more than a little hint at the change that's happening. At the apple festival, I could walk into pretty much any cafĂ© with a boy Who Suddenly Could Not Wait Even A Second Longer to use the restroom, and know that I could pick up something in the treats-for-bathroom barter system. Later, when we picked up soy- and fruit-based gelato it occurred to me once again, as my friend told to the guy behind the counter that they should carry more soy options, what a radically different culture my son is growing up in, thank goodness. Back in the 1990s, my friends and I would launch into spontaneous cartwheels and shout from the rooftops if one coffee shop offered a dry, tasteless vegan cookie or we spotted the v-word on a menu, elusive and magical like a purple unicorn, but today, my son and his little herbivorous urban peers take it for granted that there will be high quality vegan treats for them. Not only that, but they actually have a choice now because just chocolate or vanilla is soooo pre-school: pumpkin, cinnamon swirl, lemon poppyseed, blueberry-freaking-cream cheese. Yes, they're a generation of entitled little brats who will never have to walk three miles barefoot in the snow for mushy veggie burgers, but I can't describe the sense of happiness I feel when I go somewhere and we can just be like everyone else. (But cooler!)

A couple of things to make clear: a culturally diverse, large city, and all the bounty within, is in easy access. I understand that this effortlessness is not available everywhere and I am so appreciative of what we have here. Second, I don't mistake a proliferation of vegan cupcakes as evidence that the revolution is at hand. The revolution will not be found in a bag of powdered sugar. The shift is happening, though, and it is seismic and it is real, born of natural cultural change, smart outreach, talented animal advocates and people waking up to the inescapable reality that our dietary habits cannot continue if we are to continue. It has not translated into fewer animals being consumed or abused yet - these institutions are nothing if not entrenched - but I have no doubt that this will happen as the wave continues. What we are witnessing is this slow untangling in real time so we may not always see it in an obvious way, but make no mistake that it is happening. Imagine the evolution of the vegan lifestyle as it settles into our larger culture like stop-action photography, from 1995 until the present. The dust is still very much unsettled and I believe that the boomerang we tossed out is really in its infancy of its journey back, but progress is certainly happening. I have no doubt about that.

This all a very longwinded way to explain what I am up to these days. My husband and I, along with some of the very best kind of people you could know, are putting together an event called Chicago VeganMania, and it's happening October 9 at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk in Chicago from 10:00 - 6:00. This is our second year. The driving force behind our event, the thing that gets us excited to send out press releases and answer questions about parking (okay, this last thing is an exaggeration) in addition to all the other work we're doing, is the idea of third and fourth wave activism. If you think back on the historic arc of social justice movements, which the animal advocacy movement is part of, you'll see that the first wave is usually confrontation. It's people not getting to the back of the bus, it is Stonewall. This is what propels us at the beginning, what gives us momentum and the passion. Education is next: this is the outreach, the written materials that make the case, the more recognizable advocacy work. Understandably, the vegan movement has largely centered around these first two waves of activism. What we are trying to do with Chicago VeganMania is to be a part of ushering in the next two waves: celebration, which is the sort of thing witnessed in cultural pride festivals, and integration, where the "whys" of veganism rarely come into play, and it is simply accepted as a normal and natural way of life. The first two waves are still vitally important and they work in tandem with what follows: it's not as though they dissolve when the next waves begin. It is an organic and fluid back-and-forth motion, as waves naturally will be, with different current systems throughout. We need the third and fourth waves, though, for the veganism to take root on a mass scale and become more than a fringe movement. This doesn't mean that we're adapting veganism for mainstream tastes: quite the opposite. By taking proud ownership and putting it out there in our unique and diverse ways with our unique and diverse gifts, we are ensuring that that this movement that flows outward whether we like it or not, will have our particular stamp on it. And our stamp is fabulous so Chicago VeganMania will be fabulous!

We will have speakers, all lovely and passionate and talented with their distinctive voices. There's Nathan Runkle, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Dr. Milton Mills, Dr. Michael Greger, and Zarakyah Ben Sar Ahmadiel. We will also have cooking demos this year, with Isa Chandra Moskowitz again, Kim Gracen (from The Chicago Diner), Fran Costigan, Kelly Peloza, Linda Szarkowski and chefs from Soul Vegetarian. We will have entertainment: The Giving Tree Band, The Exponential, Read My Hips (belly dance troupe), The Rust Belt Ramblers, Phenom and Nikki Lynette. (The schedule and bios can here found here.)

There will be so much else: a children's play area. A DJ'd Luxury Lounge where people can relax and connect, Dozens of cruelty-free, independent vendors. Great food. Gift bags for the first one hundred in line age sixteen and older. A vegan rock star photo booth. Even a Vegan Cupcake Fairy! It's going to be amazing and it's all going to be part of that vibrant collective creative vision that is a small part of what is ushering in the third and fourth waves of the vegan movement.

So get excited and come to see us if you can at Chicago VeganMania. If you can't join us, keep adding your distinctive talents and unique, compassionate voice to the mix. When people perceive veganism as something more than a dietary fad, as something different than an exclusive club you need to know the secret handshake to gain entry to, we will effect incredible change. Chicago VeganMania is part of the galvanizing entrenchment of the movement. We have so much at our fingertips, we really do. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep moving forward!

See you there...


  1. This is so beautiful, Marla. It's good for me to remember that it hasn't always been this easy, that as a 20-something my veganism has always been of a more privileged variety (though I still do the happy menu dance!). One day I hope to come to Chicago for VeganMania and be sprinkled with magical sugary fairy dust by the Cupcake Fairy.

  2. Thanks, sweet lady. I would SO love it if you could come to Chicago VeganMania! We are very lucky for the world we're living in today as vegans, that's for sure, and we need to celebrate it so people can appreciate what we have and be inspired to build on it more.

  3. Terrific post, thanks so much for writing it. I want to thank you for your efforts, over the years, on behalf of all animals.

    You were much more perceptive about our "war" on other earthlings much earlier than most and I admire and salute you for that.

    Thank you again and I hope the VeganMania is everything you wish it to be.

  4. Just stumbled across blog page via your comment on Chris Brunn's VeganMania post.
    Thank you so much for all your hardwork and efforts the past decade and a half. Because of your vocal presence, we vegans today have it so much easier. Yes, spoilt a little bit like your son. :D
    Sincerely, Swati

  5. Thank you, Vegan Elder. :) It was a great event. Writing a brief recap shortly!

    Hi, Swati! Yes, we do definitely have it easier these days. I know a lot depends on where you live (and the circumstances around it) but it is so much easier to be vegan these days. I'm so grateful to be living in a time when this is possible.

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