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Vegan Outreach
August 2009

Playing to Strength

Living one’s life as a vegan is a clear first step for many, but then what? There are countless ways in which motivated individuals can use their gifts to reduce animal suffering each day. The possibilities are limited only by our creativity.

There is no one-size-fits-all method of activism. What are your strengths/weaknesses? What do you enjoy doing? How can you live a happy, purposeful life and help the animals to the greatest degree possible? The answers, of course, are different for each of us, and sometimes our answers change over time.

While creative thinking and playing to one’s strengths can open up new avenues for promoting veganism, rigid adherence to doctrine can obstruct advocacy. Isn’t one’s time better spent distributing vegan literature than tracing the origins of obscure ingredients? In order to be effective advocates, the decisions we make – both on a daily basis and long-term – must offer a net benefit to the animals.

Vegans can remain true to their ideals regardless of whether or not they engage in traditional methods of activism. Although striving to acquire great wealth is seen by many as the antithesis of activism, those who earn large amounts of money through business can have an enormous impact on animal liberation when they contribute funds to organizations/activities aimed at reducing animal suffering.

Diverse and committed people have lent their talents to all aspects of Vegan Outreach. However, if not for those who pursue other fields and financially support the printing of Why Vegan?, Compassionate Choices, and Even If You Like Meat, we would be unable to reach anyone with our information. It is because of our members’ hard work in fields not directly related to animal rights that we have the funds needed to print and distribute literature around the world.

Constructive Outreach

In order to spread vegetarianism and veganism effectively, our focus should be on educating people with credible, persuasive, and focused literature; providing well-documented and thorough answers for specific questions; supplying educational materials to schools; working to get vegan options in various settings; working with food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants for more options; and supplying people with lists of local restaurants and shopping opportunities where vegan options exist.

Our experience has shown that the most effective way to accomplish the above is through understanding and constructive outreach. Positive outreach takes patience and can be frustrating, but it is worth the effort. We don’t have to force people to notice us; simply being confident, articulate vegans in public is enough.

Some specific activities that can lead to people learning about veganism:

  • Putting a reference in your email address or placing URLs, banners, or quotes in your email signature or on your web pages.
  •  Wearing a Vegan Outreach T-shirt or other clothes that say “vegan” or “vegetarian.” This creates opportunities to give literature to people who ask.
  • Writing articles for/letters to publications, including newsletters of local groups (e.g., your local chapter of the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, Food not Bombs, etc.). Tell a story tailored to the audience that gives the readers a way of identifying with you.
  • Displaying information in public areas, such as hanging copies of Why Vegan?, Compassionate Choices, and Even If You Like Meat on your office door. Many have reported great success in displaying them at health food stores, restaurants, libraries, etc. Also, tabbed flyers and display prints can be downloaded – perfect for campus bulletin boards.
  • Providing people with good vegan food. Although this sounds obvious, it is far from easy. Our general advice now is to serve easily prepared, relatively simple foods (e.g., pasta, potatoes, beans, casseroles) with different sauces, perhaps with a new food as an appetizer (e.g., hummus). When serving vegetarian meats, we suggest providing standard condiments (mustard, pickles, etc.). If you’re interested in serving vegan foods to the public at local events, you can apply for assistance at the VegFund site.
  • Joining/starting a local veg*an society. Many people will be significantly helped by some support structure – shopping references, dining guides, potlucks, etc. Your group can write guest columns, seek out speaking engagements in schools and clubs, give cooking classes, work with local schools and restaurants to increase vegan options, show documentaries, etc. There is really no limit to this.

Suggestions for Tabling

The initial impression is crucial in establishing a dialogue. Displays, needed to attract visitors, should clearly and simply convey the area of concern (e.g., big pictures, very little text). Large-screen TVs are always magnets for attracting people, to whom you can then offer literature. Consider your audience and location when you choose which pictures to display or videos to show. Graphic images of animal torture upset children, while teenagers and younger adults are most likely to be moved by these photographs.

Be clean, well-groomed, and conservatively dressed. Counterculture attire, except where this is the norm, sends the message that your world radically differs from that of your audience. This creates a barrier between you and prospective visitors who may react with a feeling of distrust, even hostility. Remember, you are there as a spokesperson for the animals, and should not let anything come between your audience and the animals’ plight.

Your credibility will increase if you actively listen: repeat a visitor’s main points using different words, showing that you understand. Then, ask thought-provoking but courteous questions. Seek common ground with your visitors by emphasizing shared goals or concerns. Acknowledge your table visitors’ valid points or observations. Don’t turn the encounter into a debate or personal attack; keep it a mutual exploration of the issues.

If the main barrier seems to be the visitors’ desire to continue habits that they find pleasant – such as sport fishing or wearing fur–mention any of your own relevant changes in lifestyle. In response to a declaration such as "I could never give up meat," you might relate something of your own eating habits: e.g., "I used to feel the same way, and at first I just cut back on meat. Now that I’m vegetarian, I’ve found that I really don’t miss meat. In fact, I feel good about my diet, being more at peace with the world around me." Such an honest admission of your own feelings can build rapport. When people say something a little obnoxious, smile and wish them a good day. If they say something really mean, you might say, "That was a mean thing to say.” If said as an observation, without a tone of bitterness, it will possibly get them thinking.

Suggestions for Leafleting

The great thing about leafleting is the lack of preparation time required. At the right time and place, just one person can hand out hundreds of brochures in less than an hour. You will inevitably interest many new people in making their way toward veganism, sowing seeds of change where they do not currently exist.

Students tend to be more interested in veganism than the rest of society, making college campuses good places to leaflet; weekdays before 3 p.m. are the busiest times. At large universities, there is normally a steady flow of pedestrian traffic somewhere on campus at all times throughout the day. Smaller colleges and universities usually have a steady flow of traffic between classes.

You can find a spot where many pedestrians are passing, or you can walk around offering the brochure to people you come across. Many of us now prefer walking around and offering the pamphlet for a number of reasons.

Some schools have an open policy on allowing leafleting by outsiders, while others do not. Public universities are supposed to allow it according to federal court decisions, but they don't always follow these rules. However, students are rarely questioned about leafleting. They commonly go around campus handing out flyers about upcoming parties to everyone they see. This has made students accustomed to being approached by leafleters and so they think nothing of it. If you dress casually, carry a backpack of pamphlets, and simply walk around approaching students, you will appear to fit in. Even if you are older, people will normally assume you are a graduate student if you dress like one. We have found that we are rarely questioned by anyone when we just walk around handing out pamphlets, versus standing in one place waiting for people to come to us. And you hand out a lot more, too!

We have often leafleted inside academic buildings and student unions when the weather is bad!

Even if someone eventually tells you that you are not permitted to hand out literature on campus, it will likely be after you've given out a great number of brochures.

People who take part in walkathons in order to raise money for causes tend to be willing to accept literature. (We target these people because we think they are likely to take a brochure, read it, and thoughtfully consider moving towards veganism, not because Why Vegan? has anything to do with the cause for which they are walking.) Animal-related events, such as humane society benefits or animal rights presentations, are also a good place to reach interested and committed individuals who may not have considered the implications of their own diet, or the idea of promoting veganism.

While leafleting, keep in mind:

  • We have found that “Would you like a pamphlet about vegetarianism?” or “Have you seen one of these yet?” are effective ways of offering literature to people (and minimize the number thrown away).
  • Many activists are nervous about leafleting. In our experience, nervousness often fades once you’ve offered the brochure to a few people.
  • Besides Why Vegan?, Compassionate Choices, and Even If You Like Meat, Vegan Outreach can supply you with copies of our Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating for people with questions.
  • One person can make an enormous difference. Many people will pass the information on to others, causing a chain reaction.

See Adopt a College for more information.

Personal Interaction

Few people have any interest in engaging a religious zealot bent on converting them. Similarly, when animal rights advocates give the impression that they are trying to convert people, people resist the message. One activist reports what has worked for him:

I started at a new university almost a year ago. I wore my sweatshirt and T-shirts that say Vegan Outreach on them at least every third day. For months, only a few people said anything to me. Some of them joke with me about eating meat. I don’t act offended, and try to continue the conversation. Slowly, over time, more and more people ask questions. I try not to be pushy, but offer them a pamphlet when the circumstances are right.

Our conversations used to go somewhat like this:

Potential Vegan (PV): Oh, so you’re a vegan. I know someone else who is vegan. You know, I really think it’s terrible how they treat the animals, but I could never do it. Animal products are in everything, aren’t they?

Vegan: They are in a lot of things. But you figure out what you can and can’t eat and then it becomes easier.

PV: It just takes too much discipline for me.

Vegan: I could give you a list of the names of all the different possible animal ingredients. There’s less than 10,000 of them! And I can give you a list of 500 companies and whether they test on animals or not. It’s not so bad. Hey, where are you going?

Now our answer goes:

Vegan: To me, veganism is not about personal purity, but a way to stop suffering. You don’t have to avoid every animal product, just the obvious ones for which an animal was bred, raised, and eventually killed. Some vegans avoid all they can as a symbolic gesture, but minuscule amounts of animal products or by-products will fade away as the meat, dairy, and egg industries fade.

Sometimes a potential vegan will say, “I could just never give up ice cream (or cheese, etc.).” Some vegans now reply, “Then give up everything but ice cream.” These types of reactions will often surprise the potential vegan and make them realize that veganism is not about making yourself pure, but about doing what you can to stop suffering. Veganism is not the bottom line – the animals are.

People often try to sidestep the issue by talking about everything from Eskimos eating fish to being stranded on a desert island. To be effective, we have to bring conversations back to the fact that eating animal products causes suffering, and each of us can work to avoid creating this suffering.

We should not simply try to feel that we have won an argument with a meat eater. Rather, we need people to consider the issues in depth and want to change. If we are to reach people’s hearts and minds, and help them utilize the power of their choices, we must make people aware that we are sincere individuals who have made informed decisions. We must show everyone that we have decided to use our choices to make a positive statement about how the world should – and can – be. Only then will others be inclined to join us in creating a new world.

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