Early in the history of Main Street Vegan Academy, one of the students, Ximena Milagros Savitch, told me that she was teaching a class called “Yoga for Angry Vegans.” I thought that was odd. Angry vegans? We’re not angry. We’re sweet and sensitive and pacifistic and caring – the personification of a Nicholas Sparks movie and a Thomas Kinkade painting and a biography of Clara Barton or Gandhi or Mother Teresa.
But I was stuck in the old days. Not that 20th century vegans were angelic beings, it’s just that we were aware of our status as a tiny minority viewed by the majority, if they knew we existed at all, as extremists and nuts. To overcome these preconceptions, we were nice, oh, so very nice.
- “I don’t mind if you order the cheeseburger.”
- “Sure, we’ll come to Thanksgiving and act as if seeing a dead turkey in the middle of the table doesn’t phase us.”
- “Oh my gosh, you’re so kind to have made this special dish for me, but I’m such a fanatic, I can’t even eat tuna casserole.”
Those days are over, as well they should be. And yet we’re still a small minority of the population, and the way we eat and the way we think about animals is still seen as extreme by most other people. We absolutely do not need to shrink or apologize ever, and yet we increase our effectiveness by meeting other people where they are, listening to them, and making room for their evolution.
When I was in London last month to speak at VegFestUK, one of the great joys of the trip was getting to spend time with Stella Cherfas, my first yoga teacher. She’s 93 now, and a true testament to enlightened living, still teaching both yoga and painting, swimming every morning at 6 a.m., and living in a 4th floor walkup. Stella became a lacto-vegetarian (no meat, fish, or eggs) in 1952. After we reconnected in 2013, she moved closer to veganism, but felt that giving up yogurt and kefir impaired her digestion. I told her about non-dairy yogurt and probiotic supplements, and she shared with me on this trip that she was off yogurt, “but just a little kefir now and again….”
“Don’t you think,” she asked me, “that vegans can sometimes be a bit overbearing?” Ximena’s class for angry vegans came immediately to mind. I never thought of us as overbearing, but then, I’m “us,” so I have a different vantage point. I told Stella that sometimes vegans, especially new ones, are so overwhelmed and outraged by the extent of the suffering, and how easily it could end if humans would simply get over their attachment to animal products, that we feel like shouting at everybody, “Don’t you get it?!?!?”
But they don’t. And that’s the thing. We’re not yet at critical mass. We’re getting there, though, and it’s the most exciting thing I know of. Yesterday the Aerosoles shoe catalog for winter arrived. I always read it carefully. Ninety percent of their shoes are leather or suede, but within the ten percent that aren’t, I can find some that are both stylish and comfortable enough for hiking around Manhattan without resorting to gym shoes. I know to look for the terms “cloth” and “faux leather,” and in the current catalog I saw several pairs so designated, but then I saw something else: two pairs of shoes, beaded ballet flats and the sweetest pair of pointy-toed kitten heels, both labeled “Vegan.” That wouldn’t have happened even a year ago, but it’s happening now. And we see indications like this all the time in food, clothing, and cosmetics. The tide is turning. And it will turn faster, I believe, if we stand firm in our conviction to cruelty-free living, and still meet others where they are.
It’s my opinion that we do this by abstaining from animal products without implying that we’re holier than everybody. We convert by contrast, not criticism. We avoid events we find morally objectionable and reassure those whose minds aren’t open yet that we still love them. We’re productive and helpful and well informed, so when someone is interested in why we do what we do, we can answer their questions succinctly and intelligently. And when someone wants to come this way, we’re there as a friend and guide.
“You do me proud,” Stella told me after one of my talks in London. “You don’t tell people what they have to eat or how they have to be. You just offer and that makes them want it. If you didn’t, I’d act as if I didn’t know you.” Whether this means she’s done with that “little kefir now and again,” I can’t say. But just as she gave me the combined blessing of yoga and vegetarianism when my adult life was just beginning, maybe I’ve given her veganism as she moves on toward 100 years.
Victoria Moran is the author of Main Street Vegan and coauthor with JL Fields and 60 Main Street Vegan Academy graduates of The Main Street Vegan Academy Cookbook, coming in time for the year-end holidays and available now for preorder. Victoria is the host of the weekly Main Street Vegan podcast and director of Main Street Vegan Academy.