You've likely seen the viral and catchy Vegan Street memes that everyone has been sharing recently. Did you know there's a long history of successful activism and effective marketing behind them? That's right! Marla Rose and her husband John Beske are the creative minds behind them and this isn't their first activist campaign. Ever heard of a little event called VeganMania in Chicago? Of course you have! Well, they started the event in 2009, and their Vegan Street community goes all the way back to 1998, just one year after Allison's Gourmet opened! This is one interesting story, read more to learn about Marla Rose's decades of activism and all-around awesomeness.
Allison Rivers Samson: You began Vegan Street way back in the era of dial-up internet and America Online. What goals have you accomplished since then through the Vegan Street community?
Marla Rose: Great question! When we started Vegan Street back in 1998, it was a much different world in terms of technology. (The sound of that annoying dial-up connection will always be with me, I fear.) We put Vegan Street on hiatus in 2002 when our son was born and my husband and I went on to focus on other things, specifically my life as a freelance writer and author and my husband went on to create his graphic design business. We stayed very busy with veganism, though, creating the Chicago chapter of Earthsave, then the Conference for Conscious Living, which then paved the way for Chicago VeganMania, which just completed its sixth year. So those weren’t Vegan Street activities while we were on hiatus but we stayed active. We do have big plans for the future that are premature to talk about, but, loosely, they focus on empowering people to spearhead compassionate action through projects in their own communities.
Allison Rivers Samson: Vegan Street publishes very shareable vegan memes. How did that get started and what is the process?
Marla Rose: We started the memes, frankly, as a way to build name recognition for Vegan Street after so many years off the scene and also because we saw so many poorly done memes, often with faulty information or poorly designed. With John’s background in design and communications and mine in writing, we also realized that sometimes images can make people feel on a more visceral, immediate level, whereas words can take longer to process and ponder. Both are important - the immediacy of images and the more contemplative qualities that language inspires - but we need to be using all the effective tools in our toolboxes to get the message out.
In developing Vegan Street 2.0, we realized we were living in a world that has even less of a willingness to commit time to reading and learning, that the information we provided had to be instantly compelling, comprehensible and shareable. Even as longtime vegans, through researching our memes, we have learned so much more about the many ways in which animals are used, harmed and killed, most of which are hidden from view and most of which people would be appalled by if they only knew. Our goal is to keep knocking down the walls of separation, keep pulling back the curtains and keep building bridges to integrating veganism in individual lives and the broader culture. Our memes provide a great instrument for achieving this.
Allison Rivers Samson: The increasingly popular festival Chicago VeganMania would likely not be happening in its current form without you. Tell us how the event was started and what it has grown to.
Marla Rose: Thank you! We have an amazing, fiercely dedicated team we would be lost without, of course, full of many complementary talents and passions. We started Chicago VeganMania in 2009 because we really felt that our city deserved a vegan festival to show off our wonderful, diverse, warm and very talented community. We had “green” festivals, we had “humane meat” festivals, but we didn’t have an expressly vegan one. That first year, we had no idea what to expect, though we expected it to be a success. When John and I drove up to the space that morning and saw a giant line snaking around the building an hour before we opened, though, we knew that Chicago could sustain a vegan festival and, frankly, we outgrew the location our first year, though we had to remain for two more years before we found a suitable place to grow into.
Since then, we have moved to a much larger and more modern building, but remained true to our original roots, including our commitment to keeping it free and to keeping it in the city as opposed to the suburbs. From that first year, we’ve expanded our scope a little each year, and now we have speakers, panels, cooking demos, live music in our relaxing Culture Café, a children’s area, an “Ask the Experts” table with topics changing by the hour, a Vegan Rock Star photo booth and more. Oh, and dozens and dozens of vendors as well as the world’s largest temporary vegan food court. From the moment you walk in, you enter a vegan oasis, where we even have our own currency (called V-Bucks). The idea is to create a welcoming, friendly environment but one where vegan is simply the norm for the day. What does the larger community (meaning the non-vegans who may be dragged there) think of this? People are excited, they get to explore and learn more in an inclusive environment, they got to try delicious food samples they might normally not and they expand their horizons. For vegans, it’s like being in a world of our own design for the day. My son and his vegan buddies (and more than a few adults) call Chicago VeganMania “Vegan Christmas.”
Allison Rivers Samson: That sounds like my kind of event! Someday, I will be there. You also write on a blog called, Vegan Feminist Agitator. That is a title bold enough to match your personality. Share more about that project.
Marla Rose: Hee. I started VFA some years ago just as a way to keep writing between paid projects and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s kind of a “room of my own” where I get to be sarcastic, pour my heart out, vent about the things that anger me and just be silly. It was years before it dawned on me that other people might actually be interested in reading it. I’m still kind of surprised.
Allison Rivers Samson: What is the Chicago Vegan Family Network?
Marla Rose: I co-founded CVFN with my friend Lisa Joy Rosing in 2004 when my son was two and her sons were three and one. We met when a mutual friend introduced us, a friend who knew that we both wanted to start vegan family groups for ourselves and our children. Since we met and our first potluck in October 2004 (this is our tenth year!), we have had monthly potlucks, camping trips, road trips to an animal sanctuary and more. CVFN has a huge place in my heart. When our kids started, they were so little and now they are teens/tweens but there are other parents with younger kids, starting at newborn, so the span is from babies to teens. The beauty is that kids get to experience having other vegan peers, as well as some who are older and some who are younger, and they get to celebrate holidays and birthdays together. Further, parents get to troubleshoot the not-well-charted terrain of raising vegan kids in this decidedly non-vegan world. I am a big believer in the importance of community, especially as so many of us don’t have extended family near us or are estranged, and CVFN helps to not only normalize the experience of growing up in this different way, but to help make it an empowered, joyful life as well.
Allison Rivers Samson: Normalizing something that is different from the mainstream is critical. What a gift to your children and community! You are a vegan superhero! How much did your own experiences in vegan living and activism influence Vivian Sharpe, the heroine in your first novel The Adventures of Vivian Sharpe, Vegan Superhero?
It takes a vegan superhero to know one, Allison!
I became a vegetarian as a teen like Vivian Sharpe but I don’t think I was very much like her otherwise. I was more confident and less of a wallflower but also less likely to stick to my convictions. Beyond that, though, I think the experience of living both in the “real” world and another where we no longer have blinders on, of knowing about things that seem so plainly obvious but still go unnoticed by most others, of our compassion being both a source of power and an Achille’s heel, I think most of us can relate to, no matter how long we’ve been vegan or how active we are. Vivian was originally conceived as a short story, then a comic book and then, finally, a novel. As I wrote, she was in the driver’s seat and I pretty much had to allow the plot and the characters to flow and evolve the way they wanted to flow and evolve, which required that it take a lot more time and I had to avoid the easy exits that I wanted to find. It taught me to trust the process. I do have plans to write a sequel or two when I find the time (or when Vivian insists). Writing Vivian Sharpe was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve undertaken but it also most gratifying. Writing it felt very much like something I’d been entrusted to do so I had to follow through.
Allison Rivers Samson: I don't even know how to respond to the amazingness of that answer, Marla. Living in Chicago, do you ever feel like you're surrounded by animal agribusiness (Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin)? In other words, does being so close to factory farms motivate your activism at all?
Marla Rose: I honestly don’t think the environment where I grew up has anything to do with my evolution as an activist, at least not in that way. I grew up in your proverbial quaint, leafy suburb with beautiful Lake Michigan on the eastern border. My grandparents all lived in Chicago and agribusiness never really factored into my consciousness or environment because we were, by and large, city people. While other parts of the region have much stronger and more obvious agricultural influences and roots, that was not part of my experience and as someone who still lives in an urban setting, it isn’t something that permeates my daily life, other than the research and writing I do. My veganism is equal parts a dedication to compassionate living and disgust for injustice but not because there was a farm down the road from me when I grew up. The through line is the love I’ve had for animals my whole life.
Allison Rivers Samson: What are your favorite Chicago vegan finds? In a recent visit, the restaurant, Karyn's on Green treated us to a swoon-worthy meal!
Marla Rose: There is so much to love! Well, I am especially enthralled with Arya Bhavan’s all-vegan weekend buffets (and also the whole Devon Avenue “Little India” experience, including the great markets); Amitabul’s fantastic Korean Buddhist temple food; the brunch at the Chicago Diner (oh, the Halsted street patio when it’s warm out, that can’t be beat); the phenomenal Zesty Salad at Ground Control (my son loves the Cheesy Italian); Urban Vegan for Thai food you can trust; Kitchen 17 (I can’t eat much there due to a gluten intolerance but my husband loves their house-made seitan); Native Foods, of course, especially for their addictive Sesame Kale Macro Bowl, and Karyn’s on Green for more of an upscale environment. (Her sister restaurant, Karyn’s Cooked, is every bit as good, in my opinion.) Last, the vegan high tea at The Lobby at the Peninsula Hotel is an absolute must for anyone who likes tea, little pastries and feeling pampered in an elegant setting with gorgeous views. (Call ahead 24-hours to let them know to prepare for you; they can also make gluten-free vegan items.) This is a great treat when winter is feeling inescapably dreary.
Thank you so much, Marla, for taking the time to talk with me and for your dedication to creating more awareness and compassion.
Cover photo by John Beske
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