Interview by Aileen McGraw, VRG Intern
“Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” A seemingly Utopian cliché finds true form in Marla Rose – vegan writer, event producer and community builder.
Based in Chicago, Marla promotes veganism through creative action. She is a co-founder of the Chicago Vegan Family Network, started the annual Chicago VeganMania festival, blogs as Vegan Feminist Agitator, writes for Examiner.com, and wrote the novel Vivian Sharpe, Vegan Superhero.
Below, read her interview with the VRG for a “Vegetarian Action” feature in Vegetarian Journal.
You were recently reported saying Chicago is a great place for veganism in a Chicago Parent article. In what ways does the Chicago Vegan Family Network contribute to this environment?
That’s a good question. Honestly, at first thought, I didn’t think we contributed much because as a group, we do not do much in terms of outreach or activism. The group is a pretty fluid, organic thing but so far people have mainly been interested in the monthly potlucks and our annual events (such as our visit to an animal sanctuary and camping trip) as opposed to activism.
This being said, I will say that on a more subtle level, we do contribute to the vegan-friendly environment of Chicago and this is why: when we empower people to raise their children with compassionate values, they are going out into the world and influencing others: classmates, parents, friends, businesses owners, schools, politicians and so on. The parents are asking for more vegan-friendly options at restaurants, they are creating dialogues with teachers about how animals might be exploited in the classrooms, they are raising children with pride and confidence about how they live and the children, in turn, are influencing their peers. Undoubtedly, our large and small efforts create a powerful ripple effect, which results in an environment that is more open to our values. In this way, every time you help to empower someone else to trust their core convictions about living with kindness and help them to trust that it’s wonderful to raise children with these values, you are helping to create a community that embraces compassionate living more and more.
How does your son impact your activism? Do adults and kids take on veganism differently?
He influences me in virtually every way. He is a naturally kind and forgiving person and this is a positive influence on me, helping me to remember to extend my circle of compassion to other humans who disappoint me. The main thing, though, is that he influences me to make the most of my time. When you have a child, you can become very aware of how quickly time passes, which is both bittersweet and motivating. From an activist’s perspective, it makes me more eager to get work done. I am also aware that I don’t know how long I will have this influence on my son: I want to be an example to him that it is up to us to create the world we want to inhabit. You don’t like what you see? Change it. You don’t see what you want to see? Create it. This is the one life we are guaranteed – no one can say how long it will last – and we are not passive bystanders. I want my son to see me using my energy and time toward fostering positive change and I already see him doing the same thing.
I think that children and adults do often take on veganism in different ways but the root is the same, a beautiful innocence found in even the most cynical person: we don’t believe that animals are ours to exploit, harm or kill, and that is a very kind-hearted, childlike (in the best use of the term) conviction. Beyond that, I think that adult animal advocates could learn a lot from children when it comes to our activism. One is a lot less likely to burn out if he or she is enjoying the activism they are doing. There are so many associations we have with the dour, humorless, angry activist and I think we would be wise – as communicators and as people who want to be doing this long-term – to lighten up and have some fun with our outreach. Taking a few seconds to smile will not result in any more animals being killed but it may make people more willing to consider what you have to say.
How and when did you realize the need for a community like the Chicago Vegan Family Network?
As soon as I learned I was expecting a child, I knew that I wanted a group like CVFN. Quite simply, every community with vegan children should have such a network. CVFN has filled our lives with wonderful friends, monthly potlucks, annual camping trips, visits to an animal sanctuary and more to look forward to throughout the year. With very little effort, we have grown from six families at our first potluck to more than 50 families. The children are cultivating lifelong friends with people who share their values and some of their unique experiences and that is a very valuable thing. Vegans are swimming against the current and while many of us do not mind being “different,” it is important that everyone have sanctuary, a place where they are understood, supported and accepted. That is what CVFN provides. Through building community, we deepen the foundation of compassionate living values and help to create proud, confident, independent children. As adults, of course, we enjoy the support and friendships as well.
Do you approach outreach to kids differently than with Chicago VeganMania or your blog, Vegan Feminist Agitator?
These are just different facets of my interests. With Chicago VeganMania, we wanted to create a dynamic, inclusive festival that captured the exciting spirit of our vegan community in Chicago. Vegans are so often misunderstood and portrayed as a bunch of negative scolds: spend five minutes at CVM and anyone would have that preconception shattered. We have diverse vendors, great bands and entertainment, cooking demos, wonderful speakers, and it’s all vegan, something that thousands of people get to enjoy.
With Vegan Feminist Agitator, that is another part of me: the person who loves creative writing, enjoys satire, has fun exploring ideas, connecting with like-minded souls. Even though VFA is pretty different from Chicago VeganMania, it’s clear – at least to me – that this is part of my self-expression, just another aspect of it.
With children, it’s not as much about me. I just try to listen to where they are at and connect with them. Kids can spot a phony from a million miles away, so I strive to be authentic, to not have preconceptions.
As you probably can see, I think it’s very important that we don’t assume a cookie-cutter approach to our activism. I think that people are drawn to realness, honesty and individuality; the more we cultivate our advocacy around our unique voices, perspectives and talents, the more other people will be able to envision themselves as animal advocates. We need to make room for everyone. Not everyone is cut out for leafleting, not everyone is cut out for organizing events. Some people are just damn good accountants and others are fantastic flamenco dancers. We have a place and a need for everyone and their gifts.
What are common inspirations behind your novel, freelance writing, your Examiner columns, and vegetarian action at large?
I’ll try to answer this without sounding pretentious: creative writing, reading, visual arts, my friends, my family, my grandparents, people watching on the train, activists, Gandhi, feminist pioneers, living in the city and so on. I’d say that I grew up as a “weird kid” who spent a lot of time daydreaming alone and the enjoyment I find from just immersing myself in solitude, brainstorming ideas and chasing my muse is invaluable to me. A fertile imagination is the gift that keeps on giving. To be productive and make ambitious projects come to fruition, though, you need to foster relationships within your community. So understanding one’s perfect calibration of introversion and extroversion helps to keep us engaged, charged and inspired.
What does a vegan family mean to you? How (as a family) do you pursue vegetarian action?
To me, the common thread of a vegan family is that we emphasize critical thinking and compassionate action. We value our passionately held beliefs over fitting in and conveniences. Beyond that, we are all different just as omnivorous families are all different.
As a family, our vegetarian action takes many different forms: off the top of my head, we volunteer at the local animal shelter; we have a vegan lemonade and treat stand called the Stand for Kindness; we put up an inflatable turkey every November with a sign encouraging people to try a vegan Thanksgiving and Vegetarian Starter Kits; we are all deeply involved with Chicago VeganMania; we are making videos of Justice speaking as a vegan child to demystify how we live. We have our fingers in a lot of different pots because we like to stay active and engaged.
Can you speak specifically on your outreach to kids and your novel, The Adventures of Vivian Sharpe, Vegan Superhero?
I call Vivian Sharpe your classic, American vegan coming-of-age superhero thriller. I didn’t write it to preach at anyone or have readers reach a foregone conclusion. One of the things that has been most gratifying to me is reviewers pointing out that the story captures the complexities and grey areas of activism as well as the process of waking up to injustice, which has shared universal qualities no matter our personal journeys. In deciding to follow our convictions, especially those that are so in opposition to how our world is set up, there are often what we could consider negative consequences: jeopardizing longtime friendships, alienation from family, the initial feeling of loss when we let go of familiar comforts. Especially for young people, popularity and fitting in are very emphasized, and vegans, just by our very presence, are the elephant in the room people don’t want to see. Vivian Sharpe is a 15-year-old sophomore and she starts out as someone who considers herself “normal” and “average” in every way, only to have everything she thought she knew upended overnight. She goes from being an omnivore to being a vegan when she is visited by a pig spirit named Tolstoy, who tells her in the most elliptical way that she has a major journey ahead of her, and whether she likes it or not, she has no option but to follow this path. There is no going back for her.
As the story evolves, Vivian develops a heightened empathy and intuition, which is both her source of strength and her Achilles heel. As a result, she becomes aware of a deadly and secret contamination of her town’s water supply by the largest employer in her area. The ramifications are very far-reaching. For the first time in her life, Vivian has to step up to the plate and face the consequences of investigating and exposing this corporation, the consequences of not conforming. There is a lot of suspense and drama, but it’s also, as I said, a coming-of-age story: How does Vivian break away from the role she has played in her family and town? How does she understand herself now that she is suddenly so different? How does she navigate the ups-and-downs of teenaged life while suddenly having huge responsibilities only a couple of people know about?
In terms of my novel and outreach to kids, my first obligation was to write a compelling story with complex characters. So much popular Young Adult fiction is insulting to the intelligence and way too predictable, filled with stock characters. Believe me, I spent a lot of time researching this market. So my first obligation was to write as good a story as I could. After that, if there is any outreach with my novel, it is to inspire readers to think about their own lives, where they can make positive changes that go against the grain, and become empowered to be bold, passionate and engaged members of our world.
What does the future look like? (How) Do you plan future activism? What do you do to transform “now” to “next?”
I operate intuitively but I also try to be pragmatic. I try to get a sense of what there is a need for in the community and I try to fill that gap. I also frequently find myself sad when projects end, so I try to find new ones right away! It really is a blend of the imagination and the practical that leads me to wherever I go next. I try to find things that are creatively fulfilling but also needed.
Find additional resources in Marla’s Examiner article, “A blueprint for starting your own vegan family network…”
Learn more about Marla Rose and her vegetarian action on her website.
Read past Vegetarian Action features in our Vegetarian Journal.