Jason, who founded Vegan Drinks in New York, started the popular event as a way to build vegan community. Since its inception, it has evolved from drinks alone to having food trucks and vendors show up, and there is an opportunity during "vegan shout-outs" to find vegan roommates, hire for vegan restaurants, or make other announcements relevant to the vegan community. Vegan Drinks was open-sourced so that it could be reproduced in other cities, which it has, with the help of some basic FAQs provided by the original founders.
Maeve described her experience going vegan as a teenager in the small community of Idaho Falls. "Sometimes our potlucks were just the four of us." However, the tiny community is what helped Maeve go vegan in the first place- it can be hard to be vegan in a small town, and having a community, no matter how small, can help you through the rough patches. Now that Maeve lives in Portland, she's finding new challenges that arise from having such a large vegan community. There's a lot more to do, but that results in shorter attention spans, so events have to be more inventive and compelling to get vegans (and future vegans!) to attend. "We decided to have a 'fakin' fest opposite the Portland bacon fest... We have joked about doing a sausage fest!" It doesn't just have to be about being vegan- make it fun and engaging, like when the fakin' fest had a haiku contest. Likewise, Maeve's Heartichoke vegan supper club started out as a quick way to earn money, but turned into community building. Most importantly, though, you must have an event that is open to new people, otherwise you're just hanging out with your friends and not helping the animals.
Laura concurred that inclusion is really important, as community can solidify your conviction as a vegan. Laura engages others in the vegan community and simultaneously reaches out to non-vegans by writing about vegan food on non-vegan food blogs. "You can do vegan community building that is inclusive and not just talking about mock meat for 5 hours." Laura also emphasizes that patience is a virtue- in community building, you may plant a seed that takes years to germinate.
Leigh-Chantelle was sick of preaching to the converted, while simultaneously recognizing that vegans still stand to learn things and educate ourselves. She engages both vegans and non-vegans through Green Earth Group, an environmental group with a focus on veganism and sustainable food. Kids' activities at the festivals were very popular, and educating kids on their choices has been very beneficial- the kids bring their parents and get the whole family more interested in a compassionate lifestyle. Leigh-Chantelle has also been working with local businesses to create spaces for vegan meetings, video screenings, talks, and more. Ultimately, she says, those looking to build vegan community should lead by example, inspire all they can. Whatever you're passionate about, share it with others!
One pertinent question raised by the audience was how to make community events successful. Laura gave an example close to my heart- Vegan Drinks kind of fizzled in San Francisco, and yet our vegan bake sales were hugely successful. There are tons of people in the bay area who love animals but aren't necessarily vegans or AR activists. Rebranding the bake sale as a "bake sale for the animals" got a lot more people involved and showing up while simultaneously promoting vegan baked goods and opening others' minds, hearts, and mouths to a vegan lifestyle.
Laura also pushed us to challenge our perception of what defines "successful." Do one hundred people show up to your event, but all stand in the corner staring into their drinks? Or do only three people show up, but have an engaging, productive conversation?
Jason's answer was simple: Free food. "It's a great way to get people in the door," he said, but cautioned, "but it's not always the best way to get the 'best quality' people out there."