From the time the ground begins to thaw until when the last leaves fall, veg societies and animal-rights organizations are hosting festivals and conferences at venues across the country. One of the primary goals of many veg and animal-rights (AR) organizations is outreach, and the events serve as a way to extend the message of compassion to the masses. More than informing the public, these gatherings are opportunities to construct and strengthen the veg and AR communities, while revealing to the world the passion, popularity, and potential of each movement. Sharon Graff, of the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS), has seen an increase in vegan attendees at the annual Vegetarian Summerfest, and says, “There could be many reasons for this, such as a greater desire to create a sense of community, a realization that the problems caused by meat production require action, or it may reflect a growth in the number of vegans in recent years.”
Some of the pioneers recall the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress, hosted by the then-newly formed NAVS, as the impetus that began the current movement. Alex Hershaft, founder and president of Farm Animal Rights Movement, remembers the World Vegetarian Congress as a time when people from all over the world; regardless of dress, economic stations, age, or demographic; came together, with vegetarianism being the one thing bonding them. From that first meeting, local vegetarian societies were formed throughout the country. In 1981, Hershaft launched the first Action for Life conference, an event he remembers as, “a launching pad for the animal-rights movement,” and where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals became a national organization. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Hershaft would begin hosting a conference again, creating the AR National Conference in 1997.
Since the 1975 conference, diverse groups have formed around the issues of veg lifestyles and animal rights. Dozens of festivals and conferences now take place across the country, all with different approaches and goals. President of the Boston Vegetarian Society, Evelyn Kimber, says when they planned the first Boston Vegetarian Food Festival 15 years ago, they did so with an “enthusiastic group of volunteers” and without the help of the internet. But the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival has grown since then, and like many festivals, Kimber says it has helped share the ideals of vegetarianism with mainstream audiences and made the lifestyle more accessible. The VeggieFest Chicago, hosted by the Science of Spirituality, tries to achieve accessibility through a friendly approach, striving to positively “emphasize the benefits for health, spirituality, ecology, and world hunger,” Michael Ribet, one of the founder’s says. Through strategies such as these, Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, which along with the Vegetarian Society of DC revived the DC Veg Fest in 2009, says the public is learning and becoming aware of the issues associated with a meat-based lifestyle, but there is a growing number of people that still don’t know how to change. The DC Veg Fest, along with other festivals and conferences, provides resources and information on leading a healthy, cruelty-free life.
Taking outreach a step further, many festivals aim to inspire and empower attendees to take action once they leave the conference. Graff, of the NAVS Summerfest, says that in addition to providing a fun, educational atmosphere, the festival also hopes to equip those interested with the fundamentals for local activism. Michael Markarian, chief operating officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says that the HSUS-sponsored Taking Action For Animals (TAFA) conference specifically seeks to help individuals become animal advocates through training in “outreach, lobbying, media interactions, working with corporations, and other hands-on skills.” Similarly, since its inception, the AR National Conference has had the same goal: “To share experience, to strategize, and to recharge batteries,” Hershaft says.
Festivals and conferences have seen steady growth in participation and popularity. When the VeggieFest Chicago began five years ago, it had less than 2,000 people attend. This past August, more than 22,000 people attended. The San Francisco World Vegetarian Festival has grown so much that in the past five years, it has moved to a larger venue and added additional days. The AR National Conference began alternating conference locations between Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to broaden the reach of its message and make the conference available to more people. And for the first time this past July, TAFA had a Student Summit track, “so we are cultivating not just today’s advocates, but tomorrow’s,” Markarian says.
The conferences and festivals continue to grow, extending days and expanding their reach. No matter the location or the method, festivals and conferences have blossomed to become an important staple in the veg and AR movements, bringing people together to strengthen a common goal. As Markarian says, “Our movement is fueled by human energy.”