If there’s ever a Leafleters’ Hall of Fame, I expect to see Jon Camp up on stage among the first inductees. As the longtime national outreach coordinator for Vegan Outreach, Jon is one of those powerhouse activists whose work is both inspiring and, well, a little humbling. I got to know Jon a bit when I interviewed him for Striking at the Roots, and I thought his story and insights would be the perfect way to introduce the topic of activism, so that’s exactly how the book begins. Jon kindly took a few more questions from me, even as he’s busy gearing up for his spring leafleting tour with Vegan Outreach.
Hi, Jon! First off, what’s the deal with Takoma Park, Maryland, where you live? I know so many activists who live there. Why is it such a magnet for progressive people?
Takoma Park is a pretty, progressive town bordering Washington, DC, and it’s sometimes referred to as the Berkeley of the East Coast. It has the feel of a small town, while offering easy access to DC. The DC area hosts a number of animal advocacy groups, and Takoma Park is a desirable option for living. I live in the same neighborhood as some of the folks from Compassion Over Killing and The Humane Society of the United States. We’ve tended to gravitate toward each other because we share many similar beliefs on advocacy and because we genuinely like and respect each other. It’s always nice having friends whose way of living encourages you to be a better, more effective person; that is certainly the case here.
How did you get involved in animal advocacy?
In 1995, I took an Ethics course at the College of Lake County, a community college in Grayslake, Illinois, and learned about the modern-day treatment of farm animals. I went vegetarian, eventually vegan, and started doing simple things like writing letters to the editor. In ’98 or ’99, I learned about Vegan Outreach while reading an Ingrid Newkirk book. I ordered some literature from Vegan Outreach and was so impressed by their calm, pragmatic approach of vegan advocacy as a way to reduce the most amount of animal suffering. In 2000, I went to a Compassion Over Killing feed-in in DC, got my feet wet leafleting and started to slowly ramp up my efforts. In 2004, Jack Norris, president of Vegan Outreach, asked if I’d like to work for Vegan Outreach, and I said yes. Since then, it has been a labor of love, and I’m still utterly thrilled to be doing this work on a full-time basis.
What is Vegan Outreach’s Adopt-a-College program and how can activists get involved?
The basic gist of the AAC program is that individuals leaflet colleges in their respective neck of the woods. The program got off the ground in August, 2003, and we’ve individually handed out just shy of 3 million booklets at over 1,200 schools. We find college students to be the ideal demographic as they’re in the time of life when they’re really willing to question the status quo and make changes. And when you get young individuals to change, you’re reaching those who will have many years ahead of them to make a great impact for animals. Those interested in getting involved in this work can go to veganoutreach.org/colleges or feel free to contact me. We’d love to have you on board!
Vegan Outreach offers several different pieces of literature. Why is that?
Different situations bring out different people, and some activists prefer certain booklets over others. I like the more mild Compassionate Choices booklet when dealing with, say, young kids, while those of college age might be better suited for the more graphic Even If You Like Meat booklet.
What tips can you offer someone just starting to leaflet?
If you’ve never leafleted, it might help to start off with someone who has leafleted before. If no such opportunities exist, then be brave, take the plunge, and get your feet wet! Most everyone who leaflets ends up being surprised by how easy and painless it is and how receptive individuals are. We can increase receptivity by smiling, keeping a positive disposition and by being somewhat assertive. There is nothing wrong with asking someone if they’d like to consider information, and the animals will be so much better thanks to you having done this. It’s pretty much on a daily basis that we at Vegan Outreach hear from individuals who have gone veg or vegan as a result of being handed one of our booklets. Lastly, many find our Adopt a College Yahoo Group to be helpful and inspiring; more information on this can be accessed on our AAC site.
Last fall, the Adopt-a-College program handed out a record number of leaflets. Can you tell us what went into reaching that milestone? How many colleges and VO activists were involved?
For the fall ’08 semester, over 200 individuals got out to leaflet a grand total of 657,850 booklets at 684 schools. We reached this milestone due to a great number of activists stepping up their efforts and because of the generosity of donors deciding that this was work they wanted to invest in. The success of Vegan Outreach will always hinge on the efforts of many; it was great to see so many individuals involved last fall.
You have a Spring Tour of colleges coming up. When does it begin and where will you be?
Starting on February 9th, I’ll be on the road for just about three months. I will be leafleting, as well as giving some talks, in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and upstate New York.
I assume you’ll be couch-surfing. Are you still looking for places to stay?
Keeping activists on the road and stocked with literature, to the degree that we do, costs a considerable amount of money. Therefore, in order to reach as many people as possible with the animals’ plight, we take steps to make our tours as cost-efficient as possible. As a result, those of us who travel sleep on the beds, couches, futons and sometimes floors of those generous enough to house us. I currently need to find housing throughout the southern half of Georgia, northern New York and the Tallahassee, Florida, region. If you’d be so kind as to house me, please let me know!
Why do you think leafleting is so effective?
In general, most people don’t wish to cause unnecessary harm to animals but don’t necessarily think about how eating animals causes them harm. While animal agribusiness goes to great lengths to keep the general public from thinking that animals lead anything but contented lives, leafleting gives us, as activists, the chance to bring the miserable conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses directly to the general public. Moreover, when distributing credible, compelling literature and coupling this with welcoming, polite activists, you’ve got a powerful tool for enacting change on a person to person level.
My own experience with leafleting is that most people are very polite. But how do you deal with the occasional person who is antagonistic?
Yes, the overwhelming majority of those we leaflet are polite. When the occasional antagonistic person comes by, I just do my best to respond in a calm, sometimes even humorous manner. If individuals wish to make a scene (which is rare), I just do my best to dispel the situation. While antagonism is rare, it is better than apathy, and such situations give us the opportunity to display our level-headedness and kindness.
Does outreach work ever get you down, and if so, what do you do to avoid burnout?
There is always going to be cruelty and injustice and apathy; this can be hard on so many of us. But as we know, keeping ourselves miserable only adds to the level of misery in the world.
I get a great deal of joy knowing that I’m doing what I can to push the ball forward for animals, that I’m living for something greater than myself. And when we really think about it, what can be better than spending our days deliberately working to make the world a kinder, more just place? We may not be able to change everything, but through our actions, we can play a sizable role in fostering change.
On a practical level, I always make sure I take the time to do simple things like reading, spending time with friends and getting good exercise. If we wish to be in this for the long haul, we need to take an approach that is sustainable.
You spend a lot of time traveling. How do you find nutritious vegan food?
As I stay at homes and not motels, I often have better access to stoves and such for cooking. And good, healthy vegan food is becoming more available with each passing year. While at times I do have to rely on foods that aren’t as healthy as would be ideal, I usually manage to find enough nutritious food. The good news is that I’m still alive and kicking!
It seems like every year Vegan Outreach outdoes itself. Does Vegan Outreach in general or you specifically have any outreach goals for 2009?
With the economy in the shape it is, we might not be able to have the record year that we would love to have. But we’re still going to have a very solid year and will continue to work our hardest to make sure as many of today’s youth as possible are reached with a full and compelling case for choosing compassion. We’re very good at converting funds into booklets. So if any readers would like to support this work, that would ensure that many more college students are reached!
How about helping to make 2009 a great year for Vegan Outreach? If you’d like to house Jon, leaflet with him or even have him speak to your group, please email him at jon[at]veganoutreach[dot]org.