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Brenda Sanders is one of the busiest activists I know. She serves as the executive director of Better Health, Better Life, a public health organization, where Brenda runs the Eating for Life program, a series of free workshops aimed at teaching people in low-income communities how to live a healthier, more holistic lifestyle. In addition, she is the co-director of Open the Cages Alliance, an animal advocacy organization in Baltimore, Maryland, where she co-organizes the Vegan Living Program, a six-week education program that teaches the basics of transitioning to the vegan lifestyle. She is also the co-creator of Vegan SoulFest, an annual festival that celebrates culture and the vegan lifestyle in Baltimore City. Through Thrive Baltimore, a community resource center, she organizes vegan potlucks, screenings of documentaries, and talks for new and aspiring vegans. I was fortunate to get Brenda to take a break and chat with me about some of her work.

Why is food important to your activism?

Food is important to my activism because food is important. Food is a really important part of people’s lives. Food is a thing that brings people together. People come together around food. People plan their lives around food. I take that and use a vegan lens to direct the narrative.

There are a lot of social justice issues that are front and center right now, and I’m involved in lots of them: anti-racist work, food justice work, renters’ rights. I came out to a renters’ rights meeting, and I saw they were serving food. I decided that from then on, when I went to their meetings to stand in solidarity with the rights of these folks, I would be the one who would bring the food.

In the activism that we do at Thrive and everything from the cooking demos to the potlucks, food is a huge component and will always be a huge component. I let the organizers know that I would handle the food. It’s a way that I can be engaged and supportive, but it’s also happening through the lens I believe in. sometimes I will bring a little flier I wrote called “Why Vegan Food?,” which has information that’s relevant to other social justice issues, laying out why I believe that eating this way is just another component of justice. I’m always about educating, because people don’t know.

Do you have any advice for people who want to use food in their activism like this?

Start small. Start in your house. Start with a potluck or a dinner that you put together. Make it regular and start incorporating other things into it—maybe do screenings of vegan-leaning films to keep the conversation going. Once you have some momentum, I would say move to the next step, which is finding a space to start holding these events, because the more people engage, the more people attend, it will probably outgrow your house or apartment. So, churches, community centers, and libraries are great places to start expanding. Churches and community centers already have a population you can engage with. Tell them, “Come on out, have some delicious plant-based food you’ve never tasted before, see this film screening”—or whatever. Grow it from there. Find out what people are interested in.

Make it fun. You know, the world is serious enough. The world is hard enough. The reason so many come to our events is that we make sure people are going to have a good time. They’re going to leave glowing. I know that food justice is serious business, I know that animal exploitation is serious business, but that doesn’t mean that when you engage people, you have to come with the gloom and doom.

You’ve enjoyed some great success with your vegan mac and cheese events.

Yes, we hit a goldmine with the mac and cheese competition. People are super interested in mac and cheese. This event has taken on a life of its own. We’re going to have to go to the convention center because it’s just too big. We wouldn’t have done that with a chili cook-off.

What kind of reaction do you get from people who try vegan mac and cheese for the first time?

Disbelief. Amazement. Extreme surprise. Because they couldn’t even fathom cheese without dairy. Even if you try to explain it to them—”It’s cashews!”—they’re like, “I don’t … I can’t … this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a good idea.” When they have it, they are always, always, always pleasantly surprised. We even had the mayor come out to the event last year, and she could not stop raving about the vegan cheese.

You mentioned screening films at your food events. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do a film screening?

It’s really going to depend on your audience. Forks Over Knives is great for people who want to change their diet for health reasons. For people who are more animal-centered, I would say Peaceable Kingdom is a good one. For people who are more environmentally inclined, I would say Cowspiracy, although some environmentalists hate the film.

Screening films at libraries are your best bet, because they all have a room that they make available to the public. Usually for free, although sometimes you have to pay. If you are part of a community center or a church community, then those would be good. You can screen a film at home, if you can get access to a projector, which can be pretty cheap. Just screen it on a white wall. Connect your laptop to the projector and project it right onto the wall.

And you always pair the screenings with food?

Always. I never don’t serve vegan food. Ever. Even when we had a volunteer orientation—trying to bring in people who can consistently volunteer for our events—I made sure there was a whole spread. Everything I do, I make sure there is food. It’s just a rule, because we’ve got to be exposing people to plant food.

A lot of vegans dread holiday meals with families. Do you have any suggestions for making these easier?

No matter how much your family may be against veganism or vegan food, if you bring food, they will eat all of it. You may not even get any of it. [Laughs] They are going to rave about how good it is as they eat all your food and leave you with nothing. That’s the one thing I know that is inevitable. If you want to have any of your food that you brought to this family event, bring extra—hide some in your purse or your backpack.

What advice do you have for activists or vegans who might feel social pressure or receive criticism from their family and friends?

I’ve never felt any social pressure. And then I realized: I am the social pressure in people’s lives, because people don’t eat meat around me—and I don’t have to ask. I think that maybe my presence is so big and intense that I become the social pressure. I have always been very strong-willed. Once I make up my mind to do something, everyone falls in line around me. So, I probably have a bit of a different experience just because of that. The one thing I can say is, stand strong. Stand firm in who you are. This lifestyle is beautiful and it is good and it is right. We—people who are practicing veganism—we have to at least know that before we can go out into the world and try to be an example to anybody else. We have to know that this thing we are doing is good and just. We have to stand firm in that knowledge. Once we’re there, what pressure could possibly come against us?

You can follow Brenda’s work on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Last weekend in Vancouver, nearly 100 people gathered at the city’s public library to hear lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, speak about food justice. The talk was organized by the Vancouver-based group Liberation BC, a grassroots organization I’ve blogged about before. lauren’s talk was so in-depth that I couldn’t possibly cover everything in a blog post, but I will offer some highlights along with some background on her nonprofit organization.

lauren has been active in the animal rights movement for more than two decades, and in that time, she’s not only learned how to be a very effective advocate, but, as she explained to attendees Saturday night, she’s come to realize how many social injustices revolve around food. Although she is at heart an animal rights advocate, lauren began her activism campaigning against apartheid and the oppression of farm workers when she was still in high school and looked to role models like Steven Biko, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to inspire her. Then she learned about factory farming.

“I was a vegetarian by age 16, but I knew absolutely nothing about how animals were raised for food,” she told the audience. “I just knew I didn’t want to take a life. I’m from Texas, so every time we’d drive around and see the cows, I’d think, ‘How sad would it be for that baby calf to come home one day and the mom’s not there.’” She eventually learned about animal agriculture, and with her mother working two jobs to raise three daughters by herself, lauren and her family frequently dined on fast food and TV dinners. “It was what was convenient,” she said, explaining that it planted the seed that would come to be Food Empowerment Project, an all-volunteer organization that looks beyond single issues to educate people not just about the abuse of farmed animals, but about a community’s lack of access to organic produce, factory farms destroying the environment and even injustices perpetuated by large corporations, such as Coca-Cola privatizing and commodifying water.

lauren always struggled with wanting to tackle both animal rights and human rights. “A lot of animal rights activists were upset with me because when I would do radio interviews, I would talk about the grape boycott, or I would talk about another issue — not just animals. They felt I was doing the animals an injustice.” In 2006, she addressed the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. “I spoke about all the different ways corporate animal farms exploit animals, workers and the environment.” But when attendees at the forum asked who was working on these issues internationally, there was no one lauren could refer them to. “I realized that every single thing that I cared passionately about revolved around food. Water privatization, animals killed for food, immigration, labor issues — everything. That’s where the concept for Food Empowerment Project came to me.” By talking about food and seeing it as a valuable outreach opportunity, lauren believes Food Empowerment Project can have a powerful impact.

After an enlightening discussion of animal cruelties — including the killing of sharks for their fins — lauren addressed a number issues that are probably new to many animal activists.

“Food Empowerment Project recognizes that eating cruelty-free is not just about being vegan,” she said. Because vegans encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have a greater responsibility to lend our support to the farm workers who help put that produce on our tables. These workers — many of whom are migrants struggling to eke out a living for their families — are without many of the rights other workers enjoy, they spend countless hours bending over in blistering heat and may even die from sun stroke. Even reaching a farm to work on can be dangerous for these workers, said lauren. “Workers coming up from Mexico have to cross the border, and it’s becoming more regular for the women to start taking birth control pills in advance because of all the rape that is happening.”

Another issue lauren addressed on Saturday evening was related to the chocolate industry.  “We encourage people to only buy vegan chocolate that does not come from the slave trade,” she said. “Fair trade isn’t enough.”

“In our investigation of the chocolate industry, we’ve found that the majority of chocolate is coming from Ghana and the Ivory Coast.” Kids are kidnapped, some are sold, she said, for chocolate. “What I mean by sold is that the mom might have her sister’s husband watch her kids for an afternoon. When she comes back, the kids are gone because the kids have been sold into slavery. There are also other people who choose to work in the cacao farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast because they are promised — kind of like migrant farm workers are — a good wage, a good living, that they’ll make some money. What happens is, when they get to these farms they’re locked in at night. … If they try to leave, they are beaten or killed.”

After researching the chocolate industry, Food Empowerment Project offers a list of chocolates on its web site. The list is broken down into companies the nonprofit can recommend, companies it cannot recommend but that are working on the slavery issue, companies it cannot recommend and are not working on the issue and companies that either won’t divulge where their chocolate comes from or simply refused to respond to queries from the nonprofit. “The worst part of that list?” said lauren. “The majority of the companies are vegan. We encourage you to write them and not only ask, ‘Where do you get your chocolate from?’ but say, ‘I’m not going to buy your products until you tell me.’”

lauren noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., became the most powerful (and thus was followed and tracked by the U.S. government) not when he was just talking about civil rights, but when he began bringing other social justice issues together. “When he started talking about the janitors struggling in Chicago, when he started talking against the war in Vietnam, that’s when they got scared of him, because he was widening his circle of people he was working with. He was expanding that circle of compassion to other beings. I feel that when we do that, we will be so much stronger.”

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