Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

September 19, 2013

Marla Rose on Community Building, Infighting, and Feminism

Marla Rose and John Beske, husband and wife team and co-founders of, have been bastions of the Chicago vegan community since I started out as an activist in 1999. That was the year that they, at the request of the “Mad Cowboy” Howard Lyman, co-founded and headed the Chicago chapter of EarthSave International –John Robbins’ vegan advocacy organization. I used to hear their names frequently, even in the secluded halls of the ivory tower, as dedicated and enthusiastic figures in the local animal rights community.

It was not until much later, when they started the Conference for Conscious Living, that I got to know John and Marla personally. Since then, that small conference has transformed into Chicago VeganMania, one of the largest vegan events in the country, with thousands of attendees.

Over the years, I have always been impressed and inspired by Marla's resolve, composure (even in the face of withering criticism), and positive energy. It was therefore my pleasure to interview Marla – feminist, novelist, and animal activist – and hear some of her thoughts on life, activism, and the process of organizing a massive event like VeganMania. 

So tell us your vegan/animal rights origin story!

I became a vegetarian when I was 15, though it was quite by accident: I going on a weekend trip away from home with an organization I was involved with in high school and as part of the process, we had to fill out a form. The form had us check if we had unique dietary needs and actually gave an option in a box one could check called "vegetarian." On a whim, I checked that and thought, "Hmm. I will try my best to make it through the weekend." I had never, ever thought about not eating animals before that moment but it just appeared on the form - which was rare in the 1980s - and I thought it would be an interesting kind of personal challenge. I made it through the weekend without any trouble and just stayed a vegetarian ever after. It wasn't that I didn't like meat before that - I grew up on my grandmother's brisket and chicken noodle soup - but I found that I was more content without it. Something had clicked. Like most children, I grew up loving animals and wanting to protect them. I didn't notice the disconnection between my feelings and my behavior because I was just that unaware and the consumption of animals is just that normalized and entrenched. Once I checked the little box that said "vegetarian," I felt a sense that I was correcting something that was in conflict with my values. 
Fast forward 12 years later to 1995…Since college, I had been involved in progressive, creative activism. Eventually, I began to understand the connections between the egg, dairy, leather, wool, etc. industries and violence against animals (remember, this was in the pre-Internet era). My evolution came about through discussions with mentors who were already vegan, researching (I worked in humane education at a large animal shelter so I had access to a lot of articles), films, lectures, books, activism with a local group, and so on. I became a vegan through a variety of influences and, ultimately, it was because I couldn't hide any longer from the disconnect between my convictions and my actions. I called my ex-boyfriend (current husband) on Feb. 1, 1995 and told him that we should go vegan. John simply said, "Okay." From that point on, we were on the path to living in alignment with our core values. 

Same question, but for VeganMania – how did it come into existence? How has that idea evolved, if at all, over the years?

Chicago VeganMania came about, quite frankly, because I was pissed. A lot of people are afraid of anger - even non-violent anger - but I have found it to be an incredibly useful tool to break out of inertia and create positive change. I was pissed because all these supposedly eco-festivals served animals. I was pissed because I knew that we had a dynamic, lively, diverse community of vegans and animal rights activists here and we deserved an event where we could "own" veganism and put it out there into the world. Later, I was pissed because in the planning stages, people wanted us to take the word "vegan" off the name of our event, like the public at large was correct in being so terrified of "the v-word." I was always grumbling about this to John until he was probably sick of hearing me talk about it. 
So, I had it in my mind that I wanted to have a vegan festival in Chicago with the word right there in the name and I got John on board right away. I'm only half-joking when I say that this has been my strategy for everything I've done, pretty much. (If you don't have a partner-in-crime, make it your business to find one.) From there, we started finding allies and all the pieces fell into place. Of course there are many more details to it and it's a lot of hard work, but that's it in a nutshell: we basically checked things off a list that we would need to do and it all came together through everyone's hard work. We were rewarded that first year, and every subsequent year, with lines out the door before we opened, snaking around the building. It is a sight to behold. 
Chicago VeganMania has evolved in many ways -- it is like an organic, living entity of its own -- because every year, we add more complexity and layers. For example, speakers, cooking demos, panels, our Culture Café, our Vegan Rock Star photo booth, our Ask the Experts table that changes by the hour: these were not part of the original vision but we always left room for Chicago VeganMania to evolve as it was naturally inclined. Our initial vision was a culture festival focusing on spotlighting the diversity of vegan food, businesses, community, and so on. I has grown by leaps and bounds since then. For the people who said that this wouldn't fly in a "meat and potatoes" town like Chicago, I have to laugh. I have been wrong about many things in life, but I knew that our community would not only be ready for us, but embrace us with open arms, vegan and otherwise. 

Community is such an important part of social movements (and one of the core organizing principles of Direct Action Everywhere). How do you feel VeganMania has affected the Chicago vegan community? Are you sensing a difference in how people receive veganism and/or animal rights?

To us, community is a very key but often neglected aspect of successfully integrating veganism for the longterm. We are social animals: try as we might to operate outside this basic need, we still crave the support, sense of belonging and comfort we gain from community. Many of us are estranged from or live far away from our families of origin. Further, many do not get the understanding they would like from family members about veganism, which we hold so deeply in our hearts. I have been dismissed and belittled by other activists who think that we should spend our time elsewhere and that the need for community is a "selfish" one. I have seen what community does for people, though: it makes people who feel isolated and alone gain confidence to be a better advocate. It fills voids in our lives. If we are happy and fulfilled, I believe that we are better activists and, more important perhaps, better role models of veganism. Projecting loneliness, disconnection, despair and anger may make you feel better (fleetingly), but, make no mistake, it is not helping the animals in terms of the mass awakening we are trying to encourage. I should add that it is natural to feel that way from time to time given the enormity of what animals endure, but I think we owe it to the animals to be honest about those emotions, process them, and then move on to becoming productive. 
I'm not sure how CVM has affected the Chicago vegan community because we don't have any hard data on that but I can tell you from my empirical observations that I think it helps to instill a sense of pride and excitement about a topic that the public feels is so depressing to hear about. Vegans can show off CVM to their parents or unsupportive friends and spouses and let them see with their own eyes what a dynamic, warm, inclusive community we are. I love that so many in the community have a sense of ownership about CVM and they take a lot of pride in it. This was originally part of our inspiration: I know this sounds sappy, but we wanted to send a Valentine to our beloved community. I think people pick up on that and reciprocate. 
I have seen a ton of changes in how veganism is received, though I don't know if CVM has anything to do with that. Bit by bit, things are changing. I sometimes wish I had a time-lapse camera that could capture all the changes that have happened since I went vegan in 1995 because these seemingly incremental changes in the influence of veganism almost across the board has amounted to some significant shifts. This has not resulted in fewer animals being killed but I have no doubt that it's on its way, through a variety of approaches, like your amazing work with Direct Action Everywhere. Please know that I am not trying to play down how very huge the task ahead of us is: it is the social justice movement of our lifetime and we are still in our infancy. But it is happening and it cannot be stopped and it is full of amazing people, growing by the day. 

One of the most remarkable things about you, and John, is your persistence in a movement that so often faces serious burnout issues. The other is that you seem incredibly positive, even in the face of setbacks and often brutal infighting. How have you remained committed AND positive through the years? Do you think the two are related?

Thank you! Yes, I definitely think being committed and remaining positive are connected. If I stop and think about the enormity of the suffering and the obstacles we face as animal advocates, I feel pure despair. That is not a good place to move forward from, so I try to work on what I can do to help bring about change. I am a project oriented person, so for me, if I start feeling down, it's often because I am between projects. Finding another outlet is a way for me to refuel myself. It also helps for me to have a lot of alone time. I joke that I am the least shy introvert on earth, but I really do seek out a lot of time alone to replenish myself. When I'm overwhelmed, it means that I need to spend more alone time: writing, reading, creating and that sort of thing helps to restore my energy. I would also say that John and I have each other, which helps a lot, because if one of us is checking out a bit, the other can carry more of the weight. 
I have to say, though, I haven't felt that I've faced a lot of attacks from within the vegan world, maybe because I surround myself with good people who have similar priorities and goals. That said, I wish that vegans would learn how to communicate better and not jump to the worst conclusions about one another based on differences in strategy. I have said this for a long time because I believe it to be true: vegans are our own worst enemies when it comes to spreading our message. We inflict far more damage - in the public eye and personally - than any highly paid industry saboteurs could do with our policing of one another, our suspicion of one another, our seemingly knee-jerk tendency to "out" one another as imperfect, inconsistent, politically ignorant, etc. I get VERY tired of all that posturing and feel that it is a huge drain of our collective strength and resources. This is not to say that we should all be united because there are many people and approaches I strongly disagree with from within the vegan world, but it is to say, basically, can't we disagree without making it deeply personal? Must we always go for the jugular? Can't we give one another a little benefit of the doubt while still disagreeing? There seems to be an element that is hell-bent on self-destruction and even if it isn't the majority of activists (it isn't), it can sure feel that way sometimes with the pile-ons I have observed. So I don't get burnt-out largely because I stay away from the people who are quick to character assassinate (they don't tend to stick around anyway), and also because I love doing this work. I also don't get burnt-out because I try to look at the big picture rather than the personal politics. 
Those critics I can't stay away from because they are online, I try to weigh what they have said, admit it if they are right and ignore them if they are not. I try like mad to model constructive and thoughtful communication, though I don't always succeed. Ultimately, I never burn out and I have never burnt-out because, at the risk of sounding like the pep squad girl I never was, I feel privileged every single day that I get to wake up and do this work. Enormously privileged and deeply appreciative of that privilege. Doing this work is an endless energy source to me. The fact that we are uniquely privileged to be living in a time and a place where we can work to raise consciousness is not lost on me. I am so grateful to be able to do it.

You’re also a novelist! Steven Pinker writes in a recent book that the spread of literacy – and novels – had a huge impact on the diffusion of social justice. When people were able to read stories from another person’s perspective – even a person very different from them – it triggered their empathy and made it more difficult to turn a blind eye to violence. Tell us about what your novel, what you hoped to accomplish with it, and what other novels have been important to your personal or political life.

I wrote The Adventures of Vivian Sharpe: Vegan Superhero because the main character was a bee in my bonnet and I couldn't get her out of my head. I know it sounds so silly, but what I hoped to accomplish with the novel was to tell a compelling story. I wasn't trying to convert anyone - it is not didactic - I had these people in my mind and I had to get them out, and the only way out was to discover and tell their story as truthfully as I could. I couldn't dictate the story, though there were times that I tried: it had to reveal itself to me. Along the way, I came across some interesting conundrums, for example, should I be honest about the conflict the lead character feels when she deceives the woman who has hired her as an intern? Should I really let the public know that there are activists who are not always the most compassionate people? Ultimately, I knew that I should preserve the integrity of the story, reflect that life is full of twists and turns, and it is nuanced because in reality, not everything is always so easy to categorize or understand. What I have called Vivian Sharpe is "your classic, vegan coming-of-age superhero thriller." I think that stands. It has a strange plot but it is a classic story. 
I think that I've been more influenced by novelists than individual novels, but The Grapes of Wrath meant a lot to me in high school. J.M. Coetzee, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, C.S. Lewis, and Marilynne Robinson are big sources of inspiration.

Finally, you are also a feminist, who has notably criticized the objectification of women in certain animal rights campaigns. How does your feminism relate to your animal rights advocacy? Have you seen changes over the years in the relationship to the two movements? And how do you think we should respond, when groups use tactics that we feel are reinforcing objectification of women?

My feminism and animal advocacy are fully intertwined and probably stem from the same root: I cannot stand injustice. Sadly, I don't see too much growth in terms of more feminists embracing an animal rights philosophy or more animal rights activists becoming feminists. It really upsets me that there is such a lack of respect and understanding between two groups that should feel such solidarity. I have found many women in the vegan movement bullied into silence about speaking up against the objectification of women because the tactics used to silence us are so mean-spirited: we are called unattractive, prudes, scolds, and so on. That tired false binary between "sex positive vs. sex negative" pops up again and again. Here is what it boils down to for me: if a woman is objectified - in other words, often reduced down to "tits and ass" - that is the same process through which cows become hamburgers and chickens become nuggets in our eyes. It is a reductive, insulting, and diminishing process. I often hear the charge of "slut-shaming" in response to my speaking out against objectification but when asked where the shaming has occurred, I have never had anyone be able to point to an example. I think that nerves are on edge regarding this topic and this is one of those subjects that people get personal and mean about very quickly. Feminism is a lot trickier than veganism to find a definition on that works for most people and I do not ever claim to have the final word on what it means to be a feminist. I would say that using females as a means to an end (and that end is very murky indeed as I don't see evidence that it works) is exploitative even if there is consent. Members of objectified groups have historically agreed to their own objectification. If you look at minstrel shows, that is one example. Another is the so-called "midget" tossing that sometimes happens in bars as "entertainment." Is reinforcing damaging stereotypes justifiable if we participate in it of our own volition? I don't think so, because it harms us in the collective. We don't exist in bubbles. So I would say that when organizations that ask us to reconsider objectifying some animals use the objectifying of other animals (women) in their campaigns, I think we should distance ourselves from it and speak out against it. Objectifying women - and claiming that heterosexual men are so damn stupid that this is a legitimate way of getting them to change about their consumption habits - is diminishing and insulting to everyone. We are trying to build a new framework through which we perceive and interact with one another with veganism. Why wouldn't we try to discard that tired old misogynistic lens instead of reinforcing it?

Anything else you’d like to add?

Nothing other than thank you, Wayne, and I am so excited by the work you are doing. What is happening with Direct Action Everywhere, with our amazing allies in Europe, South America, the Middle East and more is thrilling and has me on the edge of my seat. Get up and get out there, people! You have something unique and essential to contribute, so please do it. :)