The One And Only

I posted an earlier draft of this in the vegan family network I’m part of, but it’s a relevant parenting story as well. I promise, it’s one of those “works out better in the end” sort of stories.

We’ve been in a parent participation book club for school age children since late last year. It meets once a month, 8 families total, kids ages 6-9. We’ve been exposed to some excellent literature for young children, done some great activities, and have had a great Wednesday night parent-kid outing once a month. So it’s been a good experience. I have attended only two of these meetings; my spouse has done more of them.

Each meeting, a different family is tasked with providing a snack for everyone. At the last meeting I attended, two months back, we discussed the story The One and Only Ivan (http://theoneandonlyivan.com/). Many of the children expressed how they identified with the gorilla in the story, and how this made them feel bad about animals in captivity. There was even some critical discussion of zoos and Vancouver Aquarium, and for a moment it seemed like this group was ripe for a deeper discussion of our relationship to animals. I was keeping quiet, waiting for the right moment to try and shift the discussion, but it’s not always easy to do so, when the discussion is kid-centred. Just when I thought that moment was to arrive, the family providing the snack brought out hot dogs and cupcakes. I politely asked if the cupcakes had milk in them, and was met with an “I don’t know; I bought them at the supermarket” reply.

I was angry (perhaps somewhat unjustifiably, as I don’t think anyone there had any knowledge that we are vegan – then again, the real injustice is that we have to go around announcing it, as diets with animals in them are the default assumption) but suppressed it (or tried my best to – I was likely scowling). Anyway it became known that we were vegan because my daughter started crying because I wouldn’t let her have a cupcake. The host graciously sought out an alternative for her, and brought her some fruit strips, but it was a really traumatic experience. To add insult to this, while the group chomped on their hot dogs, they started rationalizing animals in captivity by reference to nonsense like “we learn about them when they’re in zoos”, and “the staff in zoos really do care about the animals, and develop close relationships with them, some even dying to rescue them in fires”, etc. By this point I felt completely bullied. Bullied is a terribly abused word, I know, but I felt marginalized in a way that I (middle class white straight cisgender male) have never felt before. Just speechless.

I was ready to give up, but had already committed to providing a snack for the April 23 meeting (I wrote this just after getting home from it). We semi-consciously decided to make this into an opportunity to show how vegan food can be better than nonvegan food. We made baked samosas and my spouse made chocolate cake (with a bit of help from the kid too), as well as a veggie plate with hummus. When snack time came, the food was received really well – they nearly applauded. The volunteers (preteen girls that help around at the book club) also wanted the samosas. The host was simply gushing over the quality of the food. Maybe their reaction was coloured by a touch of guilt about the last meeting, but I got the impression that people were impressed anyway. Also, it was a good opportunity to have a discussion about veganism with the host and two other parents after the session was over – about why we have become vegan, and how this is different from and more than (and thus not really comparable to) “respecting other diets” like “gluten free” and all that bullshit. Importantly, we had a receptive audience that was receptive mainly because they had just eaten good vegan food. Obviously, we didn’t instantly create any new vegans that night, but we set the stage for nonhostile dialogue about why we should go vegan and what veganism means. And it’s often hard to set that stage that way.

So along with the abundance of positive coverage for animal rights advocacy in the Georgia Straight these past two weeks (that’s helping to shift the paradigm about the Vancouver Aquarium), the momentum for shifting the conversation about our relationship to animals feels palpable. And sharing food between families appears central to that.