Street Smarts: Vegan Street’s Marla Rose and John Beske

By on February 24, 2015

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Over yonder on our resource page, we said, “If you lived on Vegan Street, you’d want to live next door to Marla and John.” Marla Rose and John Beske are a powerhouse couple in animal rights. Marla is an author with several books and anthologies under her belt, and a journalist whose work has been included in Utne Reader, VegNews, and others. John is a designer who specializes in visual identities for vegan companies and products. They are also among the core team of organizers of Chicago VeganMania, one of the country’s biggest and best vegfests.

I don’t think Marla and John were prepared for how quickly Vegan Street would catch on. There’s the distinctive Vegan Street Meme, dozens of recipes that a home cook can master, instructions for crafting your own vegan and eco-friendly home and beauty products, plus interviews, Marla’s rants, and even their son gets into the act with product and book reviews for the young vegan. Most recently they started offering a daily “do good and be seen” action tip, most of which are simple and painless.

Tell us a little about the genesis of Vegan Street. I still remember the original site. Back in 2009, you’d been on hiatus for a while already, and you told me that you’d been missing it a great deal – I’m still waiting for the “animal-friendly kitchen” signs to come back! I need one!

Thank you! John and I started the original Vegan Street way back in 1998 and allowed it to go dormant in 2003, a year after our son was born, as we concentrated on other things. We’d been vegan since 1995 and with this new-fangled Internet thing, we strived to create a virtual community where veganism was the norm. We were self-taught with the technologies and John would have to write the HTML code occasionally, so there were many mistakes but our hearts were full of passion for the vegan movement.

In July of 2012, we decided to revive Vegan Street and we’ve been at it ever since with no intention of stopping. There are so many more ways to share our message today, it’s staggering. Social media, smart phones and so on have changed the game, so it’s easier than ever to inform the public on a large scale about what is done to animals to the point where claiming ignorance is becoming less and less of an option. If we can communicate our message in compelling, thought-provoking and visually savvy ways, as we strive to do with Vegan Street, we might be able to earn the attention that can lead to changed hearts, minds, and attitudes. We know that we are living in an age when many people don’t even want to invest 20 minutes into reading an essay or a booklet. A succinct, honest message with a strong visual element can be grasped quickly and felt powerfully, and then, we hope, be shared widely. We’ve heard that our memes have been what it took for omnivores to open their eyes to what goes on behind closed doors, for vegetarians to give up dairy, and so on. This keeps us going.

Oh, and we do plan to get those signs, back, I promise!

I find Vegan Street to be a great representative of a DIY ethic to media and advocacy. You’ve been in these worlds for a long time, and as you say, the game has changed. Along with being easier to reach the public, what positives and negatives have you seen as both these fields have evolved and devolved?

We have always done things ourselves because we felt we could express things just the exact way we’d want to do it. Thankfully, this lends itself to our various skill sets, as we are from visual and communication backgrounds.

What has changed in media and advocacy? Well, I think there is more of a level playing field in that average people have more access to graphic design and publishing tools – this can also be a negative when people lack the experience or skills to know, for example, bad kerning, they use poor punctuation or misinformation – but with a will to improve, these mistakes can be avoided.

Today, it’s also a lot easier to have your voice heard by signing petitions, commenting on articles, creating blogs and so on. It’s also a lot easier and less expensive to get the word out about fundraisers, protests, film screenings and that sort of thing. At the same time, there is much more “noise” that can drown out your voice, so you have to work hard to be heard above all the competing clatter.

As the media landscape transforms in front of our eyes, and much of what we turned to in terms of tools and tactics even ten years ago now being obsolete, another negative would be that it’s a little overwhelming to keep up with all the various platforms, even the ones that purportedly simplify, like certain apps. Life has gotten easier and way more complicated at once. With Vegan Street, we create content every day of the week and maintain a steady presence on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and that is just what is necessary. Life is just super busy and a little stressful but this was what we were born to do.

It’s hard for me to imagine your voice being drowned out. You have a knack for raising people’s eyebrows. What’s the most controversial thing you’ve ever written?

Hmm…I think it may have been the satirical rebuttal to Alexandra Jamieson, the former vegan and former wife of Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me who was also featured in the film. She’s some kind of wellness coach now and wrote this very overwrought, self-indulgent breakup letter to veganism and I wrote a response that was virtually interchangeable with her breakup letter except I changed one detail: instead of giving up being vegan (as Alexandra did), my subject gave up not murdering. John even created a very funny image to go along with it of me as Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. I violated my own rule about satire (I’m sorry, but Swift would have as well given the Internet culture of today) and explained that it was satiric when I introduced the piece because I knew that people would misconstrue it and what I was saying. Despite this, it seemed to generate a lot of umbrage. I was interviewed not too long afterward on a CBC program and Ms. Jamieson, also interviewed, seemed to be pretty irate and, if I recall correctly, said that I called her an axe-murderer. So there was that.

You’ve published hundreds of memes, some of them wildly viral. Has their popularity exceeded all expectations? What’s been your favorite, and why?

Great question. Is it conceited to say that the popularity of the memes has not exceeded my expectations? [Ed.: naaah.] I knew they’d be well received and I always hope that they’ll do even better. Sometimes the ones I feel are our best and most thoughtful are received with a thud. Others that we have knocked off relatively quickly have taken off. There is no way of knowing.

Back when we decided to revive Vegan Street, I took a look around and knew that creating reliably good quality materials would be a major contribution of ours; there are so many silly, woo-woo, derivative, poorly designed or ill-informed memes that it was torture to not be able to fix them. Creating a steady stream of reputable materials for the public was always part of the vision for the revived Vegan Street.

That first year of Vegan Street 2.0, we created memes each weekday, which was an intense schedule but also proved, sadly, that there is no shortage of ways in which we brutalize other animals. (Now we are on a three-day or two-day a week schedule for the original memes.) There are many signs of hope, though, and we also want to shine a light on those because we don’t want people to give up or get overloaded.

In researching the memes, we have learned more than we knew before and also learned that there are no depths of depravity to which we will sink to maintain our comfortable, ingrained habits. My favorite memes have been ones that forced me to learn more than I knew before, even if it’s devastating to research, and this is one of them.

I also like the ones with a bit of an snarky attitude, like this.

I also love the ones that just put things in honest terms that have a visceral punch.

One of John’s favorites is this, which drives home the fact that pro-meat propaganda is so omnipresent that people can barely see it yet they’re influenced by it.

And this, which frames animal advocates within the larger historic arc of social justice movements. The reaction of the public has always been very dismissive and even contemptuous to progress and I think this helps to give those advocating for animal rights comfort in knowing that they are in good company.

And this one. You take all of the worst villains in all of the slasher films (including all of the sequels and remakes) and combined, they won’t have killed as many as the typical slaughterhouse kills in an hour or so. It took a lot of effort to combine all these individuals to make them look good together because they all had different color schemes and light sources. This may have been a little too dark, though. It didn’t get widely shared.

We’ve had a few conversations about why people “steal” or pirate your creative work. I suppose it’s flattering, in a way. Do you mind talking about this phenomenon?

John is more laid back about it; I get upset but I’m learning that it’s probably just the nature of the beast today. The most common example of what you’re talking about is someone removing our name from work that we’ve created, like the memes, most of which take hours of work. Worse than actually having our name removed from our work, though, is the insinuation some have made that it’s “egotistical” to want to maintain our name on our work. Would it be okay for me to go into someone’s office and remove the authorship from the report he or she created? Is it “egotistical” for that person to complain? Is it okay for me to remove the name from someone’s paper at school? Why is that different from an ethical point of view? Why is it okay to remove our name from the work we’ve created?

The thing that bothers me, in addition to the entitled attitude of that act, is the effort that goes into it – our name is not easily removed, so it shows an extra level of intention. If someone is skilled enough with Photoshop tools to be able to remove our name, that person can and should create original work, instead of removing our identity from our efforts. We’ve also seen someone remove our text and logo and put in new text with bad kerning (GAH!) and an ugly font at least a few times. In that example, if they are going to repurpose our meme, I’m glad that our name has been removed.

The daily action tip is a fairly new thing for Vegan Street. I’ve noticed that they’re not all about animal rights and vegan activism – some are generally wise advice on being a good human being. Admit it, it’s not just a “simple new way to build vegan community and create positive change,” it’s “stuff we wish people would start doing,” right?

Yes, Do Good and Be Seen is a new effort and a way to help people learn about fairly easy ways to create change. You’re right; it’s not all animal rights and veganism.

People often have this notion that creating change has got to be a huge effort and very uncomfortable, but it doesn’t need to be. Creating a better world can be as simple as maintaining a list of vegan reference materials you recommend – movies, books, websites, etc. – to share with those seeking new information, and it can be as easy as taking your elderly neighbor’s dog to the groomer. All these things help. What we’re trying to do is create a culture of people who are empowered to manifest change in their own lives and in the world around them. All these efforts translate into a better climate for everyone.

You recently shared that you both celebrated your 20-year “veganversary.” Tell our readers who are new vegans, and may or may not be struggling with social or practical challenges, something they should know about themselves in 20 years. Give us a pep talk!

Going vegan was the best decision we ever made. What I want to communicate to people is that it’s not about hardship or going without or restriction: it’s about the empowerment, abundance, connection, and alignment that comes from being on the right side of history, from doing what we know in our hearts to be the right thing. With every year that goes by, the obstacles continue to crumble and the benefits become more obvious. After all these years, veganism has not diminished its luster to me even slightly and, in fact, it shines brighter every day. At the risk of sounding excessively Pollyannaish, I wake up feeling thankful beyond description that we have this opportunity to do this work that is so meaningful and so very important. I hate to sound all cheerleader-y about it, but that’s how I feel.

In terms of a practical pep talk, I will give the following words of advice to new vegans: don’t think too far ahead (like stressing out in February about how you’re going to handle Thanksgiving with your family) and set a goal to live as a vegan one meal at a time. Before too long, it will be routine for you and you will realize that any perceived difficulties in the future are really not a big deal. I see people trip up before they’ve even started because of this mindset, and I did as well. Get out of your own way and live in the present.

Second, I’d say that if you are pursuing veganism from a framework of hardship, rules, and asceticism, you will be projecting a less than positive modeling of veganism into the world and you will also likely be setting yourself up to fail. Instead, plug into the gratitude that comes from knowing that we get to live at a time when we can live in alignment with our deepest values – it’s not a sacrifice, it’s an uncommon gift denied to most throughout human history. Appreciate this incredible opportunity.

Third, remember we live in a world that is profoundly enmeshed in oppressing other animals. If you’ve made a mistake – either intentionally or you unintentionally messed up on your goal to be vegan – too many people take this as evidence that they cannot do it or a handy excuse to give up. Just like when people break their exercise habit by not working out for two days in a row so they take the next three months off, people do that with veganism: “Oops, I ate some dairy – well, I’m going to go for broke now.” We need to be able to brush ourselves off from mistakes and get back to it. Each time we eat, we have another opportunity to live successfully as a vegan and then it becomes natural over time. Mistakes happen. Do your best to avoid them, but forgive yourself if you’ve been less than perfect because this is not about our egos – it’s about doing our best. It’s far better for the animals that you brush yourself off from a few mistakes than quit altogether.

Fourth, if you’re vegan for the animals, always remember why you are doing this. If you find yourself tempted by dairy cheese or whatever, show yourself some tough love and watch a film like Earthlings that will bring you back to your core values. If you eat a plant-based diet but are tempted to eat flesh and animal secretions, I’d recommend you widen your circle of compassion to encompass other animals and then apply what I wrote earlier.

Last: find yourself a vegan community. Whether this community is with people who are transitioning, longtime vegans, online, or in person, we are social animals who need support and connection.

Same question for you two as for Mark and lauren. How do you complement each other’s strengths as activists, and how do you manage to balance between work and home life? You complement each other brilliantly in terms of your professional skills, but a marriage of two vegan agitators has its challenges – and you even have a third in the household.

Often times, I am the engine and John is the brakes. I get excited about something and John has to put a lot of thought into the practicality of it, which is annoying at the time but important. I would say that we are not so complementary as we are fairly similarly matched: John and I have many of the same skills and interests as well as the same shortcomings. Our capriciousness can be handy when it comes to starting new projects but is not so handy when it comes to the practical living stuff one needs to get by.

I thought when we had our son, he might be the proverbial accountant born to a bohemian family but, no, he is just like us. The acorn did not fall far from the tree here. He’d rather be developing his graphic novel than memorizing times tables. He’s like a young, vegan activist Neil Gaiman. He’s awesome, if I do say so myself.

Obviously Vegan Street has been successful beyond imagination, in a short time, so now you have a big problem: scalability. How can people support your work?

People can visit the Vegan Street Store  where we’ve turned some of our best ideas into t-shirts and other vegan message gear, eco-printed on sweatshop-free organic cotton, which celebrate vegan lifestyles and easily start conversations. We’d also be delighted if people would visit our crowdfunding page on Patreon  and perhaps pledge a few dollars a month so we can keep dedicating our time to vegan advocacy and communications. We also welcome people sharing our work (just please don’t cut off our logo).

Please check out Marla and John’s Patreon page here, and subscribe to the Vegan Street newsletter via their home page. In doing so, you’ll also get “32 memorable essays from Marla’s Vegan Feminist Agitator blog.” I don’t think you’ll want to miss that.

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Comments

  1. Carolyn Pandis
    February 24, 2015

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    Wonderful! I am a big fan of Marla and John. The intelligence and passion they bring to their very important work is inspiring. I’m glad that Marla posted the link to this—very well done!

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