In August 2018, the first Black VegFest was held in Brooklyn, New York. Despite pouring rain and torrential wind, hundreds of people showed up to try great vegan food, meet other Black vegans, and discuss important issues the Black vegan community faces.
Founded by vegan and social justice activist Omowale Adewale, Black VegFest sought to address socioeconomic and political issues of the Black and Latino communities while ensuring inclusiveness. The website told attendees: “Be and come as you are. All are welcome at the Black VegFest.”
I had a blast learning how I could be an ally to the Black vegan community. There were moving performances by the Cynthia King Dance Studio and Major King, a kid’s play area (including face painting), and cooking demos for those interested in learning how to make vegan meals. Truly an amazing event!
But every time Mercy For Animals posts the video we took during Black VegFest, we receive insensitive and hurtful comments from those who may not realize what this community faces in the vegan world.
So we sat down with Omowale Adewale to discuss why Black VegFest is important and how others can support this intersectional and inclusive event.
1. What led you to become vegan and inspired your activism for animals?
Someone asked me why I didn’t just go 100 percent vegan, since I wasn’t eating animals or consuming milk. What they knew and what I was about to find out: I never needed to consume animal products or use animals or exploit their captivity. I asked myself one day, do I need to consume animal products or fish for sport? And I went 100 percent vegan. When my bronchitis cleared up from not consuming any cheese or dairy and I still felt strong, I knew my animal activism had to deepen. It was simple to connect it to my activist work.
2. Why did you create Black VegFest and why is it important to the community?
I was aiming at addressing all issues that stem from living as an omnivore: absent love for other species and our Black selves. I think veganism can cure so many illnesses and sometimes people are only interested in self-preservation. But some are drawn to helping others, because there’s no world without others. I knew Black VegFest would be instrumental in helping many intersect their activism. The Black community responded wonderfully, leading me to believe they agree with the goals of veganism and being community-friendly. The Black community needs to see itself doing whatever is right for the Black community. Self-determination was pivotal. Black business was paramount. Black VegFest makes that perfectly clear by being unapologetically Black. We wanted Black women and queer folk to especially feel like their Blackness was indispensable.
3. You held the first Black VegFest in Brooklyn. Are more planned? Will Black VegFest expand to other cities?
We are planning our second annual for August 10–11. Yes, two days because people could not get enough! We’re pacing ourselves with other cities. We are looking at organizers in other cities to see if there’s a fit for one this year. It would be on a smaller level. We have to believe in the organizers on the ground. As an organizer, I don’t just prop up events in other cities unless invited. It’s about knowing the issues and being respectful for how they do things.
4. How have people reacted to Black VegFest? What sort of feedback have you received?
The feedback about Black VegFest has been better than expected—just out of this world. I’ve heard from people in other cities who were at Black VegFest and it’s so fulfilling to my soul. People are saying we were everything they wanted out of a Black veg fest. The community felt we were very organized in handling the heavy rain. I was shocked they realized it could have been worse. Vendors were overjoyed because they sold out and had so much support.
5. What are some of the issues the plant-based Black community faces?
Black vegans generally have a lot to say but we’re not asked to share. And that’s troubling. Black vegans suffer the same way as non-vegans who aren’t Black. We witness our communities get healthy only through gentrification. That’s heartbreaking. For 20 years I asked for plant milks in Brooklyn and the Bronx and no one had it until gentrification rolled around. I think it’s hard for the mainstream vegan or plant-based community to realize the Black community has other issues going on. We address our community like we’re aiming at teaching and bringing them into something special, not condemning them. So our strategy isn’t one of condemning non-vegans; it’s bringing them in by the boatloads. Like, veganism is more fun when your friends get it. We suffer from police violence, community violence, trans violence, domestic violence, and so we weaved community love into Black VegFest. We’re advocating for our community continuously, even as we fight for animals.
6. How can people become allies and support the Black vegan community?
Allies are most helpful when they’re actively reducing harm. At the lowest level, it requires space and opportunity for us to thrive. Acknowledging racism even within the animal activist community is important. Violence is interconnected and not isolated to one animal or area. Racism is ongoing; it’s not an incident that needs to be stamped out somewhere. White allies being able to address animal lives and Black lives is progressive work. There are Black people who have lived their entire lives surviving under discrimination and police stop-and-frisk and have been vegan for most of their lives. This should be the bar. Because many of them are women or queer.
If we’re doing an event that enables our community to go vegan, support it. You don’t have to dictate for us. We don’t want you to. Support us supporting animals. Same way people don’t ask why “Chinese” or “Italian” restaurant, we expect the “Black” in Black VegFest not to trigger you. We love us and enjoy connecting with us. But loving us has nothing to do with hating anyone else. Black VegFest was designed to heal, to laugh and play, and to empower each other. Black VegFest was another vegan event with a spin on it. Lastly, remember Black history doesn’t include subjugating whites so we declare some honesty and reasoning be understood before attempting to guilt us with a racist history that doesn’t exist. We’ll be healing for a long time… at least until racism stops. Respect our right to self-determination and self-awareness. We’re not a package deal in America. We have our own customs and cultures within Black culture.
7. What would you say to people who have reacted negatively to Black VegFest?
They’re simply racist, because you can ask smart questions without being negative and offensive. I’m personally not breaking my back to make friends. It was heartwarming for groups like VegfestUK, LiveKindly, and Mercy For Animals to get it. I believe everyone else can. There’s no negativity needed in this work. That shouldn’t be the work, but it is.
8. What advice do you have for someone making the switch to a vegan lifestyle?
Find out why you want to be vegan and learn from those who speak to you and your vision of veganism. If you’re transitioning, you’re already ahead of the curve for the globe. I’m proud of your decision for acknowledging what veganism inspires in us.
9. We’ve seen your powerful BEINGS video. How does your animal activism intersect with your other social justice causes?
My activism on behalf of animals has helped awesome activists become vegan. And I love them for it when they tell me so. It steers me right. I am able to reach working-class Black men about what we face and the issues of other genders or the conditions of animals. They understand better what justice looks like for all animals, probably because they’ve faced injustice enough. I don’t try to be perfect. I strive to be consistent connecting the struggles of all animals globally, and that includes humans. And it will take the work of activists around the world developing a more compassionate system.
10. Finally, a fun question: What is the one vegan food you cannot live without?
11. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Please, everyone around the globe, support local and international activist work! It’s the only thing that moves us forward as a society. The barometer of progress is how much stress our activists live with day to day. Regardless of money, fame, or personal affinity to one thing, we’re here to make positive impacts on our lives. Sometimes, we’re ignoring our own health and quality of life to make that happen. Reach out to your local activist today. Support me and my work here.
To learn more about Black VegFest, please visit their website.
Remember, each of us can take action in our daily lives for peace and justice in many ways, such as advocating meaningful change in our communities, speaking up when we see injustice, and choosing to leave animals off our plates.
Not vegan yet? Download our FREE Vegetarian Starter Guide to learn more.