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?