Shine: An Idea Grows Into a Community, By Michele Truty

Months ago, I’d asked my friend Michele to write a post for Shine. She was in the midst of planning the very first all-vegan blogger conference in Portland, OR. I didn’t have to wait until the conference had ended to know that it would be a big success. I knew it would be because she was fully committed to it – win, lose or draw. In fact, her dedication and enthusiasm was part of what finally inspired me to get off my duff and start The Writers’ Salon, the creative writing classes I’ve been teaching, something I’d been thinking about for years.

She started her blog a few years ago as a way to reach out to other vegans or would-be vegans to offer some tips, suggestions and support. And as many of you bloggers know, a little community starts to form across the blogosphere. But with people spread around the world, the chances of meeting each other are slim. Michele and her partners, Jess and Janessa, had the idea to bring this community together in person for a three-day conference. Oh, it was going to require a lot of planning and there would be a lot of 18-hour days, but when you’re passionate about something, really passionate, it’s worth it.

Many Shine posts have focused on people who have benefited their community by following their passion: Pearl Fryar with his topiaries, Ian at the Zen center, Aleksandra by fostering pit bulls in need. What has so impressed me with Vida Vegan Con, and why it’s so Shine-worthy, is that they created a community where there was none, and now that community is going to thrive through the blogosphere and in the attendees’ hometowns. Whether you’re a thimble collector or an avid nudist (not judging!), find your tribe. Find people who are crazy about quilts, nuts for vintage cars, gaga for Gaga. Band together and figure out how you can spread the joy to enrich the world with your passion. Pass it on.

 Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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By: Michele Truty

I am a vegan blogger. I am one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vegan bloggers. We write and photograph our way through life to serve as guides to other vegans or the veg-curious. We do this so fewer animals are exploited. We do this to help people live healthier lives. We do this to leave the world a little nicer than how we found it.

In the summer of 2010—just a hair over a year ago—after a Vegan Iron Chef directors’ meeting, Jess Scone approached me with a project she’d begun working on with Modified Style’s Janessa Philemon-Kerp: a vegan blogger conference in Portland. Set up a meeting? Yes, please!

But what if the three of us didn’t click? What if we had different visions? A couple of hours and champagne cocktails later, we had scribbled-up notebooks and an outline for a three-day weekend of learning, fun, and community. I had two new partners.

L to R: Janessa Philemon-Kerp, Michele Truty and Jess Scone. Image credit Isa Chandra Moskowitz

How would Vida Vegan stand apart from other blogger conferences? We’re up against so many, including one giant that we know many vegan bloggers attend, even though it’s sponsored by meat and egg companies. We would dive into our niche. We would create a vegan wonderland, with gorgeous food and swag bags. We would carefully approve each of our sponsors. We would donate a portion of registration fees to animal sanctuaries. We would invite our dream team of speakers.

We would make it very clear to all that this is a conference, not a convention, not a tradeshow. We would have classes that vegan bloggers care about, on writing, photography, and blog-building basics. Our panels would include topics such as activism, identity, and marketing ethics. And why not set up some cooking demos while we’re at it?

Our wish list of speakers included we’ll-never-get-them-the-first-year celebrities (Ellen!) high-profile cookbook authors, and lesser-known bloggers with unique voices we thought would be of interest. The letters went out and we crossed our fingers. Maybe half of them would say yes…or almost all of them. (Next year, Ellen.) They all echoed our belief that this conference was important, and they knew they had to be a part of it.

Sold out crowd. Image credit Amber Shea

We still had no idea who would come or how much they’d pay. Especially in our first year, we couldn’t possibly charge what some other conferences did. What if we couldn’t offer that kind of value? No, we’d play it safe and just avoid getting into debt. We still had pushback on the price; as a community, vegans are used to DIY, volunteer-run, church-basement events. We were a new and scary and “commercial” idea. Assuring them that we were not doing this for the money was difficult but so important. Does every vegan business deal with this? Are we not supposed to have ideals and support ourselves while promoting those ideals? Our concern was all for naught. Nobody dropped out, and we ended up selling out five months before the conference, with a lengthy waitlist.

In the lead-up to the event, speakers and registrants blogged about their excitement. In their comments sections, others were chiming in. Lots of “I’ll be there too!” and “Can’t wait to meet you!” Even though we were pushing ourselves at an unhealthy level, this positive energy carried us through.

After a year of planning and struggling to meet deadlines while still working our day jobs, it all came together and was more successful than we could have dreamed. Every event was packed: our informal pre-con meet & greet, a nonprofit screening of Vegucated, the VegNews cupcake-and-champagne reception, catered buffet meals, standing-room-only classes, our Galarama benefit for Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, and even after-hours karaoke and dancing. Our bloggers were serious about squeezing every ounce of everything out of this conference.

Lunchtime! Image credit Amber Shea

The sense of community was clear. Our opening speaker, Laura Beck, laid it out in her address: We need each other for support. As lonely as we can feel, typing away to the ether, our readers are there for us. We’re there for each other. This sentiment made me very aware of the interactions going on all around me. Speakers hung out with registrants and exhibitors. We were all on even ground. Huge names like Post Punk Kitchen’s Isa Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero chit-chatted with…well, you wouldn’t know them. There was no pretension, no hierarchy. We were a family.

At the close of the conference, Janessa, Jess, and I bid our farewell. We thanked them for coming to our party and told them we’ll see them in 2013. Then we handed off the mic to Isa and Terry, who tried to put into words their Vida Vegan Con experience. Isa admitted that she thought we were crazy at first but that she, like many others, just didn’t understand what we were trying to do, our scope. Huddled in a doorway, the three of us fought back the tears as we received a standing ovation from 250 of our heroes and future heroes. It was so overwhelming that I finally ran away, a la Napoleon Dynamite.

Now, a week after our vegan summer camp, the online community lives on. We’d set up a Facebook group for attendees for conference updates, and members had used it to meet up for off-site dinners, karaoke dates, and early-morning running and yoga. Everyone is still on it, sharing their recaps, their photos, their hopes for next time. They’ve scheduled little reunion get-togethers because nobody wants to wait until 2013. We know it’ll be bigger—and a lot more work—but we can’t wait either.

Michele Truty is the author of VegtasticVoyage.com (and a bunch of stuff securely locked away on various flash drives and not-so-securely stuffed into various notebooks), co-founder of Vida Vegan, and co-director of VeganIronChef.org. A Chicago native, she’s been moving around the country for far too long. When she’s not getting in trouble with companies for bad-mouthing their products, she’s usually reading, editing, or listening to records.


Coming up next on SHINE: In Ethiopia, Dr. Catherine Hamlin works tirelessly to put an end to the largely preventable women’s illness of fistulas.

SHINE On: Do you know someone who quit their 9-to-5 job to become a trapeze artist (or some other awesome gig)? Please let me know! contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.

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5 comments

  1. Incredible! As someone who has also experienced the magical warmth and support of an online community (the dog rescue / pit bull advocacy one), I have a lot of admiration for what you have done, and a sense of the great feeling you have pulling it off. Sounds like you really put yourselves out there and were met with tidal waves of enthusiasm.
    And thanks for adding another great resource for vegan cooking to my growing collection!

    Like

    1. No kidding, SIG! I wouldn’t have known even where to start! An incredible achievement, especially for the inaugural conference.

      Like

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