There’s a growing recognition of the value of vegan mentor programs. As a result, a number of great programs are being established. From college campuses to community wide initiatives, there are a variety of ways to plan and structure a successful mentor program. While some programs simply ask that volunteer mentors are vegan, have a basic knowledge of veganism, and are interested in taking the time to help new and aspiring vegans, others have more specific requirements. To give you an idea of what’s possible, let’s take a look at some thriving programs from around the world.
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Unique features: University-based and open to all students, faculty, and staff.
Program duration: Ongoing.
Advice from the members: Always have vegan food at events. It’s a great opportunity to show people how delicious and nutritious vegan food can be. It’s also good to have familiar snacks available that people do not realize are vegan to show that vegans are not deprived or restricted. One of the most frequently asked questions they receive is, “What do vegans eat?”
At the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Vegan Society formed the Vegan Mentor Program in response to students’ growing frustration with the dining hall food and campus fast food options. Students were seeking healthier foods and wanted to incorporate plant-based cuisine into their diets. To participate in the mentor program, students are asked to fill out a simple form stating their individualized goals such as how long they wish to adhere to a vegan diet, reasons why they want to become vegan, and preferences on communication via email, Facebook, etc. The application is then reviewed and the mentee is matched up with a compatible personal mentor. Once enrolled in the program, each mentee also receives a gift basket filled with samples of vegan products and educational literature. VegFund supports this initiative through the Merit Awards Program by funding the provision of these educational gift baskets.
The Penn Society Vegan Mentor Program is open to all staff, faculty, and students on campus. There is no training or orientation provided to volunteer mentors at this time as their general knowledge of veganism seems to be adequate preparation for working with a mentee. In regards to the time commitment for mentors, Barbara Jun of the Penn Vegan Society explains, “It’s dependent on how much the mentee wants to get out of the program. It can be as little as an hour a week where mentors and mentees just exchange emails about questions, to much more than that where mentors take mentees grocery shopping, teach them how to cook, or eat out with them.”
Many mentor/mentee relationships are so successful that participants frequently refer friends. The University of Pennsylvania has become very receptive to the mentoring initiative and a number of students who are interested in improving their diet are referred to the Penn Vegan Society from Student Health Services. Regarding the impact of the program, Barbara Jun says, “Because of the success of our program, an increasing number of people are becoming interested in switching to a plant-based diet. More people want to be educated about veganism and the issues surrounding it.”
2. London Vegan Campaigns’ London Vegan Pledge
Location: London, England.
Unique features: Extensive kick-off/ closing day events and activities for matches such as guest speakers, film screenings, and cooking demos.
Program duration: One month annually (no set date).
Advice from the members: Have “buddies” meet and get to know their matches before a pledge begins.
Moving across the Atlantic Ocean to England, the volunteer-based organization, London Vegan Campaigns, organizes a free, annual London Vegan Pledge event where vegan buddies are matched with pledgers for a month. In September of this year, seventy-five aspiring vegans participated in what they consider their most successful pledge year yet! This mentor program incorporates formal group activities as well as individualized one-on-one support.
Robb Masters of London Vegan Campaigns explains how integral the buddies are to the program:
“We have two full-day events, one at the beginning and one at the end of the month. For both of these events, each “buddy” mentors a group of around 10 “pledgers,” running a discussion with them on the expected challenges of the month, for example, and generally coordinating their activities (cooking demos, a film, lunch, talks by guest speakers, etc.). Between these workshops, the buddies send their pledgers weekly emails on related topics and are on hand by phone or email to answer any questions that they have. This year, we’re also thinking of allocating pledgers to buddies earlier, so they can provide some support before the first meeting. We usually have three optional events between the two workshops as well including a budget meal out to show that vegan food needn’t be expensive, a more upmarket meal out to show how inventive it can be, and a trip to an animal sanctuary as most people have never met the animals that end up on their plates.”
London Vegan Campaigns carefully compiles all the data on the pledge participants and has each pledger evaluate the program. This allows them to fully understand the program’s success and provides information for improving future events. Based on evaluations for the 2012 event, which marks the fifth London Vegan Pledge, 70% are planning to stay vegan. In addition, ten friends and relatives of pledgers also went vegan for the month without attending any meetings. The remaining pledgers stated that they plan to continue transitioning to a vegan diet or will reduce the animal products they consume. To learn more, check out the 2012 report that includes a more in-depth look at the pledge event outcomes, data on participants, and information on the kickoff and final gatherings.
3. Open the Cages Alliance’s Vegan Living Program
Location: Baltimore, Maryland.
Unique features: Various comprehensive activities scheduled for matches including five core required gatherings and seven optional workshops/cooking demos. A highlight for many is a field trip to an animal sanctuary.
Program duration: One month annually in the spring.
Advice from the members: Contact the Peace Advocacy Network as they offer great resources and support to people who wish to start vegan pledge and mentor programs in their own community. Open the Cages Alliance also encourages anyone to contact them about their Vegan Living Program and use their materials. ”We’re thrilled to speak with other grassroots activists who wish to start something like this in their own community.”
This past spring marked the second year of The Vegan Living Program, an initiative that’s also modeled around a monthly pledge. Twenty coaches worked with almost thirty mentees. The program requires that volunteer coaches have been vegan for at least one year and must attend an orientation meeting before working with a mentee. In addition, coaches need to participate in five core sessions with their mentee that include presentations on vegan living and nutrition and a field trip to an animal sanctuary. Between the weekly gatherings, the coach works individually with his or her mentee, staying in touch in person, on the phone, or through email. One common activity is to go shopping and buy ingredients to veganize a favorite recipe.
According to Erin Marcus, one of the directors at Open the Cages Alliance, The Vegan Living Program has been incredibly successful as many mentees continue to remain involved in events after the program has finished. Some have even gone on to become coaches. While they are planning to do more follow up and tracking of participants for the 2013 Vegan Living Program, she states, “It has been the most successful community building project we’ve done. For us it was the most rewarding effort we’ve carried out as Open the Cages Alliance. It’s our hope that every city has a grassroots program like this.”
Jamie Cohen, one of the mentors in the program who has also taught a workshop for pledgers on easy vegan ingredients, echoes Erin’s sentiments, “This program to me should exist in every city and town in America. The materials they’ve developed are so comprehensive, friendly, informative, simple, and wonderful. Last year, I was set up with someone who had just gone vegetarian and wanted to go vegan. It was so great to have a conversation with her and talk about our experiences. We’re still in touch.” To attract program participants, Jamie explains that Open the Cages has developed very attractive postcards that are posted on Facebook and other social media platforms. They are also distributed at conferences, outreach events, restaurants, and various community venues.
4. Animal Rights Coalition’s Vegan University; Find The Vegan You At Vegan U
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Unique features: Many events and gatherings available for mentors and mentees including Community Circle discussion groups, market tours, and workshops.
Program duration: Ongoing.
Advice from the members: Utilize vegan Meetups as a way to advertise your mentor program and connect with others who are interested in mentoring.
Started almost two years ago, the Vegan University; Find The Vegan You At Vegan U incorporates vegan mentoring as part of a larger initiative with various support components. Anyone interested in being matched with a mentor can fill out an application online, at an outreach event, or at their office. A binder featuring bios on all the volunteer mentors is available for people to look through and choose a mentor that feels like a good match. Dallas Rising, the Program Director, explains that in their mentor program, “Veganism is not framed as a diet but as a value system and a set of beliefs that resists abuses of power.”
Before accepting a mentor into the program, the staff takes the time to get to know the person to make sure he or she will be able to reflect the organization’s core beliefs and values. They also require that prospective mentors have been involved in the group in some way that allows them to gauge how responsible they are and whether they can take on the responsibilities of mentoring. Once accepted into the program and matched, mentors are required to check their email twice a day, give out a home phone number, and meet their mentee in person.
Currently, Vegan University has seven active mentors. Once a mentor is matched, he or she typically offers to first go grocery shopping with the mentee. Mentors also ask their matches about their favorite foods or dishes they enjoy that they would like to veganize. Matches will often go out to eat, get together to cook, and some even go hiking to connect and discuss being vegan. In addition, mentors invite mentees to events like Thanksgiving potlucks, dinner outings, and other social gatherings. These gatherings help new vegans learn from others, feel included, and provide opportunities to socialize with other vegans. As part of Vegan University, there are also periodic market tours, workshops on transitioning towards vegan living, and Community Circle discussion groups on various relevant topics available for mentees to attend. Mentees are not required to attend any particular events or participate at any particular level. Dallas explains that the mentor program structure is designed to be flexible and allow people the opportunity to participate where they feel comfortable and within their own time frame.
As the mentors in the program are very invested and passionate about helping support aspiring vegans, the biggest challenge they face is the discouragement and sense of failure that occurs when mentees don’t follow through or seek out their support. Dallas, who checks in with mentors monthly, explains that 40% of the people that initially sign up for a mentor don’t pursue it and the reasons typically have nothing to do with the mentor. The level of engagement among mentees is quite wide ranging from those who only seek occasional email support to those who get actively involved in outreach events. Dallas comments, “It’s been amazing…There’s a constant trickle of people who are interested in this, and this is who we want to support.”
While there are other active vegan mentor initiatives to explore, we hope that taking a peek at these programs has demonstrated their diversity and offered ideas for implementing a mentoring program in your community.
In our final blog on mentoring, we’ll provide additional ideas, general tips, and guidelines. Stay tuned!