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April 2002
Rebels With a Cause: Vegan Outreach to High Schools

By Lawrence Carter-Long

 

 

Stereotypes of teenagers range from lackadaisical slackers to juvenile delinquents, with the vast majority uneasily balancing somewhere in between. Challenging timeworn standards of behavior is a required rite of passage for teens on their perilous journey to adulthood, providing fertile ground for vegan advocates preaching the gospel of veganism. In short, there is a natural intersection where education extolling the benefits of vegetarianism meets the adolescent desire to blaze one’s own trail.

“Students are some of the best friends animals have. They have open hearts and open minds, and care about animals and the environment. What they often lack is information,” explains Lauren Ornelas, coordinator of Viva!USA—a sister group of one of Britain’s most effective and outspoken animal advocacy groups. “We want to make sure that we are there to help them make the connection between their love of animals and the food on their plate.”

With this in mind, Viva!USA, along with Vegan Outreach and the financial support of Animal Rights International, initiated a campaign on April 5 to reach out to students at 56 high schools in 24 U.S. states and five schools in Canada. Students were given Vegan Outreach’s Why Vegan? pamphlets and Viva!’s leaflets—geared specifically towards students—about pigs on factory farms. The groups plan to coordinate national efforts to target students at least once more this year. Viva!USA also offers a “Veganize your School” tip sheet as a part of its larger campaign.

“Something as seemingly benign as handing out pamphlets to high school students has been one of the most empowering acts I have ever experienced,” says Jack Norris of Vegan Outreach, publisher of Why Vegan? “In a few short moments, you will have forever changed the way some students view animals.” Norris, who until this year had only handed out vegetarian literature at two high schools, hopes—along with Ornelas—to expand the campaign to include more high schools and even colleges within the year.

In addition to introducing the uninitiated to the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, Ornelas and Norris are also hoping to reach students who already care about animals by showing them that they are not alone and, by extension, inspiring them to become stronger advocates for animals. Says Ornelas, “As someone who became a vegan in high school, I know how important it is to have others nearby who will help you along the way. Some students speak out for animals in the classroom and at home, while others who don’t speak out might be more willing to do so if they knew they had support from other like-minded people.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is in the enviable position of having been around for over two decades. As a result, the organization has probably facilitated more outreach to students than any other animal advocacy organization. Danielle Moore, who does student outreach for PETA, asserts that the organization has “spoken to literally thousands of students across the nation and has always made student outreach a priority. We’ve had presentations in classrooms and auditoriums, and also demonstrated in front of schools that banned us from bringing messages of compassion to the students.”

No strangers to controversy, PETA has stirred up the issue in local communities numerous times throughout its 20 years of advocacy. Most recently, the group was banned from sending its mascot “Colonel Corn”—a seven foot-tall bright-yellow corncob—to an elementary school in the middle of cattle-ranching, steak-lovin’ Texas. Media attention mushroomed when a school principal in Austin refused to allow the corny commando to wax poetic about the benefits of a vegan diet inside the school. Undaunted, PETA sent out the gargantuan cereal plant anyway to engage students just off campus in observation of the 18th annual Great American Meat-Out on March 20 when Americans are encouraged to give up meat just for a day—or for a lifetime.

High school students, now more than ever, have the opportunity to become more aware of how their dietary choices help or hurt animals. They are also at the age when they begin to stand up for their rights and for the rights of others. This is a time in life when many young people begin to realize that things aren’t exactly what they’ve been taught in schools—when they learn that Old MacDonald’s Farm has turned into a grim fairy tale; that unlike the messages they’ve been exposed to since before their first “happy meal,” hamburgers don’t grow like sunflowers; and that they don’t actually need to drink the milk of another species to be healthy.

Some of the most important lessons being taught to students may have nothing to do with the official curriculum at all.

Lawrence Carter-Long has over a decade of experience in activism. A former “poster child” for the United Fund, Lawrence has made dozens of media appearances in support of animal rights, and is also recognized as an authority on disability and public health concerns. He currently works for the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute (www.api4animals.org). For more information on vegan activism contact: Viva!USA, (530) 759-VIVA or www.vivausa.org; Vegan Outreach, (412) 968-0268 or www.veganoutreach.org; PETA, (757) 622-PETA or www.peta.org.

 


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