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November 2006
Pay it Forward, Vegan Style
By Michael Sesser


I read Animal Liberation for an ethics course in college and I immediately realized that the only morally appropriate action I could take would be to become vegan as soon as possible. That was six years ago, and while I still hold the same belief, I am still not vegan.

Why not? Well, for one, I am lazier, weaker-willed, and less passionate than most people I have met in the animal rights movement. On the other hand, so is most of America. If vegan outreach is targeting the general population, my problem could be representative of a larger obstacle. Second, I constantly felt like I was fighting the world by myself. Once I decided to move toward a vegan diet, I bought some books and joined a couple of animal rights organizations. I soon had lots of recipes, vegetarian starter kits and lists of vegan-friendly restaurants. But most problematic, was that I now had lots to do on my own, and I don’t like doing things on my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I did try. I stocked my kitchen with vegan foods and stuck to the diet for a period of time. But as I’m sure was the case for many former omnivores, changing my diet was difficult. I often found myself in cranky moods. I have no family or friends who are vegan (or even vegetarian), so I had no one to lean on and help me through the initial rough period. Eventually I hit a stressful point, and one night when my co-workers were ordering a pizza I caved. Re-read this paragraph several more times if you want the story of my many attempts to go vegan during the next six years.

I remember a lecture I heard in which a business author claimed two of the most successful organizations in America were Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous and both for the same reason—they recognized that two people can do together what neither one can do on their own. People gain strength from social support. I have no experience with Weight Watchers, but I do know a little bit about how 12-step recovery programs work and quickly saw the speaker’s point.

When an alcoholic walks into his first A.A. meeting, he is told that as a newcomer he is the most important person in the room. He is introduced to a number of other members who immediately hand over their phone numbers while saying something like, “Call me for anything day or night, especially if you start thinking about picking up a drink.” Shortly afterwards the new member gets a sponsor who essentially mentors them through recovery and a home group—a group of people the newcomer commits to meet with on a regular basis—who become not only friends but a social support in the alcoholic’s recovery.

Now, clearly there are major differences between an alcoholic quitting drinking and an animal rights supporter going vegan. But, I do believe the animal rights movement can learn lessons from A.A., Weight Watchers, and other organizations that utilize the power of people working together.

What if, instead of sending potential vegans a vegetarian starter kit and saying, “Go do it alone,” we refer them to a myspace page where they could join an animal rights network in their geographic area? Eventually, we would suggest they select a vegan mentor. The mentor would have specific responsibilities: taking the newbie grocery shopping and to vegan-friendly restaurants, giving tips on how to get through sticky travel/dining situations, and most importantly introducing them to other vegans. Perhaps in a parallel to A.A. and Weight Watchers meetings, there could be regular vegan dinner meetings. The whole program would be volunteer-based. The only price to pay would be that the newcomer would mentor at least one other person in return—paying it forward vegan style.

Michael Sesser lives in Washington, DC where he works for the Corporate Executive Board, a “best practices” business research and executive education organization. He became interested in animal rights after taking a course called “Applied Utilitarianism” in college.