Interviews with Vegetarian/Vegan Activists
Interview with Belgian Vegetarian Leader
Continuing our series of email interviews with leaders of IVU member societies, here is an interview with Mr Tobias Leenaert, a leader of the Ethical Vegetarian Association of Belgium: ww2.vegetarisme.be
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What made you decide to become a vegetarian? When did that happen? How old were you at the time?
I was about twenty-two at the time I went completely vegetarian. Two years later, I was vegan. Actually, I had been thinking for years, since I was fifteen or so, about becoming vegetarian. That was because basically I couldn’t explain the difference of treatment between our dog, sleeping peacefully near the fireplace and the cow in the meadow that had to be out in the rain and that people would eat later. It was only several years later though, that I put my thoughts into practice.
You are a leader of a member society of IVU. How long have you been a leader of this organisation?
I am founder and director of EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative). I have been leading this organisation for 8 years now, the entire time of its existence. EVA is the vegetarian society of Belgium, or at least the Flemish part of it.
What made you decide to become active in promoting vegetarianism?
I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, then wrote my university dissertation about the human-animal relationship. Then, I interned for half a year at American animal rights organisations. When I came back, I was convinced – and have become even more convinced along the way – that being active for vegetarianism is one of the single most effective things you can do to make the world a better place to live for every living being, including the Earth itself.
What is it that sustains your desire to be active?
I can’t imagine another life. We’re on this planet to help each other and to make things better. It is also what gives me most joy in life.
What is an obstacle that you face in remaining active in promoting vegetarianism? How do you overcome this obstacle?
Running an organisation can be stressful sometimes, and dealing with many people can be hard. But basically I guess the main obstacles are usually within ourselves ;-)
What is one of your organisation’s accomplishments that makes you especially proud?
I think we must be one of the only veg organisations in the world who have managed to obtain long-term structural support from its government (without compromising on anything, of course). We have organised several scientific congresses, one together with the Belgian Society of Dieticians. Also, we have a unique and spacious vegetarian information centre with a nice kitchen for cooking demos, a library and a room for lectures. Recently for the first time, we received a grant from the Ministry of Health to teach food service professionals.
How do you try to maintain good relations and enthusiasm amongst your organisation’s members?
One of our principles is that we are always very positive. People say our organisation has a nice feel and is very open and tolerant towards anything and anyone. For instance, we avoid talking about vegetarianism but rather talk about vegetarian food, so that people don’t feel pushed towards an all or nothing situation. Everyone is welcome, no matter what he or she eats. We just provide the information so that people can make an informed (as opposed to a blind) choice. We don’t push; we just give the facts, in as objective a way as possible.
What is one way that your organisation cooperates with other veg organisations?
I think that our cooperation with other organisations could actually be much better. For instance, we could work together internationally on compiling the best info about meat and health, global warming, the world food situation, etc., and share it amongst each other. The same with a professional picture database (food pictures are very expensive to do professionally) or videos…
Do you have any fundraising tips for other organisations?
Yes, what we are trying to do is to be mainstream, professional, positive and trustworthy, so that people, big organisations, politicians, etc. think of us as a good partner to do business with. We attach a lot of importance to a professional image in all our communication, including the layout of our publications. I think it’s important to appear very normal, even if you are not ;-)
Show potential partners that you are serious, professional, not fanatic. When you bring your message to anyone, always remember that most people have very severe prejudices and fixed opinions against vegetarianism and vegetarians. Make sure you don’t confirm these.
How does your organisation reach out to people who are trying to become veg or who are newly veg?
Our main campaign is the Thursday Meatout campaign (this exists in the US too, on Monday). It is, I think, a very good way to approach new people and stimulate them to try vegetarian. From there, they can go wherever they please.