Dealing with meat at a pro-animals event

December 23, 2009

This is usually the kind of thing I’d write in the newsletter, but it’s bugging me that the content I write for it isn’t going anywhere else, and I’ve got no shortage of topics lined up, so here we go:

Subscriber Natalie wrote in with this anecdote/question:

“Last night I went to a party for the rescue group I volunteer with. It was a potluck and a lot of people brought animal flesh. There were about 50 people there, including a lot of vegetarians and a few vegans. One of those on the vegan team was very outspoken about her anger at meat being served at a rescue party. She really made a scene, yelling and saying she would never come to another animal welfare/rescue shindig. I agree with every single thing she said, but not the way she handled it. What’s the happy medium???”

I’ve lived that particular dream from too many angles, and you might have too. Let’s focus on the “how to react part” part of it. I’m going to approach this as an event run by a single group, and I’ll explain how it can apply to a potluck afterwards. But first, a story from the world of work. I promise it becomes relevant later:

When I used to work for a Big Company delivering software that Did Things With Your Money, sometimes things went wrong. Horrible horrible things. Things that made the paper, sometimes.

When these things happened, there was a process involving what was called QRM. That’s short for Quality Review Meeting, but obviously the term Lack of Quality Review Meeting would apply just as well. It’s one of those confusing things like how people raise money “for heart disease” but they’re (usually, I hope) running to fight heart disease. Anyway, the meeting would be staffed by various senior people and vice presidents and whatnot to figure out who screwed up.

My team went there once or twice while I was there. I honestly don’t remember if any of the visits had anything to do with me, but I don’t think I was ever in The Room. The following is anecdotal: we never had a problem with QRM.

The “trick” as it were, was to do the following: admit you screwed up, and explain what you were doing to make sure the problem at hand wouldn’t happen again.

The people around the table at QRM, I’m told, were a bit stunned by this. It’s a big company. They’re used to blame shifting, finger pointing, and other weaseling. And here this team was admitting they made a mistake, taking responsibility, and even coming up with next steps! It’s like they’re doing the job for them!

I’m not trying to toot horns here (as I said, I was never in the room,) but I learned a lot from this. Frankly, it’s brilliant. Nobody gets in trouble. Nobody even apologizes. Nobody gets promoted, exactly, but on the whole nobody really loses face. Yes, mistakes were made, but a plan – a veritable plan! – is in place to Fix Things.

And this is the part where I tie things back to what modern society refers to as “the point:”

You’re in a lousy situation with a rescue group (or some other group that helps animals) where dead animals are served. Here’s what I think you can do:

Accept that the event is what it is. You’re not going to get the food taken away and a fully catered vegan meal shipped in as a replacement. It’s just not logistically possible. I’m sorry, but it’s 2009 and I’ve done the math. The food is what it is, the event is what it is, and you’ve got to start planning for the next one.

Set things up for QRM. You want the people responsible to do the QRM trick that I described above. They’ve done something inappropriate (served animals at a pro-animal event.) They recognize this, and have a plan in place to fix this (serve vegan food next time.) This way they don’t lose face and everyone can, in theory, come out a little bit happier.

I’ve never read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I keep meaning to, and I know from the table of contents that one of the habits is to begin with the end in mind. So let’s focus on the result, which would be the plan we want people to be putting in place for next time.

In this case, it’d be to adopt a policy of not serving animals at a pro-animal event (yes, ideally we’d like everyone to stop serving animals ever, but let’s focus on the incident at hand, OK?)

Here are a few tactics that might help:

1) Find the right person. Complaining to the guy handing out plates might not get you as far as talking with the organizer. You don’t need to talk with everyone in the room to effect change (not necessarily anyway; I’ll get to that later,) so maximize the use of your “work” by finding out who the person is who can most likely make the plan to make sure the next event goes better.

2) Get your point across without being “that person.” Yelling is only going to make you that person who yelled. You might want to rehearse some of these lines before you need to use them: “do you agree that it’s a little inappropriate to serve animals when we’re trying to help them?” or maybe “I’m really surprised that there’s meat being served” or, leading to QRM, “how can we arrange for a more inclusive meal next year that better reflects our group’s values?”

I know, that’s a lot softer than you’d probably like to go, but unloading on someone is going to raise up defences and either result in finger pointing or denials or outright refusals. Don’t make the other person feel small. You’re both working on the same team, by virtue of the work you’re doing, so make the (sincere) impression that you’re here to help.

3) Go Viral. If you can get a few other people talking about the issue, and if you can do it without activating the angry gene, consider getting a few other people to bring it up, ideally individually instead of as a group that could be seen as a clique. It’s the difference between you acting alone and “yeah, I’ve heard that from a few people tonight.”

4) Find the money. If you can figure out who the biggest donor is at your event, and you can win that person over, you can gain a lot of leverage. I know, the biggest volunteer should have the same weight (or any volunteer, really – volunteers are awesome!) but that’s the way things work, so work what works.

5) Help out. I’ve been to a fair number of non-animal related events, and sometimes there’s a box I can fill in with dietary restrictions etc, but it doesn’t really matter what I say – the fact is that a lot of catering companies can’t make one vegan meal, let alone, say, 80.

I don’t think I’m the one to put this together, but I’d love a directory of catering companies who are capable of making vegan meals (I actually think there’s a lot of potential in something like this from a lot of directions, but I’m booked solid right now. Email me.) If you could spend two hours going through the Yellow Pages and researching caterers, just so you can have a list ready for event organizers, how awesome would that be? Just remember that some venues have their own kitchens, so catering might not apply.

6) Remember the goal. I can’t stress this enough: you want a plan to be put in place to make the next event better.

OK, this was for a group event, like the annual local humane society fundraiser, for example, but if it’s for a potluck like Natalie experienced, the rules aren’t much different.

If the potluck was set up by a small group of people or a single person, that’s who you want to target. All they need to do to fix it is to put a simple request in the invitations like “out of respect for our objectives to help animals everywhere, we ask that you refrain from bringing dishes containing animal products. If you’d like help with recipes, we recommend sites X, Y, and Z.”

That’s all you’re looking for. You don’t have to battle with everyone who brought meat to the party; you just need to win over a few organizers. This is getting easier already!

Now, that’s the “plan to make sure it doesn’t happen,” but before that you need to get the people to QRM. I’m assuming it’s more than one person, but anyway, the best way to get someone to navigate QRM is to skip QRM altogether – it’s like some kind of inquisition, and people get defensive when that happpens for some reason. On a small scale like a potluck, a simple conversation often does the trick.

If you get some resistance, the tactics mentioned in the big event case still work for potlucks, assuming of course that they apply (follow the money, for example, might not mean anything in an all-volunteer setting, but there’s still a hierarchy to pay attention to.)

Hopefully that helps! I could drill into a lot of this a lot deeper but it’s getting longer than I’d like for such a “simple” recipe (I’ll be honest, once I have to scroll the page I get a bit lost,) but depending on the feedback I’ll probably go further into things either in future posts, the comments, or upcoming newsletters.

This is an early draft, so please let me know what you think in the comments so we can learn together!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

girl least likely to December 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm

thanks for this! the humane society where i volunteer routinely serves animal products at their events (they often–not always–go meat-free, but regularly feature other animal products) and so far i've remained silent and just boycotted the events. maybe now i'll be brave enough to hatch a plan. 😉

jasondoucette December 24, 2009 at 1:58 am

Thanks! Think some of the potential dialogue through, and let me know if you have any questions!

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