To kick off our Changemakers project we wanted to start with an interview with a woman who has inspired us and helped us more than anyone else in the vegan scene in Norway. One of the kindest and punniest sceptics we have ever met; it's Marte Munkeli, the leader of Norsk vegansamfunn.
Hi Marte, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and how you became the leader of Norsk vegansamfunn?
Hey, Sally. I would be happy to! My journey started when I became a vegetarian at 16. I don't have a single tear dripping or inspiring moment that made this happen, but as I remember it just seemed logical. Why eat animals when you don't have to? At that point I didn't know any other vegetarians in my home town. I still don't actually, and I give major props to anyone who manage to become and stay vegan in smaller communities. For years I survived on a pretty awful diet of rice with soy sauce, porridge, pasta with cheese sauce etc. I didn't really know anything about nutrition, and I was in my late 20s before I really started to learn about cooking and food. I hope new vegans of today don't have to repeat the mistakes I did.
Over the years, I gradually I started to learn more about the other animal industries and vegan theory, and was gradually reducing all kinds of animal products, like using soy milk instead of cow's milk. However it would take 15 years for me to finally take the plunge. What eventually did it for me was to find a community of vegans on Facebook. This is the reason I think it's so important that we are inclusive towards people who are still on the fence, and that we consider vegetarians and others who are interested in animal rights issues to be allies and potential vegans, not enemies and sell-outs.
Only a year after I became vegan I was asked to run to be elected as the leader of Norsk vegansamfunn. I had to do some serious thinking as to whether I was right for this position. I am not the most diplomatic of people, nor the most charismatic and good at galvanising people into change. I do however think I am a good organiser, a decent writer and good at social media stuff. So I decided to run, and thankfully my candidacy was accepted by the årsmøte/yearly assembly.
What is it like to be the head of nvs?
To be the head of NVS is great fun, a lot of work and very inspiring. The events we have are the most time consuming, but also the most rewarding and fun. I also really enjoy being on social media for NVS. That's definitely a learning process, but together with our volunteer media adviser Andrea, I think we are doing quite well in being an informative platform for vegans and wannabes (as I like to call our non-vegan followers and members – it is not meant in any derogatory way).
Since the new board started in 2014, we have tripled our number of followers on Facebook and I think we have inspired a lot of people to start thinking about animal rights and veganism in a new way. I think it is important for vegans and potential vegans to see that we exist, that we have a strong voice and that vegans are being represented in a positive way.
Do you find it inspiring to see so many different perspectives on veganism or is it difficult to manage the different needs of the fruitarians, raw vegans, vegan curious, health vegans and ethical vegans at the same time?
Well, that is certainly a good question. Luckily NVS has an solid foundation in animal rights theory and science, not in nutrition, spirituality or religion. Of course the organisation is open to any kind of vegan or plant based eater - actually it's open for anyone who want to be a member. But we strive to be very fact oriented and not jump on all kinds of fancy diet fads and theories that may seem to help the cause in the short run, but may damage the trust in the organisation, and even the cause, in the long run.
I find it important to be sceptical and err on the side of caution in many things, specially concerning nutrition. That is for instance why we give a balanced account of both the benefits and challenges of vegan diets, rather than pretend there aren't any of the latter. Unfortunately, I see a lot of vegans or vegan curious people trusting internet information about health way too much. They seem to forget to be critical of the sources they find, and take basically anything at face value. If the headline reads "Meat is poison", should we just believe that, happy that it serves the vegan cause, or actually try to understand the science behind such a statement? Not everyone on the internet is out to help you. Many have their own agendas, books to sell or sponsors to please. Also research on health and nutrition, like many other things in life, is complicated and can rarely be broken down into a single conclusion.
What do nvs actually do?
We are still a very small organisation, with a small funding base with members fees and no financial backing from anyone. All the work done in NVS is done voluntarily. Still, I feel we are able to do a lot of good things. We are very active on social media, we write and publish articles, guides, book reports and so on, we promote other vegan ventures, we throw pop-up restaurants and parties, we have stands at festivals and invite to monthly meetings in several Norwegian cities.
One important work we do is the collaboration with two nutritional experts (and by that I meant actual experts, not self-proclaimed such) who answers questions about vegan nutrition. Their answers are not sensational or click-baits in any way, but provide balanced and fact-based information about how to sustain a good health on a plant-based diet.
What has been a stand out moment for you in your work with nvs?
I would definitely have to say the Eat for Compassion event that we did with Vegan Oslo was a highpoint. Everything just came together in a great way. The other pop-up restaurants we have done have also been great fun. Every month we have social gatherings, and I love going to these and talk to all the great vegans in Oslo.
Another highpoint of the year is of course Oslo vegetarfestival. This year it was the best ever. We got 70 new (paying!) members, and sold out all our vegan cakes. It is so inspiring to be at the festival and meet so many vegans and animal rights enthusiasts – not to mention food enthusiasts! It is just an amazing feel-good venture, and I have to applaud the great organisers of this event, Heidi and Synne. They have probably done more for the animals in the five years the festival have existed than I can hope to do in a life time.
As a vegan, can we be activists without coming across as preachy?
To call someone preachy is to me often a "hersketeknikk", a way of undermining people trying to make a valid argument. I often hear "I don't mind vegans, but I hate it when they want everyone else to be vegan". This statement shows me that they really don't know what veganism is about. It is not about keeping yourself pure, spiritual or healthy by not ingesting any kinds of animal atoms, but wanting to end the way we are using animals in society full stop. That does not mean that I don't accept that we have a long way to go to this point, and that it will take time for the vegan movement to gain momentum. We have to be patient, but unrelenting, for the sake of the animals.
Whilst I don't respect the decision to use animals when we have alternatives, I do have to accept it in order to function in society. Sometimes I get people asking me "Is it ok if I eat this meat in your company?" Before I would often say yes, feeling that it was the only socially acceptable thing to do, even if I found the question really awkward. Now that I am more confident I say that they are free to do what they want, but it is not for me to give acceptance for this – as it is not my meat and not me they are hurting (I leave this latter part out for the sake of keeping the peace, but that's the rationale behind it..)
For me it is always important to keep in mind that veganism does not mean perfection. I am not a perfect person or consumer in any way. Although I try to be an ethical consumer, I do fly on holiday, I sometimes support companies that is certainly lacking in the ethical department and I probably consume too much in general. However, I would be even worse if I wasn't vegan. Veganism is an important part of ethical consumerism, but surely not the only issue. I think vegans will gain by having some humility in this regard. That is why I love my button which states: "Vegan means I'm trying to suck less". That's basically what it's all about.
Check out vegansamfunnet.no for more info.