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Congress is dead - long live the Vegfest

I’m writing this from California. The first part of the 40th IVU ‘big event’, in San Francisco, is now over, and a lot of us are heading for Los Angeles for part two.

For the last 104 years IVU has been promoting a World Vegetarian Congress every two or three years, but this one is the ‘game changer’ – I borrowed that phrase from George Jacobs, editor of IVU Online News, and he is right.

What we are seeing this week is a completely new approach for IVU, and so far it is working well. We had big crowds in San Francisco, as they do every year with local visitors, but for me there was a surprise on Sunday evening...

I had expected the attendance to be nearly all Americans, and mostly Californians, with a few from other states, and fewer from other countries – but during the last big session Dixie Mahy, SFVS President, asked for a show of hands of how many came from Europe, Latin America, Asia, etc., and there were a huge number from overseas, and many more from other US states.

The SF sessions started on Friday evening at the very high-class Millennium vegan restaurant, near Union Square – there were too many of us to all eat at the same time, so a rota system had to be used – leaving plenty of time for drinks, nibbles and catching up with old friends in between eating.

On Saturday and Sunday we were in the County Fair Building, in the Golden Gate Park – admission to everything was a mere $10 per day for anyone not on the ‘four day package’ (ie locals and those arranging their own accommodation). The main hall had a trade fair with entertainment, and there were three rooms for lectures and workshops. The main auditorium was huge, and by Sunday it was packed, with standing room only, for talks by top speakers like Drs. McDougal, Klaper and Goldhamer.

Lunch was available from a wide variety of stalls in the trade fair, all vegan of course, very different to the conventional congress dining hall. Dinner on Saturday and Sunday evenings was in the re-arranged auditorium, with more after-dinner speakers, including John Robbins as the grand finale.

On Monday we had a ‘rooftop reception’ at the VegNews office in the Mission district, with some great vegan snacks and drinks, including an extraordinary variety of vegan ‘cheeses’. Some were then going on to one of the Loving Huts for a meal celebrating all the SFVS volunteers.

The accommodation was in many different hotels and hostels. Some used the ‘official’ hotel, but many others found cheaper alternatives, including basic hostels from $23 per night – combine that with the $10 daily entrance and it was possible to put together a very low-cost weekend.

How this is all so different....

This was the first IVU event to use multiple venues across the city – and we even have another city still to come. It was also the first to be shared with a pre-existing annual event, the first where volunteers were out on the street bringing in passers-by, and the first of the new annual IVU Vegfests....

In the past we’ve had many Congresses that had everything in one venue, a hotel, a university campus or a beach resort. Being so self-contained meant that very few local people knew it was happening, and very few came in. At the most extreme introverted event recently, it became clear the even other people in the same hotel didn’t know it was happening.

There was also very little flexibility in the costs, but that began to change in Dresden, 2008, where we were offered variety of hotels or a hostel.

The isolated exclusivity changed at the 2010 Congress in Jakarta, Indonesia, where there was a huge vegan food fair which attracted about 5,000 people, mostly local, along with a good overseas contingent. That also offered a choice of hotels – and it was the first ever ‘congress’ with no politics involved.

For most people, the word Congress sounds like something to do with government, and it was, until recently, where the IVU Council was elected, rules were made, the International Council met, and other business conducted. However, for a global organisation with limited funds, it was always difficult to get everyone together, so the ‘democracy’ was just an illusion – reaching a low point in Goa, 2006, when just 11 out 120 member organisations were present. Decisions made by those few were supposed to be binding on all the others unable to be there.

In the 21st century, the obvious solution was to move everything online and, despite some opposition, that has now happened. All ‘political’ issues affecting IVU are now decided by email, giving everyone an equal opportunity to debate and vote, even if they don’t have the time or money to fly around the world.

The grandiose title ‘congress’ also led some to imagine that IVU ruled the vegetarian world – and we still do get people demanding to know why we aren’t doing that. Since the 1980s the veg movement has expanded dramatically – and inevitably has become even more diverse in the process. No-one is interested in a self appointed few deeming themselves to be a ‘world council’ –vegetarians, and even more so vegans, will just do whatever they want to do, and disagree with each other endlessly about how to do it.

Dixie said at one point that she likes IVU because ‘it brings people together” – which very neatly sums it up, especially when the people are from different countries. What they do together is largely up to them, but we hope they share ideas and experiences, learning from each other as much as from the speakers. There are many routes to a vegan world, and no ‘council’ can decide which route anyone should take.

So the word ‘Congress’ is now redundant. The isolated introverted venue is outdated, and the same-price-for-all approach is just plain wrong.

California 2012 is the major transition to the future events – they will now be every year and called ‘IVU World Vegfest’ – and the 41st IVU World Vegfest, joint with the 6th Asian Veg Congress, will be in Malaysia, starting with a weekend in Kuala Lumpur, then up to Penang for a different few days. We look forward to lots of local participation and lots of sharing of experiences.

Meanwhile we’re on our way to Los Angeles for the rest of this one...

Lots of photos and videos from SF are now being added to the IVU Facebook page:

For vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: (6mb)

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