This summer (2014) I had the coolest job. I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club with the Youth Opportunities Program leading trips for urban youth from the Boston area to New Hampshire for four days/three nights of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and camping! Each week from July through August I led a new group with a co-leader from their agency on these jam-packed adventures. Each week was very busy, giving these youth—most of whom had never experienced anything like this before—a taste of many different outdoor activities. The purpose was both to introduce youth to responsible, safe, fun in the outdoors and to support the co-leader in improving their skills so they can lead similar trips on their own.
The Youth Opportunities Program is pretty darn awesome, and if you work with urban youth in New England in the United States, you should really check them out. Their primary focus is on giving youth workers the skills and resources to take youth outside.
I maintained my veganism throughout the summer, of course, though I take a nuanced view of it in terms of leadership positions with youth. In these contexts where I am in a position of responsibility, I don’t think that it’s my place to impose my choices on the folks in my groups. For many of my youth, sleeping outside was already pushing their comfort zones enough. I want the outdoors to be as accessible and welcoming as possible, and I think that having big discussions about veganism in the first days of a trip would shade the experience. So I offer meat and dairy options to my kids.
When designing trip menus, I make meals that are easily vegan-friendly and include any dairy or meat as a component, and not a central piece. For example, for one of our nights in the mountain we made burritos with veggies, beans, and rice, with frozen chicken on the side. Nobody noticed that I didn’t have any, almost everyone had some vegetables, and it was easy to do without anyone feeling uncomfortable or put out.
I take my being vegan seriously, and I will happily talk about it with anyone. But I want the youth to focus on the woods, the mountain air, stars, camping, responsible outdoor recreation, and the experience. And not on the funny diet of their leader. This works for me. What do other vegan outdoor leaders do?
*It’s been a long time since my last post. I’m still here and committed to this blog, I promise!! Alas, the life of a grad student…
[Update] I just want to elaborate a little on why I wrote a post partly about providing non-vegan food to kids I took outside. I’m vegan, and I don’t view this as a compromise. Of course I want more people to go vegan, but I don’t think that a first-time trip for youth is an effective or strategic environment for that discussion, especially while I was working in a position of authority and responsibility. Most of the meals I planned were vegetarian or vegan, and when meat was offered there was a significant veggie option (which many ate). I believe that veganism is a powerful statement of personal responsibility against corporate environmental destruction and climate change, and is especially relevant to hikers. I hoped that the kids on my trips came away with a positive experience in the outdoors, and, if they were paying attention, noticed that I was doing just fine without any animal products.