When Naihja Wright-Kerr and Brenda Sanders first came together to start the Vegan Soulfest, they had no idea what they had started.

“Neither of us had planned a festival before,” Wright-Kerr admits.

At first, it was small. Or at least that’s what Wright-Kerr and Sanders predicted a late October festival would be. In planning the festival, they wanted to emphasize choosing a venue that was under-utilized in the community. The Downtown Cultural Arts Center fit the criteria, and soon after booking the venue they put out a call for vendors.

“We were just planning for 30 vendors, a couple hundred attendees,” Wright-Kerr explains. “Well, the little thing caused us to have upwards of 90 vendors and 1200-1,500 attendees that first year.”

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The crowd was so large that folks were wrapped all around Howard Street, Mulberry Street, the back of the Downtown Cultural Arts Center and the corner. Word spread so much that The Baltimore Sun came out to see what was going on. The article, the first-ever coverage of the first-ever Vegan Soulfest locally and internationally, coined the festival as the “New Food Festival.”

As with many events, COVID-19 meant the cancellation of the popular event, but now it is back after a two-year hiatus. In partnership with the first-ever We Give Black Fest, which celebrates Black businesses, this year’s Vegan Soulfest will take place in South Baltimore’s Covington Park Aug. 19-21.

Bringing over 40 plant-based food vendors together, Vegan Soulfest hosts restaurants like Land of Kush, the Greener Kitchen, Treehouse Juicery, Heka Saucery and more. Offerings will include musical performances by local artists like vocalist Keja, trumpeter Brandon Woody, as well as international artists like vocalist Maimouna Youssef, aka Mumu Fresh, and this year’s headliner, singer-songwriter Bilal. In addition, the festival will offer a wellness village as well as consciousness talks and plant-based cooking demonstrations.

“Since the first Vegan Soulfest,” Wright-Kerr said, “co-founder Brenda Sanders and I knew music was reaching people’s souls. So this year we hired an event management company, Three Pillars, partnered with CLLTIVLY to launch their festival, We Give Black Fest, moved all our offerings to a new location on the waterfront to offer the ultimate vegan food, musical festival experience.”

Wright-Kerr, co-founder of Land of Kush, and Sanders, executive director of Afro-Vegan Society, had early conversations about starting a festival that was more inclusive of African American culture. “We evolved the conversation to discuss a veggie fest that we attended outside the city that wasn’t as diverse as we liked and didn’t have the things that we liked, and it was kind of like, well, let’s just do what we wanna do for ourselves.” This was in June 2014. Four months later, Vegan Soulfest was born.

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Because Vegan Soulfest is the only one of its kind in the city, it has continuously drawn attendees and vendors en masse. Just one year after the inaugural festival, Wright-Kerr and Sanders outgrew the Downtown Cultural Arts Center and moved to a bigger space — Baltimore City Community College. During their three-year tenure there, the festival grew from just over a thousand attendees to a whopping 10,000 attendees. The number of vendors expanded from 90 to over 150.

In 2018, the festival moved to Clifton Park and hosted its very first international vegan headliner — Grammy-winning recording artist Mya. Wright-Kerr remembers the excitement of that day.

“That year over 16,000 folks attended,” she said. “This was also the first time we were awarding people with Vegan Soulfest Superstar Awards. Mya was granted an award, Tracy McQuirter, who published the African American Vegan Starter Guide, was awarded, and Dr. Milton Mills, known as the vegan internist, was recognized as well. And all of this happened in one singular day.”

Since the pandemic-years, Vegan Soulfest has expanded and redefined itself. With the addition of We Give Black Fest, attendees now experience two festivals expanded over three full days available at different tiers of pricing.

Vegan Soulfest’s partnership with We Give Black Fest is one of the defining additions to this year’s festival experience. Baltimore philanthropic social change organization CLLTIVLY is sponsoring We Give Black Fest as a means of celebrating Black business and Black philanthropy month this August. CLLTIVLY, founded by Jayme Wooten in 2019, is quickly becoming a staple in the Baltimore social change community. Wooten describes CLLTIVLY as an “organization that acts as a resource to those who seek to find, fund, and partner with Black social change organizations.’'

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Wooten, one of the co-founders of Baltimore United for Change (BUC) — a colation of organizations and activists working strategically for social justice in Baltimore — began conceptualizing CLLTIVLY as a response to the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Wooten’s work with BUC allowed him to see firsthand how Baltimore social change organizations and businesses are suffering from lack of resource acquisition and resource mapping. So in the days following the uprising, Wooten launched a skills bank via BUC as an “on-ramp” for community members who want to serve in a social justice capacity.

“Creating a skills bank helped me see the impacts of well-shaped resource mapping,” Wooten said. “So in 2019, I started CLLTIVLY to connect social change organizations and offer resources to those in the Baltimore and the Greater Baltimore area.” Already, CLLTIVLY has given out $750,000 to change-making organizations.

Powered by CLLTIVLY, We Give Black fest is a three-day festival occurring alongside Vegan Soulfest. In its inaugural year, We Give Black Fest offers a dynamic suite of entertainment, resources and prizes.

Some of the central programming includes the Black Business Quest, a scavenger hunt that encourages participants to explore and support Black-owned businesses through gamified task-based activities; CLLCTIVGIVE, a 48-hour live crowdfunding campaign that seeks to raise funds for Black-led social change organizations; and the Change Maker Awards, a special award program to celebrate and honor Black leaders who are making positive strides in Baltimore communities.

We Give Black Fest also offers panels on social change with local changemakers like former Ravens player Torrey Smith and WJZ’s Vic Carter; as well as musical sets by DJs like Bowie State Alumnae Queen HD the DJ, DC-native DJ Soul, and many others.

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The pandemic allowed Vegan Soulfest to reimagine itself so it could come back bigger and better.

“You can’t do Vegan Soulfest online because you can’t taste food online,” Wright-Kerr said. “You can’t have that kind of communalism, that kind of camaraderie online. And now we have elevated the experience to a totally new experience. Whether you’re there for one day or the whole weekend, at whatever ticket price, you will be experiencing something never before experienced and supporting every single person who helped make this experience unforgettable.”

Jalynn Harris is a Baltimore-based poet and educator.

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