The word healthy is often associated with veganism, but the relationship Vegan SoulFest has with one of its former vendors is anything but.
It started out well. In the lead-up to last year’s celebration — after a two-year hiatus because of COVID — festival founders Naijha Wright-Brown and Brenda Sanders told The Baltimore Banner that Vegan SoulFest had partnered with the inaugural We Give Black Fest, launched to celebrate Black businesses, to “offer the ultimate vegan food, musical festival experience.” 3 Pillars was hired as the event management company for both festivals, the latter of which was founded by social change organization CLLTIVLY.
But as the city gears up this weekend for another Vegan SoulFest — sans We Give Black — 3 Pillars’ principal, Lois Sarfo-Mensah, and creative strategist, Crystal Mosby, said they have yet to be completely compensated for their services at last year’s simultaneous events.
Sarfo-Mensah and Mosby allege that their company is owed money for contributions to Vegan SoulFest + We Give Black Fest 2022 that they say ultimately included festival development, event management, social media strategy, partnership development strategy, brand messaging strategy, copywriting services, festival brand identity and digital and printed design support.
3 Pillars said they are raising legal funds so that they can file separate lawsuits against Vegan SoulFest and CLLCTIVLY for $32,471.78 and $79,886.38, respectively, to recoup the expenses they say are still due.
Though Vegan SoulFest describes its mission on its website as aiming to “establish a diverse community that promotes a healthier and sustainable lifestyle,” Mosby and Sarfo-Mensah both described the work environment leading up to and during the festival as “toxic and chaotic.”
A 53-page debrief, or detailed account of the planning of the festival, and multiple folders of communications compiled by 3 Pillars that were provided to The Banner include screenshots of Slack and social media messages, emails and texts between their staff, the festival’s staff and CLLCTIVLY, as well as proposals and signed budget addenda, that they say support their claims. The documents show disagreements on who was responsible for certain duties, back-and-forth accusations of rudeness, missed deadlines for milestone planning decisions and miscommunication among all parties. The debrief was created to give 3 Pillars’ attorneys a clear outline of their gripes.
Vegan SoulFest founders Wright-Brown and Sanders said, “Three Pillars Co. did not uphold their end of the contract by any means,” and deferred any other questions to their attorney, William Sherwood. Sherwood reiterated that stance, but said he couldn’t talk in detail because of the pending litigation.
3 Pillars’ attorney Christopher Finke said that they’ve “heard that line” from Vegan SoulFest before without clear explanation of what they mean. “We’ve tried to figure it out, but no one really seems invested in trying to make sure that the vendors who were responsible for putting on such a good event last year were properly compensated and we’ve gotten even less communication from CLLCTIVLY,” he said.
CLLCTIVILY did not return multiple requests for comment from The Banner.
Sherwood, the attorney for Vegan Soulfest, maintains that despite what the debrief lays out, 3 Pillars didn’t uphold its end of the contract.
3 Pillars’ debrief states that they were “contracted to plan, manage, and execute an elevated one-day vegan food and music festival, which evolved into a three-day vegan food, music, and social impact festival.” It also shows a constant breakdown in planning between the parties.
“Hello Team, I am checking in regarding today’s call,” Sarfo-Mensah is seen saying in one screenshot of an email on April 27, 2022, to Wright-Brown, Sanders and CLLCTIVLY founder Jamye Wooten. “I was on the line and no one attended.”
“Communication was lacking to say the very least,” Mosby said in a recent interview. She and Sarfo-Mensah believe Sanders didn’t want to be a part of the planning process for the event. “She was very disconnected and when she was present, she was negative,” Sarfo-Mensah said.
At least some of the dispute seemed to stem from expectations that Vegan SoulFest and CLLCTIVLY had in regards to tasks that 3 Pillars described as “out of scope” — duties they performed which they said were not outlined in their contracts but were done out of necessity, including social media duties.
In one Slack exchange from June 29, Sanders wrote: “There’s obviously been no promotion, so nobody is even seeing the posts. Literally a friend of mine felt bad for us and went and liked a bunch of the VSF posts because there was no engagement whatsoever.”
Sarfo-Mensah responded in several messages that 3 Pillars was not originally contracted to handle social media engagement and she found the tone of the message “overall very offensive.”
Sanders replied that though “Naijha and I will do what we need to do to live up to what we committed to pay 3 Pillars per the contract we signed. … I don’t think there’s much that’s going to be done to satisfy me. Let’s just get this festival done.”
One of the biggest tension points between the companies was slow ticket sales, which 3 Pillars said they were unfairly blamed for. Unlike past years when Vegan SoulFest was free, the 2022 iteration, newly combined with We Give Black Fest, would require paid tickets. 3 Pillars recommended a single-day price of $89 based on expected entertainment, similar festival costs and estimates of past attendance from the festival founders — a number the founders ultimately approved.
On Aug. 14, five days before kickoff, Sanders wrote that “looking at the low number of ticket sales so far but with the expenses constantly racking up, I strongly believe that the energy needs to be diverted from creating more expenses to working on strategies to generate A LOT more ticket sales.”
When Mosby Slacked back that “3 Pillars was hired to produce and manage the festivals, not to develop marketing strategies to generate ticket sales” and they were “helping with other marketing efforts when asked to support although these responsibilities are outside of our scope of work,” Sanders responded that she “didn’t go through our contract with a fine tooth comb and I should have.”
3 Pillars believe this interaction reiterates their claim mentioned several times throughout their debrief: that Vegan SoulFest and CLLCTIVLY did not know what the event management company was responsible for.
Sarfo-Mensah said 3 Pillars often worked all day, seven days a week to accommodate new requests or late adds to the festival schedule. “The lack of responsibility from them affected us every day,” Mosby said. “And then when they were actually involved, our boundaries weren’t respected.”
“When we would voice our concern with the lack of organization, they would manipulate us by saying things along the lines of, ‘We’re all Black women so we should all stick together,’ ” Sarfo-Mensah said. In one Slack message from June 29, Wright-Brown wrote, “We’re sisters! Let’s start acting like it,” after voicing concern over bills. In response to the group Slack messages between Sanders and Mosby about ticket prices, Wright-Brown said to “think about ‘sisterhood’ and ‘team work making the dream work.’”
According to the debrief, that team still faced issues on the days of the festival, as a few vendors opted to not return after the first day. Char’d City, a wood-fired oven restaurant, said they were under the impression they would be the only vendor selling mixed drinks. Instead, they were joined by a tent that provided free Tito’s vodka, which they said prevented them reaching their sales goal and requested a refunded vendor fee. Koshary Corner, a Mediterranean vegan restaurant, said no refrigeration was available to safely and properly store their food. While leaving the event, they were told that “it finally arrived” at 8:45 p.m. after issues with the vendor. They were refunded some of their fees.
Multiple vendors did not return requests for comment from The Banner.
While all other vendors appeared to be paid on time, Sarfo-Mensah and Mosby said they still await the entirety of their payments from Vegan SoulFest and CLLCTIVLY. Though a text provided by 3 Pillars shows Wooten saying that he sent their invoice to be processed on Aug. 12 of last year, the money was never received, they said.
Vegan SoulFest did offer to pay them some of the money owed to 3 Pillars, Sarfo-Mensah and Mosby said, but it was less than half of what their work was valued, so they turned it down. They said they currently need $30,000 to pursue further legal work.
“Are there many lessons learned and areas for improvement from the planning and execution of Vegan SoulFest x We Give Black Fest?” the 3 Pillars team asked in the final page of the debrief. “Absolutely, but instead of making payments for services rendered and connecting to discuss the wins and missed opportunities as professionals, the Founders have decided to project their inability to take responsibility and refusal to face accountability onto the 3 Pillars team by enacting a blame game and completely dismissing 3 Pillars’ efforts in the successful curation of the festival ‘Xperience’ they’ve ‘ALWAYS been looking for.’”