The people improving society one project at a time

Operating firmly outside the limelight, with an attitude that tilts more towards the can-do than the could-do, these disruptive forces are, each in their own little ways, re-thinking society’s more pressing challenges and, more importantly, bringing tangible and actionable solutions to them. These are the people walking the walk, the people developing social and educational blueprints for the future, the people making a difference for generations to come.

Photography by Joke De Wilde (c).

Jessical Gysel

Jessica (1970) is founder and editor-in-chief of Girls Like Us, an independent magazine that shines a light on women issues. She also runs Girls Heart Brussels, a yearly weekend for women in our country’s capital.

What core issues do you aim to address with Girls Like Us and Girls Heart Brussels?

With both projects I aim to create more visibility for women – queer or not – and give them a platform where they can express themselves creatively while straying away from the clichés and stereotypes that mainstream media, unfortunately, still love to present. Being queer is more than just rainbow flags and pride parades. I believe there are many other women out there who, like me, don’t recognise themselves in these, which is why Girls Heart Brussels and Girls Like Us offer a message that deviates from this standard, content-wise as well as aesthetically.

Can you explain the concept of Girls Heart Brussels?

Visit.Brussels (the city’s tourism office) came to me and suggested I organise a weekend for queer women in Brussels. At that point, they mainly catered to gay men, with a focus on big events and parties, such as La Demence. There were barely any initiatives for (LGBT/queer) women. So initially, they expected me  to organise a huge event, such as an enormous club night for women combined with a hotel deal. Eventually I was able to persuade them that a cultural event is the better way to go, if only because Brussels counts quite a lot of female artists. That’s how Girls Heart Brussels became a bi-annual cultural weekend for women linked to an existing event such as Art Brussels or Pink Screens.

Was it difficult to convince city officials?

Girls Heart Brussels is now fully backed and financed by Bianca Debaets, the state secretary for equal chances. Nonetheless, I keep noticing that political actors tend to be reluctant to support projects that are more “niche”. Politically, it’s easier to endorse a huge event such as a Gay Pride than a micro-project such as mine, simply for the visibility aspect. But today’s world isn’t as uniform, there’s a lot of fragmentation within different movements.

How political is your message?

Girls Like Us has clearly become more feminist over the years, with a message that caters to women in general rather than solely to queer ones. Fifteen years ago I was editor-in-chief and founder of a Dutch magazine called KUTT, whose message was clearly ultra-lesbian. But I feel like I’ve moved on from that, Girls Like Us being proof.

Being queer is more than just rainbow flags and pride parades.

How have you seen LGBTQ media evolve?

Back when I started out in media and publishing, the new-feminism wave was inexistent, and the same goes for lesbian women’s visibility in the media. If they got any, it was most likely a very heteronormative message, often including butch-looking women. But now, fifteen years later, things have changed immensely. I’m not sure if I can call these mainstream platforms, but bigger media such as Dazed & Confused, i-D and VICE’s Broadly all share content that’s more diverse, refreshing and unconventional, in a manner representative of today’s queers.

Is there a specific message you’d like to share with future generations eager to fight for queer rights?

I’d say that there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. Nothing is a given. I’m astounded time and time again how little has changed for women when you look at the big picture. I wish for future generations to quit focussing on and glorifying the ego. Don’t try to be the next Picasso, or the next Alexander Wang or whatever. Do your own thing, and do it collectively, with as many like-minded people as you possibly can find.

Bénédicte Adnet

Bénédicte (1977) is director of Mentor-Escale, a Brussels-based non-profit that aims to promote the well-being of unaccompanied foreign minors.

Which core issues does Mentor-Escale aim to tackle?

We offer our assistance to unaccompanied foreign minors, supporting them in their journey to become active citizens. That’s our core mission. Our actions progress along with the developments in the political world. Something we’re actively working on at the moment is the accompaniment of teenagers to get out of the different centres they end up in after arriving in our country.

How exactly does this process happen?

Often these teenagers are recognised as refugees rather quickly, which means they have two months to leave their centre and find their own place to live. They have to get by all by themselves, but often they’re kids who are barely 16 years old, who have to live in a private studio, go to school and have an advanced level of autonomy we would never ask of our own children of a similar age. And we’re talking here about teens who don’t speak our country’s languages and who come from an extremely different world. We to try and work with them so they can find the self-empowerment to put their talents to use, help them understand how Belgian society works. There’s a multidisciplinary team of social workers and pedagogical professionals that comes in at that point. Every unaccompanied minor arrives here with different situations. Some don’t have banks in their country, so we teach them how to open a bank account, how cash dispensers work, how the CPAS/OCMW can help them financially while they’re still in school – that sort of stuff. It’s a support system that tries as much as it can to provide individual accompaniment.

What are the biggest difficulties foreign unaccompanied minors face?

It depends from case to case, but what remains a big issue to tackle is education. Secondary school education is compulsory in Belgium, which obliges unaccompanied foreign minors to find a school as fast as possible. Meaning they often end up in schools that don’t conform to their needs. That’s why we constantly need to build bridges with different schools, to help them understand what an unaccompanied foreign minor is exactly. It’s no surprise that for these youngsters, language is the biggest challenge. At first they’re placed in a special class to learn Dutch or French, but often their language skills aren’t on point yet when they leave this class, hindering their further education. Society asks them to go to school as fast as possible, but in reality they often need more time. In many cases they’ve been through heavy traumas, which makes it more important to first create a confidence between the country and the minor.

It’s a whole lot cheaper for the state to offer unaccompanied foreign minors adequate coaching than having to pay long-term medical costs, or long-term unemployment benefits.

How do they end up here?

We don’t necessarily ask the minors to tell us where they came from, nor why they came. For us, they are refugees recognised by the Belgian state. We’ll try to put in place a relationship of mutual trust, and then, after a while, they’ll tell us their story. Many come from countries that are currently involved in heavily armed conflicts, such as Syria and Afghanistan. But we also get some from Eritrea, where the current authoritarian government causes an entire generation of young people to leave the country.

Is there a message you’d like to share with Belgian citizens eager to do their part in helping unaccompanied foreign minors?

There’s definitely work to be done, and various ways to help. For one, foster families can take in an unaccompanied foreign minor, mostly the youngest ones amongst them, who are under 14 years of age. Any citizen who feels engaged and motivated to do so can apply to become a guardian to an unaccompanied foreign minor. Then there’s also a newly developed system of sponsorship. Solitude is often a big issue for these teens, they get home after school and find themselves all alone. The nights can be long. At its core, I’d love for people to realise that unaccompanied foreign minors are completely torn away from their country. What they want is to feel safe, create a new home, a new family, and find new friends. But unfortunately there’s still a negative image attached to the term refugee.

How could this image be changed?

They should be given a voice in the media. We have some teenagers who would be open and ready to speak to the press, but we can’t go about contacting hundreds of journalists time and time again. I’d love to try and work on this with a group of minors, to see how they could share their story. But the link with the press is imperative. A few photography exhibitions at the local library won’t alter people’s perceptions of unaccompanied foreign minors. We have to humanise the term. For many, it is still too abstract of a term.

What kind of contributions do you expect from the political world?

It’s crucial we talk about the specificity of unaccompanied foreign minors. Every sector should have sufficient knowledge of who they are, how to help them and how to be attentive towards them. And nobody should forget that, in the end, they’re children. There are, unfortunately, few organisations in Belgium working towards autonomy of unaccompanied foreign minors. But structures such as Mentor-Escale are indispensable, to intervene at a key point in these children’s lives, to give them the tools they need to become active citizens, and, most importantly, to feel good in our country. Otherwise they might end up completely lost, or even in psychiatric care. It’s a whole lot cheaper for the state to offer unaccompanied foreign minors adequate coaching than having to pay long-term medical costs, or long-term unemployment benefits.

Sofie Foets

Sofie (1988) is a former policy assistant at the European Parliament, who founded Toekomstatelier de l’Avenir (TADA) in 2012, an educational project providing voluntary Saturday schooling to underprivileged children.

Which core issue do you aim to address with TADA?

TADA’s main aim is to counter educational inequality specifically, and integration issues in general. We invite children aged 10-14 that are born into underprivileged homes in the Region of Brussels to take practical courses taught by experts from the professional field – who lend their services on a voluntary basis – in order to introduce these kids to the job market, and into society as a whole.

What are the main causes for concern when it comes to educational inequality today?

Compared to other OECD-countries, Belgium scores catastrophically when it comes to educational inequality. The acuteness of the problem becomes even more clear in the Region of Brussels, where as many as one in three children are born into poverty. What makes matters even worse is the fact that schools simply can’t keep up with today’s educational demands. Schools no longer just have to teach kids how to read, write and calculate; they now additionally have to make sure their students are multi-skilled, tolerant, empathic, entrepreneurial, multilingual and digitally dextrous. Schools don’t have the means to keep up with these demands anymore, and TADA helps give them a push in the back while trying to give as many youngsters as possible equal opportunities.

While we’re on the subject of traditional education, is there something you’d like to see differently in schools?

I’d love to see more of an innovative approach to education in Belgium. Students in classrooms are still learning things that were instructed fifty years ago, like for example, learning material about the Siberian tundra, and other things that anyone can easily look up online, while skills such as handling diversity and good citizenship are barely, and in some cases never, touched upon.

You mention Brussels being a Region with particularly acute needs. What makes it different from other Belgian cities?

Poverty, for one. But what makes matters even more difficult in Brussels are the many different languages people speak, hindering integration. It’s not rare to see a student speak one language at home, another one with his friends and a third one in class. In the long-term, multilingualism proves to be incredibly enriching but during the formative years you’ll often see these children having difficulties with all of these languages.

The situation in French-speaking schools located in the more impoverished neighbourhoods of our capital could easily be compared to schools in Colombian ghettos.

What triggered your interest in educational inequality?

Back when I was working for the European Parliament I followed educational matters closely. I had lived in Brussels for a while already and knew how disastrous the situation was. Back then the number of school dropouts could be compared to those in Greece. I recently read an article by Dirk Jacobs, a social scientist at ULB, in which he stated that the situation in French-speaking schools located in the more impoverished neighbourhoods of our capital could easily be compared to schools in Colombian ghettos. The situation isn’t getting any better. In any case, that’s how I came into contact with IMC Weekendschool, our Dutch equivalent and TADA’s biggest source of inspiration. During a congress in the European Parliament, their founder and I got talking, which is when I came to the conclusion that a similar initiative was indeed in Brussels.

How does TADA work organisation-wise, and what are its biggest challenges at the moment?

TADA is funded with private money from philanthropists, companies and individual gifts. To me this shows the strength of the citizen and society. Up until now we’ve never laid hands on any government subsidies. TADA can be compared to a fast-growing start-up, encountering problems most start-ups have to deal with at one point or another. Quick growth requires lots of money and lots of volunteers, which requires lots of structural and operational know-how.

Do you expect support from the political world as well?

We would of course be open to that. But TADA will always be an organisation funded, for the most part, with private money, to show the strength of society’s citizens. However, if you’d ever want to make a scale of things, I do think it’s crucial to have a support structure that’s as broad as it can possibly be.

Is there a message you’d like to share with future generations of change-makers battling for equality in education?

Go for it, and start out as a naive optimist. Endure, don’t give up. You can move mountains, as long as you’re able to find the right people who are ready to strive for the same goal with you. You can make a difference, which is something you should never forget.

Georgios Maillis

Georgios (1976) has been Charleroi’s Bouwmeester since 2013, assuming responsibility for the city’s overall urban development and visual identity.

What do you do as Bouwmeester, and why does Charleroi need one?

Well, it’s important to note that we use the Flemish word Bouwmeester, instead of the French term Maître-architecte. The literal definition of Bouwmeester, which includes ‘bouw’ or ‘construction’, comes much closer to what we actually do here. Maître-architecte would imply that all we do is architecture but we go much further than that, making equal use of architecture, graphic design, urban planning and events. We renovate the city with all these disciplines. To give you an immediate example, Charleroi’s Google Images’ search results used to look pretty tragic. You’d have a look at the first picture and you’d ask yourself “what the hell happened over here?” No one ever thought of taking beautiful photographs of the city. It’s also up to us to change these things, making the city more attractive to its virtual visitors and changing the city’s image.

A couple of decades ago you left the city and moved to Brussels, stating that you’d never want to stay put in Charleroi. What made you come back?

I indeed swore to leave Charleroi and never come back when I was 18 years old, because that’s how you think at that age. I only wanted one thing, and that was to see the world, to discover other cities. Which I did – I worked in Athens (with Aris Zambicos) for three years, and in London (with Zaha Hadid architects) for two years. I wanted to see how these large organisations functionned. Coming back to Charleroi to open my own agency, Reservoir A, seemed like a natural next step. While I could have started one in Brussels, or maybe even anywhere else in the world, I feel Charleroi is more interesting. It’s also here that our projects are the most needed.

What is it like to now be politically involved, after having worked for private companies for such a long time?

An architect’s work always covers political questions. At these large companies I wasn’t yet familiar with the political aspects of things. At an agency you mostly work on a small fraction of a project, which makes it a lot harder to have a global vision of the impact your work has. But every architectural creation is also a political one that touches upon public space. Back at Reservoir A, my associate and I were our own bosses, which forced us to defend our plans, ideas and projects on a political level in order to establish them. This is precisely where things get interesting, when you succeed in proposing a project that goes further than just architectural design, one that will change the lives of a city’s inhabitants for the better.

We need to bring the great metropolitan functions back to the city.

So it’s a matter of finding a balance between your own artistic vision and the wishes of the political world? How do you keep this balance?

It’s not an easy task, that’s for sure. It’s a continuous challenge of convincing the person in front of you that the solution you propose is the right one and that it’s a solution that didn’t just pop out of a magic hat, but rather one that’s linked to an entire series of political issues. Policymakers should trust us. When the city counsel puts a Bouwmeester team in place, they shouldn’t tell us they know better. I’m an architect, so logically I know my trade. My colleague Sébastien Lacomblez is a graphic designer who’s been working on graphic identities for years. He knows what he’s doing. There needs to be a strong mutual confidence between the political world and us.

What are Charleroi’s most urgent needs in terms of urban development today?

In one sentence: we need to bring the great metropolitan functions back to the city. We have to reconstruct the city, recreate a beating heart. We’re doing this, for instance, through the renovation of the Palais d’Expositions, a new fine arts museum and by bringing quality housing in the city centre. And the list doesn’t limit itself to institutions – public squares and streets are up for substantial renovations too. Just have a look at Place Charles II. Despite being Charleroi’s central square, it looks neglected and decrepit. Or the communal square, which resembles a parking lot. In four years these areas will be renovated and it’ll be a true breath of fresh air for Carolos. The city centre belongs to everyone, and unfortunately in Charleroi we completely abandoned it at one point. So, one of the most important and compelling tasks we have in front of us is the restructuration of Charleroi’s urban plan and territory, to be able to put the right functions back in the right places.

Against whom are you fighting?

It’s maybe not a question of fighting against someone but rather a battle with someone. A Bouwmeester isn’t supposed to be a warrior, who heads to the battlefield on his own like an idiot. He’ll be dead in a matter of minutes. The smart thing to do is to fight the battle collectively, which is why we have to put as many interesting collaborations in place as we possibly can.

To you, what should Charleroi look like in an ideal world?

I’ve asked myself this question many times already. We’ll have one big privilege here because we won’t be under the sea. But jokes aside, Charleroi is a topographical city, its landscape took form through its industry, just look at its many slag heaps. It’s now up to us – and up to our successors – to use this industrial heritage for the best, to create a new individuality and singularity that allows Carolos to live here in the best possible way.

Het Bos’ Tile Vos, Robin Hectors and Peter Daems

Tile is artistic director of Antwerp-based cultural centre Het Bos, with Robin and Peter in charge of music programs.

How would you describe Het Bos’ core mission and goal?

Tile: In order to correctly describe what we do and who we are you need to know the venue and organisation’s history a little bit. We started out in a venue called Scheld’apen 18 years ago. The space was a bit dilapidated, and getting there from the city centre was quite a hassle. It was a DIY-art space, basically, founded by a group of artists eager to do their own thing. Two years ago we had to leave the building, and found Het Bos’ current venue with help from the city of Antwerp, in the north of the city centre. Together with the physical move there was a mental need for all of us to relate more to the city, to include the outside world and no longer solely focus on what we were doing ourselves. That’s how Het Bos became the cultural house it is today, one that actively tries to connect with its surrounding environment and with city life.

Robin: What makes us different from other cultural venues is, according to me, the fact that the artist takes the central position. Maybe that’s because of our history and development, but we’re much less product-oriented and commercial. We try to support communities that have trouble finding their place in the city. And while their events might not always attract huge crowds, we are convinced that they deserve attention.

What’s the importance of cultural venues such as Het Bos in today’s world?

Tile: Up until recently, different artistic disciplines tended to be tightly categorised. You’d have – and this is often still the case – a museum next to a concert hall, next to a restaurant, next to a cinema. Nowadays there’s a strong need to relate all of these with each other, to connect these disciplines.

Peter: You’ll notice, when looking at our programme, that many events are intertwined and run together. Say a metal concert or a hip hop showcase next to an instrument-building workshop and an exhibition. Those are, to me, the perfect evenings at Het Bos.

How does the organisation work exactly? Your website mentions that Het Bos is constantly looking for volunteers.

Tile: We have a core team of about eight members. Although I do understand why people would think that we’re run exclusively by volunteers exactly because of our collective attitude, which we put strongly forward.

How have Antwerp citizens’ attitudes towards underground arts and music changed over the years?

Robin: Antwerp has grown considerably. The cultural offer has nearly doubled over the last ten years. Grassroots initiatives play a big role in this, small groups of people hosting their own events all around town, often in unlikely places.

Would you say there’s a political statement behind what you do?

Robin: We do engage in public and social debates as much as we can, starting from an artistic point of view. But we’re in no way radical or tied to a political party.

Tile: We’re not radical, but at a certain point you do have to make radical decisions to protect the organisation’s core values. You’ll only find vegetarian and organic food at Het Bos, for example, which indeed counts as a statement. While most of us aren’t vegetarians, it’s still a way for us to draw the line and bring out our philosophy to the outside world. Nonetheless it’s hard for me to put a political stamp on things. It just seems so normal to us to be open-minded towards all possible cultures and people.

Peter: We do feel engaged with several issues, of which we want the political world to make a change and for which we want to be a support base. For example, we work together with the children from Linkeroever’s asylum centre and organise workshops for them. We give the issues attention, in our way, and that’s our form of activism.

That said, is there any support or contribution you expect from the City?

Tile: We receive subsidies, and while what I’m about to say might seem contradictory, I do feel that state subsidies allow us to keep our independence. We’re free to take a stand for issues close to our hearts, to make our own decisions, to organise the events we want.

In an ideal world, what will Het Bos look like in, say, ten years?

Peter: In terms of scale we’ve found the sweet spot already. While the venue isn’t enormous, we manage to give room for the ideas and plans we deem relevant.

Robin: I would love to see the amount of lectures and discussion evenings expand. There aren’t enough of those in Antwerp at the moment. And I think the entire process of the move to this new building has been quite turbulent… But I’m convinced we’re headed in the right direction, as long as we guard this open-mindedness, and as long as we’re able to give space to new initiatives. These things require energy, and take time, but are definitely pleasures.

Emilie Meessen

Emilie (1980) started the non-profit Infirmiers de Rue in 2005, bringing basic health care to the homeless and striving to reinsert them in society.

What is Infirmiers de Rue, and what’s the organisation’s core goal?

Our objective is to reinstall long-term homeless people in a safe housing situation. We’re active in Brussels and have a team on the streets, and a team that guides formerly homeless people in their newfound living situation while simultaneously working towards the creation of new housing. This happens in collaboration with the city’s communes. Next to all that we aim to raise awareness through lectures and workshops to spread the message in other cities.

How does the process of getting someone off the streets and back into a home take place?

It’s a matter of following and guiding a homeless person up until the moment that he or she is placed in either an accompanied accommodation, a studio apartment or even a nursing home and feels comfortable and safe in it. We strongly strive towards the regain of self-confidence, and aim to help the homeless believe that in fact they are worthy of self-care. And then, little by little, they’ll gain more autonomy up until the point they’re capable of living individually without our additional help. It’s a long procedure that can take many years, but we’re convinced that it’s the way to go in order to end homelessness in Brussels.

So your goal will only be reached when homelessness is eradicated? Do you think it’s an achievable end goal?

Yes, although this will happen in stages. For the moment we focus on the most vulnerable ones, those that have been living in the streets for more than eight years. Brussels counts different organisations that concern themselves with the rest of the homeless population. Which means that, if we coordinate properly amongst us all, we can get there. Housing creation plays a big part in this process too, of course, which is the most pressing matter at the moment. If there are enough available roofs, this goal can be reached quite fast.

What can the citizen do in order to help the cause?

Every citizen can, and should, become our partner. It’s as simple as reporting when there’s a homeless person in the neighbourhood, either through Samusocial (who handles emergencies), or via us. We don’t have eyes everywhere, and we need benevolent citizens who turn to us when they see new people living on the streets, or when a homeless person becomes ill. It’s a social and civic responsibility, really, one that doesn’t demand a lot of engagement yet one that helps us immensely.

It’s a long procedure that can take many years, but we’re convinced that it’s the way to go in order to end homelessness in Brussels.

You mentioned a collaboration with the Region of Brussels and its communes. Is there anything else you expect from the political world?

At the moment, I notice a true will from the city’s officials towards the creation of long-term housing for the homeless. What needs to be strengthen, though, are the urbanism laws that allow for housing to be more easily and rapidly available. There’s no time to lose. During the time it takes for a new law to be installed we risk having several deaths. We can’t allow ourselves to wait much longer, which is why we need to act now.

You’ve been doing this for ten years, how have you seen the situation evolve?

At the start we told ourselves that it would never be possible to get every homeless person off the streets. That some of them are there by choice. But once you start observing in the field, you notice that nothing is less true. Some of them will only tell themselves that it’s a conscious choice, solely because it allows them to survive, something they tell themselves every day because if they won’t, it’s easy to become suicidal. Once we notice the person regaining confidence and self-esteem, we notice their discourse change too.

And how have people’s opinions and attitudes surrounding the issue of homelessness changed?

A year ago other associations still laughed when we stated that the eradication of homelessness is possible. Right now it’s really a crucial objective for 2017 to convince everyone, from the citizen to the politician, that, little by little this can and will happen. Someone who doesn’t work with the homeless on a day to day basis, who’s always been told that they’ve always been there and that they’ll always be there… Of course he or she will believe that this is a fact. It’s up to us to encounter as many citizens as possible and convince them that of the contrary, and that we need their help to achieve this.

Mieke Loncke

Mieke (1974) is active at EVA, the world’s third largest vegetarian association. She is chairwoman of board of directors and currently lives near Sint-Niklaas where she also pursues vocal jazz.

What is EVA, and what’s the organisation’s core goal?

We’re a vegetarian society based in Ghent, so we logically strive for less meat consumption, for less animal cruelty and a better environment.

How did you end up as chairwoman of EVA’s board of directors?

I’ve been a vegetarian for as long as I can remember. During my studies at Ghent University I discovered EVA and little by little I completely immersed myself into it. Actually it was my straightedge punk ex-boyfriend that, at the time, convinced me to quit consuming meat. And I never turned back. Then, just a couple of months ago, I saw the job opening pass by on Facebook and went for it.

What are the biggest challenges to overcome when it comes to creating a meat-free world?

It used to be challenging to convince people of the simple facts that meat-free diets are better for the environment, in many cases healthier for your body and better for the animals in general. Fortunately, we don’t have to do this anymore, because people know. There has been a lot of media attention on the topic and education around vegetarianism and veganism has evolved greatly. You’re no longer a pariah when you go out to eat as a vegetarian. What’s more difficult nowadays is that you have to convince people that it’s easy to be a vegetarian, that it’s no longer a hassle. In the minds of many the idea still reigns that a complete meal consists of meat and potatoes… So it’s up to us to assure them that a plant-based lifestyle is, in fact, an easy one.

Have you noticed other changes in attitude towards vegetarianism and veganism over the years?

Well, the word veganism generally still carries negative undertones for most people. Vegans are, unfortunately, still seen as freaks, or people think they’re weird. It stays, for the most part, a generation issue. There’s no use in trying to convince retired people, for example. They probably won’t do a 180 at that stage in their lives. But when I look at my son, who’s been confronted with vegetarianism since he’s been born, I notice that he talks about the issue like an ambassador.

Tobias Leenaert, EVA’s founder, always stated that he wanted to promote a vegan lifestyle to people without calling them out for eating meat. Is this still the case? And how successful is this approach?

We indeed try to persuade people with a positive message, which has always been and always will be the red thread in EVA’s communication. Diehard vegans have already been convinced ages ago. It’s amongst the occasional vegetarians, or so-called flexitarians, that we’re able to gain the most. Many small actions make a big one. We’re convinced that things need a natural flow to evolve, and of course we hope that those opting for occasional plant-based meals will quickly come to realise the benefits, motivating them to shift towards a completely meat-free lifestyle.

When I look at my son, who’s been confronted with vegetarianism since he’s been born, I notice that he talks about the issue like an ambassador.

Ghent is supposedly one of the worlds’ most veggie-friendly cities, with more restaurants that cater to vegetarian per capita than anywhere else in the world. Is EVA’s presence in Ghent a cause or a consequence of this?

I think EVA is partially responsible yes. Ghent has been our home base since 2000, and has always strongly supported restaurants catering to vegetarians. But one is linked to the other, of course. There’s a laudable open-mindedness in Ghent, one that doesn’t limit itself to restaurants I might add. School cafeterias and other large kitchens have done more than their fair share to contribute to our cause, and have showed themselves adamant in helping to fulfil EVA’s cause. Our ‘Donderdag Veggiedag’ (vegetarian meals in schools and companies every Thursday) concept was met with great enthusiasm. We’ve worked out entire programs for these large kitchens to show them that it’s easy to make vegetarian food in large quantities and that it’s definitely not an expensive endeavour.

When is EVA’s goal achieved? And would you say this is a realistic goal?

Our work is done when animals stop dying through slaughter. There’s a long road ahead of us in order to achieve this. And the world is big, of course. I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate meat consumption fully, but we can perform miracles through small acts. Which is why associations such as EVA will always be necessary, to come closer and closer to this goal. Notwithstanding that governments also have to pull their weight, for example by promoting research on alternative protein sources, or by supporting initiatives such as ‘Donderdag veggiedag’ in federal and state-run institutions, or by protecting the farmers and offering them a sustainable alternative too.

What would you say to a next generation of vegans battling for a more plant-based world?

I’d tell them that the last thing to do is to snub people. Which is my personal opinion as well as EVA’s. Don’t try to convince people by shouting at them, it simply won’t work and people will dislike you in the process. The better way to go is to constantly improve your arguments.