Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Difference Between Niceness and Kindness (and Why Being Nice Still Matters)...


A few years ago, I heard someone differentiate between being kind and being nice in a way that changed how I thought about those words. I realized that I’d been using the words interchangeably but they actually have a pretty different meaning in the real world. The way I heard it explained is that one’s kindness is driven by an internal compass and it is rooted in compassion without much concern about either admiration or condemnation. In other words, one’s kindness is inwardly rooted. Niceness, in stark contrast, is externally driven and approval seeking; a prevailing idea is that a “nice” person is more concerned with conforming to accepted social norms than coming from a place of genuine kindness. There is a lot of baggage with the word and associations with it can range from an implication that a “nice” person is someone who is shallow and dull but it also can take on darker undertones, like that “nice” people are phonies, pleasant to your face and back-stabbing when you’re not in earshot. Kind people can also be nice people - though not necessarily - and nice people are often not truly kind.

I’m about to say something controversial, though, and it’s a reversal of what I thought I was going to be writing about. In giving the subject some thought, I now believe that being nice - sweet, inoffensive and possibly fake nice - still matters.

I started writing this with the idea that I would be exploring the differences between kindness and niceness, build a decent argument against being nice, and call it a day. The more that I thought about it, though, the more I realized that when I left behind the cultural baggage of niceness, it is still a value of mine and it is very important to our movement if we are at all concerned with people being receptive to hearing and maybe even internalizing our message. In writing this and then thinking of some recent interactions with two longtime vegans who are kind in the sense that they have engineered their lives so as to minimize cruelties inflicted on other animals, I’ve learned that it is quite possible to be kind without being a nice person at all. In fact, I would go so far as to think of them as overtly mean people despite their practice of not using other animals. The way they treated me and how I thought about them as a result of this treatment has led me to conclude that being nice matters more than we realize. Being nice matters not just for personal reasons - who wants to be around people who are mean? - but also for building a dynamic and robust social justice movement that has a chance of rippling out to help the animals.

Because I can already hear the Fiery Voices of Righteous, Fist-Pumping Vegan Fury misinterpreting what I’ve written (I managed to piss off a whole passel o’ them on Facebook at least once before), this is a good point for me to say that by nice*, I don’t mean telling people what they want to hear. I don’t mean suppressing or altering your message to make others more comfortable. I don’t mean that we become so eager to please that we never ruffle feathers. I’m not saying any of that. Again, there is a lot of baggage around the concept of “niceness,” deservedly so, and I think especially for females and those of us working for social change, it is a word that is especially fraught with ugly implications of a power imbalance, of us knowing to stay in our place, of groveling for whatever crumbs of charity that might get tossed our way. Should we throw the concept of being nice out with the personal and cultural bathwater, though, just because we have negative associations with it? What if being nice is one of the most easily accessed ways of successfully communicating to others so they might actually consider creating change?  

Here is my thinking: the opposite of a kind person is a cruel person and the opposite of a nice person is a mean person. How many people are inspired by a mean person? We can get in our little social media-created bubbles of thinking that we’re effective when we get a lot of “likes” from our fellow vegans for our vilifying messages but outside of that bubble, how do these words inspire those who we really need to reach, those who are currently consuming animals? Mean people may have a lucid, smart and important message to communicate but how many people are able to hear it if it is wrapped in an insulting, hostile delivery? Do you know many people who want to talk to, learn more from, and basically be in the presence of meanness? I don’t. Imagine it yourself: if you had to choose between two people who both had something they wanted you to hear about but one screams in your face like a drill sergeant or pompously speaks down to you while the other employs basic practices of niceness (like listening, being considerate, being friendly, etc.), who would you be more inclined to want to spend your time with and listen to? Preferring to be around those who are nice to us is simply part of our animal nature. We seek it out like a cat seeks a sunny spot on the rug.

If we are genuine about wanting to create change for the animals, we have got to practice some of the basic strategies that have a reasonable chance of drawing people to us and our message. One strategy - among many - is to be a nice person. When what we have to say is already so tempting for people to disregard out of hand, shouldn’t we be trying our damnedest to get our foot in the door? Is it more important to score points or is it more important to plant the seeds for change? One may be more fulfilling in the moment but I hardly think that matters to the animals who will continue to be used as objects when we opt to sacrifice effectiveness for the instant gratification of meanness.

So that’s it. Kindness is still more important but being nice matters. And you can go to hell if you disagree. (Kidding!)

* By nice, I mean someone who is considerate. Someone who cares about tact but not at the expense of honesty. Someone who is able to listen and hear. Notice that I didn’t say they roll over? Notice that I didn’t say they tell others what they want to hear? Notice that I didn’t say that people should turn into manically grinning woodland creatures who spring out of bed every day, fueled by an unbridled passion for humanity? That is not nice to me, that is phony, and there is a difference.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Bonnie Goodman...

Okay, I cannot be unbiased about this. I love, love, love Bonnie Goodman.

Bonnie is a very talented artist who primarily works in colorful glass, creating gorgeous beads, pendants and more. She is also an ethical vegan in the town of Livingston, Montana, and she does her outreach – always infused with her playful sense of humor and welcoming spirit – in a community near Yellowstone National Park that is far from a vegan mecca. That hasn’t stopped her. With her Live and Let Livingston monthly potluck series organized around pun-laden themes – like August, which is “Eat Dessert First” day, and October, which is their veggie chili cook-off – Bonnie has fun but also makes her events informative for her mostly omnivorous attendees, who can learn more about plant-based diets from her cooking demos and lending library. (Check out some photos on Facebook to see all her lively and clever ideas.) More than anything, though, I think her greatest contribution is in her example of community building: not everyone lives in a vegan paradise and for those who don’t, whether they are coming at it from a health angle of wanting to reduce their cholesterol or feeling the beginning stirrings of wanting to live in alignment with their values of compassionate living, I wish they had someone like Bonnie Goodman in their community to give them the encouragement and support they need. For her amazing work with helping to facilitate an inclusive, friendly and helpful environment of support that is the lifeblood of a robust vegan community, Bonnie Goodman is a vegan rockstar you should know.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My Mom is a great inspiration to me.  She has always been interested in social justice issues, and her love of animals was contagious. We grew up in a house filled with animals of all kinds and our neighbors across the street had a horse and a cow. Getting to know those individuals inspired me to stop eating cows in high school,
and I'm embarrassed to say I considered myself vegetarian even though I still ate chickens and fishes and eggs and cow’s milk.  I didn't know any other vegetarians, and at the time it was a big change - after all, I grew up like most people in America, eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, meat and potatoes for dinner, and ice cream for dessert.

A few years later, I read Diet for A New America, and realized my food choices weren’t just hurting animals; my diet also had a huge impact on the environment!  I knew then that I wanted to go vegan, but I didn't know how. I knew I could live without eggs, but didn't you need them for baking?? And how could anyone avoid eating cow's milk or live without cheese?? I was a dang Woolworth's waitress at the time and had never heard of a vegan cookbook!

I remember how excited I was to find a health food store for the first time (this was long before the internet, mind you, and I didn't know any vegetarians!) So I went to that store, bought one of those little box-containers of room temperature soy milk, got in my Edsel, stabbed the soymilk with the little straw thingy - I just couldn't WAIT! - took a drink . . . and almost threw up. Why am I mentioning this?  Two reasons:
  1. Because the non-dairy milks today are so much better than those 20 years ago!
  2. Now I realize that if I had taken a big drink of warm cow's milk… well, that would have grossed me out, too.  Tasting that soymilk ice cold on cereal would have probably made all the difference!

So, I'm very ashamed to say... the soymilk incident kept me from going vegan for a few more years, even though I knew it was the path I most admired. I just didn't think I was capable of it!   I kept trying to go vegan and messing up.  So I guess I’m an ex-ex vegan? I didn’t have any guidance, cookbooks, or kids (so I didn’t know about the interwebs).

Tracy Martin, my best friend since 7th grade and founder of Rabbitron, was key in my final transition from veg to vegan.  After a Weird Al concert in 2007, we stayed up talking till 3 in the morning.  She had seen Howard Lyman speak and went vegan overnight; she gave me a copy of Mad Cowboy.  Then she really changed my life:  she gave me Veganomicon that Christmas.  I learned how to cook!  Tracy also shared various websites and resources, and the most life-changing one of all was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcast.  THAT answered all my questions, and finally… I’m vegan, for Life!

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Almost all my friends say the same thing:  that going vegan was the best thing they ever did, and that they wish they had made the change sooner.

The recent passing of Lisa Shapiro has had me thinking about this a lot, because in the late ‘80s I was in pharmacy school in Boulder, Colorado. How I wish I could have met her in those days!  I’ve always done volunteer work with animals - working with injured birds of prey, chopping veggies for the animals at the Children’s Zoo in Denver, cleaning cages at the animal shelter.  Meeting a kind mentor who would have said, “Look, you love animals and you care about the environment… here is yummy food, and here is where to shop and here is how to cook!”  That would have set me on this path long ago.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I like to keep it colorful and fun…  Live and Let Livingston had a Veggie Pride float in the Rodeo Parade last summer, with lots of bright costumes and silly signs that got lots of laughs. 
Thanks to Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, I learned how to cook… and somehow I guess I’ve turned into a food activist.  I love sharing delicious dishes with people and showing them they won’t lose their favorite foods and flavors at a vegan table. 

I also think it’s really important to be approachable, respectful, positive, and NICE.  Everyone is welcome to our Live and Let Livingston monthly potlucks; our slogan is “you don’t have to be vegan, but the food does!”  We try to keep it fun with silly posters and a fun theme every month.

Another thing I like to do: every day wear a Vegan Street shirt or a button with a message on it - you never know when it will start a conversation! 

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

That the facts are on our side.  The passion might feel like religion, but it’s all based on facts. Veganism is a Win-Win-Win: for the animals, for the environment, and for human health.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

In-fighting in the movement, and the fear of  ‘pregans’ to learn more about the issues or try new food.  The first time my friends and I handed out free samples of Field Roast sausage, we quickly learned that if we would say “Would you like to try this cholesterol-free sausage?” that people loved it.  If we’d said, “Would you like to try some vegan sausage?” they wouldn’t even taste it!

So share some delicious heart-healthy samples, and give people the recipe… after they’ve tasted it. :)

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Once again, that veganism is a Win-Win-Win: for the animals, for the environment, and for human health.  AND it’s so much easier than you think!   If your goal is to reduce violence in the world, give it a try.  Then I hand them a cupcake, some kale salad, and the recipes.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

My favorite books are Diet for a New America, Victoria Moran’s Main Street Vegan, Thanking the Monkey by Karen Dawn, and The World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle.  Lisa Kemmerer’s books are all so good, and the covers of Sister Species and Eating Earth are the coolest covers ever.  You could actually judge those books by the covers! Ruby Roth is another favorite: I wish her children’s books were in every library in the world!  Oh, and I wish VegNews magazine was, too.

My friend Melisa Syness has also been a big influence because she was the first other vegan I ever met in Montana, (what a thrill!) and she convinced me to join her at Victoria Moran’s Main Street Vegan Academy, which was the trip of a lifetime, and really helped me to guide others on this path.

There are so many wonderful organizations that inspire me:  The Food Empowerment Project, A Well-Fed World, VeganOutreach, United Poultry Concerns, Mercy for Animals, and I’m so grateful to VegFund and The Pollination Project for helping me to promote compassion in Montana this year.

My favorite websites are Our Hen House, Joyful Vegan, BiteSize Vegan (what a fun and darling little genius Emily is!), Gary Loewenthal’s Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale, and Vegan Street, of course.  The Vegan Street Memes are pure genius. (chanting): Coffee table book! Coffee Table Book! Coffee Table Book!

This year, with the help of A Well-Fed World, I brought the film Cowspiracy to Bozeman - over 200 people attended.  I would love to do the same with Vegucated some day!

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I love the multi-media powerhouse of Our Hen House.  Their podcast with Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan comes out every Saturday morning, and I refer to it as “mental health hour”.  I listen at work while making beads, enjoying the vegan banter, current events, raising anxieties, and interviews with incredibly inspiring people in the animals rights movement.

My favorite way to unwind is to snuggle with kitties, cook for friends, and watch ridiculous movies… The Wrong Guy and Death at a Funeral are my favorites. For some reason old episodes of The Office have a calming effect on me. I know at this point I’m supposed to mention exercise. I’m so grateful for my darling husband Parke, who makes me go to the gym with him. Thanks, honey!

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

We live with a variety of rescued, formerly feral, and special needs animals; and my first passion started with spay/neuter education and clinics. It’s hard to believe that even today thousands of healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized every year.

I think some people think that I live with a dozen cats because that was my life’s goal.  Yes, I love each and every one with all my heart, but we live with a dozen cats because other people aren’t getting their cats fixed!

For many years I coordinated free spay/neuter events for those in need who could not afford to get their animal companions fixed: at the first clinic in Livingston nearly 500 animals were fixed in 3 days, with the help of 100 local volunteers and The Montana Spay/Neuter Task Force.

Then I moved to the kitchen: providing free vegan meals for those in attendance at the spay/neuter clinics; feeding 60 people breakfast, lunch, and snacks. (Sadly, due to “raising anxieties”, Live and Let Livingston is no longer welcome at these clinics because the new lead vet is a rancher who finds the exclusive presence of vegan food to be insulting.)

To spread the message, one summer I put together the most ridiculous Star Wars/Star Trek /Spay /Neuter Education parade float ever, Members of Vader’s 501st Legion even showed up!

Spay/Neuter will always be near and dear to me.  Every cat, dog, and bunny is so deserving of a loving home, I wish each and every one were cherished.

 You can see pictures of it here.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
So much FUN!”

I wasn’t expecting that!  I remember assuming that vegans would be extremely serious boring people who were always depressed. The truth is the complete opposite.
Almost everyone I’ve met in this movement is kind, funny, generous, and warm. And lots of them can be downright silly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Honoring Where We've Come from and Being Excited for Where We are Going...

You know how in life there are a few people who you just recognize on a visceral level the first time you meet them? There is something about way that they look, the way that they move, the way that they think, something indescribable about their essence that just strikes a familiar chord with you. You feel an instant ease and compatibility with them, almost as if you grew up together as cousins or best friends even if it’s the first time you’ve met them. Being able to connect with someone like this - who you don’t need to explain yourself to, who also gets you so well, who makes complete sense to you - is a rare and exceptional treasure. Lisa was one of these people to me. I would say that when I first met Lisa Shapiro, she was someone I immediately recognized as one of my own.

From that very first day, Lisa impressed me with her vibrant, unabashed enthusiasm for vegan everything: culture, community, activism, businesses, children. I’ve never known anyone who was so positively lit up and fueled by this pure passion. It provided a bottomless source of invigoration for her. As a 30-year vegan, Lisa could easily remember a time of feeling very isolated and lonely with her veganism, a time when the same five (lovely) people would show up at potlucks, when no one knew how to pronounce the word, when we would be in such absolute disbelief to see the word in the mainstream media, we’d rejoice with every comic strip that made us the butt of the joke and we’d affix it to our fridges: who cares if people were laughing at us? We were acknowledged.

Just last October, shortly before she got the news of her advanced cancer, Lisa finally made it to Chicago VeganMania, an event that had been on her bucket list for years. I found Lisa as volunteers and vendors were running around, setting up in the hours before the doors opened, and made her walk around the outside of the building with me. I wanted her to see how people were lined up and snaked around the block all the way to the train station, to really see it with her own eyes before the busyness of the day swallowed us up. We walked together to the end of the line of people smiling, interacting, bursting with that pre-event buzz, and all along the way, she giving commentary, as much to herself as to me: “I just can’t believe this…this is amazing…is it always like this?...look at everyone!! should post a video…this is just incredible…this is all for VeganMania?...holy shit!” Once the doors opened, I was very busy myself but I made it a point to look over at Lisa at the Tofurky booth at least every hour. The queen of all things vegan was radiant and grinning ear-to-ear in that irresistible way of hers, basking in the glow of how veganism was dynamically manifesting around her. Lisa was not well, we know this now, she was in chronic pain, but she was unabashedly lit up with optimism and pride, like a mother robin whose baby had jumped from the nest and was confidently flying on her own. Lisa was beaming with not only call a mother’s pride but also astonishment at her baby’s accomplishments, more than she ever could have imagined 30 years ago as the solitary vegan trying to make her way through the world.

Exactly one month after Chicago VeganMania, I got the email from Lisa. She had stage four cancer. The cancer had metastasized to her spine - which was why her pain was so intense - ribs and pelvis. She had talked to every doctor, the biggies in the vegan movement were personal friends, and they all told her that there was no chance for recovery.

Over the next seven months, we talked as often as she wanted to talk. She didn’t want to bum people out, she told me. We cried together on the phone. I tried to make her laugh and sometimes I succeeded. At times, she wanted to forget the current situation that was consuming her life and gossip or brainstorm ideas. She got this death sentence, though, and with it, the doctor’s appointments, the increasing limitations, the time alone in her mind, the phone calls and messages she couldn’t bring herself to return that ate away at her still. She questioned why this would happen: wasn’t she a good person? We talked about karma (I don’t believe in it), the futility of regret, her fears, her hopes for her community in Boulder once she was gone. What she said that will stick most with me, though, was this plaintive: “You know what I am sad about the most? All that I am going to miss.”

It hit me right in the gut because I knew exactly what she meant.

In her 30 years as a vegan, she’d seen veganism expand far beyond the fringes and be brought to a place at the table. She’d seen dairy-free ice creams dominate whole freezers at the grocery store and vegan cheeses finally begin to shed the shudder usually associated with them. She’d seen families raising vegan children and watched those children grow up to become articulate voices of compassion. She’d seen activists using their creativity and brilliance to bring the discussion of what we do to other animals to the public. She’d seen the rise of entrepreneurs, filmmakers, artists, educators, attorneys, food scientists, permaculturists, podcasters, chefs, designers and more – people coming from all backgrounds and disciplines – bringing their talents and skills to promoting vegan values and building on what was here before. This was what she loved. This infused her with excitement and optimism.

All that she was going to miss.

When I left for Colorado to see Lisa, I had a collection of things to tell her about, to make her smile about. We talked about Gene Baur on The Daily Show (she already knew, even in her last months, she stayed on top of things), and I told her about this new innovation, a holy grail unlocked, which is vegan meringue. Her mind was blown. In an example of that ineffably Jewish sense of gallows humor mixed with her trademark guileless honesty, she said, “If I were going to live, I’d totally get a mixer to make this meringue.” I couldn’t help but laugh a little and then she looked at me and we both laughed. Then we cried. Lisa was fired up about veganism until the end but the bittersweet component of knowing that she wouldn’t be here to experience so much that is just around the bend created a strange reality, like seeing tree full of juicy, perfect peaches, being happy that others will enjoy them, but knowing that the fruits are just out of reach for you.

I think part of what made Lisa such a positive role model within veganism was her childlike enthusiasm for its emerging dimensions. She was someone who would have remained vegan regardless – remember, she powered through in the days before we had most of what we take for granted today, fueled by her steadfast love for the animals – but to get to see all the materializing communities, non-profits, businesses, events and more was like a gift that kept on giving. She was like a kid in the candy store that she helped to build, her eyes wide and sparkling as she took it all in. Lisa wasn’t a saint and she was very perceptive: she did not mince words about those who she thought were users, on a power trip, less than genuine and just cashing in. At the same time, that knowledge of where she started and where we are headed infused her with gratitude. She would never take any of this for granted. Despite the long road ahead, she was clear that we are finally at least on the road. We’ve come far; maybe we can take a moment to and feel grateful. We’ve still got a miles and miles and miles to go but we should never take our progress for granted.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Gene Baur

I met Gene Baur about 17 years ago when my husband and I visited Farm Sanctuary in Orland, CA. We were there on a lark, visiting a friend in San Francisco when we decided to try to head over to their location. Somehow or another, they accepted us showing up and while we were in one of the buildings, Gene walked in. I was, frankly, star-struck. His pictures had been in the Farm Sanctuary newsletters I’d been collecting since going vegan a few years before; here was a hero in the flesh standing two feet from me. We will never forget our first visit to Farm Sanctuary and the beautiful animals we met that day – including the cow who head-butted a ram who was charging me – but just as memorable was how accessible, friendly and warm this man who was a pioneer in the animal advocacy movement was. All these years later, Gene is the same person despite all the accolades and the recent attention with his new book and appearance on The Daily Show: he is as affable, unpretentious and fully present as when I first met him. In short, he is a fantastic ambassador for the vegan movement.

Finding and rescuing a dying sheep named Hilda prompted Gene to co-found Farm Sanctuary in 1986, and, with it, he became an inspiration for and trailblazer of the farmed animal sanctuary movement. Today, there are sanctuaries spanning the globe, offering refuge to animals in need, as well as opportunities to influence the public to embrace compassionate living. Gene has also remained very active with the passage of significant animal welfare legal ordinances. With his new bestselling book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day, Gene continues to inspire and motivate people with the message of compassionate living and courageous action. For this and more, Gene Baur is a vegan rockstar to know.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My connection with animals started with my beloved cat Tiger when I was a boy. Then, in high school my grandmother told me about veal and I stopped eating it. Finally meeting vegetarians and reading the book Diet for a Small Planet, and learning that I could live well without eating animals led me to go vegan.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I think meeting vegans who demonstrated that this lifestyle is a viable option would have a very positive influence.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Different people respond to different messages. Some are moved by painful images, but those can also turn people away. I find that the best way to communicate is to try and find common ground and build from there. Increasingly, I’m feeling that humor can play an important role.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Our passion and enthusiasm are major strengths.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Sometimes we can let our frustration with the current state of things get the best of us, and we communicate in ways that are not very effective. Many non-vegans assume that being vegan is very difficult, so it’s important for us to try and demonstrate otherwise.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Depending on who I’m talking too, I sometimes make the case about how animal agriculture is bad for animals, or the earth, own health, or about how great vegan food is becoming, but increasingly I like to ask: “If we can live well and be happy without causing unnecessary harm, why wouldn’t we?”

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Diet for a Small Planet and Diet for a New America were influential early on, as was the activist Henry Spira. Today, I travel and meet thousands of people every year who are working to create a kinder world. I have been inspired by and continue learning from many of them. Some are entrepreneurs, others are activists, and others are parents instilling vegan ethics in their children, and some are all of these and more.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Getting in nature really helps. I also try to run or do some other exercise on a regular basis, to get enough sleep, and to be mindful about taking care of myself. One of the most important ways to stay motivated is to focus on the positive things that are happening and to be heartened by those, as opposed to getting frustrated and depressed about the awful things.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

That farm animals, like animals, have feelings and that their lives and ours are enriched when we regard them as friends, not food.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

“…an aspiration to live as kindly as possible.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Why Sanctuaries Matter...

Every year, we go with our friends from the Chicago Vegan Family Network on a road trip to Michigan to visit the beautiful SASHA Farm Animal Sanctuary outside of Ann Arbor. We’ve taken this trip since our son was about four or five and now, at 12, he is still full of unbridled – in other words, distinctly un-tween-y - excitement every year when it’s time to visit again. Having visited so many times, taking the quaint, tree-canopied roads and turning the corner at the sign that announces to the world that we are entering a safe haven, going to SASHA now feels something like coming home.

Each year as we return, it is clear that we are entering a world far removed from our busy urban lives and not just because of the roosters crowing in the background. It is also in the way we can breathe a little deeper and relax whatever muscles we subconsciously tighten just co-existing in a world that is so profoundly in conflict with our values. At these visits over the years, many people have commented to me how peaceful and at ease they feel at SASHA, and partially that’s because it’s a very tranquil, beautiful place, but I think that the peace comes from us finally being able to let down our guard and breathe in a welcoming space where we don’t need to defend ourselves against the routine violence that is so very entrenched in the world outside its gates. At a sanctuary, it takes a moment to notice that we are feeling something different from our ordinary experience and that is when we notice in comparison how ill-at-ease we are as vegans when we are not in such an exceptional environment. There is no assault, nothing we need to move on from, nothing we need to avert our eyes from seeing. All individuals here have found a safe place to land. Our eyes can rest everywhere without a painful reminder of the violence that is so normalized elsewhere.

Over the years, I’ve heard some animal advocates speak belittlingly about sanctuaries, implying that they are simply vehicles for money-making and attention-seeking, which I reject as cynical and bitter, as well as those who question the good sense of maintaining an expensive endeavor that can only give refuge to a very, very small number of animals when billions are killed for food each year. Wouldn’t our time and resources be better spent on something that offers the possibility of more relief to more beings? I agree with this enough that my time is centered on trying to educate the public about animal agribusiness and how to transition to veganism. At the same time, though, it is my view that sanctuaries have an essential role in the animal rights movement and it is a role that extends far beyond the coordinated rescue efforts and the small population of animals who are given refuge within their borders.

The most obvious purpose beyond providing lifelong sanctuary to those in need of it is to give these individual ambassadors and survivors a chance to create change in the lives of those who meet them. Far away from the forces that anonymized, exploited and commodified them, at sanctuaries the animals can blossom, shine and be themselves. These individuals and their truly inspiring ability to shake off the hellish shackles of oppression they once knew and embrace their new lives are a bittersweet reminder of our own lack of ability to move on from hardships. On some of the animals, we can still observe the imprint of their former lives: holes punched in ears, horns removed, beaks disfigured – these are reminders of the everyday violence they endured as objects-in-the-making. Despite this, though, they have moved on.

At a sanctuary, you can find hens and roosters taking dust baths, goats jumping, climbing and playing, cows relaxing under the shade trees as if they’d only always known such peace. To see the animals unfold into themselves in such a setting underscores why we do the work we do. Seeing these animals, when so much of what we do feels like an uphill, relentless battle for which we are ill-equipped and far outnumbered in, deepens our commitment. For non-vegans, it can be even more powerfully moving. They can recognize these animals as individuals. They can see their personalities, how they move and communicate, how they are distinct from one another within their own species. Meeting the animals, an omnivore can make connections and, we hope, have the kind of personal growth that can lead to a deep transformation.

On a more subtle but equally meaningful level, though, what sanctuaries are doing is modeling a way of life and a high-minded philosophy brought down to earth and put into practice. Sanctuaries are an oasis on earth, showing what a life without using others might look like and how an ethic of non-violence and non-exploitation might manifest. Many people are so immersed in our culture’s prevailing template of domination that they cannot imagine a world beyond that imprint of exploitation. At a sanctuary, people can observe what this looks like to co-exist without taking what isn’t ours. It’s such a simple idea that it’s actually revolutionary.

This is what peace looks like. This is what love feels like. This is why sanctuaries matter.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Kristin Lajeunesse


Kristin Lajeunesse
is a longtime vegan, master of social media, lifestyle and small business coach and all-around modern-day poster child for turning your life into something that is aligned with your passions. With her innovative Will Travel For Vegan Food project that began on her fifth veganniversary in August, 2011, Kristin created the fantasy endeavor of so many wander-lusting herbivores: she traveled the country in an extended road trip that took her to 48 states and 547 restaurants – more than 39,000 miles – to sample vegan food from Alabama to Wyoming.  Of course, no real road trip is complete without difficulties, personal growth and sometimes painful self-discoveries, all of which it sounds like Kristin received extravagantly on the road from the description of her new memoir from Vegan Publishers. I have not read Will Travel for Vegan Food yet but it sounds like a great summer read, maybe while renting a beach house in South Carolina. Or hiking through Yosemite. Or backpacking through Europe. Or even from my own front porch. Kristin is a role model of taking the road less traveled and creating a meaningful, rich life along the way. For this reason and more, Kristin Lajeunesse is a vegan rockstar to know.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I was 16 years old when my parents told me that they wanted to become vegetarian as a family.
My brother Josh is five years older than me and he introduced the idea of vegetarianism to my parents. When they found out that he had already become vegetarian they were immediately worried about his health, as they thought—at that time—that eating meat was necessary for optimal nutrition. But instead of telling him why he was wrong or shunning him entirely, they did what awesome parents do: they researched the heck out of vegetarianism. I think they were looking for a way to prove to him why this diet was bad, but instead they came to the undeniable conclusion that not eating meat is a much better way to live.
So, there we were in 1999 transitioning to vegetarianism as a family. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but decided to give it a go.
I went off to college and my parents kept up their research, joined a local vegetarian group and continued to learn about the influence that diet has on health, the environment, and animals.
Every time I came home for a break or holiday there was something new and “healthy” in the refrigerator—or worse, something missing. I still remember coming home one summer to no more milk or cheese. It was gone and I was devastated: not the ice cream!
By the time I finished college my parents were full-on vegan and I was still chowing down my beloved dairy ice cream and cheese pizzas. Aside from the fact that I had maintained a vegetarian diet, was eating vegan meals when visiting home, and gifted vegan-labeled sweatshirts, stickers, and buttons whenever my parents were given the opportunity, I couldn’t fathom giving up dairy. And then, in the summer of 2006, at a veg event in upstate NY, the sea parted and in walked Registered Dietitian, George Eisman. Despite the fact that my parents had at one time or another gently provided the same information that Mr. Eisman presented on this day, once I decided to listen and truly understand how very bad dairy was for my body and for animals, I was done with it. That very night I ate my last cheese pizza and never looked back. Well, I might have looked back once, or five times, but never did go back.
It took me a good year as a relatively unhealthy vegan to start doing even more research—like learning how to prepare meals instead of buying ready-made ones. But some new reading material (hello VegNews Magazine) and a change in my environment (hey there, Boston) soon helped me learn how to live a healthy vegan lifestyle.
In the fall of 2007 I moved to Boston for graduate school. I joined the Boston Vegan Association and started working part-time for the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. The friends that I made in these two organizations led me to so much support, inspiration, and so many new resources that being vegan became a cinch. I love telling people who ask about my diet how much more I enjoy everything about food now; from shopping to cooking, prepping, and purchasing a ridiculous number of vegan cook books. It feels like it has so much more meaning now and I take pride in the meals I prepare. I never felt this way as a meat eater…not even as a vegetarian for that matter.
Today my parents help run the AlbanyVegan Network and host an annual Vegan Expo (now in it’s seventh year!) in upstate New York.
It all started with my brother, was followed by my parents’ amazing support, and then happily grew into an education, a group of friends, and a lifestyle that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Oh gosh, this is a tough one as I've changed so much since my pre-vegan days. I suppose I'd suggest that vegans around me be uplifting, positive, and show the benefits of plant-based living through example and gentle guidance. But only if I asked them to learn more. I wouldn't have done well (and didn't do well) when the facts or ideals around veganism felt forced or like I was being told I was wrong or bad for not being vegan. Lead by positive example, is what I'd say.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

There's something to be said for all forms of activism—which is why there are so many groups with such a variety of ways for sharing their messaging, even if it all kind of leads to the same place.

What comes most naturally to me is simply a show and tell kind of method. I show yummy foods through pictures, share stories of my vegan related travel adventures and then often get emails from people asking to learn more (either about veganism or just places to eat when they're in a certain city).

Being authentic to how I'm comfortable sharing veganism, and how important I think it is, being honest and open yet letting people come to me when they're ready to learn more, seems to work best.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Within the movement: diversity in messaging, an unspoken shared bond, community, and unending support. Outwardly, one of the most important thing vegans can do to support the cause is to “vote” with our dollars. Pay for the foods and clothing and other items that we support and want to see more of.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Sometimes there are pockets of us who believe that there are wrong ways to promote veganism. So much so that they become very outspoken against others who are doing the best from where they are. I've seen this result in a sort of “in-fighting” in the community. If our end goals are the same perhaps it's best to continue promoting veganism in the individual ways we're comfortable with, as the more diversity in messaging, the more people we'll reach. Not everyone will be moved by my pictures of food, but maybe something that PETA does will speak to them. You just never know who is listening and how they'll absorb a message.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

For the animals, for the planet, and for my health. 

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

George Eisman, Howard Lyman, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, VegNews Magazine, and Cowspiracy.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I take ballroom dance lessons. It's the one thing I do that enables me to focus solely on what my body is doing, and on absolutely nothing else at all.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

I would like people to know that traveling while eating only vegan foods is not only possible but fun and exciting. I've built a project around the concept and truly believe that there is so much joy in exploring other countries, or even just other parts of your own country. Also, everyone should travel alone at least once in their life. I talk in much detail about why, in my new memoir, Will Travel for Vegan Food. [insert shameless plug] :)

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

...the only way to live.