Wednesday, July 22, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Ashley Leslie...


Ashley Leslie, a.k.a., The Vegan Peach, is a straight-talking, down-to-earth and unapologetic vegan activist who also happens to love herself some cruelty-free products, with an emphasis on body care products. As one of the most up-to-date people out there on the subject of cosmetics testing, an industry that always seems to be frustratingly hard to pin down, she always seems to have the most reliable information because in the cosmetics industry, a company that is safe for vegan consumers one week, can get bought out by an animal-testing conglomerate like the L'Oréal Group the next week. Before I turn anywhere, I check out Vegan Peach and her videos to get a run-down on the companies I can trust with my money as well as other cruelty-free products. I appreciate Ashley’s passion, wealth of knowledge, commitment to details and her hold-no-prisoners honesty when it comes to cruelty to animals, as well as, frankly, her frankness about some of the cruddier aspects of the larger vegan community. I am grateful for Ashley’s candor and her commitment to building a more compassionate world. For this reason and more, Ashley Leslie 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?

From a very early age, I felt strong connections with everything around me, being told I was highly “emotional” or “sensitive” making me feel like there was something deeply wrong with me. Now I realize it was a gift, one that has given me my ability for compassion. In the summer of 2002, my family rented the movie K-Pax. In the movie, Kevin Spacey believes he is from a distant planet. In one particular scene, he mentions how cows are killed and processed and at that moment I had a huge awakening. I gave up beef and pork at that time. In 2005, I met my now-husband who happened to be a vegetarian. He introduced me to the world of veggie meat alternatives. When I realized I could still enjoy the taste of “chicken” without harming any, I became vegetarian overnight. Flash forward six years, I got up one morning with no rhyme, no reason and simply said, “That’s it, I’m going vegan.” I had been feeling guilt for quite some time after learning the truths behind dairy and egg industries and finally made the leap. I’ve never looked back. I’ve now been vegan for four years and a few months and it’s honestly the best decision I ever made. I found purpose that day.

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 am all about honesty and education. Everyone is different, some people are very receptive with very little effort and others turn away with just the word vegan being mentioned. For me, it was a very small moment that pushed me on my journey. Personally I am highly connected to other animals so I truly believe showing people the truths behind their food, clothing, cosmetics, entertainment, etc. is very important. I also am big on showing the amazing vegan food options available to people. You don’t need to kill something to have a delicious meal. In fact, I love food more now than I ever did before and my diet is much more varied then my pre-vegan days.

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

Honestly, I think a little bit of everything is great. I am a very passionate person, you can see this come through a lot on my YouTube channel. At the same time I also like to be approachable, down to earth and humorous. Images also have their place and I do use those from time to time. I try to be available to every type of personality. I don’t want to scare people off, I am just me.

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

I believe we are strong, passionate and relentless. Every day I see the strides veganism has made through products on the shelves and sheer numbers of vegans across the globe.

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

Honestly, each other. It saddens me to see how much “in fighting” and attacking of one another happens. I think our passion can do wonders but at the same time, it hinders us. We won’t always agree on everything but it’s important to stick together as a cause, even if we don’t personally like each other.

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

I don’t think “Thou shalt not kill” should be limited to humans.

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?

I am inspired by many vegans, one actually being Marla and Vegan Street. I really enjoy the films Speciesism, Ghosts in our Machine, Vegucated, Got the Facts on Milk, Cowspiracy and Bold Native. is one of my favourite websites where you can find local vegan-friendly restaurants.

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

I think sometimes unplugging from social media is important. If you find yourself getting extremely upset and depressed by the endless amounts of cruelty, take a day or two off. I like to spend time in nature, walking by the ocean, in the public parks, exploring and taking photos. Also, of course spending time with my cats always makes me feel better. If I were closer to one, I’d definitely recommend visiting animal sanctuaries where animals are treated like they should be.

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

It’s really hard to pick one. I am passionate about all aspects of animal rights. I do feel very strongly against animal testing, though, if I have to pick one, as I feel it’s something that gets overlooked, so often. I actually created my website in the beginning to have my own cruelty-free list, it evolved from there. Beauty definitely doesn’t have to come at the expense of other beings. I also feel very few people realize what exactly goes on in labs. The very animals you share your homes with are those being abused so people can have longer eyelashes and plumper lips.

All animals deserve to be free. All animal cruelty breaks my heart into pieces.

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

A reason to exist.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How to Succeed in Offending Other Vegans Without Even Trying…


You wouldn’t know it from the title of this blog but I am a born pleaser. When the people around me are pleased, I feel that I am safe. It is as simple as that. Growing up, I believed that if I could just control certain particulars better, I could effectively banish conflict from our home. Of course this wasn’t true: drinkers are going to drink and ragers are going to rage despite our most concerted efforts to control the choices that other people make. Even though my default setting was to try to make the people around me happy, I experienced enough at a young age to know that despite trying my hardest to please, to be funny and to defuse tension, it was just not always possible. In many ways, living part of my life in the public sphere of the online world is the perfect experiential laboratory to see how I am doing with letting go of the deeply ingrained habit that tells me if I just please enough, everything will be okay. Today, having a front row seat to observing the superfluity of ways that people can get offended and pissed off about the most trivial of matters, I can see that I am doing pretty well with letting go of my need to please and I’m doing better all the time.

Take the vegan community, for example. I’m not claiming that there was harmony in the vegan movement before the online world smashed into our lives like a flaming meteor of clashing opinions and highly chagrined conflict direct from the planet Vega, but I don’t think anyone could have quite grasped the vast profusion of ways in which we can and do offend one another until more recent years. Of course, this is not limited to vegans: every day, I am learning that even the most benign, lighthearted content is rife with potential for offending as many sets of eyes that come across it from a multitude of vantage points. On Facebook, I try to balance my “we are careening into cataclysmic, planetary ruin” posts with a few good dollops of frothy frivolity but, as I learned from posting this video
only to hear someone take a righteous stand against the unconscionable practice of growing ornamental gourds, putting anything out into a sphere where humans can interact, ideally without personal consequences, there will be no shortage of opportunities for finding and voicing umbrage. Facebook in particular is like pulling into a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet for those who are hungry for fodder that aggrieves, offends and outrages them and for pleasers like me, it’s an excellent practicum for letting go of our need to be liked.

From my fellow vegans, for example, I have learned that the various ways I can offend include but are not limited to the following and I have also decided that it no longer matters to me:

1. If I am perceived as a welfarist vegan.
2. If I am perceived as an abolitionist vegan.
3. If I am perceived as a pacifist.
4. If I am perceived as violent.
5. If I am perceived as not defining myself as being in one camp or the other enough.  
6. If I am perceived as being too lighthearted.
7. If I am perceived as being too stern.
8. If I am perceived as either of these too much or too little.
9. If I am perceived as being vegan for reasons other than deemed acceptable.
10. If I am perceived as being too accommodating with my advocacy.
11. If I am perceived as being too uncompromising with my advocacy.
12. If I am perceived as being a consumerist vegan.
13. If I am perceived as being an anarchist vegan.
14. If I am perceived as being too liberal.
15. If I am perceived as being too conservative.
16. If I am perceived as being politically hard to define.
17. If I eat what is considered junk food.
18. If I eat what is considered too healthy.
19. If I am perceived as a good role model.
20. If I am perceived as a bad role model.
21. If I am perceived as being too mainstream in appearance.
22. If I am perceived as being not mainstream enough in appearance.
23. If I am perceived as being too much of a feminist.
24. If I am perceived as not being quite feminist enough.
25. If I am perceived as posting too much “fluff” on social media.
26. If I am perceived as posting too much upsetting material on social media.
27. If I am not enough of a high-carb vegan.
28. If I am not enough of a low-carb vegan.
29. If I am kind of like “???” about why the previous two points matter all that much.
30. If I think Gary Yourofsky and/or Gary Francione are heroes.
31. If I think Gary Yourofsky and/or Gary Francione are assholes.
32. If I am uncertain about the above.
33. If I think one is an asshole and the other is a hero.
34. If I genuinely do not care.

I have decided that I don’t give a fig anymore. People looking for material to be offended about will find ample examples of what they are looking for, that much I know.

I have to wonder, with so many opportunities for finding offense with each other, do we even have time anymore for changing the world? Maybe it’s easier just to nitpick one another about whether coconut oil is health-promoting or the decision to date non-vegans than to tackle more significant subjects; I’ve even seen a comment thread numbering in the hundreds of responses (which you know is going to be train-wreck territory) about the absolutely indisputably correct way to bag groceries. Apparently schooling each other how to bag groceries or the correct ratio of carbs to protein and fat (“You eat fat?!” huffs an offended vegan) is worth spending our time on when more than 50 billion land animals are suffering and slaughtered each year worldwide and our planet is on a collision course with irreversible ecological ruin because of it.

These things have helped me to learn that pleasing everyone a) is not possible and b) is not in my or the animals’ best interests. So I am done. If nothing else, having strangers offer their unsolicited opinions about me has done for me what growing up in a dysfunctional home could not: break my need to please. So thank you. I no longer need to please anyone because I am in it for the animals. If this offends anyone, well, sorry. (No, I’m not.)


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Somer McCowan


It’s been a while since I featured a Vegan Foodie as part of my 10 Questions series and I am excited to have Somer McCowan as the one to break that long dry spell. Somer is a prolific food blogger at her popular website, Vedged Out, a talented recipe creator and an overall cheerleader for a healthy, happy vegan life of abundance. In fact, Somer’s new book, the excellent The Abundance Diet, takes her philosophy of attaining optimal health through the power of plant foods and extends it to a fantastic 28-day plan anyone can use, complete with shopping lists, a helpful glossary of ingredients, advice on cutting costs and, of course, her wonderful recipes. (See our review.)

Somer got introduced to vegan living through her brother in 2012 when he encouraged her to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives; through dietary and lifestyle changes, she was able to treat her ulcerative colitis, a painful and debilitating chronic condition, the steroid treatment of it which caused a 75-pound weight gain in nine months. She has since come through to the other side with her disease in full remission and off the drugs that caused her weight to keep ballooning. As someone who faced a serious health crisis, Somer is empathetic and sensitive to those who have similar challenges while shining through as a living example that despite the trails we face, we can create the changes we want to see in our lives. Somer is a great role model for cultivating a delicious, healthful life of abundance without compromise. For this reason and more, Somer McCowan is a Vegan Foodie to know.  

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

Food has always been an important part of my life! I grew up in a large family where food and celebrations were a big deal. I learned to cook at a very young age and enjoyed creating all kinds of delicious cuisines. However, it wasn’t until I became vegan that I feel like I truly blossomed in my kitchen. I eat more deliciously and a greater variety of foods than I ever had before switching my diet.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

My family had a pretty standard American diet when I was young. When I was a teenager I flirted with vegetarianism for a few years, but without the insight into animal compassion, it was just sort of a fad that I followed. Thankfully I’ve found that now with veganism.

My favorite food of all time is probably mashed potatoes, which seems a little ridiculous since I can cook so many delicious things, but my dad made the best mashed potatoes when I was growing up. Now he makes them vegan when I’m around.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

That’s a really tough one! I eat so many delicious meals! The most recent pleasurable food experience I’ve had is a homemade pizza. I made these buffalo cauliflower pizzas, with buffalo sauce, roasted bits of cauliflower, sliced red onions and a sprinkling of cilantro on an artisan pizza base with some fresh vegan mozzarella I learned about from watching a video of Jay Astafa on YouTube. My husband, who is not vegan, said it was the very best pizza he had ever eaten. Pretty much it was.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

Oh gosh, well, if this is a magical fantasy scenario, I would probably prepare the above pizza for my brother Clint and have him actually be able to eat it. He’s allergic to nearly 50 foods and it’s pretty difficult for him to find satisfying meals at the moment.

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

Well, I think that people often think of vegan food being flavorless, bland or tasting like cardboard (the words from a man at one of my recent cooking classes describing what he previously thought of vegan food before tasting mine). His mistake and experience with vegan cooking is that he thought it was supposed to be “fun-free cooking” that seems to be so popular right now amongst certain health groups. IE, the elimination of many, many foods that happen to be vegan, but aren’t supremely healthful according to the more extreme plant-based tribe.

Vegan food is simply food that is free of any animal products. It should burst with flavor and be delicious. It’s okay to avoid certain things for periods of time if you need to shed excess weight or for health reasons but using all the vegan foods and all the seasonings is what makes life delicious, use everything with moderation!

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

I’m really in love with roasted red peppers, even the jarred variety, I’ve been adding them to pasta sauces, salsas and even a guilt-free delicious nacho cheese sauce that’s on my blog.

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?



8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

My brother Abe encouraged me to watch Forks Over Knives. That was my absolute turning point. I removed all animal products from my home overnight. He’s been involved with a vegan lifestyle for nearly 20 years now. I previously thought of a vegan diet as something that was just for yuppies or hippies (Abe). But didn’t realize the profound impact that removing animal products would have on my health, the planet, the animals and so much more. I feel like I’m truly a better person since becoming vegan.

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

I think people don’t realize how profound the decisions they are making with something as seemingly small as what they put on their plate.

Simply changing that single aspect of life and switching to a vegan diet can have such a huge influence. Water conservation, heart disease, pollution, greenhouse gasses, compassion, cancer, conserved energy, fuel, world hunger, deforestation, cancer, reduced waste, diabetes. Those and so many more issues are tied up in a single choice.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"


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.”