What did we do before Free from Harm?
Founded by my friend Robert Grillo in 2009, Free from Harm is a non-profit based in Chicago but with a global outlook dedicated to promoting animal rescue, education, and advocacy through a variety of means: an engaged social media presence, compelling articles, presentations and more that keep the focus on the animals with a message of compassionate living that never equivocates. In person, Robert is down to earth, funny, smart and fairly soft-spoken but self-assured, a perfect ambassador to the public for veganism. With an extensive background in branding, marketing and design, Robert brings a savvy and uncommon skill set to creating positive change for the animals. I cannot wait to see what he and Free from Harm do next. For this reason and more, Robert Grillo 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 think my earliest influence was the forested ravine where I spent a lot of time as a youngster, hiking and exploring nature. But it wasn’t until my early forties that I connected my food choices with my love and reverence for nature and animals. It was films like Food, Inc. and powerful video footage that ultimately provided the wake up call that was so long overdue. For me, the real breakthrough came from identifying with the victim. Or, should I say, recognizing that a victim even exists, since we are conditioned all our lives to believe that animals can’t be our victims. It took time for me to see how our animal-eating culture teaches us to block our awareness of the suffering of the animals we consume, to deny the existence of any problem, and, worse, to stifle any critical thinking on the subject.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could people 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’m sure I would have become vegan far earlier had there been stronger and more influential vegan voices in my life, but there were none. My interest in yoga led me to vegetarianism but yoga largely ignores the suffering of animals used for dairy and eggs.
In any case, I believe the most effective way of reaching people is by telling the truth in a way that engages them. That leaves a lot of room for truth-centered creative advocacy. It has become popular in animal advocacy today to borrow the strategies of corporate branding and marketing, but here truth competes with other goals and principles, like the profit motive and selling fantasy. And, as someone who has worked inside of this industry for the last 20 years, I pick my lessons learned carefully, still finding truth and transparency as more valuable and more convincing than what some market research study tells us. The vegan truth is that each time we sit down to eat, we choose to either spare a life or take a life; we choose to violate or respect one’s basic right to life, and to a life free of exploitation. And life, freedom and justice are principles we claim to value most.
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 try to employ the skills that I’ve developed over the years in design and branding to guide me in my advocacy work. My focus is on creating content, using words, images, video, presentations, websites and social media. When other people ask me if I have any suggestions for ways to get involved, I suggest the same: look at what strengths / skills you have and figure out how you can leverage them to empower your advocacy.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
I think the most promising strength we can leverage is our connection with other successful social movements. While there are important differences among them, the similarities are far more striking. We need to keep the focus on what connects us, which strengthens our case to potentially broader audiences. This is the premise of a new anthology of 26 authors to which I also contributed called Circles of Compassion:Connecting Issues of Justice.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Silence and inaction. I come across too many caring people who admit that fear of ridicule or some other form of backlash prevent them from even sharing Facebook posts. Silence and denial are part of the problem, and a big part of what keeps the problem alive and well. We need to provide them with the support and empowerment they need which is part of the mission of Free from Harm.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
The vast majority of us already believe that it is wrong to subject animals to unnecessary suffering, especially when we can so easily avoid it. But we make one glaring exception and for no good reason. Now it’s time to close that gap and apply what we already believe to the four species for whom we’ve made that exception: chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows. Done.
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?
Critical animal studies has helped me understand the big picture and find strong leadership voices for our movement. A major proponent of this school of thought is professor JohnSanbonmatsu. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns is an author and activist from whom I’ve drawn a lot of important insights and inspiration. I also greatly appreciate the work of many others, including but not limited to Will Anderson, Lee Hall, Melanie Joy, Lesli Bisgould, Will Tuttle, Charles Horn, to name just a few! There are countless others that I meet through our Facebook page or email that are doing great things as well!
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
Biking makes me feel really good. Hiking somewhere beautiful is less practical since I live in Chicago but gives me a big high too. Taking the time to celebrate the results of my work helps inspire me to move ahead. A good martini once in a whole can really take the edge off.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Broadcasting the personal stories of our rescues out to the public. They are the best stories we have and they directly challenge society’s assumptions, stereotypes and negative attitudes about these animals.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
…the foundation for honoring our connection to other animals. The least we can do is spare a life rather than take a life in cases where it so easily avoidable, such as in what we decide to eat or wear. Once we’re vegan, there is much we can explore to deepen our commitment to the cause of helping other animals and keeping our planet livable for all of us. There are far more complex issues that also need our attention. When we look back, chances are, we’ll see going vegan as one of the easier and more straightforward changes we’ve made and one with an enormous impact on many of the other social, political, economic and environmental problems we face today.