Often it feels like I just wish I could click my heels and return to the days before social media. Between all the petty disagreements and mindless distractions vying for one’s attention, it can enervate us and all this access to “information” and one another’s opinions can feel like it’s more trouble than it is worth. Then I think of people like Gary Smith, someone I may not have met if not for Facebook, and I instantly remember that there are indeed many benefits to social media. Not simply for meeting inspiring individuals but for being exposed to those who help us to step up our game as animal advocates because they are using social media to create a better world in very smart and effective ways. (Yes, there’s more to Facebook than cute cat videos and cupcake recipes.)
Gary Smith is leaving breadcrumbs to a better world with his blog, The Thinking Vegan, and through his savvy public relations firm, Evolotus, which he runs with his equally inspiring, whip-smart partner, Kezia Jauron. Evolotus’ clients are a veritable who’s-who of progressive and powerful change-makers such as Mercy for Animals, Forks Over Knives, Tofurky and Jenny Brown of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Gary and Kezia get the best possible spotlight on their clients in the media, helping to bring issues, messages and products that might get lost in our increasingly crowded public sphere to a wider and wider support base.
I love Gary’s thoughtful and penetrating approach to animal rights as well as his unapologetic, passionate vegan convictions. I know you’ll love him, too. I am so honored to have Gary Smith as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.
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?
Late one night in college, I was listening to KPFK, our Los Angeles Pacifica station, and heard about Diet For a New America by John Robbins. The next day, I went out and bought the book. I turned to the first few photographs of factory farms, and that moment, I stopped eating animals. About ten minutes later, I converted my first new vegan, just by describing the photos to my then-best friend over the phone.
I had no idea what I was going to eat, but knew that I could not support the brutality and violence that I had awoken to. Keep in mind, this was long before the internet. Fortunately there was a health food store nearby, and bean burritos from Taco Bell and Del Taco. Around that time, I took a class on the study of nonviolence. I became friendly with the professor, gave a couple of lectures for him at a community college, and did research for his books. With that foundation, I became focused, dare I say obsessed, with studying suffering. At the time, that meant human suffering, but now animal suffering is the obsession.
I ate a vegan diet for three and a half years before sadly going back to eating fish, dairy, and eggs. Though I went vegan for animals, in retrospect, I didn’t fully grasp the larger philosophy of veganism, didn’t connect it to anything else swirling in my head, and I didn’t make changes when it came to clothing, and entertainment. I did learn about or products tested on animals and purchased cruelty-free products.
After going back to eating fish, dairy and eggs, there was always a voice in the back of my head telling me what I was doing was wrong. The voice grew louder, until I heeded it, almost ten years ago. I gave up fish, then a few months later, dairy and eggs. I recall that I wanted to see what it would be like to eat a vegan diet again, but wasn’t fully committing to it. After a day or two, I had this peaceful feeling come over me. I knew that I would never consume animal products again.
What was different this time is that I educated myself. I pored over books, websites, etc., wanting to fully understand veganism. The more I understood, the more outspoken I became.
I’ve dedicated not only my life to activism, but also my career. My wife and I created Evolotus PR, a public relations agency, where the majority of our work is for animal rights and animal protection nonprofits, campaigns, and vegan-themed documentary films and books.
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?
The activist Anita Mahdessian has a story about this that rings very true for me. She wrote, “Many years ago, I had a very brief encounter with ‘my first vegan.’ He seemed to be a very peaceful man, a ‘love and light’ vegan. When I asked him, ‘what is a vegan,’ his answer was ‘vegans do not eat or use any animal products.’ He did not tell me why, and I failed to ask him. If only my first vegan told me the truth. If only my first vegan gave me all the facts instead of ‘love and light,’ I would have gone vegan that very day. My first vegan failed me. My first vegan failed the animals. However, my second vegan did not. And I am forever grateful that he was merciless with the inconvenient truth.”
I have often said, on The Thinking Vegan and elsewhere, that I advocate telling the truth about how nonhumans are being exploited and brutalized, in a forthright, sincere, truthful, factual manner. One of the most popular blogs I’ve written relates to this very topic. Certainly, we shouldn’t be assholes about it. We don’t have to be combative. But the truth needs to be told, whether people want to hear it or not, or are ready to hear it or not.
I’m not saying I would have been ready. But at least I would have had the truth, which I didn’t have.
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 is no one way to advocate, no one magical “tone” that will appeal to everyone, no single argument that will make the world vegan. I have to follow my own voice, and my own values. People can smell an inauthentic person from a mile away, and I wouldn’t be effective if I pretended to be someone that I’m not.
I tend not to pet people for taking baby steps, not eating animals one day a week, or switching to cage-free eggs. I don’t want people to become confused about what I advocate. There is no way to humanely or ethically exploit another being. Ethically, we are coming from a place of strength. Coming from a place of strength means we can ask for what we want.
I find that people acknowledge this strength, and one way it manifests is people often subtly seek my “permission” to use non-human animals. They’ll tell me that the zoo they take their kid to really, really cares about conservation. They’ll tell me they gave up red meat, or that their toddler flat-out refuses to drink cow’s milk. They’ll tell me they tried once to adopt through a rescue or shelter, but it didn’t have the brand of dog they wanted so they “had to” buy a puppy. They want me, the token ethical vegan, to give them a cookie for their labors, so they can carry on guilt-free. But I don’t give it to them.
This comes up while mentoring new vegans, too. People ask me if it’s okay to eat animals on vacation with their family, or in a restaurant once in a while, or to use a certain hair-care product that is tested on animals, or some other scenario when being vegan may be temporarily inconvenient or undesirable for them. These questions only represent new vegans lacking enough confidence to stick to their new ethical awareness. Happily, I find that when people trust in whatever brought them to that awareness, and are reassured that they can make different choices, they stay with me. It’s an empowering thing for people, and an effective thing.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
We’re loyal to the companies, organizations, and movement leaders that have influenced us, innovate products for us, and share our ethics. We’re fairly well mobilized and we support our own when we feel we’re called to do so. The successful crowdfunding campaigns for documentary films, books, restaurants, or food companies speak to that loyalty and support. Having said that, I do wish there was less of a focus on veganism as a consumerist, capitalistic lifestyle, and more on veganism as the social justice movement that it truly is.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Being in PR, and working with mainstream media every day, my biggest hindrance is that veganism and animal rights are not yet taken seriously everywhere and by everyone. Bear in mind that our clients are usually very deeply offensive to the meat and dairy industries, fast food, processed food, pharmaceutical companies, the medical and healthcare industry. These are the industries that advertise on the nightly news.
Secondly, our credibility is questioned by media and the general public too. We are promoting ideas that are out of the mainstream, so we’re going to be scrutinized more. We have to be better than they are, more professional, more credible. There must be no factual or logical holes in our arguments and our materials. Unfortunately, we’re perceived as having an “agenda,” as if the animal-exploiting industries don’t also have an agenda, which is profit.
I still see a lot of sensationalist campaigns, protests for the sake of protesting, and a lack of strategy or substance behind some of what animal activists are doing. There is no longer a need to get media attention for media attention’s sake, and we’ve turned down many potential clients who wanted stunty campaigns. We really don’t need to scream and wave our hands at people, and media coverage can backfire very quickly if we are portrayed as fools or propagandists. We can raise the level of dialogue, we really can.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
The ethical choice is vegan. All sentient beings feel pain. Meat, dairy, and eggs come from sentient beings. Meat, dairy, and eggs always cause pain. If you choose to eat meat, dairy, and eggs, you are choosing to cause pain and to participate in exploitation and murder. Participating in pain and murder is always unethical. The ethical choice is vegan.
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’m inspired and influenced by so many people and animals. Our dogs, Frederick and Douglass, inspire me every day. I cannot imagine the life they had previous to living with us. They spent the first five years of their lives in cages in an animal testing laboratory, having all manners of terrible things done to them, and yet they are forgiving and open to experiencing life – some of life, at least. I look at their example and want to not only be a better activist, but a stronger and more resilient person.
I’m inspired by all of the farmed animals that I have met at sanctuaries, and those I’ve helped to freedom but never met. They have come from such horrific surroundings and yet seem to have made peace with the world.
I’m inspired by Kim Sturla, Marji Beach, Jan Galeazzi, and everyone else at Animal Place, Nathan Runkle and the entire Mercy For Animals team, and lauren Ornelas’ work at Food Empowerment Project blows me away. Some of my heroes are Thomas Ponce, who started Lobby For Animals at 12 years old; Jo-Anne McArthur, who puts herself through such personal suffering to bear witness to animal suffering; and Tony Kanal, who constantly combines bravery and thoughtfulness in his activism. Ari Nessel from The Pollination Project makes me want to be a kinder person, and his sister Dana Nessel, the civil rights attorney who nearly singlehandedly won the right to marry for everyone in America, makes me want to be a more kick-ass person. Kia Scherr from One Life Alliance taught me about forgiveness.
Aside from Jo-Anne’s book, I recommend Mark Hawthorne’s Bleating Hearts and Ruby Roth’s children’s books.
Through our PR work, I’m also lucky to be tapped into a network of vegan documentary filmmakers and to have early access to a lot of the most influential projects: Earthlings, Bold Native, Got the Facts on Milk, The Ghosts in Our Machine, Speciesism, , and the upcoming, next big AR film, The Last Pig.
My wife Kezia influences and amazes me. We have been together for close to 20 years. She is my best friend and the smartest person I know. I learn from her all the time.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
The reality is that I am preoccupied with ending animal exploitation. It’s quite literally the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. But I get so much energy and excitement by working on these issues, and thinking about how we can be more effective as activists, that I don’t really notice the time go by.
Also the work we do at Evolotus inspires us. Getting the Wall Street Journal to write about a client’s work has the potential of being read by four million people. I could spend the rest of my life passing out leaflets and probably never reach that many people. We are constantly looking for the next big thing that will put animal rights issues into the mainstream. Finding that new next big thing is inspiring and recharging.
To unwind, I’m not ashamed to admit, we do a lot of cocooning with bad reality TV such as competitive tattooing shows, the home and garden channel, and lately binge-watching TV series on Netflix. I also love to shop for and read novels. I’ve already surpassed my goal of reading 100 novels this year! We also are lucky to live in a city with dozens of vegan restaurants, so going out to lunch or dinner, or picking up vegan donuts on the weekend, is something we do frequently. Maybe too frequently!
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Living with Frederick and Douglass, clearly, the answer is vivisection. Rescuing beagles from animal testing laboratories, fostering them, helping them create a new experience of the world, has opened my eyes to how important it is to consider individual lives, versus abstract concepts and numbers such as ten billion land animals.
To say they have changed our lives would be a massive understatement. We are completely invested in making sure they are happy, healthy, and at peace, after the five-plus years they were confined in a laboratory. They still have emotional and physical scars, but with each day that goes by and each belly rub, they grow more comfortable and adjusted to freedom.
It also puts a different perspective on so-called “single-issue campaigns” because our dogs, and millions more animals like them, are simply overlooked by vegan education outreach. Just one or two decades ago, the animal rights movement included in its focus animals in laboratories and animals used for fur. The truth is, we’ve dropped a massive strategic ball on vivisection, and as a result we’re losing a relatively winnable issue. There’s simply no reason animal testing – at least nonmedical testing, meaning consumer products – should continue today.
Today, this movement is primarily concerned with animals used for food. I understand the logic behind this, and with my experience in hands-on rescue, and this expansion of my consciousness from abstract numbers to specific individuals, has made me appreciate the work of farmed animal sanctuaries differently.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
The greatest gift you can give to yourself, the animals, and the planet.