One of my best-loved perks of doing this feature is being able to help get the word out about some of my favorite vegans. About half the time, this is someone I have not met in person but I am so inspired by their work and their message; the other half of my interview subjects, I am fortunate enough to know in person. Nicole Moore Eisenberg is one such individual. We met some time back as part of the Mercy for Animals contingent with Chicago’s Gay Pride parade and I was immediately struck by Nicole’s great sense of humor and love of fun (she always was dressed really, um, memorably) and her warm, vivacious, unpretentious personality. Nicole is one of those “all in” people and as a fellow (sister?) “all in” type, I appreciate it when I recognize that quality in someone else. Let the others roll their eyes at our enthusiasm and spunk while we create the world we want to live in.
Sadly, Nicole is no longer local to me but Chicago’s loss is New York’s gain. Nicole and her equally sparkly husband are now based in Brooklyn where they run Veg Option Allies and Advocates, or VOAA, a non-profit that works to break down barriers to veganism – like social isolation, perceived difficulties and ingrained habits – to make compassionate living accessible to everyone. They do this with fun events, like their Massive Vegan Potluck Parties and educational, helpful videos on YouTube. Through their mission of community building, VOAA offers a powerful resource for helping those who are already herbivores to enjoy feeling solidarity and, more uniquely, encourages vegans to listen and hear about the reality of other lives so as to become true allies. The idea here is to create a win-win: we get to share the vegan love while gaining the empathy and understanding that comes from engaging outside of our usual social circles. I love the mission of VOAA and Nicole Moore Eisenberg makes me giddy. I am honored to feature her 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?
My “vegan evolution” story keeps getting realer and realer - lol. It’s probably pretty sad. But it’s honest and, to me, that’s the only thing that matters.
I was always that kid who freaked out with happiness when animals were around. I think a lot of us unheard, lost, lonely kids were like that. Unfortunately, my go-to coping strategies for childhood/adolescence were people-pleasing and stuffing down my emotions as to not inconvenience anyone. So, though I did get leafleted in college (and even watched a few seconds of undercover footage!) and around the same time realized my dog resembled a little lamb and began feeling guilty for eating animals, I didn’t change my behavior because I was deeply scared of being abandoned for being different or difficult. Years went by and I started running and working out regularly. At that point, I became vegan over a weekend because a popular health/weight loss-themed book I picked up presented all the health and vanity points for me. It was like my spiritual self wanted to go vegan for years but I couldn’t because of my immense self-doubt. Then, eventually, my physical self wanted to do it and did. But even after being vegan 7 years, I feel like I’m still doing the work of merging my emotional and physical selves; Of un-stuffing my emotions and ditching the false-self I adopted early on in life and that I have relied upon without even knowing it until recently.
The take-away for me - and what I try to impart upon folks when I give my “Finding your own voice in the veg/an movement” talk - is that there is no such thing as an immediate transformation, even if we do go vegan very quickly or overnight. I like to call our tendency for romanticizing our “vegan evolution” stories “the butterfly effect”. This totally happened to me, which is why I am comfortable sharing my theory with you. I am not judging here, just passing along this observation in hopes it might help others. When we’re in vegan circles a LOT and share “our story” a LOT, it tends to get fable-ized. We live in a culture seeped in competition, so it’s only natural that we want to out-do and out-vegan each other a little bit when we compare stories. It’s unfortunate for everyone involved because SNORE! I don’t know about you, but I get bored to tears hearing “here’s what I want you to hear” stories rather than “here’s what really happened” stories. Plus, it gets us in the habit of sharing our “fable” instead of our story, and I can say with certainty not many non-vegans are buying it!
So, here goes: “It all happened one day when I was serenely perched atop the Grand Canyon and a butterfly landed on my shoulder and spoke to my soul…that moment forever changed me as I dropped my beef jerky into the canyon and have been vegan ever since that exact moment. I have never missed anything and it was the easiest thing I ever did. I was immediately repulsed by all animal products, even grilled chicken, and I never even crave vegan cheese or meats. I am so pure and evolved.” Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy - especially yours - because you’re missing out on an opportunity to really CONNECT to the person with whom you’re speaking.
I’ll pull out one of my favorite quotes by Philip Seymour Hoffman here because, well, it always helps me and makes me less scared to be vulnerable and share the good/bad/ugly of my story!! "If you're a human being walking the earth, you're weird, you're strange, you're psychologically challenged."
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?
See above. hehe. They could tell me their full, un-edited, flawed, ugly, honest story!! Every part of it. They would open up 100% and be real, human, imperfect, vulnerable, curious, patient, and still open to learning from me. They don’t have an evangelical, sales-person vibe to them. They share their story because they know I’m a good person who wants to do good in the world, too, and not because they want to “win” at being pure and right. They have self-love and inner-validation and don’t use veganism to feel validated (it took me years to figure out I was doing this!!) They would tell me that consciousness is a lifelong process of learning and unlearning, that everyone has their own path, and that I can start wherever works for me. It would be a collaborative conversation wherein both sides are being heard; them talking WITH me and wanting the best for me rather than AT me and wanting to feel powerful/important.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
Based on the above, it won’t come as a surprise to you when I say; Honesty. But seriously, it has helped me a lot to recognize that I am right-brained and have fruitlessly been trying to turn my aspirational self into a left-brained person for as long as I can remember (2nd grade, to be precise). It’s been a revelation for me to do work that works for me; in the realm of emotions, creativity and intuition. Right-brained, creative, emotion-driven folks - IT’S OUR TIME!! BE YOU. OWN IT, EMBRACE IT, LIVE IT. Our country is full of other right-brained folks ready and eager to hear you, feel you, learn from you, and be inspired by you.
Anyway, my point here is that self-knowledge/self-discovery is paramount. We’re most effective when we’re being authentic and playing up our natural strengths. For some of my favorite resources to help with this, check out VOAA’s inspiration board.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
Facts. We destroy it on the facts!! We are ready to be fact-tested on a moment’s notice.
And I’m incredibly inspired by the strength, creativity and momentum of our pro-intersectional vegan movement. We are well on our way to ensuring that veganism is for everyone and that fighting oppression means fighting ALL forms of oppression!! There are so many vegans who get it - that small is the new big. We are community-based, community-facing, cooperative and collective!! By pointing our focus and attention toward those whose work also exemplifies community over competition, cooperation over capitalism, and collectives over hierarchies, we will empower each other, take power away from the oppressors, and change the landscape of veganism in the US.
Fred Rogers knows it and we know it, too. “But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own, by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.”
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
We need to be more REAL and encourage others to do the same. Especially those with the most power and influence. Speaking of those with the most power and influence, if you’re listening, why not take a more reciprocal approach and help amplify the voices who don’t get the same air-time as you?
"As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has--or ever will have--something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression." -Fred Rogers
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
“I direct a communication-centric non-profit all about bringing together vegans and non-vegans - here, have a sticker! The website is on there - you should check it out.”
I’m always carrying VOAA stickers. I hand them out as my business card every time I meet someone new. And I put them up anywhere in the city where there’s stickers. I live in Brooklyn, so this means I have many opportunities!
I also LOVE this quote and use it often in VOAA videos to introduce folks to what will hopefully be a lifetime of being FULLY AWAKE: “It takes courage...to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” -Marianne Williamson
To be honest, I am definitely still recovering from a few years of putting myself out there in way that really messed with my mental health, so VOAA stickering is my current elevator pitch! This sort of blends in to #8, but I just want to say 1) Your pitch - and your activism - don’t have to take away all your joy in life. You deserve to be happy!! Activism requires bravery and strength, but it doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice yourself. 2) If you can make your pitch actually be YOUR THING; something where you have autonomy over your duties and are able to be 100% YOU, it will be more fun for you PLUS folks will instantly FEEL all that amazing energy and pick up what you are throwing down!!! So, get out there, get started. Start an Instagram, a YouTube channel, a recurring event, a directory, a ‘zine, a book, a film, a support group, a community garden, a community kitchen, anything!!! It will be awkward and probably suck at first. 1) Awkwardness is way underrated 2) Everyone sucks at first. Everyone starts sometime; what better time than now??!
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?
SO MANY! I link to many of them on the VOAA site. I’ll also link to a few more who aren’t vegan, but who influence my work in #9.
One film every vegan needs to add to their list is the documentary 13th. Watch it, recommend it, talk about it, host a screening (Netflix is offering free screenings). The film summarizes the issue very succinctly: slavery in our country never left. It turned into Jim Crow laws, which turned into mass incarceration. The 13th amendment turned slaves into criminals. We say we would have been on the front lines and been active in the civil rights movement, but why aren’t more of us getting active now when one in three Black men are expected to end up behind bars while it’s one in 17 for a White man? The United States is home to 25% of the world’s prison population even though we’re only 5% of the global population. Corporations are making a killing off of prison labor. We’ve now reached over 151 years since the abolition of slavery yet institutionalized racial inequality in our country continues. We have a moral imperative to be a part of this movement and fight for racial equality and justice.
Another note about awkwardness. Yes, when we’re new at advocating for something, we’re awkward. That’s just the way it is. New vegans are going to be awkward and make mistakes just like new White allies are going to be awkward and make mistakes. It’s just one more reason inner-confidence and inner-strength from a deep sense of self-love is so vital for spreading social change! We have to be OK with putting ourselves out there simply because it’s the right thing to do. And not having a meltdown if a Black person corrects us or calls us out on misinformation. We can’t link our ego and our activism or we’ll be fragile pieces of pottery; not sturdy enough to stand up to incredibly strong evil powers.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I got caught up in what turned out to be a pattern in my professional life: ignoring my own needs to please others; to gain love and acceptance from perceived authority figures in the movement. Habits learned in childhood die hard! I have seen this happen in other vegans, too. Since I started working on VOAA, it’s been such a relief and life-changer to start from scratch and get to know the real me. This is the first time in my career - and I’m 34 - that I’ve had autonomy over my job duties. I spent all the years before this biting my tongue and telling myself that if I just stay busy enough and say YES enough times that SOMEONE is bound to notice. What would happen once someone noticed?? I had no idea! It was an exhausting, unending treadmill of seeking-validation/love/acceptance-from-outside-myself. Anyway, nobody noticed. THANKFULLY! lol. I thoroughly and completely burned myself out. So, I decided I had nothing to lose. Now, I feel like I’m making up for lost time and learning who the hell I really am!!
The best thing we can do is figure out how to do activism that is 100% US. A funny thing starts to happen when we do this. We realize how much we need others. So, then we get to join forces with other amazing activists also doing their own thing!! We learn emotional, intellectual and spiritual skills from them. Boundaries become easier; being able to turn off WORK and turn on PLAY. It’s awesome. I’m just beginning to experience all these awesome changes and can’t wait to really LIVE THIS in 2017.
That said, it’s always a delicate balance. It’s just like Janelle Monáe says, “Whether I'm high or low, I got to tip on the tightrope.”
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Abuse of power over children. Childhood emotional neglect is the cause of so many adults with boundary issues, debilitating self-doubt, living life feeling powerless; from the viewpoint of victims, inability to ask for help, unhealthy view of the world; issues being strictly black or white, having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, fearing authority figures, and becoming professional approval seekers. The books Running on Empty; Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb and The Drama of the Gifted Child; The Search for True Self by Alice Miller have been very helpful to me personally as well as adultchildren.org and the group’s printed resources. If you find yourself relating to these qualities, check out the “Laundry List” on adultchildren.org. It will get you started in the right direction!
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
An important part of my true self.