Wednesday, January 27, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Rae Sikora


I’m just going to lay it all out there: Rae Sikora is one of my very favorite people. John and I met Rae in 1997 or so, when she was working at the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which she co-founded with Zoe Weil. Back at the time, I worked in humane education at a large animal shelter in Chicago and I was ready for a career change. One day, I was copying materials in the shelter’s resource library when I glanced at an advertisement in a magazine for an activists’ retreat at the IHE and I made a copy for myself. John and I planned a road trip out to Surry, Maine to go to the retreat and we decided that on that long road trip, we would figure out how to work full-time doing “vegan stuff” because, while I enjoyed my work on behalf of dogs and cats, I felt constrained by the subjects that I could talk about and that my calling – and our calling together – was to devote ourselves to veganism in some capacity.

On our way to the IHE, we tossed around this loose thought like a beach ball but after the retreat, it crystallized for us: I remember driving out of a gas station and the words Vegan Street just materialized fully-formed in my head, popping out of my head like a word balloon from The Electric Company and filled up our little car. Vegan Street. Now in the years after that fateful trip to Maine, we have taken many circuitous paths, including one that left Vegan Street dormant for more than 10 years, but we have remained dedicated to our original goal of doing “vegan stuff” and I have to think that the seeds planted by Rae that magical weekend of playing in the Maine woods is a big reason for this. Maybe she sprinkled fairy dust on us or there was something in the water but whatever it is/was, we’ve never been the same since crossing paths with her indescribably enchanting spirit and we’ve remained friends ever since.

Am I being hyperbolic? I don’t think so. I think that Rae is one of the great unsung heroes of the vegan movement. I think everyone who knows her would agree. With a delicious sense of humor, a charismatic, thoughtful speaking style that draws people in, an incredible capacity to listen and, more important, to hear, and a rich, deep heart that brims with empathy and understanding, Rae is really a rare individual. When she gives you her time, you have the commitment of her whole presence. I think if Rae had less of a nomadic, unconstrained and wild spirit, her name would be as well known as it should be but that wouldn’t be true to who she is. She needs to be free and to be guided by her own compass. As such, Rae and her partner, the wonderful JC Corcoran, have co-founded Plant Peace Daily, where they often a wide array of programs near their home in Santa Fe and wherever the wind takes them. They even have a free PDF of their book, Plant Peace Daily: Everyday Outreach for People Who Care, available on their website, an incredible animal advocate resource with practical, fun and effective ways for creating a more compassionate world as part of our simple daily lives.

I cannot recommend visiting their website and trying to see Rae and JC at one of their many speaking gigs across the country enough. If you run an organization, consider getting them to speak. I am so grateful that my eyes glanced at that magazine ad all those years ago at the animal shelter and my path crisscrossed with Rae’s. She is a truly magical being who has inspired my life and influenced my life’s direction in so many ways; I cannot imagine how many other lives she has touched. I am proud to say that Rae Sikora is my friend; she is truly a Vegan Rock Star.

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 that the path starts the moment we look into the eyes of another species and see the individual rather than our perception of the group they are part of. So mine started when I was 5 years old and was afraid of all animals. My father brought home a puppy from the shelter and for the first time in my life I connected with the individual inside those eyes. I fell in love with that pup. Then I could see the individual in all the non-humans I met. Oddly enough I was still eating animals. At 15 years old, I realized I was eating the ones I love. I stopped eating all flesh. But I had never met a vegetarian or heard that word. I was overjoyed to meet my first vegetarian and to have a word for what I was doing. It was not easy back then. I had no idea what to eat and mostly ate crappy junk food. Then, years later I witnessed the separation of male calves from their screaming mothers. The babies were screaming for the mothers and the mothers were screaming for the babies being loaded on the truck. I stopped eating ALL animal products at that point, but didn't know the word vegan and had no idea others were doing the same thing. When I discovered other vegans, it was instant community...a total game changer. Back then there were no cheese alternatives that you could buy. I even made my own tempeh from scratch. But having friends making the same choice to live a compassionate life was powerful in sticking with it.

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?

If I had met someone who was kind to me and invited me to align my values with my choices, without making me feel like I was a bad person for my non-vegan choices, I would have loved it. But, I wouldn't want them to sugar coat it either. I have always been one of those people who needs the heavy-hitting reality right in front of me to change my ways. I was a cheese-aholic...maybe I always will be. But, if someone had shown me the reality, early on, in a non-judgmental way, I would have jumped on the chance to make more compassionate choices.  

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 have found that if I take the time to communicate from the most loving place that it works wonders. It is not always easy to find love when faced with someone who is being violent or supporting violence and does not want to be called on it or to face the reality of their choices. But this is my life find love in the most difficult situations. When doing presentations, I LOVE using images and telling true stories of the amazing beings we share the planet with. Most people, even long time vegans, are surprised at the emotions and intelligence in the species who are the most unfamiliar to us. So, the images and stories help people fall in love with the planet and all life on it. Then, from there, people can protect and speak up for who and what they love. But they have to connect and love this place and their big animal family first...then they will do anything to preserve and care for it.

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

It is hard to argue with compassion. It is pretty easy to make a clear argument for caring and non-violence. Not so easy to get the public behind a move toward injustice and violence. We have history on our side. Humans are slow, slow learners. Slower than any other species. But, over time we have learned that all humans deserve to be treated fairly and are not property. Not everyone is on board with that yet. Some cultures and some individuals still want to own or oppress other humans. But the general world population is in agreement that humans should have the right to freedom from oppression. And I can see that the next big social justice movement is animal rights...the rights of all species to self-determination and basic rights. I can feel that tipping point coming soon for this movement. The time has come.

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

We humans are our own worst enemy. It is so hard for us to get along with each other. As soon as you have more than one human in any endeavor you usually have trouble. So, even in our movement, there are groups and individuals who do not get along. The in-fighting keeps us from focusing all of our energy and resources on helping other species and the environment. I do see that there are the welfarists and the abolitionists. Other movements have had these divisions, too. I choose to be very clear about communicating the issues in a way that does not leave any of the reality out of the conversation. I focus on what my methods are and try not to get caught up in the other conflicts. I would say I am an abolitionist if asked. And I just go full steam ahead with communicating that in the most loving way possible. But, I know that angry, judgmental and unloving vegans can actually turn some people away from the compassion path. I think it is possible to be consistent, honest and clear without making others feel judged.  

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

My "pitch" usually comes in the form of questions. I try to understand the person I am connecting with. When I ask them about their lives and their choices, then they get to ask themselves the same questions without feeling like they are a total uncaring loser. And I get to know more about their path and how they make decisions. So, I work on understanding rather than being understood. Here is a current example taken from the "elevator" I am in. We are here in Costa Rica now. I go snorkeling everyday. And, everyday, some fisherman offers to catch me fish or give me dead fish for my meals. Yesterday, our neighbor, Carlos asked if I like fish. I told him that I LOVE fishes. "Oh good," he said, "I have fish I will give you that are delicious."  I explained that I love them alive and that I get more joy from seeing them free than eating them. I asked him if he ever goes snorkeling. He said he did as a boy. I asked how that was for him. He got dreamy-eyed and told me about it. I asked if he missed having that kind of relationship with the fishes in his home waters. He said he did miss that. We have had a few conversations since then and I can tell we go deeper into the reality for the animals and for his community. The overfishing has destroyed what his village once was.  

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 don't know if I would have stayed completely dedicated to animal rights for the past 40 years without all the inspiring people in our community. I am so grateful to my partner JC for his 24/7 activism and for veganizing Santa Fe, NM and the world. Who else would have the nerve to start a FB page called Bring It On Down to Veganville before they have completed the veganizing process?  You and John are two of my favorites. [Ed. note: Same back at you, sister!] The films from Tribe of Heart, and Earthlings and Cowspiracy and so many others make me feel part of something bigger than me and a few activists. They are such powerful culture shifters. Emily the Bite Size Vegan videos are GREAT). And the pioneers who saw things that I wasn't so clear on...and taught me so much...Karen Davis, Zoe Weil, Howard Lyman, Harold Brown, Jonathan Balcombe, and many others. I think we grow constantly from our relationship with others on the compassion path. I am always growing. The dedication of people like Mary Finelli and Kari Bagnall is often what keeps me going when I lose steam. I am also inspired by all the young people who are waking up to compassion and are non-stop in their advocacy. Stacy Shepanek is veganizing Charleston, SC, Keith Allison went from teacher who was losing his job over a FB post to powerful spokesperson, Adena Kling and others who have full-time jobs and still manage to organize meet-ups and other events, and on and on it goes. I would need 100 pages to mention all those who inspire me and keep me feeling grateful in this movement.

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

I know about burn-out, despair and compassion fatigue.  The only way I don't totally lose my way in this movement is by finding balance. It is not always easy. I make sure I spend a lot of time in the parts of the planet that are still healthy and alive. Hiking in beautiful forests, snorkeling with my underwater family of sea life, gardening, bird loving, biking in fresh air, dancing my butt off with other wild human primates, etc. I also do yoga, meditate and eat healthy whole foods. If I feel good physically I am happier and feel like I can face anything in the world.

I also like to mix the educational aspects of the work with actual rescues. I like the tangible feeling of rescuing beings who are suffering or imprisoned. It is such an immediate result...they go from misery to joy. So, I do the rescues on my own or with my partner JC whenever possible or we volunteer at sanctuaries. It is pure bliss being with these grateful non-humans.

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

I cannot say one issue. It is usually the issue right in front of me. Right now it is the oceans. We have seen the decline of the oceans and the coral and fishes in just the past five years. The oceans are dying before our eyes. It is nearly impossible to find healthy coral and places to snorkel with a diverse group of sea animals. Most of the animals in the sea are fed to livestock. Even when I am swimming with the fishes here everyday of our vacation, I am aware of the suffering of those who are being caught in nets and on long lines as I swim with those who are, for the moment, free.

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

To me being vegan is being true to the most loving and honest part of myself.  I am grateful every day for my mind, heart, eyes and ears being wide open to the life around me.  

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