One of the things I love most about this feature is getting to know the people I admire a little bit better. Michelle Taylor Cehn is one of those people I have admired from afar for years and today, I feel so grateful to be able to shine a little spotlight on. Michelle is a prolific and gifted video journalist, photographer, web presence, social media maven (making videos for organizations like Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary and Mercy for Animals, to name a few), and author. (Review of The Friendly Vegan Cookbook will be coming to Vegan Street soon.) With a friendly, welcoming voice that speaks truthfully about animal cruelty, Michelle strikes an admirable balance of being understanding while never wavering from her commitment to promoting veganism. With her new The Dairy Detox program, co-founded with Allison Rivers Samson, I thought there was no better time than the present to draw some attention to this amazing mover-and-shaker. I am so honored to feature Michelle 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?
I’ve been a huge animal lover forever. I went vegetarian when I was just 8 years old, when I first made the connection between the meat on my plate and my animal friends that I loved. The moment I made that connection, I pushed away my plate, turned to my mom, and said I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. She said, “Okay honey—that’s called a vegetarian.” I didn’t know anyone else who didn’t eat meat at the time, let alone that there was a word for it. I’m sure my parents thought it would be a short phase, but from that point on I got used to making my own food (lots of cereal and pasta—haha), and I never looked back. Over time I learned about factory farming and how terribly animals were treated in the meat industry, and I became an eager activist. I started animal rights groups at my high school and college where I gave speeches to my student body, hosted animal rights documentary screenings, held bake sale fundraisers, leafleted, hung animal rights posters all around campus, and more.
I was half-way through college when I picked up a copy of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer at a used book store. That book opened my eyes to the horrors of the dairy and egg industries, and I felt I had no choice but to go vegan. It was a challenge at first, and I assumed it would be a lifelong sacrifice I would make for the animals. I had no idea that becoming vegan would ultimately be the best thing for my health, that it would actually expand my palate and food options, and that it would become easy, delicious, and fun! That’s why I am now so passionate about being a resource for others who are transitioning to 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 really just needed the information. I wish someone had said to me, “Michelle, did you know that calves are torn from their mothers at birth so that we can drink the mother’s milk instead?” And so forth, with all the other facts I pieced together over time.
Documentaries and video clips always had a huge impact on me as well, so if someone had shared an undercover investigation video with me sooner, it would have moved me to act in an instant.
Finally, it would have been amazing to have role models in my life who could have led the way, so I didn’t have to navigate the path on my own.
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’ve done many different forms of activism in my day, but what I’ve found to be the most effective is leading by upbeat, positive example, and showing that being vegan is delicious, accessible, happy, and enjoyable.
I used to post graphic videos and dramatic posts on Facebook all the time, and saw very little actual change in my network of friends. But in more recent years I’ve kept my posts really positive. I focus on the benefits rather than the unhappy realities, and I have been amazed—like, really floored by all the messages I’ve received from people who I haven’t talked to in many years, who want to try vegan for one reason or another and turn to me for help. They know I’m a no-judgement zone, and a resource who will encourage them every step of the way. Friends of mine who have gone vegan since meeting me continually tell me how my non-pushy, positive and supportive attitude is what helped them give vegan a shot.
Something as simple as changing my language from: “Did you know that you kill X animals a year when you eat meat?” to “Did you know that you can save X animals a year when you choose vegan?” has helped me reach people in a more welcoming and effective way.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
Every single vegan, vegetarian, and veg-curious person is a strength of the vegan movement. We are collectively what we each individually bring to the table, and it’s really exciting that as veganism is rising in popularity, so are our cumulative talents and strengths.
We each hold an incredible capacity to change the world, but many of us haven’t tapped into that potential yet. That’s why I’m so passionate about promoting advocacy and sharing everyday activism resources. I am a huge supporter of leafleting with Vegan Outreach, sharing online memes like those you create at Vegan Street and videos like those I create at World of Vegan, and I love new initiatives like the Vegan Chalk Challenge started by James DeAlto. These are simple actions that anyone, anywhere can do in an hour to amplify their impact on the world.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
At this point, with the internet and social media at our fingertips, anyone, anywhere, can be a voice for animals. We all have a loudspeaker in front of us. The only hindrance is our own hesitation to use it.
Make a video about why you’re vegan. Organize a vegan potluck. Plan a leafleting outing with friends. Volunteer with your favorite nonprofit. Intern at an animal sanctuary. Invite your family over for a home-cooked vegan meal. Bring vegan cupcakes to work. Wear a compassionate message on your t-shirt. There are endless opportunities to save lives—now it’s up to you—yes, you, who is reading this right now—to go do it! Take your talents and the tools available to you and put them to work for the animals who otherwise have no hope.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Oh man, I’m glad you asked this question, because I really need to work on this! It’s been on my to-do list for a decade! Truthfully, I handle every conversation and interaction differently. It all depends on the vibe I’m getting from the person I’m talking to, and I always respond genuinely with whatever comes to mind.
That said, I encourage anyone looking to refine their communication about vegan and animal rights issues to check out Bruce Friedrich and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau—they both have excellent elevator pitches and responses for every situation imaginable. In fact, I started a “VegAnswers” expert video series on World of Vegan for this very reason! I never felt like I was expressing myself as effectively as I wanted, so I began filming videos with experts who give concise, articulate answers to the most commonly asked vegan questions. You can check out Colleen’s answers to the most common vegan questions here, and the full VegAnswers series here. Many more VegAnswers videos are coming soon, so I hope you’ll subscribe!
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?
Philosopher, author, speaker, and educator Peter Singer has had a tremendous impact on my life and my advocacy. I discovered his work in college, when I picked up his book Animal Liberation, the same book that inspired me to go vegan. Through that book I learned all about the utilitarian philosophy, which became a guiding force in my life, and has made me a much more effective animal advocate.
This is my favorite article of his that I like to re-read every so often. If everyone read this article, I imagine our world would be a much kinder place.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I’ve recently made a big shift that has helped me tremendously with preventing burnout. I used to feel the need to do it all. To show up at every protest, be there for every vegan event, and volunteer whenever I was asked (and even when I wasn’t). As a very extreme introvert, this was incredibly draining for me.
I started to realize that while I personally felt guilty any time I missed a demo, or didn’t show up at an event, for animals—in most cases—it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. I realized that I could have a much bigger impact on animals by doing the forms of activism that utilize my individual strengths and that also fuel and nourish me. For me, this consists of producing vegan videos, crafting creative online resources, and working on innovative projects to inspire positive change.
It was hard to pull back from the “social activism” scene that I was once such a huge part of, and it took a lot of practice to learn how to say “no.” But here’s the thing. When you say “no” to one thing, you are saying “yes” to another! Here are just a few of the exciting projects I’ve been able to release because of this shift:
The Dairy Detox—a 12-day online video course that I created with my partner Allison Rivers Samson that teaches people how to thrive dairy-free.
The Friendly Vegan Cookbook—a vegan recipe e-book that I crated with my friend Toni Okamoto.
Draw My Life: A Cow in Today’s Dairy Industry—a video illustrated by vegan artist Sooyeon Jang that shows the life of a cow in today’s dairy industry without the use of graphic images that make so many turn away.
And of course, when you start to feel overwhelmed, depleted, or burned out, a visit to an animal sanctuary is one of the most nourishing things you can do for your soul. I visit farmed animal sanctuaries often, and can say that for me, there’s nothing quite as healing as rubbing noses with a cow.
If you’re struggling with burnout, I hope you’ll also check out this phenomenal article by Mark Hawthorne with tips for avoiding activist burnout.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
The dairy industry causes me the most heartbreak, not only because it’s one of the most cruel to the animals, but also because I know that there is absolutely no need for dairy—and that most people would want no part in it if they only knew everything that was involved.
I spent the past year working on a program designed to help people who think they could “never give up cheese” or “never live without milk” find dairy-freedom and love it. It’s also a great resource for vegetarians who are ready to take the next step. It’s called The 12-Day Dairy Detox, and I hope you’ll check it out and share it with friends and family who need a little support making the transition!
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan means...”
that I don’t value my life above anyone else’s.