Wednesday, June 13, 2018

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Nicole Sopko




You know that whole vegan ladyboss phenomenon covered recently in Forbes? I think if there were ever a patron saint for vegan ladybosses, it would be Nicole Sopko, also known as Gopi Om.

Nicole and her partner Dan Staackman run Upton’s Naturals, the seitan, jackfruit and vegan prepared meals company recently profiled in Crain’s Chicago Business, a business that seems to be on fire with success and growth right now. When she’s not doing her Upton’s work as Vice President, and helping to run the Plant Based Foods Association (of which she is a founding member and Secretary of 
the board), Nicole also runs not one, but two yoga studios and, again, not one, but two restaurants. I just got tired from typing all that out. Nicole is a staunch believer in the many benefits of yoga and runs Nature Yoga studios, one in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, and more recently, one in Oak Park. She also helps to fill bellies with tasty vegan food at Upton’s Breakroom in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood and the lovely Nature Yoga Sanctuary & Café, attached to her Oak Park yoga studio. Okay, that’s a lot! To me, Nicole is the living embodiment of balance: a smart, conscientious entrepreneur who also happens to want to share the yogic principles of mindfulness and compassion with the world. She is kind, generous and a deeply committed vegan who happens to love hugging a cow or two or three or more. I am grateful to know her and honored to share feature Nicole Sopko as this week’s 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?

So, I first learned about veganism through the hardcore punk music scene. To be honest, I didn’t even really know that much about it in terms of the specifics of either the ethical arguments or the day-to-day lifestyle stuff, but the idea instantly appealed to me as a concept, because I mean…why DO we use animals if we don’t need to? As soon as I heard that, I was in 100%. This was in 1996. Prior to that, I’d always loved animals and spent as much time with them as possible. I spent a lot of time living with my grandparents as a child and they had a large property with a lot of barn cats and I would spend hours and hours out in the barn just hanging out with cats. They also had a chicken that had fallen off at transport truck and just showed up at dinner one night with the barn cats, so she was my first “farm” friend. I would come into the kitchen and my grandma would be cooking chicken and would joke that it was her and I would run outside to make sure she was alright. So, that didn’t hurt in terms of making me a vegan.

When I was 8, I wrote a poem at school for Thanksgiving:
There once was a turkey named Fred,
He never wanted to get out of bed.
He had a brother named Matt,
Who was very, very fat.
On Thanksgiving they sang a low gobble song,
Cause they knew they wouldn’t live very long.
And they didn’t.

So, I mean, I look at that now and just, OF COURSE, I’m vegan. It was there all along.

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 guess I just feel like I didn’t need a lot of convincing, personally, but I think that anything heavy handed or accusatory probably would have turned me off and caused me to retreat even if I agreed with the message. Part of my becoming vegan was a rebellion against societal norms. I had become straight edge (abstaining from drugs, alcohol, or other intoxicants) the year before because I didn’t think it was ethical to participate in industries that profit off of the destruction of people’s lives, families, communities, social skills, etc. and I felt really similarly about veganism. What you do and what you consume is like a vote every time for the kind of world you want. I can’t control much, but I can control what I allow for in my own sphere. I was 16 when I put the pieces together and I was lucky that I had a job and was making a little money to buy my own food so that I didn’t put my family out. I think having somebody leading by example would have been helpful for me, but luckily I was stubborn enough to figure out the basics on my own and stick with it until I had a community to show me what else was out there.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Personally, I’m just honest with people. Not like over the top, jarring “honesty” where I feel like I need to tell you the real truth about where your “food” comes from in graphic detail without consent (though, I will do that if you ask), but just that the reasoning is simple. I have this great shirt from The Herbivore Clothing Company that says, “I love animals too much to eat them.” I do. It’s that easy. Don’t you?

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

I think the vegan movement is so diverse and we shouldn’t miss that. My partner and I have two vegan restaurants in the Chicago area, Upton’s Breakroom and Nature Yoga Sanctuary & Cafe, and I see all kinds of people coming and going from those locations day after day and that is one of my favorite things. Vegans don’t look one way, they don’t act one way, they’re not all in it for the same reasons, and that’s part of what makes it so amazing. Because if you want to be vegan, I bet that there’s someone out there that you can really relate to who can help. It’s not one size fits all, but there is a right place for every body here. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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

Oh boy, I think sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I see a lot of confronting and seemingly ineffective tactics from other vegans sometimes. In fact, I think that generally speaking, if your way of interacting with other people is a “tactic” and you have an endgame with your interaction, they know and are going to be suspicious of you from the start. No one wants to be approached by someone with an agenda to get what they want. Let’s not be tactical. Let’s just connect. Lead by example.

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

Personally, I’m vegan because animals deserve to be comfortable. When I look at the animals I live with (I currently live with a dog, 13 fish, and 3 snails), it’s clear that they have wants and needs (I know, because I’m tasked with providing for many of them). It’s important to do your best to minimize harm to other beings.

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 love the message of the Dhammapada, which I first read after becoming vegan which says, “All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” I think that about sums it up for me. I also love and try to follow the work being done by organizations like Farm Sanctuary, We Animals, and all of the dedicated smaller animal sanctuaries around the world that are giving animals the comfortable lives they deserve.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?


Okay, so outside of the work of “being a vegan,” I work a LOT. I run a global vegan food company, Upton’s Naturals, alongside my partner Dan. On top of that, I also own two yoga centers by the name of Nature Yoga Sanctuary. We also have the two restaurants that I mentioned before. I teach yoga multiple times per week and on weekends am often teaching additional trainings or workshops for yoga teachers and students. This year alone I’ve traveled so extensively for business that I’ve spent more than a week in the air. I love all of what I do, but it is a lot. I consider my work to be my form of activism. We are making vegan foods available in a number of countries worldwide and sharing the reasons for veganism at home and abroad. My studies on yoga and yogic techniques with my Guruji, Sri Dharma Mittra, are what make all of this possible. Letting go of attachment to the results of effort is part of a daily practice and yoga also offers a variety of relaxation techniques that can be helpful when life is hectic. Studying the truths of karma can give some comfort when confronted with the cruelties of the world. I don’t always have time to dedicate too much of a physical yoga practice at this point in my life, but the other practices and knowledge are always present.

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

Oh boy! I don’t even know how to pick just one. I feel like issues are constantly capturing my heart, but the plight of dairy cows is one that just really touches me. When I have the opportunity, I seek out the company of cows. I love their presence. I have spent time with cows in the US, India, and other countries and one thing remains the same – they are loving beings with definite personalities and strong ties to their loved ones. I think many people see cows as “milk machines,” rather than as individuals with desires, needs, personalities, friends, and family and that breaks my heart. The dairy industry, no matter how big or small the farm, is harmful to them. Milk is for babies. 100%. No exceptions.

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

To me, being vegan is living in a way that is consistent with my values.

Om Shanti!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Jessica Schoech...




I love Jessica Schoech! Jessica is 
the hardworking mastermind behind the ultra-successful annual events in Los Angeles, the bustling Vegan Street Fair Los Angeles and the more intimate Vegan Street Fair LA Nights, both of which celebrate the fabulous plant-based food available in the LA-area and beyond. In just a short time, Jessica has helped to breathe new life into the vegan festival scene, using her love for theme parks to help create a more streamlined experience for festival-goers, but all along emphasizing the joy, sense of celebration and inclusiveness that has become deeply-rooted to the Vegan Street Fair brand.

What I especially love about Jessica is when she is not neck-deep in event organizing – and, honestly, even when she is – she is one of the most consistent, engaged and passionate voices for building a more inclusive, less bigoted vegan movement. B
asically Jessica Schoech is awesome and I am honored to feature her as this week’s 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?

My first foray into veganism was when I was a personal xrainer in NYC at the age of 24. One of the regular clients and I would chat often. He was wise and maybe 10 years my senior but we always struck up interesting conversations about spirituality, fitness, wellness, and every so often, he’d bring up veganism. It’s so odd to think about it now but back then I remember thinking, “Oh no… that’s just too far.” Everything else about him was spot on and perfect but that was “the line”. Ridiculous to think about now, right? I happened to pick up Skinny Bitch on his recommendation and as I read it cover to cover, I remember thinking, “Oh these women are vegan? That’s too extreme. I’ll go pescetarian.”

So I was pescetarian for about 3 years until I starting eating other animals again and it wasn’t until one of my best friends from high school, Christina, decided to go vegan that I was intrigued for the second time. I attempted it for a week and the second I screwed up with Jello - honestly, I didn’t know Jello was animal bones at the time! - I just said forget this and went back to eating animals.

The final straw was a second wedding anniversary trip to SeaWorld in 2011 when I swam with the dolphins. I came home, posted the photos to Facebook, and a friend who wasn’t even vegan said something along the lines of “You know those animals are enslaved in there… right?” And I couldn’t wait to prove him wrong. At the time, I was drinking the koolaid and believed SeaWorld to be doing great things. I spent hours on the computer trying to find evidence to the contrary and lo and behold, I proved him right. Once images from Taiji and the documentary “The Cove” started filling my screen, I just couldn’t contain my sadness and anger any longer. Through tears, I called my husband and said, “I never want another living being to ever have to suffer for me again.” And that was it. I have been vegan ever since.

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?

Honestly, I believe that change must be intrinsic. The only way for someone to have gotten through to me would have been to lead by example without being overly preachy about their vegan lifestyle. I know that isn’t everyone’s way or how they became vegan, but for me, because it was my choice and no one guilted me into it or made me feel ashamed over something I didn’t understand yet, I think its what made it click for me in the long run.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Evidently, spurring intrinsic change is exactly how I am best effective with my advocacy through Vegan Street Fair. I want to be that person that invites non-vegans into the conversation with an open door rather than a wall. That’s how I have built Vegan Street Fair since day 1. I always say that VSF is an invitation to non-vegans to explore veganism in a non-intimidating way. I believe that my role in veganism is to make veganism not only accessible by all classes and races but to also make it accessible by being non-judgmental and recognizable. Which is why you’ll find burgers, fries, donuts, cupcakes, music, entertainment and good vibes at my events. I want everyone to feel welcome to join the movement.

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

The biggest strength in the vegan movement is its potential for connecting all of the dots towards living in a world of consistent anti-oppression. If one has not yet faced the reality that marginalized communities are being oppressed currently and historically, then perhaps once one sees how animals are treated through a vegan lens, they can piece together how all oppression is linked and how sexism, racism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, etc. are also pieces of the same oppressive fabric along with animal exploitation. I can only hope that this is the direction we are all headed down.

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

Honestly? Lacking context about pro-intersectionality is what keeps us from getting the word out effectively. If we were to sit with how hurtful it is to fat shame, food shame, discriminate against, and further oppress already marginalized communities, then I think veganism would be easier for us to promote as a whole. The current problem is that most of us are not putting forth enough effort to dismantle systems of oppression within our own activism so we lose people right off the bat when we intend to reach out to them instead. For example, when we make veganism into a cure-all diet for a wide range of diseases and mental issues, we are doing the movement a disservice because that simply isn’t true for everyone. Someone once told me that any BODY can be a compassionate BODY. That has stuck with me for years. If we aim to make someone feel bad or ashamed of their body or their circumstance - be it being impotent, fat, poor, disabled, etc.- then we lose them to our cause immediately. Typically, mainstream vegan organizations use these tactics to pull people into the vegan movement but what they fail to understand is that it pushes people IN those circumstances to want to run far, far away from our cause. To me, the lack of understanding food access, systemic oppression, wealth disparity, racism, sexism, and body positivity is what we are lacking as a movement in order to get our message across more effectively. [Ed. note: I never do this, but hear, hear, Jessica!]

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

We are on this planet to live harmoniously with each other and mother Earth. Taking life, exerting power over the defenseless, and living in cognitive dissonance at all times is the opposite of harmony. The animals need us. The planet needs us. Future generations need us. If you can eat the same foods you ate without causing harm to a living being using textures and seasonings and innovative cooking techniques…what do you lose in the long run making the switch? And what do you GAIN? I venture to guess that a person would lose a huge weight off their shoulders and gain perspective about our interconnectedness with the planet and its inhabitants. Win-win.

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 great resources out there! I really love Instagram for its ability to showcase veganism in a way that is less about the graphic, violent nature of animal exploitation and more about the things that connect us all- food and lifestyle. I am partial to Power to the Veg! on Facebook because it is such a loving and open community of people who truly get to know you and encourage you every step of the way. I follow people on Instagram and Facebook like VeganFatKid, Black Vegans Rock, Aph and Syl Ko, Christopher Sebastian, Food Empowerment Project, Vegan Hip Hop Movement, VegNews, LiveKindly, Rawmanda, Rawvana, JL Fields, Marla Rose (seriously though…).

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

Lots of vegan food, friends, and time to work on my passion projects like my events. Immersing myself in the work rather than debating folks on line or arguing in person actually helps alleviate burn out and for that I am grateful.

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

Homelessness. I think its important to keep in mind that while being vegan reduces our use of resources on the planet, there is still more work top be done while people go hungry on the streets. I have made Chilis on Wheels, a vegan meal distribution for those in need, a beneficiary of funds from every single event we host for this very reason. We can care about animals and our fellow humans at the same time.

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

…a way to connect myself to the world and her inhabitants without constantly taking from it or them. Animals are here with me, not for me so really, being vegan is simply treating them as I would want to be treated.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ten Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Nicole Arciello of Horseracing Wrongs




There are some in the vegan community who denigrate anything but vegan education as “single-issue campaigns” or SICs but I am not one of them. I – and Vegan Street – appreciate everyone who is trying to build a more compassionate world. I know that if I were being used and abused by these “side issue” industries, I would want people standing up for me. Nicole Arciello, Vice President of the non-profit Horseracing Wrongs, is an example of an animal advocate with an organization that exposes the largely hidden cruelties inflicted on the innocent souls brutalized by this multi-billion dollar industry, but also connects the dots to the fact that these horses – even expensive thoroughbreds – are sent to slaughter when they are no longer profitable, often to be sold as meat in overseas markets. With thousands of horses killed on and off tracks due to the exposure to injuries and punitive financial realities of horseracing, the hidden reality is these vulnerable beings live short, difficult lives until they are dispatched of and new horses are cycled in. Horseracing is not glamorous and it’s not victimless.

Enter Nicole Arciello and Horseracing Wrongs. Horseracing Wrongs, founded in 2012, pulls back the curtain on what people seem to think is a harmless industry, educates and advocates on behalf of those gentle souls exploited, abused and killed by horseracing interests.
Based in Albany, NY, Horseracing Wrongs holds a series of at least six protests at Saratoga Race Course each summer. They are currently assisting protests in six states in addition to their protests in New York state and are sponsoring a protest at the Belmont Stakes, the third leg in the Triple Crown, on June 9th and are currently planning their protest schedule at the Saratoga Race Course, the first happening on July 21stIn addition to handling the day-to-day operations of Horseracing Wrongs, Nicole is the co-founder of Albany Animal Rights (meet-up info here), is a vegan culinary instructor and studied plant-based nutrition at eCornell. She’s basically awesome! Contact her, find her personal page on Instagram, along with Horseracing Wrongs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I am honored to feature Nicole Arciello of Horseracing Wrongs as this week’s 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?

My vegan evolution began when I started having low-blood sugar problems. After seeing doctors and having tests, I was sent to a dietician. She gave me a two-hour eating schedule, consisting of two carbohydrate and two protein servings. Needless to say, the protein servings were mostly meats and cheeses and (surprise!) I didn’t feel better. I also was never a big meat-eater. At a meal, I would take a small piece of meat on my plate and load up on the sides, pasta, potatoes, etc. I began doing my own research and found that protein with fiber will keep your blood sugar more stable. And I quickly discovered that was beans. Here is where the real magic happened - about a week in, eating beans and feeling like a normal person finally, I was telling a friend and she gave me the book Skinny Bitch. I took it home and read it immediately. What happened was amazing; the first chapter was humorous and full of swear words, then the second chapter exposed the factory-farming industry. Wow. I went vegetarian on the spot and there was no looking back. I knew I was already feeling better, and I knew I couldn’t contribute to the suffering of animals – it was easy. I went back to the dietitian thinking she would not approve of my new vegetarian lifestyle, but she disclosed that she had been a vegetarian for 11 years as she ripped up my eating plan and created a new one. Within a month, I was healthy and those blood sugar problems were gone. Because I didn’t know how to cook vegetables or really what to eat, I went to the library and checked out every vegetarian cookbook I could find. I also found vegan cookbooks and because I had an egg allergy, these were my favorite books; I learned how to bake without eggs and the funny thing about vegan cookbooks is that many make things easy because they want you to be vegan! They also talk about all of the reasons to be vegan. I couldn’t overlook my contribution to the suffering in the dairy industry and there was no longer a reason to. I had vegan days, then vegan weeks without even realizing it, so I just had to tell my friends so we could start choosing restaurants that I could easily eat at.  hat is what took the longest, dealing with my non-veg friends, but nine year ago, I called everyone (including my mom) and told them that I was now vegan and I explained what that meant and why I was doing it: for the animals.

I did have an early experience(s) that came to me as my veganism took shape. I remember while riding around town with my parents here in upstate New York, seeing dead animals on the side of the road and wondering why they were just left there. Why wasn’t it someone’s job to go around every day to pick up the squirrels and raccoons and give them a proper burial? Eight-year-old me knew that dead humans wouldn’t be abandoned on the shoulder of the road. It didn’t make sense to me. Those thoughts came back to me as I realized that all animals, human and non-human, are exactly the same.

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 didn’t know any other vegans until I was vegan for about six months. I knew a couple vegetarians, and I was always asking what they ate, but I wish they told me why they made the choice they did. Even the person who loaned me Skinny Bitch was neither vegetarian nor vegan. Of course, I wish someone had told me sooner.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Cooking classes! And protesting single-issue causes! I tell everyone I encounter that I am vegan; I work this into every conversation, everywhere. I stared teaching vegan cooking classes at libraries in my area and after the first one had 87 people register, I realized that people are interested to see what this vegan stuff is all about! After a few library classes, which are mostly demos (with lots of samples), I sent a proposal for a four-part Introduction to Vegan Cooking to a local school district’s continuing education program.  They accepted my proposal the following day! My classes are a mix of demo, hands-on and lecture, and I give my students a free tour of Whole Foods as a bonus. I use humor to make the classes entertaining, and I use kindness to answer every one of their questions. 

Then, of course our work at Horseracing Wrongs and our protests here at Saratoga Race Course. Our protests are peaceful and we welcome anyone to join us. We have over 75 advocates at our protests each summer, and last summer we had over 100 at our final protest for the season. While most of the advocates are vegan (we have a large vegan community here in NY’s Capital Region), many are not – when they start out, that is. We have found that the non-vegans who join us start asking questions about veganism immediately. They soon realize that most of us are vegan and that they are protesting the use and abuse of one species and that there is a connection there. Our group leads with kindness in every way, and we help people transition without judgment. As a result, our vegan family keeps growing. 

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

I think the single biggest strength of the vegan movement is that the word vegan isn’t foreign anymore. There are vegan products virtually everywhere and all sorts of information readily accessible on the internet. In short, it’s easier than ever to go vegan!

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

Judging and shaming. I think we need to remember what our evolution looked like and ask ourselves if we would be vegan now if a vegan shamed us or yelled at us for eating animals. While I believe there is no time to waste in relieving animal suffering, it’s counter-productive to be an angry vegan. This also applies to vegan-on-vegan treatment, too. It can cause vegans to stop actively trying to further the cause if they are being judged or shamed as well. People need to help people help animals. It’s the only way.

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

 I’m vegan for the animals. If you love animals, then I urge you to look deeper. If you could save one being from suffering would you? You can save thousands if you start today. 

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?

“Earthlings.”  It was what put me over the tipping point.  I prepared myself (with a deep breath) and sat down and watched it.  I use that as a tool for people who are there, but need a little more.  I had one woman cry just telling her the title.  She got it - “Earthings,” that we are all the same.

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

I’m so happy this question is here because self-care is so important and so hard for each of us to grasp and embrace. Being immersed in a selfless cause, there is a tendency to feel guilty when we take time for ourselves. But it is essential to the cause! I take regular social media breaks. Some are a 24-hour period, or I just limit to “business,” meaning I just check the HW accounts and not newsfeeds or any other notifications that do not need immediate attention. I get together with vegan friends a lot and we eat good food and try to talk about other things happening in our lives. And lastly, exercise. A run, for me, clears my mind and reduces stress. I change my routine up and I also get together with friends to walk and talk. It’s those intimate one-hour walks and talks that are the best medicine!

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

Horseracing. Growing up near one of the country’s most elite racetracks, it was the summer thing to do. Go to the races. When I went vegan I knew that I shouldn’t attend anymore, and I didn’t, but I really didn’t know much else. When I met up with Patrick
Battuello, founder and President of Horseracing Wrongs, he was busy uncovering the cruelty behind what is called the “Sport of Kings.” I had to be a part of educating people about the thousands of horses killed each year for gambling.  I mean, greyhound racing is almost dead, but why is it that horseracing is so widely accepted? It’s a big misconception to the general population that racehorses are worth millions of dollars. They are not. They are traded and bought and sold, whipped to perform and regularly dying – 2,000 each year – for $2 bets. Even worse, over 15,000 recently “retired” thoroughbreds are brutally and violently slaughtered every year. We have to stop this. It became my mission to take my protesting experience and apply it to Saratoga and to turn Patrick’s blog into a non-profit so we could empower and assist advocates all over the country.

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

To me, being vegan is love. I believe we need to love animals, ourselves and others.  Kindness breeds kindness, and I believe we are all in this together, humans and non-humans alike; we need to spread that love to everyone. All beings.