Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Wayne Hsiung

I met Wayne Hsiung about a million years ago (or so) in Chicago when he was studying at the University of Chicago and new on the local activist scene. There was a lot of buzz about Wayne, most of it centered around the fact that he was very smart. Meeting him did not disappoint in this department but did help to fill out the whole picture: Wayne has an uncommon combination of confidence and humility, audacity and sensitivity. Always articulate and cerebral but with rare qualities of approachability and warmth infusing everything, Wayne has a lot of complementary skills that are not seen together too often in one person. Perhaps this is why he is so magnetic and uniquely talented. It is no surprise that his rare combination of skills and attributes make Wayne someone who would go on to big things.

Fast forward a million years (or so) from when we first met and Wayne has helped to ignite a diverse movement of people from around the globe who have become empowered to courageously speak up for animals in the public sphere through the organization he founded in the Bay area, Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE, which now has chapters around worldwide. DxE and their actions happen to have sparked a lightning rod of debate and controversy within a short amount of time, prompting conversations, often heated, about strategy and approach within the vegan activist community that I believe, no matter where one is on the spectrum of support, are ultimately very valuable for a robust and evolving movement. Where do you stand on nonviolent confrontation? Where do you stand on the disruption of the status quo in the public sphere? Is speaking out a moral obligation or do negative public reactions make things worse for the animals? No matter where you stand, this is forcing us to ask questions of our own comfort zones - are they for us or for the animals? If these were people being eaten, would we still be silent? - and forcing us to challenge our own tendencies of accepting the entrenched societal customs. I believe that there are compelling arguments both for and against their style of direct action; no matter what you think about Wayne and DxE, I have no doubt that business-as-usual is being rattled and, ultimately, this rattling is a very good thing.

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?

It’s hard to remember how things started 15 years ago. But I’ll share two experiences that were key.

The first was a pretty deep and early connection with animals. Growing up in an immigrant family in central Indiana, my family didn’t have much community. We were the only people of color in the neighborhood, and we never made white friends. So I made friends with the local animals. I would stomp through the forests and creeks, babbling to the squirrels, the birds, and even the bugs. I invented all sorts of fantastic relationships for the animals – squirrels would be married to frogs, and cousins to the birds, and uncles to the deer – to make up for my lack of human family and community. I’d obsess over animal books at the library, insist on going to the Indianapolis zoo (usually on discounted days) on every occasion that I could, and beg, beg, and beg my mom and dad to allow us to adopt a dog. The day they relented is still, to this day, perhaps the most joyous day of my life. My first dog Vivian was my first and best friend and, in many ways, my hero. And though she destroyed almost everything she could in our house, the love and companionship she built up in our family was worth so much more.  

Even at an early age, though, there were serious signs that something was not right about the way we treated animals. For example, as a kid, I was obsessed with the primate cage at the zoo. This was back in the day when zoos were much less careful than they are today about human/non-human interaction.  There was a corner of the monkey exhibit where, if you were small enough, and willing to crawl under a wooden bar, you could get within a few feet of the wire cage that separated us from the primates. And if you brought a stick with you, you could stretch your arm out towards the cage, and the primates would stretch their arms out through a hole in the cage, and you could hand them a stick. If the zoo employees caught you doing this, they’d immediately command you to stop. But I became an expert over the years at avoiding the zoo employees, and I would literally spend hours upon hours just handing them sticks (sometimes, also playing tug of war), usually with a younger primate, often a boy just like me. We would stare at each other, wave at each other, laugh at each other, and sometimes, even talk at each other. But through it all, I always remembered the image an outstretched arm pushing desperately for a stick through a grim wire cage. And I remember always thinking to myself, why is he in there, and why am I out here?

The other sign that all was not well came from an early visit to China – specifically the Southeastern region where most of my family is from, and where dog flesh is still commonly sold. My parents tell me that we never got close enough to see it, but I distinctly remember hearing about Gou Rou (“dog meat’) and being absolutely mortified. “How can people hurt little ones like Vivian?” I cried desperately. But my parents insisted that I was being immature because, after all, we ate plenty of animals back home. I rejected this as a kid. But many years later, I realized that my parents were right. There is no difference.

And that brings me to my second experience. Unlike many vegans, I did not come to veganism as a consumer or dietary lifestyle. I was never a picky eater, and (like many people who come from a background of food insecurity) the particularities of the food I was eating never really concerned me, as long as I had some food to eat.

I came to veganism, instead, as an extension of other social justice causes I had been working on. In particular, in the late 1990s, there was a swell of activism around false convictions of people on death row. A small team of volunteer investigators at Northwestern, through diligent research, had discovered numerous instances of clearly innocent people (generally poor, people of color) who were set to be killed for crimes they did not commit. 

I related instantly to this cause because I knew what it meant to be attacked physically for something that was completely out of my own control. From an early age, I had been mercilessly bullied by kids at school as a strange immigrant kid with sloppy clothes. And the most terrifying aspect of that experience – and the reason racial epithets are so hurtful – is that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better. I was being attacked for who I was, not for anything I did. And the same thing was happening to these men on death row. They were captives to a society that saw them as worthless beings, punished for the crime of being poor, powerless, and “different.”

It didn’t take long for me to see the connections to another class of beings who were in that same dreadful state.  But unlike my experiences with bullying (eventually, the school caught on, and some of the bullies were reprimanded quite severely), it did not seem anyone was particularly concerned about the animals' fate. And that’s when I decided that something needed to be done.

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 two things that I wish I had learned are, first, that animal rights and veganism (at least in its political variants) are not about diet but, rather, justice, and, second, that there is a huge community of warm-hearted, smart, and motivated people out there supporting you every step of the way. Tap into that community. Build with that community. Empower that community. Too much of my early veganism/activism was done under the false notion that what’s most important is finding hard-working individuals. But as Robert Putnam put it, there’s only so much you can do if you’re bowling alone. Growing as a vegan or activist is a collaborative project.

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 so much evidence that stories are by far the most powerful way to get your message out, to provoke dialogue, and to make change. Lincoln is reported to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, regarding the antislavery movement in the United States, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” And while that quote may be a myth, it reflects a truth that Steven Pinker, among others, has identified: movements for empathy have almost always been triggered by stories. A kind and distinguished black woman calmly refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus. (Civil Rights) A desperate fruit vendor lights himself in fire to protest tyranny in Tunisia. (Arab Spring) Three young woman are brutally attacked by a police officer with pepper spray simply for begging him to stop beating their friends. (Occupy Wall Street)

Storytelling is a core organizing principle of Direct Action Everywhere because we’ve seen the power of stories in prior movements, and we know we have to harness the power of stories for ours. 

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

Our network. At DxE, our formula for social change is “Create. Connect. Inspire.” And there’s a huge literature in sociology, psychology, political science, and economics on the importance of empowered networks for creating change. Look, for example, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember Martin Luther King Jr. as singularly responsible for Civil Rights, but the network he was part of had a life and power of its own – spawning SNCC, the March on Washington, and countless other important groups, events, and individual leaders for the movement. 

At DxE, we carefully study both the history and science of social change to identify the attributes of networks that allow them to grow and thrive. And our hope is that what we learn will empower the entire movement.

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

Three things come to mind. 

The first, and most important, is cynicism. If we don’t believe we can change the world, we won’t. But too often we look around us, at a sea of seemingly apathetic faces, and tell ourselves that we can’t achieve our dreams. This is not just self-defeating but inaccurate. The problem before us is, in fact, far easier than what faced historical movements. (Just as one simple illustration, the antislavery movement sought to destroy an industry that was more than 2000 times larger, as a percentage of the US federal budget.) And we only need to mobilize a small percentage of the population to effect massive systemic change. We have to believe we can do that.

The second problem is undue focus on individuals. At DxE, we focus on creating networks and communities – and not just individual vegans—because we know that individuals disconnected from supportive communities will not remain committed to the cause. An astonishing 60% of self-declared vegetarians eat meat within a week after identifying themselves as vegetarians, and a far higher percentage give up over the long term. Duncan Watts, among others, has identified the power of highly energetic networks to creating and sustaining change. We need to make creating those empowered networks, and not converting individual vegans, our main focus as a movement. 

Third and finally, we too often lose sight of our inspiration – social justice. There is virtually no evidence that a consumer-based movement has much potential to grow – much less change the world. (Indeed, the consumer-based “free produce” movement in the 19th century barely registers a footnote in the history of antislavery.) The distinguished philosopher Will Kymlicka has written recently on how animal rights is the orphan child of the Left, and one of the reasons for this is its insistence on framing the issue in terms of consumer lifestyles that are alien to, or out of the reach of, the vast majority of human beings on this planet. There is more to social justice than a boycott. There’s more to meat than just a meal. (“It’s not food. It’s violence.”) And we need to frame the issue more strongly, and with more inspiration, for our movement to grow. 

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

“I’ve seen a dog being tortured and killed, and it’s the most evil thing I’ve ever had to witness. I know you feel that way too. But we in America are routinely engaged in practices that are just as horrific to other animals. We have to see that for what it is – discriminatory violence – and empower ourselves to take action against it. Here’s the good thing: there are people all over the world taking a stand. Species is the next frontier of justice.  And if we come together behind a strong message, we can change the world."

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 had a lot of really positive early role models. You were actually one of them, Marla, because I immediately noticed that you stuck to your principles, but maintained a positive tone. That’s not an easy balance to manage, but it’s a vital one if our movement is to both maintain its integrity *and* grow.

But by far the most influential people on my veganism and activism have been my fellow activists at Direct Action Everywhere. I have learned so much, grown so much, bonded so much in the past 11 months that I’m a completely different -- and better -- person than I was at the beginning of 2014. The activists in the Bay Area we have are obviously close to my heart. But even beyond that, I’ve met so many people around the country (at our Forum at Cal-Berkeley in May, and then later during our East Coast Speaking Tour) who just blow me away with their commitment, passion, and integrity. We really focus on building good culture and character at DxE – honest, optimistic, transparent, and enthusiastic – and that has really paid off in the team of amazing people we have leading our chapters around the world.

Re: other influences, I don’t think any can compare to the influence of my peers. But Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria continue to inspire me from afar. The work we do is, in many ways, modeled after theirs.

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

I used to play ultimate Frisbee, karaoke, and tons of board games. But animal rights has always been my first priority for the past 13 years, and over the past 2 years, it’s completely taken over. That’s ok, though, because there are so many diverse, interesting challenges that there’s always something new to learn. (The past year, for example, has been a crash course in video editing, so we can make videos like this.)  The only thing I need to recharge is to connect with another activist (with DxE or otherwise) who’s enthusiastic about making change.

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

Anti-speciesism. There are so many vegans, and even quite a few animal rights activists. But there is little discussion of what it means to be an anti-speciesist – to treat every animal, or animal body, with the same respect and consideration that you’d offer a human being. 

What we’ve learned from a few decades of research into other forms of discrimination is that they are often deep-seated and unconscious, that they shape our basic assumptions about the world in ways that disadvantage oppressed classes, and that they powerfully influence our behavior in ways that we don’t even recognize. We know, for example, that even those who identify as “anti-racist” are more likely to pull the trigger when faced with a person of color; that sexism is not just about explicit violence, but also subtle assumptions about women (weak, dependent, less intelligent, etc.); and that people with ethnic sounding names will, by that alone, be rejected both socially and professionally from positions of influence or power. 

But we have just begun starting these conversations regarding anti-speciesism. For example, what is an anti-speciesist to do when a friend or family member is dining on the body of a murdered being? The obvious answer, from an anti-speciesist perspective, would be to react the same way we would react toward a murdered human being. And while there might be legitimate reasons to deviate from that reaction, we should carefully scrutinize whether our disparate treatment of animals or their bodies has more to do with our indoctrination in an unthinkingly violent society, or genuine concerns regarding effectiveness.

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

Just the beginning. Our greatest dream – a world where every animal is safe, happy, and free – is within reach. But only if we’re inspired to do more.

Thank you, Wayne!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ten Types of People Who Will Try to Undermine Your Veganism: An Identification Key

“Have you heard that soy causes man-boobs?”
I think so, actually, about fifty million times from your fellow Weston A. Price Wackadoos.
“But I’m worried about your son. He’s vegan, too, right? Choosing to be vegan yourself is one thing but...”

Ah, I see. Now you are a Concerned Party.

“I mean, you can do what you want. I just know that God said we have dominion over animals. Oh, speaking of, what about abortion? I mean, if you’re so concerned about life...”

Wow, two for the price of one. Here you are both God’s Special Pet and the Distractor.

"What you do is up to you. I’m just saying that if you vegans were less self-righteous about everything, you’d probably get further. Did you see that link I sent you about low B-12 levels corresponding to personality disorders? I found it in Mercola’s newsletter. If you didn’t read it, you can’t be serious about this conversation."

And so the Keyboard Warrior makes an appearance. Can I be done now? 

Anyone who has been vegan for about two weeks or longer has probably met each of the individuals I will sketch out below, people determined to dismiss, undercut or actively undermine the veganism of others. This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch, just some of the most prominent types; also, please keep in mind that there are tremendous areas of overlap (someone can be both a Concerned Party and God’s Special Pet, for example, and people will often jump ship from one to another to the next in one single interaction, trying to find whatever seems to work best). There are also areas where the characteristics of one can be shared by another, such as the Special Snowflakes, the Yeah-Butters and the Former Vegans all possessing a strangely common condition of having absolutely unique obstacles that stood between them and veganism. As annoying as it is, knowledge is power.

The Concerned Parties

“We are a little worried...”

Their eyebrows are frequently furrowed or raised around you. Their index fingers are extra muscular from all the articles they send you. They will send you articles about orthorexia. They will send you articles about a sick baby with insane parents who may or may not have been vegan. They will send you articles of deeply questionable scientific rigor from poorly designed blogs. If you so much as sniffle around this individual, the floodgates of Deep Concern will come crashing down. After all, they heard a doctor-like individual talking disparagingly about veganism on morning television or they saw something ominous somewhere about soy or their third cousin twice removed was vegan and she had gallstones or kidney stones or stones of some sort so that is concerning. They may not really know much of what they are talking about but that doesn’t stop them from saying it. 

How to deal:
Stay calm and stick to the facts. 

The Weston A. Price Foundation Wackadoos. a.k.a., The Naturals, a.k.a., Paleos

“Mmm...that roadkill looks mighty tasty.”

These folks can be tricky to identify at first because they may look like and even sound like independent, crunchy types and they tend to congregate around environments (virtual and actual) that appeal to “alternative minded” people so when they start frothing at the mouth about soy or insisting that babies not fed puréed liver will fail to thrive, it can be a bit discombobulating at first. They will quote Sally Fallon and hold up Nourishing Traditions as their bible, they will send you articles from Dr. Mercola and share links from Natural News as if they were legitimate. Like the Concerned Parties, they will diagnose every bump and hiccup as proof positive that you are clearly on a downward spiral if not actively circling the drain. Then they will try to try to get you to eat more sulfate-free bacon, they will send you grainy, two-hour-plus YouTube lectures they expect for you to watch, they will send you a link about the dietary need for bovine colostrum. They are only trying to help! 

How to deal:
Ask for peer-reviewed sources. Ask if their sources have any basis in, you know, fact or scientific rigor.

The Keyboard Warriors

“Did you even read our link???”

They are on message boards. They are on comment threads. They are attached to social media like bird poop. They have an arsenal of links, personal anecdotes and insults they will lob at you like hand grenades from behind the safe cover of their computer screens. They hate vegans because we’re self-righteous. They have never met a single vegan who was at a healthy weight. They assert that all vegans have grey skin. They had a roommate who was a vegan once and she was bat-shit crazy and she broke her lease. Did we see that Austrian study about how vegetarians are unhealthy? Here -- they will share it with us. What about the lions in the jungles that eat gazelles, hmm, what about them??? Did we see that article that proves homo sapiens cannot be successful herbivores because of an enzyme that was mentioned on an obscure blog from 2006? Did we even read the link???

How to deal: Not wanting to be pinned down, if one approach doesn’t work, they will jump tracks. Learn to ignore these people.

The Yeah-Butters

“Yeah, but we really have some solid rationales for continuing to eat animals.”

You gave them some excellent resources to help them understand veganism better, yeah, but they don’t know how to cook or like to cook or have refrigeration or access to a grocery store or knives for chopping vegetables or even flat surfaces for a cutting board. Yeah, but they grew up eating meat. Yeah, but they are Italian or Irish or Scandinavian or Brazilian and so they have to eat meat. Yeah, but if the animals aren’t treated cruelly, there’s really nothing wrong with it. Yeah, but they only eat “humane” meat.  Yeah, but the eggs they buy are from the sweetest people who treat their chickens literally like pets. Yeah, but they are have a soy allergy. Yeah, but they tried to be vegan and they were starving all the time. Yeah, but what about abortion? Yeah, but what about the lions? Yeah, but there are more important things in the world.

How to deal: there is nothing that churns up the yeah-butters quite like continuing to poke holes in their excuses. You have to be persistent but eventually it will come down to “Yeah, but I like it,” and then they will have to face the fact that everything else they hold up is just a shallow excuse.

God’s Special Pets

“Because the all-merciful God just likes people way better.”

And on the seventh day, God created overflowing manure pits, reckless water waste, oceanic dead zones and climate change so that His Special Pets could keep enjoying their mmm...bacon, omelets and grease-stained buckets of fried animal parts. This is apparently not the benevolent, compassionate and loving God but the God who woke up in a pissy, vengeful and sadistic mood -- who else would create animals who can and do feel pain just to allow them to be cranked out into cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and Oreo Blizzards? This was part of His divine plan, though, apparently, so that His ordained ones can maintain their privileged place in the natural order and  in drive-thrus. Nothing but the most ostentatious presentation of suffering and violence for His very favorites! God’s Special Pets will cite biblical passages and books, chapters and verses that support their position of status as His favorite ones.

How to deal:
Ask if God isn’t supposed to be merciful. Ask why a merciful God would create sentient beings and allow them to suffer so tremendously. Ask if He would want His Special Pets to destroy the planet He created so wantonly.

The Distractors

“Oh, wait! What’s that over there?”

Even if they have never once given voice to any particular concern for the homeless, The Distractors suddenly want to know how you can justify being vegan when it is so eclipsed by the existence of homeless people. And abortion. And every other issue that has ever existed and will ever exist, including but not limited to: starving children, war, jihadists and chemtrails. The Distractors are similar to Concerned Parties but instead of wringing their hands over you personally, they are the determined shapeshifters of planetary concern, eager and ready to divert any potential attention toward the treatment of animals to any other subject that they deem deserves it better. Not that they are necessarily concerned about it enough to do anything themselves, but, you know...

Sample retort:
“By living as a vegan, I am addressing matters of compassion, environmental concern and human health, to name a few. What are you doing? Further, is caring a finite resource? Why does my work on behalf of one mean that I wouldn’t have anything to give to another?”

The Special Snowflakes

“We are very remarkable.”

The Special Snowflakes have a rare condition in which they must consume animal products every day because they just cannot digest plant matter properly. The Special Snowflakes have Type Double Secret Special Snowflake Blood Blend or some such that prevents them from being vegan. The Special Snowflakes are descended from Inuits or Native Americans or the Romanov family or any other ancestry where they feel their position as an consumer of flesh is unique, necessary and even honorable. They were specifically  given permission from a levitating yogi or Buddhist monk of the highest order to consume animals. The Special Snowflakes aren’t like all the others, not even the 98% or so of the public that does exactly as they do when it comes to eating animals. The Special Snowflakes are, well, special. Can’t we just stop raining on their special parade?

Sample retort: “Ah, you’re very special, aren’t you? Special enough to share the same practices with pretty much everyone else. Neat!”

The Would-Be Sensualists

“Meat is sexy and primal just like me.”

They connect their love of flesh foods to libertine pleasures and sexual prowess and the rejection of those things to stuffiness and austerity. They idolize stunt-eater Anthony Bourdain. Their imagined hot, sizzling libido can only be satisfied by a hot, sizzling hunk of flesh. Poor vegans, though. They like to imagine that we are the withering prudes worried about the sodium content of wilted celery and ruining their non-stop bacchanalia.

Sample retort:
“If your sexuality is connected to enjoying limp corpses, I’m not sure that’s saying too much that’s positive about you.” 

The Humane-iacs

“It’s that thing the other people do that is wrong.”

They personally know every cow, pig and chicken they have ever eaten, at least since they memorized The Omnivores Dilemma by heart. Since they knew these animals personally, they know that they lived on grassy meadows, they dined on organic grasses, sun-warmed chestnuts and free-range grubs, that they were gently massaged and serenaded by a wandering string quartet each evening before they slumbered on the softest of hay under starry skies. This is the natural way, after all. Humane-iacs are default members of a different kind of Special Snowflake club, too, because “their” meat, dairy and eggs are soooo unique. It doesn’t matter if it’s unaffordable and not available to most: what matters is that there is a glowing green halo of exclusive, impenetrable goodness around their consumption habits.  

How to deal: Ask if they maintain this all the time. Ask if when they dine out and “humane” animal products isn’t available, if they eat vegan. Ask how this is a workable model for the whole planet when we have such limited space.

The Ex-Vegans

“They really tried but...”

They tried to be vegan. They really, really tried. But their skin turned green and they went into shock and they developed Type 2 orthorexia and a dog peed on their leg and they stopped breathing and their hair fell out and they had to take out a second mortgage. Or they just didn’t feel right. Or they had to “listen to their bodies.” Whatever it was, how dare you imply that they and their choices are anything less than perfect as is? Who are you to deny them 100% acceptance of their self-reporting? Many Ex-Vegan are also Special Snowflakes. Who would have guessed? 

Sample retort:
“Yeah, I used to eat animals, too, but I just didn’t feel right. I’m an ex-omnivore. It was just too hard. My conscience was killing me.”

Bear in mind that veganism is threatening to a lot of people because it makes them feel judged, unkind or uncomfortable even if you haven't said a word. We are the elephants in the room who can't help but draw attention to things people would rather ignore and as such, we come with a lot of baggage - our own and that of the people we meet - just by existing. Because of this, there are many people who will try to undercut your veganism, some innocently and some intentionally. Try not to take it so personally but do identify when it's happening.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I love Mikael Nielsen. There, I said it. 

Through his tireless work as National Volunteer Coordinator for Mercy for Animals, Mikael is responsible for getting dedicated and talented people involved in creating rippling, real change for the animals and the planet. He is also one of the most humble and hardworking people I know, though, giving his all to getting the message out about compassionate living and doing it in the most thoughtful, effective way. I think a lot of times we are so passionate about the cause, so driven to expose people to the unnecessary horrors inflicted upon animals, that we scare people away with our desire to effect change immediately. Mikael, though, through his years of advocacy understands the importance of blending patience and understanding with his very compelling message, helping people to trust that he is not there to judge, he is there to help people along the way to creating less violence in the world. He is an empathetic listener, a skill that is sadly often under-emphasized among advocates, and creates an environment of calm but focused attention wherever he goes. In doing so, he gives people the space to be honest, work through internal conflicts, and get in touch with their own values. In short, Mikael is, in his native Danish, vidunderlige. He is wonderful.

So, yes, I am biased. Mikael is a friend. Who wouldn’t want a friend like this, though?

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 went vegetarian in 1996 and then vegan a few years later. But, it was not until 2002 that I realized being vegan was not enough and that I needed to get out there and create more compassionate people. After all, each new person I got on-board spared hundreds more animals from a lifetime of suffering. It was an EarthSave Chicago Conference for Conscious Living that opened my eyes to this and soon thereafter I joined the group and started doing outreach. Since EarthSave Chicago was led by you and John Beske at the time, I guess I owe my start to you. Thanks!

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 always wish someone like myself had come to my high school back in the day and given one of MFA’s humane ed presentations, which include our four-minute edit of Farm to Fridge. Seeing and learning about how horrific the day-to-day lives of farmed animals are would probably have been enough to at least start me down the path toward a vegan lifestyle and also gotten me active much sooner. Most people just have no idea how awful the factory farming system is, so I think that is a great place to start the conversation.

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 used to be a very self-righteous vegan activist and thought I had all the answers. Sadly, early on I probably turned off more people than I ever convinced to give veganism a try. Makes me cringe when I think about it. Now, one of the first things I tell people is how far from perfect I am and that we all cause some sort of suffering in our lives. We are all on our own path and I think we should strive to do our best, wherever we are in our lives. That means meeting people where they are, whether that is cutting out chickens from their diet, doing Meatless Monday, trying to go vegetarian, or making the switch to being vegan.

Applaud them for getting to where they are and then help them take the next step, whatever that may be. Along those lines, I think it’s very important that we not only focus on the “why” when it comes to ditching animal products, but also the “how.” We need to give people the tools to live healthy and compassionate lives for the long term. That is why I love MFA’s FRESH booklets and Vegetarian Starter Guides. They do just that.

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

The greatest is, without a doubt, this awesome community of compassionate people that grows by the day. I am so honored to know all these amazing people doing fantastic things for animals all over the world. And one of the best parts of my job as national volunteer coordinator is working with our volunteers all across the United States and helping them get started or stay active. Most have full-time jobs, yet still dedicate an incredible amount of time to animal protection. Inspires me to do more myself.

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

As Gandhi said about the path that many social justice movements take, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think we are definitely in the “then they fight you” stage of things and the animal agriculture industry has been pushing back, most notably in the form of ag-gag laws that prohibit undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. But more and more, people are seeing through this tactic and asking, “What are they trying to hide?”

Fortunately, these blatantly unconstitutional laws are now being challenged in the higher courts. I think in the long run Big Ag will regret this tactic in a big way. These industries also have millions and millions of dollars to spend on marketing and we have seen a big push toward “humane” animal products (humanely raised meat, cage-free eggs, etc.). Of course, there is no such thing, so we need to be vigilant that people don’t fall into this trap and think they are supporting an industry that cares for these animals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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

Eating animal products causes unnecessary suffering. It really is that simple. And we would never do these things to an animal ourselves, so we shouldn’t be paying others to do our dirty work for us.

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?

As I mentioned, John Beske and you, as well as fellow EarthSave Chicago member Bob Schwalb, had a big influence as I got started. Seeing The Witness at that same conference was also a real eye-opening experience. My future boss, Nathan Runkle, has also been a great influence, and his bringing MFA to Chicago was another huge moment. Nathan was such a hero of mine and after volunteering with MFA for over six years, that move to Chicago eventually led me to leave my corporate job and work full time at MFA.

One of my best friends is Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach and he has also had an incredible impact on who I am both as an activist and as a person. All around solid guy and they don’t come much better than him. Lastly, Nick Cooney’s two books, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, and Veganomics: The Surprising Science of What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom, really helped me fine-tune my activism to be as effective as possible and I can’t recommend them enough.

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

I think it’s so important to be compassionate to ourselves as well. I go to the gym almost every morning and find that incredibly useful in keeping my sanity. I also do yoga and try to meditate every day. I love kicking back with my girlfriend, making some delicious vegan food, and watching a movie. And I very much enjoy hanging with my companion dog, Oliver. He is with me almost every hour of the day and his tail is always waggin’. Our new favorite spot is the dog beach down by Lake Michigan. I think we both leave recharged after a nice walk along the lake.

Mikael's doggy and my buddy Oliver. (Photo: Mikael Nielsen)

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

I have dedicated my life to reducing the suffering of farmed animals. Since 99 percent of animals who are abused, exploited, and killed are farmed animals, and because of the degree to which they suffer, I think it is the most important social justice movement of our time.

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

… about living my morals and values.” Most people claim to love animals and care about how they are treated, but their actions just don’t match up with their beliefs. I think bridging that divide will go a long way toward a more compassionate world for all of us.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bringing in Light as We Expose the Darkness...

All of my life, I’ve had something of a conflicted relationship with fun. I like having it, that much is clear. I enjoy laughing, having a good time, and, well, pursuing the various things that cause me  to laugh and have a good time. This shouldn’t be very remarkable but still, my tendency toward seeking out fun put me at odds with the other writers and artists I hung around with in college; it was a wedge with the other feminists and the activists I was aligned with then, too. I was always few shades too cheerful for the thinkers and sensitive types. No matter how eager I was to jump on a bus to protest in Washington or confront a cat-calling sleazebag on a street corner, my drive to have fun has always been at least as strong as my robust impulse for justice and equality, which strikes some people as an odd combination, I suppose. 

The conflict comes in because as a lifelong pursuer of fun, I noticed from an early age that buoyant people have been assigned some specific cultural baggage: We’re seen as shallow. We’re seen as silly. We’re seen as lacking in substance. I think this is unfair and narrow-minded, though; shouldn’t the whole person have room for both jumping in leaf piles and also speaking out about social justice issues? (Maybe not at the same time but just because you may get leaves in your mouth.) To me, the perfect balance is a blend of both joy and depth; to cut off our supply of one is to limit our human experience.

Especially today, with our unprecedented ability to instantly share information and with so much of it understandably skewed toward the dark, grim and viscerally violent - just a casual scroll down my Facebook feed has sent me into a reflexive fetal curl lately, with all the images and stories of slaughtered, bloody, mangled and horribly abused beings - I believe that it is vital that we place more of an emphasis on boosting the joy factor and the gratitude so many of us feel for having discovered this way of living that sustains us so well. I am concerned about the level of hopelessness other vegans and those we are trying to reach might feel with this constant barrage of overwhelmingly depressing news. This suffocating milieu of hopelessness can also easily give rise to feelings of helplessness, of compassion fatigue, of despair, of disconnection. How does feeling disempowered in this way help to move people toward a transformation or sustain those of us who are already there? I’m not trying to be all Mary Poppins here, but can’t we also convey a little, you know, happiness and gratitude? Does a tendency toward seeking out fun need to mean that we have a lack of caring? Isn’t enjoyment also an important part of being a whole person?

Having had our blinders removed to what we do to animals means that we are immersed in injustice and brutality, and this is clearly a difficult pain to live with. Given what animals are put through, though, and given how very much they have to lose if people do not see the shift to veganism as enticing, alluring, and something they simply want to do, don’t we owe it to the world to offer a message that is holistic, conveying it with emotional honesty but also joy? It seems to me that living a rich, multi-dimensional life that includes a capacity for happiness is as much an asset for the beings we work on behalf of as it is for us ourselves.

We live in a dark time but also an incredibly exciting time, one where we right now have the ability to create a new consciousness of connection that is changing the world forever for the better. It is happening. An honest depiction of the brutal status quo in regards to what we do to animals is essential toward creating the shift we need but so is communicating the immense rewards of a life that is in alignment: body, mind, spirit and ethics. Instead of the bloody pictures, instead of the doomsday predictions, why not shuffle in a little inspiration, extend a hand to assist rather than bash, express a little joy for the opportunity that we get to live at a time when we can actively cultivate the lives we want, and we can help to ignite this fire of empowerment inside the people we connect with as well. We are so amazingly fortunate and we should never stop being grateful for this fact, celebrate it and take advantage of it. The consciousness of the world is shifting under us like tectonic plates and we should never forget that. 

Sorrow and joy are not irreconcilably at odds with one another. They are both part of the complex emotional experience. So while we educate, tap into joy a little, too. While we expose the truth, tap into gratitude as well. Allow yourself to have some fun. The animals won’t suffer any more for it, I promise; in fact, they stand to benefit a great deal if we can show the world that we are whole people. Yes to it all. It is all part of the experience.

(Speaking of all this, please join us this Saturday at Chicago VeganMania if you are able, where joy and education, fun and activism fizz together in an intoxicating, frothy cocktail.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Eriyah Flynn

One of the things that is most exciting to me about the animal advocacy movement has always been how individuals can create so much good in the world with just an attitude of motivation. Eriyah Flynn of Columbus, OH and her organization, Vegan Shift, is one such example. As a longtime vegan with many years of trying different things to get the message out, Eriyah has gotten clarity on strategic savvy and effectiveness. I think she has a lot of wisdom to share and offers a lot of pointers on not only how to become more effective conveyers of our message but also ideas on how to become more active on behalf of animals. I am grateful for Eriyah and her work with Vegan Shift. I hope you'll consider supporting her organization and getting involved, whether that's through Vegan Shift or your favorite advocacy group. 

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?

It was a series of events and influences. I have always loved animals, thankfully I was raised by a family of animal lovers who taught me to treat individuals the way I would like to be treated; unfortunately, like most people in the US, I had no idea how disconnected I was from reality. Today, I can honestly say I suffered from an arbitrary, nonsensical perspective regarding fully conscious animals/individuals and had placed them into two categories: the animals I loved and protected as pets and wildlife, and the animals I consumed as commodities to eat, wear, use in entertainment, supported experimentation on, etc. While I technically understood I was consuming animals and their products, my actual contemplation on the details of what that really meant up until 1995, was non-existent. I can remember thoughtlessly stating the weak, cultural programming mantra of “That is their purpose” which is what makes me so hopeful for empowering a rapid world vegan shift. Informed people who have the same values can adapt their behaviors based on critically important and compelling information, now faster and easier than ever (especially compared to  nearly 20 years ago when I first began to be exposed to these issues). As I became more informed of the facts surrounding the present cultural foundations, the path and behaviors to live consistently in alignment with my values for peace, liberty, justice, love, dignity, respect, empathy and compassion, and my claims to love animals, people and  the planet became self-evident: I must live vegan. 

My mom was probably my most dominant influence by providing in the foundations of love and respect towards other earthlings. Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss and superhero stories and films were probably subconsciously others, as all of those stories and films portrayed heroes and heroines as those whose ethics and actions represented love, respect, kindness and the rescue of animals in need of help, whereas the “evil villains” were those who were uncaring, abused and/or threatening to kill/or killed innocent animals. 

[Here is more on Eriyah’s evolution if you’re interested. Fascinating story!]

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? 

For me, I would hope that conversation would have happened very early in life. I wish that Ruby Roth books such as “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals”, “Vegan is Love” and “V is for Vegan” would have existed when I was a child. If I would have been told the truth then, and had been given a choice to live in alignment with my ethics, instead of being sheltered from the reality of what I was participating in, and denied even the decision (through absent vegan options on menus in school or restaurants, and cultural events anywhere), I know I would have been open to and especially if empowered, to living vegan as a toddler, since loving and connecting with other animals were my natural instincts, tendencies and behaviors. The fact that these options are not given and that the violence and reality associated with our consumption of animals is largely hidden through misinformation by official sounding organizations, euphemisms and outright lies that make the intolerable tolerable have enabled and glorified violence in a culture that claims to be an ethical, modern, civilized, and humane society. This is an epic perversion and violation of collective social values and norms that are now rapidly shifting vegan with the committed and organized vegan movement circumventing conventional programming through the use of social media and in conjunction with the cumulative, scientific proof that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the optimal diet for humans to thrive, especially considering our imbalance with nature given our unprecedented human and livestock population levels destroying and displacing critical biomes such as the Amazon.

Are most Americans aware that 90% of the Amazon rainforest is now gone, primarily for unnecessary livestock production, thus creating an extinction rate 1000 times the natural rate and contributing to 20,000 to 30,000 species extinctions annually? This figure has been quoted at roughly equaling 200 species extinctions per day by some scientists. Any intelligent and rational individual should resonate with self-preservation connected with their reliance on ecology, if nothing else. A large part of the problem is that people are ignorant to the facts, literally addicted to animal products, or have a financially vested interest, so all too often, rational and intelligent decision making can be met with the significant and catastrophic resistance as time is not on our side at the rate our population continues to grow, resources are consumed and thus causing ecocide.

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 actually believe that using ALL of the tools listed above can be the most effective in a given circumstance. People are so different: one method will not fit for all applications. It is crucial to know your audience. Going to the fairgrounds in protest with angry chants paired with slaughter images condemning 4-H clubs/livestock producers is not likely to yield as much support or consideration as going to the fairgrounds providing a delicious vegan junk food booth, vegan health food options, and some veganic agriculture demos and information.  (People who are concerned with their health/or have health conditions still like to take their children/grandchildren- who may also have health conditions they must be mindful of- to the fair). Humor is one of the best ways to reach people on the planet, especially when telling provocative truth. Bizarro comics are brilliant. Patience, understanding, compassion, love, with passionate, straight-forward, consistently firm, empowering messaging, are critical pieces of overcoming a lifetime of deceptive programming. The choice of language one uses is SO important in these interactions. Avoid making “you” statements: instead say “our, we, us” as in, the collective society. Telling your personal story, how you arrived at the decision to be vegan, can often be so powerful to compelling others. Never tell someone they are “wrong”. Speak in terms of consistency of behaviors of ethics and characteristics we value. Use questions to help draw out their barriers. “What is stopping you from being vegan?” Frame your discussions of living vegan as one of a consistent, compassionate, peace movement with abundant, delicious, nutritious, healthy, sustainable, love inspired options, and avoid anything that says we are the culture of “No, this, no that, restrict this, restrict, that, limited this etc. “You don’t have to give up meat, dairy and eggs!- you can have them all, only they are made from plants!”  “Yes! We can have cheesecake and  ice cream, made from delicious creamy plants like cashews, almonds, coconut, etc.!”  Empowering the transition peacefully is our best chance for rapid world vegan shift.   

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

It’s ever increasing diversity of demographics, and the adoption of direct, honest, unequivocal, ethically delivered vegan messaging. Here is one of the best memes I’ve seen for really helping people build the bridges to vegan shift empowerment:

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

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder induced Angry Misanthropic Vegan Activism. Raging vegans that scream at others and post a never-ending stream of graphic violence only find themselves preaching to the choir that can stand them. Those who are doing that need to be taken in and loved, and mentored into channeling that completely justifiable rage and anger into something that can build bridges to society connecting others in empowerment for a rapid vegan shift. Lessons in inspiration of galvanizing and organizing people in social justice movements can be modeled after the Quakers, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

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

I say it with a shirt - affectionately referred to as “The VEGAN BEACON”: I wear the Nonviolence United VEGAN shirt like a uniform almost everywhere I go (especially if I know there is going to be a crowd, the grocery store, a concert, a festival, a movie theater) because it is black with white lettering, people with normal vision can see its fantastic message from up to a city block away: Compassion, Nonviolence: For the People. For the Planet. For the Animals. Who doesn’t resonate with that? I have yet to meet anyone who said anything negative about the shirt’s message.

That shirt has a number of responses from people: the vegans automatically connect (often with hugs and elation or simple commiseration); the pre-vegans begin to ask questions; the potential re-vegans make confessions for their departure which are often really a subconscious invitation to encourage and empower them to try again. (Seasoned experience has taught me that the worst response to someone who makes such a confession is to assault them with vitriolic contempt and judgment for the betrayal of the innocent, as instinctive as it is to rage against them, trust me on this: Offering an empowering hand takes genuine patience, wisdom and maturity. Vegans are teachers, and as such, we must provide an ethos that promotes the sense of safety and mindset required for learning: treat others with respect, even though we know that they are not respecting those who are literally dying as a result of their decisions.) So instead of castigating the fallen, make a friendly offer to help them to try again.  I carry copies of Vegan Shift’s 300 Vegans Vegan Resources Guides and A Life Connected brochures. Only people who are really adversarial (vested financial interest, strong addiction or a burning case of cognitive dissonance) ever respond negatively to the NU VEGAN shirt, a warm and friendly smile, congenial or compelling, passionately delivered responses and empowering resources. Even the most negative people can be turned around with the right approach. People love and are inspired by passion, conviction and consistency with one’s ethics, not by preaching and condemnation. 

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? 

Specifically, the vegan path began with Moby, The Animal’s Agenda, books like “Mad Cowboy” and “Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating”, “The Food Revolution" and the groups like PETA which showed me the graphics of “Meat Your Meat” and volunteering locally for Mercy For Animals which connected me to an actual vegan support community. Later, I resonated with Harold Brown, Gary Francione’s abolitionist approach, and others like Tom Regan, Gary Yourofsky, Steve Best and began studying social justice movement strategies recommended by Harold Brown with books such as Bill Moyer's “Doing Democracy”.

Matt Bear’s Nonviolence United materials have been so effective they are what I have predominantly chosen for the 300 Vegans campaign/project as standard messaging (Vegan Shift is a hub organization for promoting the excellent, consistent vegan messaging resources already available across the movement, not reinventing the wheel).

Ultimately, over the now 20+ years of development through military service (Decorated, Honorably Discharged USAF Desert Storm Era Veteran) and a leadership career in both public and private sectors, extensive reading, formal education, volunteering with different organizations (including and beyond the animal rights movement) and rigorous debate in life experience, I've taken the best of both what I resonate with and have learned from all of these exposures to develop what has become Vegan Shift

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

Recognizing that is where one is “in a state of burn-out” is really important. Being part of this movement can be so gratifying and yet so challenging on so many levels. Sometimes you need to check out and take a break from activism to be most effective at it. Take a break from Facebook, take a weekend to go connect with nature and breath in the fresh air and peace away from the sensory overload that is modern society today. Try kayaking, swimming, yoga or meditation. Connecting with other vegans in safe havens, where you can go to blow your gasket of disillusioned pain and frustration of being vegan in a pre-vegan world is so important. I can’t stress enough that you refrain from showing your darkest side to your general network, there is a difference between sharing the occasional glimpse and perpetual rage. That is a state that WILL make you sick, so allow yourself to feel it, but do not dwell there long. There are secret groups for raging which is a good place to blow that steam off, just remember, nothing is truly secret on the internet. Having a strong network of vegan support is necessary for one’s mental health. There is always professional counsel, a mentor or family member you trust. I would seek out vegans who understand what you are experiencing. Seek out mentorship from those you see achieving or have attained the level of health and state management you respect and desire. (I’ve written a note on this and within this note’s comments Matt Bear added a note, that has some really great specific coping mechanisms.) 

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

The NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge. We want a better world: we start by walking the walk, then talking the talk, and finally empowering others to do what they can to create that peaceful world we wish to see. It starts by stimulating the mind to think, to imagine the possibilities, to see the invisible, feel the intangible and to move in the direction of our shared values to achieve the impossible. The NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge project was created to do just that. It engages people to participate in the process of peaceful innovations instead of clinging to comfortable, common rhetoric that has not yielded the actions, behaviors or policies consistent with the values we claim to stand for in society. It is here that we begin to build the world we would really see. It takes effort and someone has got to do it.

We can build bridges to our community by inviting people or policy makers to take the NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge when they ask thoughtful, genuine questions, or especially, when they make thoughtless, arcane, barbaric, or otherwise oppressive automated responses, or have been making violently, insane policy decisions (usually some sort of call for "population control", to common culture behaviors/challenges). The objective of this challenge is ideally to cause people to shift from automated, cultural programming, to actually using some innovative thinking strategies, to connect with those who are motivated by self-interest for the best nonviolent solutions, and for those who actually care about the oppressed and often violated earthlings of the world we share. (Marketing survey statistics have shown that only 20% of people are idealists who are inclined towards altruism, the other 80% are gradually less motivated across the spectrum by ethics and more motivated by WIFM- what's in it for me? Five percent of the population are sociopathic and will never care about anyone human or nonhuman- their opinion will not matter.)

What does this mean? Simply ask people to imagine 3 things:
1) They work for NASA (Houston-we have a problem that our most brilliant minds must urgently solve)
2) There is a million dollar pay off for the best vegan idea (nonviolent, socially just that is symbiotic to all earthlings)
3) The animals and nature are their human family members (that they actually care about, not entitled to oppress, dominate and destroy)

It is this collaboration of solutions that will be the foundation of Vegan Shift’s Phase 2 plan for shifting every aspect of violence out of our federal, state and local policies: The National Vegan Policy Implementation Act. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” Hillel

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

The single most important and far- reaching action I can take to live consistently in alignment with the values, ethics, feelings and characteristics that all conscious earthlings crave: peace, liberty, justice, nonviolence, dignity, respect, love, empathy and compassion.

Thank you, Eriyah!