Wednesday, April 29, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Victoria Moran

A longtime vegan, a bestselling author of twelve books, podcaster, inspiring speaker and co-founder of a school that actually trains and certifies vegan ambassadors through her groundbreaking Main Street Vegan Academy
, Victoria Moran is a veritable firecracker of vibrant vegan energy and goodwill. Crackling with enthusiasm and charm, Victoria brings her message of compassionate living and empowered action to audiences and readers around the world and she grounds it in practical guidance and a real gift for extending understanding without compromising her message. In short, I think she is kind of awesome.

Victoria is coming out with a new book, TheGood Karma Diet: Eat Gently, Feel Amazing, Age in Slow Motion (pre-order before its release date of May 19 and you will get a couple of gifts).
The premise of the book is straightforward and smart: with kindness toward other living beings and the planet informing your actions, you are creating an ethical-lifestyle alignment that could also be one of the most powerful wellness tools available to us. If there ever is a Vegan Rock Star Hall of Fame, Victoria will surely be one of the first inductees. Please check out her interview and check back next week for a recipe from The Good Karma Diet.

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 came home from first grade and proudly announced to my caregiver (it was before daycare) that I’d learned the 4 Food Groups: meat, dairy, grains, and the fruit/vegetable-smoosh-them-altogether group. She replied, “Hrumph: there are people who never eat meat. They’re called vegetarians. I could take you out to Unity Village and buy you a hamburger made from peanuts; you’d think you were eating meat.”

I remember thinking at that moment: “Vegetarians. How interesting. I get the sense there’s an awful lot I don’t know, and I’ll bet I won’t learn most of the good stuff in school.”

This woman – grandmother figure, nanny, guru – raised me to love animals and to have an assortment of other unique predilections (she knew about reincarnation and Eastern religions and a host of fascinating things). I didn’t connect the dots about caring for animals and eating them until I was thirteen and attempted vegetarianism for the first time. That lasted for a summer, but I knew that one day I’d find out how to do this right and would return to it.

I started reading yoga books at seventeen and realized that, if I was to be serious about yoga, the meat had to go. By nineteen, it had. Going vegan would take me much longer since I was a practicing binge eater and had to recover from that before I was able to do something as ‘extreme’ – at the time, it really seemed that way – as eliminating eggs and dairy. That process took some time, but once I knew that, a day at a time and keeping in some semblance of fit spiritual condition, I could indeed refrain from eating for a fix, I opted to embrace the vegan lifestyle I’d long admired.

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 had the best mentor ever in the late Jay Dinshah, co-founder of the American Vegan Society. I believe that if someone had been around who understood my eating disorder and veganism, I might have been able to make the transition sooner.

We think it ought to be as easy as, “See here: look at these horrible conditions for animals. And good Lord, half the people die of heart disease and we have a way to virtually guarantee that you won’t. And for Pete’s sake: the planet is dying and animal agriculture is largely responsible. Go vegan yesterday!” That seems logical, but humans are complex. We’re not Spock from Star Trek with only rationality in play. There are influences and memories, what we’ve learned and who we’ve loved, all feeding into whether or not someone will make this shift overnight, or over time, or not at all. I don’t know whom I’ll influence, so I share with everybody, and go to any lengths for those who express an interest in taking this path.

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

We all have talents and we all have a story. It’s that combination that is a powerful tool for activism. For me personally, my gift is words, written and spoken – and my story includes certain aspirational aspects. For example, I happen to look younger than I am. A lot of women in the over-fifty age group (I’m sixty-five) are very interested in aging well. I think fresh, beautiful vegan foods – I’m a big fan of the green juice/green smoothie/giant salad thing – can really help with this.

Now, do I want to share my age with the world at large? Not really. We live in a culture that is turned off by maturity, especially in women. If I could “pass” for younger, my ego would like that, but it wouldn’t help any animals, so I let everybody know that I’m old enough to go to the movies for half-price and don't look or feel like what I thought sixty-five would look or feel like. That makes some women take a strong second look at this way of eating and living.

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

I believe the biggest strength is that it is so absolutely right. It’s like the abolition of slavery, something that today we look at and think, ‘Why did that take so long when it’s so obvious?’ To us, the liberation of animals is obvious. It’s the next phase of moral evolution.

Another strength is, I think, the people in the movement today. Whether we’re talking well-known vegans or the rank-and-file, an extremely high percentage of the people in this movement are extraordinary human beings: brave, smart, committed, irrepressible.

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

As strange as it sounds, I think one big hindrance is the kind-heartedness of omnivores. When they say, ‘Don’t tell me what goes on with animals – I don’t want to know,’ their caring is a problem. They don’t want to see so they don’t have to change.

Another problem is the rampant addiction to animal foods that the world at large thinks is normal. Even though it’s widely written that sugar can be addictive, a lot of health-conscious people take it out of their diet with relative ease. Why are animal foods so much harder? People say ‘I could never give up cheese. . .I have to have my salmon. . .I tried not to eat eggs, but I craved them so bad. . . .’ These foods carry so much cultural currency. They’re seen as having nutritional value, traditional value, patriotic value. It’s a lot to overcome, but the positive side is that we’re more visible than ever, and the positive reasons for being vegan are out there as never before.

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

The title of the first vegetarian book I ever read was, Why Kill for Food? I guess that’s my elevator speech. If I don’t have to kill someone else in order to survive, why would I do that? Another way to put it might be: ‘I see animals as individuals with the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as I claim for myself.’ I believe that I also experience lots of health benefits from being vegan, but that’s not the reason I’m vegan; I’m vegan for the animals. However, if I were in an elevator with some health or fitness person, I’d get that in, too. The animals want there to be more vegans in the world; if the health angle works with a particular person, I’ll pull that one out.

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?

What a great question! I believe that the vegetarian/vegan movement has been a series of books, and now documentaries are part of the tradition, as well. I mentioned Why Kill for Food?, a UK book by Geoffrey Rudd that I read as a teenager in the late '60s. Then there was Eating by Life, by Nathaniel Altman, the first book on vegetarianism to be published in the U.S. in the 20th century. Nathaniel and I worked at the same place at that time (1970-71) and he’d type his chapters on his manual typewriter, and I’d re-type them on the fancy electric typewriter in my office! And then there was everything Jay Dinshah ever wrote. His daughter, Anne, has done a beautiful job of collecting his writings, and commentaries on them, in her new book, Powerful Vegan Messages.

I was also greatly inspired and motivated by Diet for a New America, by John Robbins, which came out after I was vegan. (I had, in fact, written my own vegan book by then, Compassion theUltimate Ethic, published in 1985.)

More recently, I’ve loved Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, because it’s so beautifully written. As a writer, I’ve long believed that non-fiction should be literature, too, and Foer proved that it can be.

As for documentaries, I adore them all. The first really influential one was TheAnimals Film, back in the '90s. It was something of a precursor to Earthlings, showing human atrocities to animals in a profound and powerful way. More recently, gosh, there are lots: Vegucated, ForksOver Knives, The Ghosts in Our Machine, May I Be Frank?, Raw for 30 Days, Cowspiracy – I’m a great fan of all the pro-veg docs, whether they come from the animal rights, health, or environmental angle. It’s all connected.

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

I’m not great at this one. I’m prone to overwork, and especially in the age of email, when it’s impossible to ever be ‘done,’ I have to put strong limits on myself. In addition to writing vegan books, I’ve written several ‘self-help’ books about living a more delightful life, and I think I wrote those because I wanted to read them.

The things that help me are bodywork – reflexology, especially – when that’s in the budget; movies in the theater (at home, chances are I’d multi-task); and being with real people in real time. I love my friends so much – and my daughter, OMG: she’s so busy that trying to see her is like getting an audience with the Pope, but time with her is the best thing ever. Something else that I love is reading. I mostly read nonfiction – vegan books, some spiritual stuff – but when I get a really great novel, I’m in another world. Right now I’m reading this fabulous dark but engaging book called Bones & All, about a teenaged cannibal. It’s by vegan author Camille DeAngelis and is a total page-turner.

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

Whatever animal issue I’m thinking about the moment is apt to seem nearest and dearest, but if I had to pick one, I’d say the beasts of burden in India, simply because I’ve been there and seen that and it broke my heart. I went to India with the expectation that I was going to vegetarian-land where everybody respected animals. What a rude awakening! When I got there, I found that many of the rich people ate meat – maybe not beef, but meat – and the poor people ate whatever they could get.

Beyond the dietary side of things, I saw so much animal cruelty. I know there’s just as much going on here, but there it’s out in the open. The bullocks pulling carts hurt my heart the most. They were loaded down with weights that no animal could bear, and the drivers beat them incessantly in some awful attempt to defy physics and get these animals to carry impossible loads. PETA has a special section devoted to the bullocks and other animals used in this way throughout the Indian subcontinent; they’ve established sanctuaries for rescued and retired animals, and when the resources are available, they can sometimes provide poor people who formerly used animals with trucks or tractors so they won’t use animals again. This is called Animal Rahat.

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

. . . a glorious adventure. I can’t imagine a more ethically satisfying, morally fulfilling, physically energizing, and spiritually uplifting way to live. And I get to know amazing people like Marla Rose!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Trouble is, You Think You Have Time...

Last week, I sat with a friend who is dying of cancer. She is such a thoughtful person that quite literally on her deathbed, she was concerned about me getting a ride from the airport (she arranged it) and that my hotel was comfortable (it was). My friend is such a dynamic, vibrant and engaged woman that even on her hospice bed surrounded by a maddening tangle of oxygen and hydration tubes, she still exudes a powerful presence that contradicts her 80-something pound body, riddled with the metastasized cancer that is advancing inside her fragile form, bit by bit.  She’s in her final weeks. She is 50 years old.

My friend is vegan (yes, we get sick, too, and denying that is deceitful and perhaps dangerous) and has been for 30 years; she was an early-early adopter. Behind the scenes, she has done more to promote and advance the vegan cause than anyone I personally know, which is saying a lot because I’m fortunate to know some pretty remarkable people. She’s been at the ground floor of many emerging cruelty-free businesses and advising them with her sharp business acumen, supporting new vegans and nurturing novice activists, and in her spare time, she’s created a very popular vegan potluck in her community. From her vantage point, my friend has watched vegan culture flourish and expand far beyond the early, lonely days where vegans were far-and-few-between, scattered around like a few isolated seedlings. She’s witnessed the expansion of vegan restaurants, offerings and products; the evolution of veganism from being considered a little-known oddity to a burgeoning social justice movement; a solution to our downward environmental spiral acknowledged by top scientists; she’s seen festivals, events and organizations dedicated to the promotion of compassionate living spread and expand their reach like wildfire. These things are finally blossoming from the seeds she helped to plant and cultivate for the past thirty years.

She wishes she had done more, though, when she was able. Even a year ago, she was still in her prime and she had so many ideas and plans, smart ones that someone with her savvy and connections could really pull off. She cannot do those things now, though. For the most part, she’s confined to her bed, my beautiful friend, this firecracker who has lived and breathed veganism more than anyone I know, and what she regrets is that she didn’t do more because she knows she had lots more to give. She hasn’t run out of passion; she’s run out of time.  

She could have - she should have - done more, she insists. More activism, more organizing, more creating, more collaborating, more outreach, more development. More veganism. Last week, I held her hand and cried with her, reassuring her of how many lives she’s touched, how the world is a better place because of her, how many people she’s uplifted with her confidence in their ability to manifest their values. She was right, though, and I couldn’t deny it: she could have and should have done more. This is true for each of us: we could and we should do more because we can never do enough, not even if we’ve dedicated our lives to it as my friend has.
I bump up against knowing this and wanting to be kind to myself, to believe that what I do is enough. There has to be a middle path.

Given what the animals are up against, we could never do enough to help them. There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in a lifetime. Knowing how hard it is to actually make a perceivable difference, it’s no wonder we distract ourselves with silly tangential arguments on Facebook and berating one another over semantics when, if we had some modicum of unity, we could create much more collective change for the animals. Fighting with other vegans, distracting ourselves with petty disagreements, blowing off steam at one another, not moving on when it is clear that is the smart choice, insisting on being “right” when what matters most is to be effective: this makes us feel like we’re doing something. It is an illusion, though, and I am as guilty as anyone of feeding into it. The animals’ lives are not improved because I really put someone in his place. When we do this, we are squandering our most precious resource in life and that is time.
My friend has no shortage of passion for creating change but she can’t physically do it anymore. At her bedside, she asked about Vegan Street, about our plans for the future, and her eyes lit up as we talked. As I described what I am seeing, I could see her imagining it, too, how our plans could work, how it could manifest. Her energy, so closely managed now, became buoyant and excited again. Then she started crying. She won’t be there to advise us, to introduce us to people, to cheer us on, to enjoy it. She won’t live to see it. The fact is, though, neither may I. There are no guarantees. All we have is this moment. I’m not saying this to be morose but to be honest: we are all one diagnosis, one careless driver, one strange pain that won’t go away from a similar outcome as my friend. What can we do now to create more good with the unknown amount of time that we have?

Last summer, I danced with my friend and we laughed together, co-conspired about the future and dreamed big dreams. Last week, I helped her navigate the tangle of tubes upstairs to her bathroom and helped to carry down her commode, one more door closing to her once vibrant life. This beautiful woman, my wonderful friend, this tireless advocate who has done more than anyone I know, she has run out of time to do what she loves most and this brings her the most profound sadness. We are all running out of time but we’re just not so painfully aware of it.

This moment is the only time that we can count on. What are we going to make of it?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Doron Petersan of Sticky Fingers Bakery...

A longtime animal advocate and lifelong food enthusiast, Doron Petersan has successfully combined these twin passions in her ahead-of-its-time bakery and café, Sticky Fingers Bakery, in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1999. At a time when people were still trying to figure out exactly how to pronounce the word, Doron and her team were slinging decadent vegan treats with a disarming nostalgic aesthetic that blew people’s minds and had them lining up for more. A pioneer in the practice idea of changing hearts and minds with great vegan food as the vehicle, Doron has gone on to win on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars twice, win Washington City Paper’s “Best Bakery” award for ten years (including 2015), write cookbooks (the paperback version with added recipes is coming out in the fall), and expand her restaurant’s offerings from her famous Little Devils and whoopie pies to delicious savory café food as well, helping to expand the public perception of veganism as a lifestyle that embraces abundance and joy without sacrifice.  Oh, and Sticky Fingers has a chain of bakeries in Seoul, South Korea, too.  Is total global domination next?

With her new restaurant, Fare Well,
406 H St. NE, opening in the summer (sign up for the newsletter and to get an inside scoop on all the exciting goings-on at, Doron is certainly poised for it. Fare Well’s menu is going to be inspired by Mediterranean comfort foods made vegan with an emphasis on local ingredients and locally grown produce. Her famous treats will be there as well, of course. Living in D.C. with her husband, son and adopted animals, Doron is a trailblazing entrepreneur who turned her love for animals and her passion for food into a successful model for conscientious movers and shakers. For this reason and more, Doron Petersan is a Vegan Foodie we love.

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

One day after work, I stopped at a deli for a fresh turkey breast sandwich with mustard and Swiss on rye.  Earlier that day I had witnessed my first surgery as a vet-tech.  I realized the musculature of the little terrier had looked strangely similar to the turkey sandwich I was eating.  How could I choose to help one but eat another?  A vegetarian was born, albeit mad and angry about all of the foods that I wouldn’t be enjoying anymore. 

I’ve always been an eater. I would try anything once, and then again to make sure I either liked it, or didn’t.  And, like most kids, I wanted all things sweet, which were few and far between. My mom was the meal-maker in our home and being Sicilian, she focused on whole and healthy foods.  Most people think of cheesy-pastas and cured meats like sausage and prosciutto when they hear ‘Italian’.  Maybe around holidays and parties, sure.  But the daily fare was very simple, basic, and heavy on the veggies.   Lentils and rice, pasta and vegetables, roasted meats and fresh bread.  Lots of fresh fruit and nuts were considered ‘dessert’, but special occasions warranted the local bakeries’ cookie platter, or the coveted Carvel Ice Cream cake.  I was in high school before I ever tasted the horrible goodness that was a Ring-Ding, Devil Dog, or Twinkie.

Every holiday we watched and waited as my Grandmother, Aunts, Mom, and friends cooked, baked, sautéed, and sliced.  It seemed as if the cooking would never end, and I waited impatiently.  We would devour and enjoy, and do it again as there were leftovers for days afterwards.  I can still taste the memories of some of those dishes, like baked macaroni, my Grandmother’s meatballs, arancini, and spiedini.   Combined with the daily meals that were simple yet delicious and healthful as well, born was my love for food and the understanding that food is to nourish, to enjoy, and to celebrate. 

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

One year, one of my aunts made me this porcini pasta dish that blew my mind; fresh porcinis (that melted in your mouth) tossed with hand made, fresh fettuccini.  That was for my 32nd birthday.  While I love making foods I remember as a kid, I’m constantly learning and tasting new favorites.  Often these new dishes or flavor combos make it into the star-line up and into a serving bowl at the table. Customs are about remembering and celebrating, right?  The foods help to tell the story of where we’ve been and where we are now. It’s not about the pork roast, or the roast turkey, or the tur-duck-en.  Finding dishes with staying power, void of animal ingredients is the easy part. Doing so with out insulting the elders can be more than difficult.  Think of traditions as journeys we continue to build upon.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

If I took all of the vegan favorites I’ve ever had and made a meal, it would look like this; Fried avocado tacos from Austin, the gnocchi pesto from my wedding; my Grandfather’s ‘veggie hash’, Korean pine-nut porridge, my mom’s spinach and rice stuffing, Roman artichokes, Kamber’s chocolate mint ice cream, and anything my Aunt Lynn makes for me.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create? 

I’m always looking for an excuse to make pasta, like gnocchi or ravioli.  How about a cashew crème sauce with basil, white wine, garlic cooked on low until soft, a pinch of salt and lemon.  Then, hot cookies right out of the oven topped with coconut-based vanilla bean ice cream, candied pistachios with cinnamon and sugar, and a dollop of thick, dark, luscious melted chocolate.  I’d make it for Father who passed two short years ago.  Whenever we would get together he would suggest ‘a nice dinner’.  I can imagine him taking a bite, and simply saying ‘nice’.  

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

Using too many ingredients and too many flavors.  I try to stick with three or four flavors in most dishes.  Focus on complementing and separating rather than trying to pack everything into one dish.  Some of the most delicious are the most simplistic, like tomatoes sautéed with garlic, onion, and red pepper.  What about white beans stewed with onions, basil, and fennel seed.  Or, mushrooms with white wine, garlic, and mustard seeds.  Tofu baked with miso, tahini, and topped with fresh squeezed lemon.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

Everything ‘nuts’: almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, you name it.  They taste great in everything; candy, cookies, breads, pudding, sauces and cheeses.  Try to name another that is so versatile!

I’m reminded of a meeting, where I presented our baking book ‘Sweet’ for review, hoping for a write-up in their well-known food-publication.  The editor said "While I love the recipes, we don’t like to use the word ‘vegan’ in our publication." Exit interview. Fast-forward four years and suddenly vegan is a-ok.  Most notably, a recent recipe they posted for vegan nut-cheeses. Oh, sacred cheese, flavors so complex and textures divine.  ‘But, how could you give up cheese’ was the question so many asked.  How?  Just check out the WORLD'S leading food publication, now listing vegan cheese recipes in print and online.  Go figure.  Ahead of our time, I guess. 

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?

New York Jewish Italian Deli (no, really)

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

My husband, for sure.  He’s the biggest supporter of the business and the mission, and has been right by my side for the entire ride. From the early days of pure ignorance and blind faith, to the days of long hours, late nights, and work-filled weekends, he’s wiped the tears and helped mop the floors. Creating any business is hard work.  Trying to create and run a business based on ethics and not (only) the bottom line is like riding roller coaster made of barbed wire (at times). Like you and most folks who are reading, Peter and I both started off as activists.  We interned at PETA in 1995, and soon after our first jobs were in the animal non-profit sector; we wanted to make a difference.  Peter went to law school to become an attorney, working to change the way we regard, treat, and view animals. Me, I made cookies without eggs or dairy, letting folks taste the fact that animal-ingredients were not necessary to make food taste good.  Two slightly different paths; same goal.   Peter reminds me that success is measured in many ways.  

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

I’m on the board of directors for Pinups for Pitbulls, and I am giddy about the work they/we do.  Through direct outreach at events and the yearly Pin-Up Calendar, we educate the public on the discrimination, abuse, and homeless-issues for all dogs. Most effected by all three mentioned are pit-bull type breeds. Breed-specific legislation and Breed Discriminatory Laws threaten our family’s beloved companion animals. Our goal is to put an end to the breed-bashing and media-exploitation, and restore their reputation as the nanny-dog, war hero and all around silly, face licking, wiggle butt pibbles that they are! After working in animal shelters I saw first-hand the damage done to these loving pups.  Without going into gory details, I’m haunted by the memories. Yet, grateful for the experience. In witnessing the suffering I discovered my mission: to make great food for everyone to enjoy without using animal-based ingredients.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

…About making choices every day that is better for you, the animals, and the environment. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Patriarchy and Eating Animals: Why Violence has No Place in the Vegan Movement

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” - Audre Lorde

You don’t have to spend a lot of time on social media to see how pervasive the culture of glorifying violence against those who eat and harm animals is in the vegan community. It’s not something I see people acknowledging much, but there it is, every day, in comment threads regarding everything from intentional cruelty to the often-mindless act of eating animals.

“I’d like to smash his face in.” “I hope that dumb bitch gets what’s coming to her.”

I understand the anger, I really do. I spend my days researching and creating content to help with transitions and raise awareness about veganism. I understand as well as anyone the depths to which humanity will sink in order to excuse and maintain the status quo of our habituated use of animals. The mothers and babies ripped apart, the mutilations, the forced impregnations, the brutal suppression, the chillingly ordinary horrors we inflict on billions just so we can have “our” meat, dairy and eggs. Even in the absence of these glaring acts of cruelty, even with all the shiny bells-and-whistles of so-called humane meat and animal products, the idea that animals are ours to do what we will with simply because we desire to do so is anathema to me. I don’t need the gross injustice explained to me; I spend my days absorbing it and, more often than not, I lie awake at night with the atrocities I’ve seen haunting my thoughts like a horror film on a reel that simply won’t end.

I understand the anger and I even understand the impulse to be violent given what animals go through and how the voices against it are routinely derided, undermined and suppressed. It’s maddening to know what these animals go through needlessly and to not be able to get people to listen, let alone acknowledge, the astonishingly sad reality we inflict upon these innocent beings. I have fought for the animals since I was a teenager and, like many people, have been harassed, mocked, verbally abused and even arrested because of my passionately held beliefs. As well as anyone else, I understand the fist-clenching rage. Still…

“If you wear fur, you deserve to be raped.” “I’d like to run him over with a truck. Repeatedly.”

I cannot abide the culture of chest-thumping violence that is excused and glamorized by some in the vegan community and I’m not going to stay silent about it any longer. It’s not because I don’t feel the same sense of immediacy and conviction as others. It’s because I cannot stand the mentality that underpins the violence and I believe that these eye-for-an-eye sentiments – stretching all the way back to the fire-and-brimstone Old Testament, hardly a document of progressive, revolutionary change – stem from the same warped lens of patriarchy that has justified and allowed the domination of other beings to continue and expand without interruption. The violent messaging within vegan culture – alongside the grandstanding, the posturing and the bloodlust – is not part of the world I am trying to create. These are the shackles that I would like to leave behind.  

I believe that using animals for our purposes is born of the same mentality as patriarchal society, which uses the same blunt instruments of control and violence to keep some at the top of the pack and the "lessers" below them, serving them. It seems short-sighted to be exalting the violence that grows from the same seed of domination, suppression and vengeance as that which says that animals are commodities to use as we wish. Unfortunately, though, when you speak up against this and say that maybe, just maybe, this swaggering bravado is reminiscent of the mindset of those who also harm animals, this is what inevitably happens: you are called a “kumbaya” vegan, which means that you are an airy-fairy coward. It is implied that those doing their best Rambo impressions are decisive, strong and courageous while you’re off in a little meadow in your mind, weaving wildflower necklaces and tickling ladybugs.

I call bullshit on this.

If violent grandstanding is framed as courageous and masculine, then the voices against it are cowardly and not masculine and suddenly we’ve got sexism problems, too. If chest thumping is strong and those who reject that mentality are weak, then, once again, the twisted and sick paradigm that has harmed and destroyed so many is accepted and strengthened. With buying into that same violent messaging, we have accepted the patriarchy and with it, the Old World Order that is rapaciously destroying our planet and its inhabitants. Our actions are still driven by sick beliefs because we haven’t examined and rejected what we are accustomed to in times of conflict, which is the template of patriarchy.

If we keep repeating the same mistakes, we will have the same nihilistic outcomes. How can we expect different results for changing the world when we continue to glorify and romanticize violence? This is not to say that I have the answers. I would do anything I could to protect my son from harm, for example. Sometimes, that might necessitate a violent response. Venerating pain, suffering, rape, destruction and violence is not the path to the world we are trying to create, though; it is part of the same limited mindset. Just like violence does not equal strength, rejecting it does not equal cowardice. It’s time for a new approach, one that rejects both patriarchy and speciesism, with bold, courageous, creative and radically forward-thinking actions. I don’t know what it will look like yet but we have to start somewhere.

In the meantime, let’s think before exalting violence. Our voices aren't all going to sound the same, and that's a good thing, but I can't see that we will ever create the world we want to live in if we, the very ones who are trying to create a major shift in consciousness, don't evolve ourselves. As Audre Lorde also said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In the vegan movement, there are many things that we are at odds with one another about but violence is one thing we should be unified against. There is nothing revolutionary or brave about it. In fact, it is the very mindset that has created the mess we are trying to fix.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Robert Grillo

What did we do before Free from Harm?

Founded by my friend Robert Grillo in 2009, Free from Harm is a non-profit based in Chicago but with a global outlook dedicated to promoting animal rescue, education, and advocacy through a variety of means: an engaged social media presence, compelling articles, presentations and more that keep the focus on the animals with a message of compassionate living that never equivocates. In person, Robert is down to earth, funny, smart and fairly soft-spoken but self-assured, a perfect ambassador to the public for veganism. With an extensive background in branding, marketing and design, Robert brings a savvy and uncommon skill set to creating positive change for the animals. I cannot wait to see what he and Free from Harm do next. For this reason and more, Robert Grillo is a vegan rockstar to know.  

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I think my earliest influence was the forested ravine where I spent a lot of time as a youngster, hiking and exploring nature. But it wasn’t until my early forties that I connected my food choices with my love and reverence for nature and animals. It was films like Food, Inc. and powerful video footage that ultimately provided the wake up call that was so long overdue. For me, the real breakthrough came from identifying with the victim. Or, should I say, recognizing that a victim even exists, since we are conditioned all our lives to believe that animals can’t be our victims. It took time for me to see how our animal-eating culture teaches us to block our awareness of the suffering of the animals we consume, to deny the existence of any problem, and, worse, to stifle any critical thinking on the subject.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could people 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’m sure I would have become vegan far earlier had there been stronger and more influential vegan voices in my life, but there were none. My interest in yoga led me to vegetarianism but yoga largely ignores the suffering of animals used for dairy and eggs.

In any case, I believe the most effective way of reaching people is by telling the truth in a way that engages them. That leaves a lot of room for truth-centered creative advocacy. It has become popular in animal advocacy today to borrow the strategies of corporate branding and marketing, but here truth competes with other goals and principles, like the profit motive and selling fantasy. And, as someone who has worked inside of this industry for the last 20 years, I pick my lessons learned carefully, still finding truth and transparency as more valuable and more convincing than what some market research study tells us. The vegan truth is that each time we sit down to eat, we choose to either spare a life or take a life; we choose to violate or respect one’s basic right to life, and to a life free of exploitation. And life, freedom and justice are principles we claim to value most.

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 try to employ the skills that I’ve developed over the years in design and branding to guide me in my advocacy work. My focus is on creating content, using words, images, video, presentations, websites and social media. When other people ask me if I have any suggestions for ways to get involved, I suggest the same: look at what strengths / skills you have and figure out how you can leverage them to empower your advocacy.

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

I think the most promising strength we can leverage is our connection with other successful social movements. While there are important differences among them, the similarities are far more striking. We need to keep the focus on what connects us, which strengthens our case to potentially broader audiences. This is the premise of a new anthology of 26 authors to which I also contributed called Circles of Compassion:Connecting Issues of Justice.

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

Silence and inaction. I come across too many caring people who admit that fear of ridicule or some other form of backlash prevent them from even sharing Facebook posts. Silence and denial are part of the problem, and a big part of what keeps the problem alive and well. We need to provide them with the support and empowerment they need which is part of the mission of Free from Harm.

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

The vast majority of us already believe that it is wrong to subject animals to unnecessary suffering, especially when we can so easily avoid it. But we make one glaring exception and for no good reason. Now it’s time to close that gap and apply what we already believe to the four species for whom we’ve made that exception: chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows. Done.

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?

Critical animal studies has helped me understand the big picture and find strong leadership voices for our movement. A major proponent of this school of thought is professor JohnSanbonmatsu. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns is an author and activist from whom I’ve drawn a lot of important insights and inspiration. I also greatly appreciate the work of many others, including but not limited to Will Anderson, Lee Hall, Melanie Joy, Lesli Bisgould, Will Tuttle, Charles Horn, to name just a few! There are countless others that I meet through our Facebook page or email that are doing great things as well!

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

Biking makes me feel really good. Hiking somewhere beautiful is less practical since I live in Chicago but gives me a big high too. Taking the time to celebrate the results of my work helps inspire me to move ahead. A good martini once in a whole can really take the edge off.

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

Broadcasting the personal stories of our rescues out to the public. They are the best stories we have and they directly challenge society’s assumptions, stereotypes and negative attitudes about these animals.

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

…the foundation for honoring our connection to other animals. The least we can do is spare a life rather than take a life in cases where it so easily avoidable, such as in what we decide to eat or wear. Once we’re vegan, there is much we can explore to deepen our commitment to the cause of helping other animals and keeping our planet livable for all of us. There are far more complex issues that also need our attention. When we look back, chances are, we’ll see going vegan as one of the easier and more straightforward changes we’ve made and one with an enormous impact on many of the other social, political, economic and environmental problems we face today.