Wednesday, February 3, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Jasmin Singer...

Jasmin Singer
, today’s Vegan Rock Star, is one of my favorite all-around vegan rock stars, a powerhouse who has been promoting cruelty-free living from the multi-media non-profit hub she has created with her wife, the talented Mariann Sullivan, since 2010. Our Hen House creates TV/videos, an active online magazine, and, most famously, an engaging, frequently scatological, always thought-provoking weekly podcast (I was even interviewed!), now available in three forms. Even as someone who has a vegan family and lots of friends of the same persuasion, it can feel like an isolating and maddeningly frustrating, sad experience to live as a vegan in a world that is so oriented to think of animals as ours to consume as we wish, to be aware of something that is so blatantly unjust but to see that most of the world not aware and, in fact, often downright hostile to those who pull back the curtain for others to see what is going on. Using their talents and skills to create grassroots, independent media with their own stamp, Jasmin and Mariann of Our Hen House help to make us less lonely but also offer a clear, confident, unapologetic vegan perspective, dialogue and analysis of the ever-shifting landscape and culture around the decision to not consume animals.

Jasmin is venturing from her nest at Our Hen House with a new memoir that was just published by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, called Always Too Much and Never Enough. After a lifetime of harrowing bullying centered around her weight, Jasmin found herself in a new, unfamiliar body when she lost 100 pounds through a combination of juicing, cleaning up her diet and adopting mindful eating practices. In the process of losing the weight, she gained an uncommon insight into how society treats those who do and do not conform to physical ideals and she also learned why she turned to food to numb out and bury feelings. This memoir also offers an important lens into our junk food culture, one that those with food addictions are almost defenseless against. (Review coming Monday but suffice it to say, I cannot recommend it enough.) I am thrilled to feature the divine Jasmin Singer as our Vegan Rock Star this week. She has the heart of a tireless social justice activist and we – vegans, the animals, pre-vegans – are so very fortunate to have her voice, her drive and her talents helping to build a more compassionate and just world.  

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 when I was a young college student and desperately seeking an identity. I figured calling myself vegetarian was a natural extension of wearing all black, smoking clove cigarettes, and majoring in theater. I also began to think meat was “icky,” and boy was I on to something. But I never gave any thought to the dairy and egg industries, until I was 24 (12 years ago). My good friend Marisa Miller Wolfson (filmmaker behind Vegucated), a new vegan herself, invited me to a screening of a documentary about factory farming, which, of course, changed everything. I was still a little hesitant to go vegan, mainly because I was addicted to a low-cal froyo, but Marisa boldly introduced me to a group of her friends as “a new vegan,” and I thought, well shit. Shortly thereafter, Marisa and her former boss trucked me down to PETA to volunteer for a week, and that obviously sealed the deal. I became a full-time animal rights activist at pretty much the same moment that I became a vegan. It wasn’t enough for me to go vegan; I wanted the whole world to go vegan. (I still do, obviously.)

To answer your question about looking at things in retrospect, when I think back to when I was a kid, even though I don’t see little guideposts to my impending veganism, I do see guideposts to social justice -- and animal rights is a clear manifestation of that. At my Bat Mitzvah, I was allowed to do a speech about anything, and I chose to do it about Ryan White, who had recently died of AIDS. I stood at the Bimah and spoke about the importance of education about HIV and AIDS. (Less than nine years later, my first job out of college was with an AIDS-awareness theater company.) As a young child, I also remember standing up for whomever was being bullied on the playground, feeling that it was so completely unfair and unjust. Ironically, I was usually the one being bullied, and so speaking up for the underdog became an important tenet in my career and worldview.

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?

Like so many people, I just didn’t know what was really going on. I think that the answer to your question is probably, or at least hopefully, that the thing that would have clinched it sooner would have been if I had been exposed to the horrors of animal agriculture earlier. I was completely ignorant to the suffering of animals. It was ultimately films that reached me, and having an immediate community of animal rights advocates and vegans around me that made the early days a lot easier. Like everyone else, I wish the light had been turned on for me earlier, but I’m grateful that it was turned on. Being an animal rights activist speaks to my personal authenticity, and to my truth. And my veganism is the very best part of me.

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 no answer to this. Different strokes for different folks, which is why we need a multipronged approach to change-making and to advocacy. Leaflets have an impact on some people, humane ed for others, film for others, the arts for others, and on and on and on. But I will say this: In my experience working in the animal rights world for 12 years, and interviewing thousands of activists for Our Hen House, the thing that is crucial for the advocate is authenticity. If a particular type of advocacy doesn’t jive for you, don’t do it -- move on to a different means of activism. We need to speak our own truths. Fortunately, since there are countless ways to convey the truth about animals and what’s happening to them, we should each be able to find ones that feel right, and authentic, for us, as the communicator.

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

I think the biggest strength of the “vegan movement” is that I have no idea what you mean when you say “vegan movement.” It’s not like we get a club card and join up. Vegans are everywhere, in every community, leading by example. So, the biggest strength is that really a lot of people who are vegan and are committed to justice have never heard of anyone you have interviewed for your “vegan rock star” column! They are just living their truths, and bringing their buddies with them along the way. The effect that each of us is having is the same though: we are working to change the world for animals.

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

Too much focusing on criticizing each other, instead of focusing on exposing animal abusers. There may be moments when that’s appropriate -- if we truly think that harm is being done. But when that takes over and, instead of shining a spotlight on animal liberation we concentrate our energy on how to effectively say “gotcha!” to a fellow animal activist who might employ a different strategy than we do, we are going backwards. We won’t always agree with one another, but the truth is, we have no idea how to do this -- none of us do. And we’re in a catastrophe, so I think the best thing to do is to get over ourselves long enough to actually fight for animal liberation.

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

That depends on which elevator I’m in, in what building, what time of day, who is next to me, and how my stomach feels that day. I don’t have one pitch, but I do have the knowledge that perhaps the other person in the elevator (who I never forget could also probably teach me a thing or two about something horrid that I’m still unenlightened about) still doesn’t know about the atrocity of animal suffering. My literary agent, Steve Troha of Folio Literary Management, gave me excellent advice when I was starting to write my book, Always Too Much and Never Enough. He said that whenever I felt I was even coming near proselytizing, to get off my soapbox and instead tell a story about myself, and how I connected the dots and went vegan. So rather than “pitch” someone, I try to tell the other person about my own experience. Now that we know what’s going on with animals, and now that we understand that we don’t need to consume or exploit them in order to live or thrive, there are so many reasons to go vegan, or to go more vegan to start. And, hopefully, I’ll have cupcakes with me on that elevator, because -- as my wife likes to say -- the single most effective way to change the world for animals is through delicious vegan food.

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’m lucky enough to share my life with Mariann Sullivan, a brilliant animal law professor and longtime activist, and my wife. The thing that really brought us together is our shared worldview, and then Our Hen House -- which we co-founded and co-host. Every single day, I realize how lucky I am to have such direct access to her incredible brain, and her ability to parse out bullshit from reality. Her biting and refreshing commentary is my very favorite part of the weekly Our Hen House podcast.

Other than that, my favorite influencers are the folks who are never, ever recognized for the work they do in their communities in any kind of public way. My heroes are the ones on the frontlines, who are bringing animal rights advocacy into their worlds and communities, their classrooms and PTA meetings, their lesson plans and soup kitchens, their other social justice circles and the courtrooms.

I also really love the feature film Bold Native, which I think everyone should see. I’m a big fan of fiction as a means to creating change. The first time I saw that movie, I was so moved that I sat there and wept.

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

I tap-dance, I go running, and I see Broadway shows. I also have some very important friends who provide a safe space for me, and I for them, and we just goof around and have fun. I love having fun. I should do more of it.

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

There are so many injustices that I’m finding it hard to answer this question, but I think that I’m most disturbed (and motivated) by the horrific treatment of birds in animal agriculture, since they make up the vast, vast majority of farmed animals bred and killed for their meat and byproducts. And they are excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act, which is just as unconscionable as it is to call them stupid, or to consume their tattered little bodies. Chickens are my very favorite animals. They can be brave and adorable, and I find their familial structures to be inspiring and admirable. If people learned about the exploitation of one type of animal, I’d say it should be birds. And if you want to get more specific, go with chickens. More specific still, the egg industry is horrid.

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

…to make the decision to actually give a fuck. But it’s only the beginning.

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