Thursday, April 28, 2016

About Our L'il Communications Company: Why Communication Matters...

So there is something kind of cool happening that has already been announced on our social media but I wanted to share here, too. John and I are launching our newest collaboration, Vegan Street Media, which is modeled on our work with but with the focus on helping vegan businesses, services, product lines and non-profits develop effective, memorable and innovative written and visual communications in our increasingly crowded online and consumer landscape. Why is communication so crucial? Word nerd that I am, I decided to do some etymological digging first to delve into this question.

Communication originates from the late 14th century, coming from the
Old French comunicacion, which evolved from communicationem in Latin, a noun of action (and ain’t that the truth?) from the past participle stem of communicare meaning "to share, divide out; impart, inform; join, unite, participate in," and "to make common” from communis. My Oxford Concise [heh!] English Dictionary has six definitions of communication but the third and fourth seemed most relevant: social intercourse and, in plural, the science and practice of transmitting information especially by electronic or mechanical means. Communications is really the act of communicating, which is how we impart or share our thoughts, feelings, knowledge: how we converse, verbally and non-verbally, with the world.

Through gestures, pauses, physical expression, language, silences, images and so much more, we are communicating with the world. The late, great comedian Jack Benny spoke volumes more with awkward pauses and pained expressions than most would with pages and pages of dialogue, and by doing so, he got a bigger laugh than if he’d gone straight through with the original joke. You can be loud and boisterous with your expression or subtle and understated and be just as suffused with power and presence. Communication takes many forms and hits us in many ways: from a slow grin to a perfect eye-roll, shattering satire to a deeply felt speech, expressing a grieving mother’s rage against the senselessness of war to the exquisite tenderness and feeling in Peter Falk’s singularly evocative “as you wish." When we engage with the others in the world, make no mistake that we are always communicating. At its heart, communication is about expression the most successful communication builds connection. When we can reach and listen to other people about universal truths and unique experiences, about this latent or pronounced desire in all of us to live lives of meaning and value, we can make divisions evaporate and we help plug one another into the revitalizing charge that comes from empathy. Conversely, we can also put up more barriers to understanding, empowerment and connection with how we communicate.

With Vegan Street Media, our aim is to remove as many obstacles as possible by helping clients create a beautiful, effective and smart path of communication that is uniquely their own. Despite what some animal advocacy pundits might claim, I do not believe that there is a hard and fast science to reaching “the mainstream,” as if “the mainstream” were one unvaried, homologous mass of mouth-breathers. We are not automatons; human animals are individuals and not as predictable as some might like to think. As anyone who has been doing vegan advocacy for a while knows, there are no “insert Tab A into Slot B” procedures for creating new vegans and anyone who claims that there are is being overly simplistic. There are, though, some basic strategies we can use to create the best conditions for minimizing the divide between people and making real connection more of a feasible outcome, and, thus, making those we are communicating with more willing to consider our message. (Strategy #1? Don’t treat people like they are robots or potential notches on your vegan conversion sheet.)

As more and more people are learning about the disasters we cause with our animal consumption habits, they are increasingly either defensive or more willing to hear and see a message that runs counter to business as usual. In either case, we absolutely must step up to the plate and we must do it with our best communications – our best at uniting, sharing, speaking truthfully – to help connect the dots or foster connection. Whether it’s in the form of beautiful packaging, inspired storytelling, transformative campaigns, smart advocacy or something else, how we communicate with the public matters and it matters deeply. Quiet or grandiose, heartfelt or clever, it can take many styles and forms and still be effective if it is an honest expression of our own unique voice, vision and message. At the foundation of the seismic shift we’re trying to cultivate and move toward, much of our work boils down to communicating effectively.

Let’s do it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Cynthia von Buhler

This week’s Vegan Rock Star is animal rescuer, multimedia artist, playwright, director and surrealism-enthusiast Cynthia von Buhler, a creative force of nature who builds immersive theatrical productions, most recently The Illuminati Ball, an homage and reinterpretation of a legendary surrealist dinner party from 1972. The Illuminati Ball, happening on select dates through August at a secret location an hour outside of NYC (they are taking applications)
is described as what happens when you cross Eyes Wide Shut with Burning Man and mix in a healthy amount of science fiction.” With fire performance, opera and "esoteric ceremonies" as well as audience interaction in the form of animal kinship roles and an appearance from Persephone, Cynthia’s pot-bellied pig, The Illuminati Ball will also feature an all-vegan menu. In other words, this is not your typical potluck or dinner theater experience.

When not developing vegan surrealist immersive theatrical events, Cynthia is a children’s book author, visual artist, performer, and creator of some very cool cat things. She is also a longtime animal advocate and I am honored to feature her today as our Vegan Rock Star.

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

When I was a girl, my parents got me a de-scented skunk as a pet and it taught me about unconditional love. A skunk is a wild animal and shouldn’t be a pet. She wasn’t remotely cuddly, and would constantly bite me. Even so, I made her meals every day and tenderly cared for her until she died of old age. Later in life I began rescuing feral cats. I even wrote a children’s book about one, The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside (Houghton Mifflin). Feral cats require a high degree of unconditional love. The meaner the cat, the more I want to understand and love it.

My most important value is compassion. If I wouldn’t like to be treated a certain way, why would they? Why is my life more important than theirs? Why would I take their whole life away for one unimportant meal for myself? It just didn't make sense to me — so I stopped eating animals. In the application for The Illuminati Ball, two of the questions I ask candidates are 1) Do they like animals and 2) Do they eat meat? Most people rave about their deep love of animals, but a few questions later they excitedly explain how much they adore eating meat. That doesn’t compute for me at all. There’s a serious disconnect happening here. I always felt it was wrong to eat animals and over the years those feelings have grown stronger. So I educated myself on my own disconnect.

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?

Seeing someone I admire thriving as a vegan was the biggest influence for me. They showed me it is possible. Of course, watching animal cruelty videos affected me, too. We need to face the truth.

I was also influenced by meeting animals face-to-face. Places like Farm Sanctuary are amazing. Take people who eat meat to meet the animals. Quality time with a farm animal can have a profound effect. Posting positive videos of animals released from captivity can also be extremely moving. 

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 have a large number of followers on social media, and so I try to set an example by posting articles and pictures. I do not constantly barrage people with negative images or videos; I occasionally post something strong, but not often, or it may turn them away. I try to remain upbeat and open to their concerns. I gently express my feelings to naysayers. If they admire my lifestyle, I can influence them when I talk about my own choices. Posting videos of Persephone running happily around my yard, bathing, blowing bubbles in her water bowl and snuggling with me shows people how sensitive and sweet pigs are.

During The Illuminati Ball, kinship leaders give the most compassionate of their seven “Illuminati candidates” an antique key with a note telling them to “see Cynthia.” These people receive private visits with Persephone. They pet her, feed her and give her belly rubs. I also introduce her to everyone at the end of the show. If you pet and feed a living pig, you might think twice about eating bacon the next morning.

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

I think social media is having a profound effect on the movement. We can distribute information and visuals more effectively now.

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

The Ag-Gag laws are a disaster. We need to fight them to the death.

Perception. Some vegans come across as militant or condescending and that scares people away. We need people to perceive us as open-minded, healthy and wise. We should try to be understanding and set a good example. Most of us were once meat eaters (thanks to our parents), and we need to remember that disconnect in order to help others bridge that gap.

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

My best pitch would be to bring Persephone onto the elevator. When they meet her they fall in love. 

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 illustrated a book by Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer, Evelyn Evelyn, An Unfortunate Tale in Two Tomes.” Investigating and drawing the plight of circus elephants and farmed chickens really affected me. I had already stopped eating most meat by the time I illustrated it, but drawing this book made me stop eating chicken soup, something I once thought I couldn’t live without. I read Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin and Skinny Bitch. I recommend showing people Cowspiracy. This film led me from vegetarianism to veganism. The Chipotle animated factory farming video is also remarkable, having been created and released by such a large fast food corporation. It’s extremely powerful and I wish more people could see it. I’m still evolving. I’m still learning.

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

Because I’m a vocal online advocate for animal rights, other activists send me horrific animal cruelty videos. I’ve seen most of them already and sometimes when I’m feeling angry and overwhelmed I cannot watch them. Many of my activist friends have written me saying that they are so depressed about the plight of animals that they can’t get out of bed. I have been there myself and I tell them they need to stop watching and reading the bad stuff. They will be useless to help if they are paralyzed. Sometimes we need to step away in order to become strong again. Spending time loving the dogs, cats, pigeons and pig I rescued help me recharge.

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

I’m starting an Illuminati for animals. I’m seeking successful people who want to use their talents and businesses to help gain power for the powerless. We will have yearly retreats at my lakefront estate to brainstorm solutions to help animals. I will be sending membership invitations to companies, organizations, artists and activists who have done something exceptional for animal rights. I will also invite people with skills we could use who might not already be involved in animal activism, like animal-friendly journalists, politicians, scientists or lawyers.

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

“…being evolved.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Art of Listening (Or Your Allies are More Important Than Your Ego)...


“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” - Stephen Covey

About a month ago, I observed of one of those little dust-ups that happen fairly often on Facebook. It happened when someone high up with a respected animal advocacy organization was questioned by others about his use of a derogatory term, usually used against women, to insult other vegans whose strategies irritated him. This was on his personal time, not in his official capacity with the organization, but because he’s a fairly high-profile individual and it was publicly said in a way that could be easily shared, it was. Social media being what it is, for better or worse, he was quickly called out for the way he used this term and given the opportunity to make a reasonable case for using it, apologize or dig his heels in and refuse to listen. He chose the last option.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to be offensive or sexist. I have never met him in person but my impression is that he is a good guy and he’s one who devotes his time to building a more compassionate world. He is very gifted at what he does. That said, when he was – in my opinion – gently questioned about it, he lashed out in a pretty disproportionate way, not only listing all the ways in which he personally is oppressed by society – mentioning his sexual orientation and his ethnic background – as proof that he could not be sexist (???) but he also chose to dig his heels in and refused to entertain the idea that it was worth considering the voices of those who had differing views. He went further, implying that anyone who had anything to say about the subject that wasn’t supportive of his viewpoint was petty and ineffective. Despite what I felt were some very reasonable points to consider, he basically wrote off anyone who had an opinion to share that contradicted his own as a humorless, unproductive hater and huffed away.

The thing is, I absolutely knew where he was coming from and I empathized with his situation. Nobody likes to feel ganged up on and even when people are pretty careful about not demonizing one another, we can overreact when we feel like we’re under attack and that people are judging us, which is especially amplified by when it happens on a social media platform. With our increased capacity to interact with one another virtually, we also have a potential powder keg that can turn what should be civil disagreements into flame wars that become much more personal, messy and hurtful.

I understand as well as anyone how uncomfortable it is to admit mistakes and apologize. There is almost nothing that sets me off more than feeling like I’m being lectured and nitpicked. I get irritated and angry. When those uncomfortable feelings arise, which is at least a few times a week at this point due to having an active presence on social media, this is when it’s really vital for me to take some deep breaths, step away from my reactive self, and, with my ego removed as much as possible, ask myself if there something of merit and consideration in what is being said to me. I will also ask someone who is more neutral about it, like John, for his thoughts and many times he lets me know that I am overreacting.

Often it is baseless and just part of the social media landscape of, yes, bored people who are looking for something to attack. That is certainly always a distinct possibility. Sometimes it’s not, though. Sometimes there is something valid there. I’ve learned through observing that when people tell you that the words you used are offensive and this is why, these people and their thoughts deserve your consideration. Dismissing the voices of those who care enough to try to bring something they care about to your attention smacks of a conceited, callous attitude.

Years ago, I first became disillusioned with a vegan I once considered a hero because of the arrogant and condescending way that he dismissed anyone who disagreed with a term he created to describe our society’s confused and inconsistent treatment of other animals. It was an expression that he coined that found its basis in a specific mental illness and he applied it in moral terms. It didn’t bother me at first – it seemed to be an accurate descriptor and I had no quarrel with it – but as people who either have or care for those who suffer with this specific condition voiced their opposition to his use of the term and the way he used it, I was so turned off by his defensive and mocking response that I couldn’t help considering more of what they had to say. What they said made me more aware that mental health is a massive privilege that I take for granted; how might I feel if I saw a condition of mine treated like just another a tool in a toolbox to make a point? Might I be offended? Might I be justified in being offended? I had to answer yes to those questions. Through that new lens, seeing this man lash out and continue to deride peoples’ thoughts on a subject that didn’t affect him personally set the wheels in motion for me to scrutinize more of his interactions with the public. With that new perspective, I could see that the traits that I once perceived as confidence and honesty could also be interpreted as cockiness and meanness. It wasn’t long before this man was no longer a hero to me.

Since then, I have seen many examples of vegans refusing to budge when asked to be considerate to less advantaged populations and, time and time again, I have seen many who fail to meet the bare minimum of what one should expect, defaulting instead to white, ableist and patriarchal standards. Even worse, I have seen them treating the people who dare to speak up like impudent insubordinates for having the audacity to question their authority. If that’s not reinforcing unjust power structures, I don’t know what is because…

* When we tell people of color that their genuine challenges to veganism, often due to lack of access, time and financial resources, are petty and selfish, they are being told to shut up and deal with it. They are being told that their real lives don’t matter.

* When we tell women that they are being self-absorbed if they speak up about objectification and misogyny in the vegan sphere, they are also being told that their lives don’t matter. I don’t know if sex sells, but I do know that sexism sells out a movement.

* When we assert our intention to use every tactic is on the table if it might possibly sway some people despite negative personal and long-term consequences, we are saying that we care more about tactics than individual lives. As with the detractors above, these people are told that they need to stop whining and get in line.

I believe that the people who refuse to acknowledge the importance of caring for and about one another are setting themselves up for irrelevance. An inability to understand and appreciate the value of respectful, real allyship will ultimately ensure their obsolescence but I hope that too many people don’t become isolated in the process.

As a writer, words matter to me deeply. I am protective of them and I take great pleasure in the delicious variety available to me. At the same time, as a writer who is also a vegan and an activist, I care about being effective and a considerate, reliable ally more than I care about individual words. If I learn that something I’ve said is unintentionally harmful, I can adapt. There are many words out there including, “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about that. Let me try again.” There are many options. My guess is that if you want to write off any critique as the “word police” coming after you, your advantages are clouding your ability to understand your own privileged status and clouding your ability to empathize. You need to take a step back. You need to learn that an honest apology isn’t the worst thing in the world.

When people tell us something matters to them, we should listen. Most important, we should hear.