Thursday, September 29, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Justin Van Kleeck

Justin Van Kleeck is an activist, animal caregiver and co-founder of the inspiring Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary along with his partner, Rosemary. As a pioneer of the microsanctuary movement, Justin is helping the average person who wants to start rescuing animals understand that it doesn’t need to take many acres and a big bank account. Using the example of TCfA, a small sanctuary in central North Carolina, which mainly focuses on chickens, he is helping people to not defer their dreams until when the stars magically align and their lottery number gets called but helping them to learn how to start a sanctuary in the here and now. It may not be a massive sanctuary but that may also be perfect.

A former academic, Justin is a freelance writer and editor, working on a variety of projects from the Project Intersect zine to his pro-intersectional blog, Striving with Systems, and is involved with different vegan endeavors in advisory roles. I am so glad that Justin could take some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts with us today. He is a true Vegan Rock Star. (My apologies for the weird spacing here that is making my perfectionist tendencies short-circuit: it appears to be a Blogspot issue.)

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

My connection to other animals started at a very early age—early enough that it seems like something that was “always there.” I grew up in a middle class American family that fed on fast food, junk food, and meat-laden meals (though I am proud to say I always loved vegetables and fruits!), and I had no inkling that eating differently was an option until my teens. I remember trying to go vegetarian in middle school, which lasted about a week. I lived with my father and, since we were on welfare due to his work-related disability, we relied heavily on others for our food access (which is not an excuse by any means, but it contextualizes the scope of my lived experience with food, dietary norms, and prevailing culture). Anyway, fast forward a few years: I went vegetarian as a high school senior and stuck with it into college. My transition to veganism happened after a period of reflection on the impact my lifestyle choices had on other beings and the planet. It was my sophomore year at Virginia Tech, shortly before my twentieth birthday. I forced myself to face the hard question of whether or not I could accept consuming products that might, in any way, have caused suffering to an animal (this was many years before I knew the full extent of the horrors of dairy and eggs). The answer was “no,” and I was vegan. I have never looked back.

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?

This is a very hard question that I think about a lot as an activist, and especially now that most of my activism and advocacy focuses on chickens and other farmed animals in the context of rescue and sanctuary work. My positions have shifted seismically over the last seventeen years, but throughout, my concern has always been with ethics. What I wish I had known as a pre-vegan, and what would have gotten me to where I am now much more quickly, is just how deeply the process of domestication, selective breeding, and genetic manipulation has made the problem of exploitation a biological (and therefore inescapable) one. So many vegans tend to focus on conditions and treatment when it comes to humans’ use of non-human animals. But what my partner, Rosemary, and I have realized so clearly is that whether they are crammed in a battery cage or frolicking on the range, in an industrial shed or in a sanctuary barn, farmed animals are never free from the cruelty of domestication. “Laying” breed hens, who lay as many as twenty times the eggs that their wild ancestors lay, are just one example of this. But it shows up in every domesticated species: their biology has been twisted, shaped, and stunted for the specific purpose of providing benefit to humans. They have lost the true liberation of their free-living cousins—or I should say, they have had that liberation stolen from them.

If I had understood the true horror wrought upon the bodies of these innocent beings, I would like to think my path to veganism would have been much shorter, and I would not have wasted my time pretending that bigger cages and toothless regulatory programs actually meant anything.

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 wish I knew what was truly effective, but at this point I feel that grounding everything we talk about and advocate for in the stories of our family members has the biggest impact and is the most ethically consistent. By sharing their lived experiences, from the horrible situations they have escaped to the constant care they need once they arrive at our microsanctuary, I find it easier to frame larger issues in making a case for veganism. I am not convinced that a focus on astronomical numbers— for example, the nearly ten billion land animals slaughtered annually for food—creates a visceral connection to the reality of their suffering. Getting to know one individual, however, puts the entire system of exploitation into a perspective we can grasp and respond to. This personalizing potential of individuals is why non-vegans can get so frantic about saving one pig or cow who escapes a slaughterhouse, all the while munching on a bacon cheeseburger.

So, we work very hard to promote the understanding that those billions and billions are all comprised of individuals, each one unique and amazing and worthy of consideration. For Triangle Chance for All, this general philosophy informs a lot of our discussion of the residents, and Rosemary takes fantastic photographs that convey so well their personalities and lives. These are both very important (and very deliberate) methods of presentation, through which we seek to scale down how vegans and non-vegans alike see farmed animals…so that we can then recognize the true tragedy of their suffering and death.

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

Vegans actually give enough of a shit to actually try to do less harm to other animals. That means something.

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

Since I do so much direct caregiving and rescue for animals through our microsanctuary but also stay involved in the pro-intersectional vegan movement as well (through my work on Striving with Systems primarily), I see multiple sides of the vegan movement directly.

Firstly, veganism often seems to be shifting dangerously into the realm of consumerist lifestyle solipsism, which creates a general sense that swapping out what we buy is central to being vegan. Absorbing that capitalistic narrative risks deflating the inherently radical core of ethical veganism. For the long-term success of veganism, I believe that we have to focus on ethics and advocating for the end of all forms of use, not welfare reforms, and do a better job of talking beyond (but inclusive of) domesticated species so we recognize the importance of individual autonomy as a gauge for freedom. We need to be better about creatively engaging non-vegans in those discussions, for sure, but it has to be central. And a big part of doing this means understanding the subtleties of speciesism, and committing to an anti-speciesist position as a vegan activist.

Along with that, I think the vegan movement is doing a horrible job of shaking off the cultural history of white patriarchal society. I have been privileged to work closely with vegans of color, such as Aph Ko and Christopher Sebastian McJetters, along with others who are creating so much fantastic knowledge and grassroots community. Yet often the very best the popular vegan movement can do is link them in posts and talk about “inclusivity.” I am convinced that veganism has to be radical in every way, which means working towards collective liberation for all beings. That means we need to start recognizing all of the work being done outside of “the spotlight,” listening to these communities rather than trying to subsume them or silence them (please stop saying “All Lives Matter,” folks), and getting out of the way as they build intersecting but in many ways independent vegan movements. A few examples I would like to highlight are: Aph Ko & Black Vegans Rock, Grow Where You Are & Maitu Foods, PEP Foods, The Vegan Hip Hop Movement, and Women of Color Speak Out.

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

All beings want to live and be free, and humans have no right to take life, liberty, or bodily autonomy from them. Oh, and you cannot “love” someone while slitting their throat. EVER.

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 wish I could concretely pinpoint specific resources in my evolution. Perhaps what might be more relevant is a list of resources that are definitely important for me personally in my current work:

·      Free from Harm
·      Chicken Run Rescue
·      Aph Ko & Black Vegans Rock
·      Lee Hall
·      A Well-Fed World

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

Clean up chicken shit as a meditative practice! Honestly, watching a hen who is at death’s door slowly come back to life, or catching a rooster who has been dumped and would have died in short order and getting him to safety, or busting your ass to coordinate a rescue, transport, and placement for someone whose time is almost up, are all very good ways to stay motivated. A lot of small-sanctuary folks, like us, are charged with doing everything and then some—holding outside jobs, caring for animals 24/7, doing outreach, fundraising, and engaging in rescue, to name a few—while also shouldering what is possibly the biggest challenge: losing family members, even when every possible effort has been exhausted to make them well again. Sanctuary life is emotionally traumatizing, to a degree that I could never have grasped before getting into it, even while it is without doubt the most rewarding, fulfilling, and important work I have ever done in my entire life (one of these days I will use my doctoral diploma as a liner for a chicken crate!). I wish I could give good advice for this question, but I am not adept at “self-care” and taking breaks; there is too much to do. I eat some, I sleep some, and that seems to be working so far.

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

Chickens. They are amazing. Even with everything we have done to them, they are awe-inspiring. Learn about who they are, their horribly distorted biology, and the standard practices involved in keeping them at any scale. We know so little about them, still, and most of what we know is pathologically influenced by husbandry and production standards, so there is much work to be done here (and this is fairly true for all farmed animal species).

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


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with James DeAlto

One of the things that is most exciting to me about veganism today is all the activism and outreach coming into the movement from so many different points of entry. Chefs, lawyers, academics, artists, accountants - you name it - people are using their talents and skills for leveraging change and the cumulative effect is really starting to add up.

James DeAlto of the Vegan Chalk Challenge is one such individual who has not only brainstormed a new (and yet not-so-new) way of getting the word out about compassionate living but also built a real momentum behind it, empowering people to create their own colorful and effective messages right where they live. I am a big believer in the importance of community when it comes to our well-being and longevity as advocates for the animals and the VCC fills this human need powerfully. I also love the simplicity and accessibility of the VCC, how it really enables people their own spin on messaging in colorful, bold and smart ways.

On October 1 and 2, please consider participating in the first Worldwide Vegan Chalk Bomb in your community. (If you’re in Chicago, come to Chicago VeganMania, too!) Got an hour? Pick up a box of chalk and join this creative movement. I am honored to be able to spotlight James and the VCC today. He is a true 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?

I grew up mostly in rural Wisconsin where some of my friends were farmers. I was about 12-years-old when a buddy took me to a huge pit on his dairy farm where the bodies of at least 100 baby calves had been discarded. It was like nothing I’d ever seen - dead babies piled 10-feet high, rotting, covered in flies. I had to cover my mouth and nose to keep out the stench.  I was shocked, but also unsure what to think. I distinctly remember my friend laughing at my disgust, which confused me even more, but I didn’t ask questions.

Several years later, I was taken taken on a high school field trip to the local butcher shop. My classmates and I were instructed to gather in a circle as a pig was dragged out to be slaughtered within a few feet of us. Before the gruesome act was carried out, I felt compelled to step away. From the corner of my eye, I could see the butcher wielding a circular saw to behead the terrified pig. The pig was fully-conscious as it happened. I was mortified. What was especially disturbing was the fact that some of my friends cheered and seemed genuinely delighted by what they had witnessed. When it was finished, I glanced over to see the pig’s head flopping on the blood-soaked ground. I never went so far as to question the ethics of what I had witnessed, but it was the first time I had ever seen anything so violent.

While I never identified as an “animal lover,” these experiences planted seeds that later helped me think more about what moral obligations I had to other animals. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that a girlfriend asked me to watch a PETA video. It was enough to make me go vegetarian on the spot. I didn’t make the egg or dairy connection, but I gave up meat for ethical reasons.

Two years into my vegetarianism, I developed an autoimmune disease unrelated to my diet. I had lost a lot of weight and muscle, which my family and doctor attributed to a protein deficiency. I remember feeling I had little choice the matter, so I compromised by opting to consume animal flesh from local, “humane” farms. Regrettably, it wasn’t long before I went one step further and resumed eating animal products without any consideration for their source. For at least the next ten years, I maintained a steady diet of McDonald’s double-cheeseburgers and Red Baron Pizza.  

Not until 2009 was I reminded of why I had once gone vegetarian. My former wife, Andrea, came home from visiting her aunt and declared she was going vegan.  While away, she had read a book called The Pig Who Sang to The Moon. It’s a book about the emotional lives of farmed animals that moved her enough to immediately clean out the fridge and pantry of all animal products. I was supportive, but not enthusiastic about making the same decision for myself. Instead, I thought it would be okay if I just went back to the “humane meat.” Andrea asked me to watch Earthlings and do some research on I did both and subsequently cried my eyes out, but part of me was still desperate to find a loophole that would allow me to continue eating the foods I had associated with so much pleasure.  

While Andrea continued to set the example, I was able to give up meat easily, but it took me a few months to swear off my addiction to McDonald’s .99-cent ice- cream sundaes. I would stop by the drive through after work, have my guilty pleasure, then hide the evidence. My conscience would eventually catch up with me as I had to force myself to re-watch the dairy segment in Earthlings. For a second time, I broke down in tears and knew I had to go vegan or live with the guilt of hurting animals for my own pleasure. It was a decision I made with considerable reluctance, but I felt good knowing that my actions would be aligned with my deepest values. I didn’t realize until much later that it would turn out to be the single best decision of my life.

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’m one of those people who responds to graphic images. If someone had shown me Earthlings years ago, I think I would have moved toward veganism more quickly. That’s why I love what groups like Anonymous for The Voiceless are doing. They’re using graphic footage on iPads to show people on the streets what’s actually being done to animals. I’ve participated in this kind of outreach and have seen the impact it has on people. If someone had told me years ago that veganism was not only a moral imperative, but also a big part of solving major issues like world-hunger, global warming and our human health crisis, I think I would have considered it much sooner.

I also think it would have been a huge help if I had been invited to events where I was surrounded by vegans. It’s so important that we keep building loving, supportive, open communities where the vegan-curious can connect and receive appreciation for every effort they’re making to fully embrace veganism. 

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 communicate honestly and to be a compassionate listener, but I think it’s my passion as an activist that my pre-vegan friends and family respond to most. I don’t worry so much about converting people anymore. I’ve learned to detach myself from outcomes and not spend too much time/energy on a single person. It’s too exhausting. I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten lots of people to talk about veganism in my own neighborhood with relatively little effort. I prefer the idea of counting the number of seeds I plant rather than the number of converts I personally get to go vegan. Right now, my mission is to make veganism much more visible in public spaces and inspire others to do the same.

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

Right now, we’re seeing more and more vegans come to the critical understanding that all oppression is linked. It took me a few years to learn this basic truth. I believe we’re moving toward a more expansive vegan philosophy and praxis which are essential if we’re going to build solid relationships with other social justice movements. That’s what we’re working toward with our local grassroots group, Vegans for Peace.

I’ve been incredibly inspired by the work of people like pattrice jones and VINE Sanctuary, Christopher Sebastian McJetters – an amazing activist on many fronts – lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project and her husband, author Mark Hawthorne. I’m so appreciative of the work Dawn Moncreif and A-Well-Fed World are doing to address the direct links between world-hunger and animal exploitation. Justin VanKleeck and the brilliant team from Striving Within Systems are on the cutting edge of critical thought in our movement.  Aph and Syl Ko from Aphroism and Black Vegans Rock are doing incredible work to foster greater diversity and awareness of the experiences of people of color in our movement. I love the work of Project Intersect and am a big fan of feminists like Carol Adams, Lisa Kemmerer and Kim Socha. The list would be so much longer if I were to give everyone their due credit, but it’s people like these who have been instrumental in helping me and so many others to better understand how oppression actually works.  

In terms of outreach, I see social media as the single best thing that’s happened for our movement. We’re reaching more people than ever and it’s become so easy to connect with like-minded people. Facebook is, by far, the most important tool in my activist toolbox. I see all the organizations and activists capitalizing on the power of social media - and we’re beginning to get a lot more sophisticated with it. The Vegan Chalk Challenge would have been impossible without Facebook.   

It’s hard to nail down what our biggest strength is. Locally, our biggest strength has been community and the efforts of some very dedicated activists to bring people together. Without ordinary, everyday people feeling welcome and inspired to join our movement, we will remain isolated and ignored.

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

I don’t think most vegans give enough consideration to the urgency of our movement. Right now, I still see too many vegans focused primarily on gourmet vegan food or activists spending precious time having fruitless debates as opposed to doing real-world activism. I think street-level activism can be scary and most people don’t want to rock the boat. Even handing out leaflets or writing a chalk message comes with some risk of ridicule. But, if we’re going to be taken seriously, we need to start organizing, coming together in huge numbers and demanding attention for the billions of animals who are enduring a living hell at this very moment. To address the obstacles that prevent people from getting active for animals, I promote easy, everyday activism that comes with little risk – things like dropping vegan leaflets in grocery carts, chalking, Posters Against Cruelty and the Vegan Sticky Note Challenge. Again, I think it’s essential that we each ask ourselves what we would want done for us if we were an animal locked in a cage and start making greater sacrifices of our time and resources when we’re able.    

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

Animals have inherent moral rights. There is no fundamental difference between a dog, a pig and a human. We are all subjects of a life. We all feel pain, we all suffer, and we all have a desire to live freely and without harm. Since we have zero biological need to consume animals, there is absolutely no moral justification for causing someone else to suffer for our own fleeting pleasure. 

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 mentioned some of the people and organizations earlier, but the person who comes to mind right away is Carolyn Bailey from AR Zone. Carolyn was the one who introduced me to so many amazing activists and new ways of thinking. From the beginning, she was someone I recognized for her wisdom and patience. She has a unique ability to be incredibly kind while challenging new advocates to think more critically. I will always owe her a huge debt of gratitude for her mentorship. I encourage anyone looking to deepen their understanding of our movement to tune into the AR Zone podcast.

Kim Socha’s Animal Liberation and Atheism helped expand my understanding of the connections between animal exploitation and religion – I recommend this book as well as her other writings. Kim is an incredibly gifted scholar and a tenacious activist. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and am so grateful for her friendship.  

David Nibert’s books Animal Rights/HumanRights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation and Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism and Global Conflict along with Jim Mason’s An Unnatural Order helped me to gain a much deeper understanding of the history of animal exploitation and the systems we’re trying to dismantle.  

Joan Dunayer’s books Speciesism and Animal Equality helped me to understand just how much speciesism is still ingrained in our own movement and in myself.  

Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and Defiant Daughters, an anthology by 21 different women who share their personal stories on how Carol’s book impacted their lives, helped me gain a much better understanding for the links between patriarchy and animal exploitation.  

There are so many others I could mention…The Oxen at the Intersection by pattrice jones, Sistah Vegan by Dr. Breeze Harper, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters edited by Steve Best and Anthony Nocella – to name just a few.

***For any new vegan activist, my best advice is LISTEN TO THE WOMEN!***

Films – Earthlings, Peaceable Kingdom, The Animals Film, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, Ghosts In Our Machine.  I’m excited to see so many new ones coming along as well as so many great shorts by talented activists like Kelly Guerin, Michelle Taylor Cehn, Klaus Mitchell and Michael Goodchild. Films and short videos are essential to the progress of our movement.  

Organizations – Free From Harm, A Well-Fed World, Food Empowerment Project and Animal Equality all inspire me. Our local sanctuaries, Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge and Triangle Chance for All are doing incredible work and have become invaluable focal points in helping to build our local movement. I’m a huge supporter of The Save Movement started by Anita Krajnc and regularly take part in vigils with my wonderful friends from North Carolina Farmed Animal Save. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Triangle Vegfest for the amazing work they’ve done. I believe the organization we launched earlier this year, Vegans for Peace, is set to accomplish some great things as well. Again, there are far too many people, organizations and resources to list!   

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

I listen to music, rock out in my car and often act like a complete fool. My three dogs and their unconditional love help to keep me grounded.  I love volunteering at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge where I get to hang out with my vegan peeps and connect with the animals. I just bought a new bike, which I’m loving.  To recharge, I usually surround myself with the amazing activists in my life who have also become my best friends. They’re the ones who inspire me the most. They’re the ones who teach me to be more effective and who help me be less of a jerk. We have a great crew of supportive, loving, dedicated activists here in North Carolina and we’ve been making some big strides in helping to grow our statewide movement.   

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

There are so many issues that affect me on the deepest level of my emotional being. The suffering of nonhuman animals is what drives me most for that fact that it’s so hidden, so widespread, so horrific and so ignored by otherwise-compassionate people.

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

Clucking awesome. Nothing is more important to our future than being vegan!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Annette Conlon...


I am featuring a lot of Vegan Rock Stars this month because I have been so busy with various work deadlines as well as Chicago VeganMania, which happens October 1, but it has been a real pleasure for me to let some of these amazing people get a little of the spotlight they deserve. One such individual is Annette Conlon, award-winning LA-based singer-songwriter, dedicated animal rescuer, compassionate fashion plate and over-all wonderful soul. Annette is embarking on her highly anticipated Compassionette Tour very soon, hitting TN, AL, NC and IL to touch down at Chicago VeganMania, playing a set at our Culture Café (curated by my dear friend -- and sister vegan Rock Star -- Robinlee Garber) and that evening at the Heartland Café-Red Line Tap, which will be offering a special vegan menu along with great live music for CVM revelers who don't want the day to end.

I treasure Annette's gentle persuasiveness, empathy, warmth, dedication and passion for compassionate living. Plus she's just super-talented and lovely. I am honored to showcase Annette Conlon as this week's Vegan Rock Star.

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

In late 2002 my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and that he wanted to put me on a statin drug. I suggested that I change my diet. He told me people don’t just change their diets. He was wrong.

When I first moved away from my parents I fell into a vegetarian diet for two reasons. 1) I couldn’t afford meat, and 2) I didn’t really care for it much. I became comfortable in this diet and stayed like this for many years, only eating meat if I visited my parents. I got married at 22, and we were transferred to Turkey (he was Army). Seeing the animals hung upside down in the market was enough to enforce my non-meat eating ways (I did not call it vegetarian because I did not know that word. I just said, I did not eat meat and everyone was cool about it. I did eat plenty of fresh feta from the goat that lived across the street.). When we divorced and I was back on my own I continued to live as a non-meat eater, unless I visited my parents. My stomach would sometimes become upset after dinner and I did not know it was my stomach revolting because it was not used to digesting meat.

When Doug (my current husband) and I started dating, he showed up one morning around 2:00am and started up the grill on the porch. I woke up and looked outside to see him hard at work. I opened the screen door and asked what he was doing and he said “Making ribs.” How do I tell this cute boy I don’t eat meat? How did he not even NOTICE that after almost 8 months of knowing each other I had never eaten meat?? Hmm. I had a small bite and fed the rest to the cat. I told him it was because I was sleepy. I was tired, embarrassed, and confused. I really liked him and was afraid he would not like me. Fast forward to the end of 2002. We had been married almost 9 years, I’d eaten way too much junk food, hamburgers, steak, french-fries, and it had made me sick. Literally sick.

I quit red meat and fried foods cold turkey. Within 3 months my cholesterol improved and I had lost a few pounds. As I continued to eliminate other animal products from my diet I noticed startling changes (poultry, eggs, then dairy and fish, and then these products as ingredients in breads, packaged foods, etc.). High cholesterol runs in my family so this was exciting, and, my doctor was very impressed with the changes. Within a year my lipid panel was “remarkable” and “envious” (according to my doctor.) As I stopped eating junk food, my skin cleared up and I lost more weight.  I felt like I had pressed a reset button. I felt energetic and years younger. By the end of 2003 I was no longer eating any animal products at all and had changed my perspective on how I ate. I had begun scouring labels at Whole Foods looking for hidden ingredients and questioning every waiter I encountered.  I learned that the less ingredients in any packaged food meant it was generally better, to always choose whole plant based foods over packaged foods, and I began experimenting, making everything from vegan lasagna, to vegan pizza, and vegan soups. I experimented with holiday pies and cookies. I started telling people I wouldn’t eat anything with a heartbeat. The dots had connected and I started to CARE.

The transition was harder on my friends because they had to listen to me bubble over with excitement as I tried to get them to eat all the yummy stuff I was discovering. Everyone had to go to my favorite vegetarian Indian place on my birthday for strawberry cake, and eat at my favorite Thai place that served tofu, but my friends in Dallas were all encouraging and supportive, none more so than my husband (who was an omnivore) who read every label with me. 

Probably the funniest story is about Erykah Badu. She and I shopped at the same Whole Foods in lower Greenville, in Dallas, TX, at the time. I never met her, but she was the only other vegan I knew of shopping at that Whole Foods at that time. I would ask the manager questions about products every time I went in (the internet was very light on information back then). He would tell me about the pizza Erykah bought, and when I found something I liked, I’d share it with him, and he’d share it with her. She and I shopped vegan together through the manager. It was very reinforcing to know someone else was struggling with the same decisions. I did not have any vegan friends, but I was not alone.

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?

Before I became vegan I met a vegan. His name was Vegan Steven. He was kind of a caricature of how vegans are described in bad movies. He ‘converted’ a friend of ours to veganism. (It was not a transition). That friend acted like he was in a cult. It was odd and weird and frankly I didn’t think too much of their movement. He became a meat eater again after his friendship ended with Vegan Steven, and Vegan Steven moved on. I remember eating lunch with him while he was a vegan and my friend trying to ‘convert’ me, but not having any real arguments. “It’s good for you.” He said. “So is this taco…” I’d say. Shrug. Shrug. Nothing about animals, or the planet, or lives saved.

Maybe he didn’t know. I didn’t know. There is no way any of us could know then what we know now. HOW MUCH of an impact one person’s choice can make on so many animals’ lives - over 300 a year is mind-boggling, in a good way. This is why, to me, there are no other options anymore. Because I now know. I may have started down this path again because of my health, but I have fought to remain vegan through life or death health crisis’ (feeding tubes due to a serious sepsis infection, and yes, vegans can get sick), and I will remain a vegan forever, because I now know.

Certainly I think the movies that are out now are very effective. I love Speciesism: The Movie, Forks Over Knives, and, Cowspiracy. Mercy For Animals shares so many informative and compelling videos, as does PETA – I find these sites to be an incredible resource and share information from them with friends regularly, especially friends who are new to veganism, because there is an easy wealth of knowledge at hand. If someone had shown these images or videos to me as a child, I would like to believe I would never have looked back. With the internet there are many ways we can communicate messages of veganism and awareness against animal cruelty that were not available when I started changing my diet, much less when I was a young and had not yet made the connection between what was on my plate and what I saw at petting zoos.

I transitioned organically and I’m grateful for that, and I am okay with not being born and raised a vegan, because it gives me compassion towards people who are considering transitioning to veganism. I understand their questions and can relate to their experiences. Also, I’m in no place to judge.

I love that there are so many incredible substitute products available for meat and dairy now. I think that they help people transition more easily. Maybe they help to remove some doubt about ease and fear of change. I know I looked for products when I first transitioned and they were few and far between. These products aren’t for the vegans that don’t want them; they are for the folks trying to make up their minds, or a new vegan, or a vegan in a hurry, or a hungry vegan, or a vegan that LIKES THESE PRODUCTS.

A supportive family is also important and I’m lucky because my family is great. They respect my choices as my choices. I’m so grateful for that. My mom cuts out and sends me terrific vegan recipes, shops for vegan food and other items at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s when I come to visit, and my entire family shows great concern whenever I visit, making sure I have something vegan to eat at dinners and outings. My husband eats vegetarian or vegan at home with me and eats vegan out with me whenever we go out to eat. He is also making more personal vegan choices in his life. I’m a lucky vegan gal.

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

Honesty and compassion. I think being honest about what is at stake (animal lives) is important, but also being a compassionate listener is very important. You cannot affect change if all you do is talk. We must listen.

There are statistics, videos, images, and graphic footage that will boggle the mind. None of this will have any effect to a burgeoning vegan or vegetarian if we don’t give them a chance to ask questions. So, we need to listen, then answer honestly, thoughtfully, and compassionately.

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

We’re growing. We’re becoming more mainstream. For me, though, the most important thing is that being vegan is a morally imperative choice. It’s the right choice for me, and, I believe, for people concerned with their ethics and doing the right thing for animals and the planet there is no other option. I think more and more people are becoming aware of the ‘ethics of diet’ and are making the vegan choice.

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

The in-fighting amongst vegans that gives the overall impression of veganism as a bad thing. That makes it a joke and fodder in the entertainment community. That brings out the bullies. The whole “I’m a better vegan than you because…” thing has to stop.

Veganism is a good thing. Why are any one of us making it look bad?

There is not one word of judgment in the Vegan Society’s definition of Veganism: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”  As a matter of fact, I find the judgment some vegans cast upon each other to be somewhat exploitative and hypocritical. It really saddens me and I hope someday soon to see more unity amongst us.

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

Why not vegan? Why not make a change in your life that helps save over 300 animals a year? Veganism is easier than you think. Almost anything can be made vegan. Any minor sacrifice we may have to make to give up a convenience or flavor is nothing compared to the sacrifice dairy/beef/poultry/fish/game animals make every day. Their lives are worth more than a moment on my lips. Make them worth more to you, too.  

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 guess we all continue to evolve throughout our lives. I don’t read a lot of blogs because I’m busy, but of course Vegan Street is a site I visit regularly along with Mercy for Animals, Moby’s Instagram, Our Hen House, One Green Planet, PETA, and VegNews. I search out new vegan products, especially for makeup, fashion and household, and will try some of the new vegan prepared foods, although I prefer fresh whole plant based foods over packaged foods, generally. In a pinch, there’s nothing like a quick Tofurky sandwich with fresh greens, Vromage and some Vegenaise!!

I think my evolution has come from within. It’s my desire to grow and change and to do more to help animals that has driven me to put together my upcoming tour. I wanted to do something special to raise awareness so I put this together.

My Compassionette Tour runs Sept 24-Oct 1. I’ve dreamed of a chance to spread awareness of veganism and compassionate living through my music, and now I have that chance. From Nashville to Asheville, and up to Chicago, including the 8th Annual Chicago VeganMania, I’m thrilled to share the word about how to choose ways to add animal friendly choices into people’s lives, from music, fashion, food, and love!

There are several sustainable and vegan companies endorsing the tour, including Bedell Guitars, Bent & Bree, BHAVA, Couch Guitar Straps, Kat Mendenhall Vegan Cowboy Boots, and Seagull Guitars. Also endorsing the tour are Guitar Moose, L.R. Baggs, and Shubb Capos.

Tofurky has provided us with coupon booklets and counter-culture cards to pass out along the way. We'll also have free stickers from Couch Guitar Straps!

I think this is just the beginning of my next phase. I’m excited to see what happens next.

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

At the end of each day I sit on the front step with our feral kitties and talk to them. One of them, Red, was near death a few months ago. I held a “GoFundMe” to help raise funds for his high vet bills (thankfully covered by amazing friends). He’s robust and strong, now, and playful, sweet, loving, and ever the protector of our community cat colony. I sit on the front step at 1:00am or 3:00am, the mist of the ocean moving in on the clouds, feeding the kitties and talking softly to them, Red winding in and out between my feet, talking back to me. Sometimes I end up feeding five or six cats, the opossums, and the family of six raccoons all in one night. I sit still, or stand still, and the animals come up to me. In that moment I know with unwavering certainty that my life choices are 100% right. I’m at the right place at the right time. I’m calm, serene even. Nothing hurts, there are no fears. I have no doubts. I am confident in all things. How could I ever eat an animal when these wild creatures TRUST ME? It’s not even a consideration. No fur, no leather, no milk, no meat. No honey, silk, wool, or ‘fine’ perfumes. I don’t even think about it. I’m only grateful to be here to share time and space with them.

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

Animal Rights/Animal Welfare/Animal Cruelty

It’s more than just not eating animals (don’t).
It’s how they are treated in holding pens, in shelters, in zoos, in cages, tied in chains, injected, electrocuted, experimented on, murdered in cold blood…or, left to suffer and die in the bottom of the cage, as they watch their cage mates dragged off in terror.

We need to stop this now.
We need to stop vivisection;
We need to stop killing animals in shelters and adopt them out.
We need to get rid of puppy and kitty mills.
We need to stop keeping cows pregnant so we can use their milk for dairy.
We need to stop tearing babies away from mothers.
We need to stop slaughtering animals to increase Big Ag’s paycheck.
We need to stop killing horses to give cattle more room to graze. Cattle that will eventually be killed for food.
We need to stop.

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

Easy. There is no other choice.