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!


  1. I love this so much!! Easy, Cheap, Local, Colorful stealth activism!

  2. So inspiring James. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great insights, James! Shows a lot of integrity for being the kind of person we are asking others to be.

  4. This is awesome activism! Thanks, James.


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