Gary Smith

Gary SmithWhy are you vegan? Why do you promote veganism? Why is vegan activism important?
I am vegan because I believe that all beings, human and nonhuman, are entitled to a life free of oppression and exploitation, and a life of bodily integrity and moral agency. I promote veganism because I believe that what is and has been happening to nonhuman animals for thousands of years for food, clothing, entertainment and research is wrong, it is immoral. I promote veganism because most people are either unconscious or don’t care about the brutality done to animals in our names, and someone, such as myself and other vegans and animal activists, are obligated to be active for them. Vegan activism is important because it takes our attention and focus off of our own selfish and individual needs and lives, and puts it on helping those being oppressed and exploited. Living a moral and ethical life requires speaking up and doing whatever we can do to change the situation for nonhuman animals.

Why are youth so important to the movement? Why must activists focus on youth when promoting their message?
I know that a lot of our activism is focused on college-aged kids because we feel like they may be more open to the message now that they are on their own for the first time. I think that younger people, middle school and high school, are more open to the message of animal rights and veganism because they aren’t as entrenched in their ideas of how the world is as older kids and adults. They aren’t as cynical about the world, they believe that the world can be changed and that there is some level of innocence in the world. One of my favorite advocates and friends, Ruby Roth, who wrote the children’s books “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals” and “Vegan Is Love,” likes to say that when young people learn that animals are being harmed for our food and use, they don’t try to search for better or more “humane” ways to exploit nonhumans, they look for ways to cease being part of the chain of abuse. She also says that adults talk down to and don’t respect the intelligence and ability of young people to understand complicated issues. I agree with her on both points.

My wife and I have given some talks on animal testing to middle school and high school classes. Though they spend a lot of time focused on Frederick and Douglass, two beagles that we rescued from an animal testing lab in Spain in 2011, the students are really open to the topic and how to solve the issue of using animals for testing. They feel empowered to know that they can work with their parents to research and purchase cruelty free products, for example. They ask very thoughtful questions. There are obvious limitations, such as when a young person decides to go vegetarian or vegan and their parents forbid or deny them the opportunity, and that can be problematic. My wife recommends that if someone is in this situation, they should work with their parents. They should learn to cook, offer to make a nice dinner for the whole family one night a week, find recipes online they want to try, grocery shop with their parents, help them choose different foods and products, and generally be helpful in making the switch. Show your parents that you are serious and are willing to help with the work.

Why is activism for veganism so difficult? What challenges do activists face, and how do you suggest we overcome these challenges?
The simple answer is speciesism. As a culture and as a people, we are so entrenched in the idea that animals are ours to use and that we are superior to them. As activists, we are trying to chip away at this limiting and frankly obscene mindset, a mindset responsible for billions of land animals and trillions of fishes violently killed just for food every year, millions more for vivisection, entertainment, fashion and the pet industry. I think the challenge that all activists face is what skills do they bring to the table and how those skills can be used for nonhuman animals. Some people love interacting with people and do a great job handing out vegan food samples or leafleting. I don’t think it’s helpful for someone who hates public speaking, and isn’t very good at it, to go that route. Some people are fantastic artists and can help design or manage a website for a nonprofit or grassroots campaign. Some people are great writers and can write letters to the editor in response to news stories about animals being used, or start a blog. All of us have certain skills or abilities that can be used in our activism. I think one of the biggest challenges activists face is burnout. It can be extremely difficult when you are aware of all of the violence happening towards animals and you see how slowly change is happening. It can be downright depressing. I think it’s really important to build community, whether that’s with vegans locally or online. It can be difficult to be vegan navigating a non-vegan world.

Your Blog, The Thinking Vegan, features a diverse group of thinkers from the movement. Why do you encourage this diversity in thought?
It’s important to present as many voices in the movement as I can. I think the movement can get overrun with a few voices who dominate the discussion. I think that thoughts and ideas can get stale, and new voices, or voices that maybe are marginalized, need to be heard. There are many voices not being heard that I want to present and plan to. I plan on focusing on featuring more feminist voices and voices of color this year. I have some exciting plans for the blog in 2014.

You and your wife run a PR firm called Evolotus. What challenges do activists face dealing with media? How can activists, particularly youth activists, best communicate their stories to the mainstream?
The first question I would have for an activist is why do you want to get media? Does getting media for your protest, event, or cause help or hinder your strategy? A lot of the time, activists automatically believe that getting media is a necessary component when it may not be. Let’s say that you have decided that getting media is important to your cause. The first thing you should do is to go to the websites for your local media. They will usually have a contact email or phone for the news desk. Type up an email  with all of the specifics about your event: who, what, why, where and when. Make sure that the pitch is respectful and informative. It’s really important to share why your story is important to their audience and why they should be interested in covering it. I know this sounds obvious, but if a journalist sends you an email or calls you, respond immediately. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that say the reporter tried to get a comment from a spokesperson and was unable to. All of the above applies to young activists as well. I would make sure that you share your age in the email that you send to media. Media will probably be more open-minded if they know that it came from a young person.

How can the veg message spread? How can youth effectively spread the veg message throughout their school?
I think a great way for young people to spread the word throughout their school is by hosting feed-ins. Contact a group like VegFund, or a vegan food company, and ask them if they’ll send you food that you can give out to your classmates. You can start an animal rights club and invite classmates to join. People love cats and dogs, and that’s a great way to attract others, with a simple fundraiser for a local animal shelter. Ask the school if you can have speakers to come in and speak about specific issues. You can also show films like The Cove, Blackfish, The Ghosts in Our Machine, and others that explore animal issues, either on your own or in partnership with your school’s film club. I think that there are a lot of opportunities to do activism at your school.

You mentor people to become vegan. What challenges do you face when mentoring people to go vegan, and how do you overcome these challenges? 
Last New Year’s Eve, I decided to put out a plea on The Thinking Vegan Facebook page asking if I could help any vegetarians and non-vegans who wanted to go vegan. I was overwhelmed by the response. Over the next few days, I had requests from close to thirty people. I have been working with around 85 or so people this calendar year. When I started The Thinking Vegan blog coming up on three years ago, I intended it as a place to talk about veganism as a social justice movement from an animal liberation and abolitionist perspective. I didn’t expect it would be popular with non-vegans, so I was surprised by the numbers of non-vegans reading the blog and Facebook page. It’s also been really interesting to hear the issues and perceived issues people have with becoming vegan. The social aspects are a big deal for people. For example, I have received quite a few questions from people wanting to go vegan but their spouse has no interest or is adversarial. I get questions about how people can get their kids to be more open to going vegan, how to handle going to family events, office parties and meetings where food is being brought in, etc. The biggest challenge really is when people keep coming up with excuses for not following my advice. They usually will say something like, “how can I stay motivated?” The reality is that I cannot make anyone vegan. I can only give them information and tools that hopefully persuade them to change. The way I overcome this challenge is to tell them to watch videos from Mercy For Animals undercover investigations, their short film Farm to Fridge, and Earthlings. The animals are and will always be my motivation.

How might youth face similar challenges when mentoring their peers to change their diet?
I can imagine that the youth have many social issues to deal with unique to their peer group. It can’t be a simple transition to eat and consume like everyone else in your school one day and then radically pull yourself out of the matrix and start eating and consuming totally differently. I hope anyone advocating to young people remains aware that there are real social pressures that people your age face when they go vegan. Your family may see you adopting a vegan lifestyle as a slap in the face of their traditions, and your peers may have the same experience. I think it’s important for young vegans to be part of groups, school clubs, and other social outlets so that they don’t feel so alone and so that others see that they are not the only one who has made this choice. I think this helps people be confident in their choice to abstain from supporting violence towards nonhumans. You are not “weird,” “radical,” or “unpopular” for choosing compassion, empathy, and fairness. You are brave to make such choices when they are so unpopular and not respected by the culture. It’s also important for young activists to be supportive to your peers as they go through the transition to veganism. It’s not just your job to create vegans, it’s your job to support new vegans as well.

How did you improve and change as an activist over time? What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn from them? How do you keep improving now?
There seems to be a lot of pressure to focus on activism around the health or selfish aspects of being vegan, or the environmental impact of eating and using animals. My heart and head have always been in it for the animals. I am an ethical vegan and have and continue to focus my activism on the social justice aspect of veganism. I don’t pet people for taking baby steps, for giving up one animal while continuing to exploit other animals, get caught up in the latest celebrity eating a plant-based diet or whatever the new trend seems to be. I don’t know if it’s a mistake exactly, but as time goes by I become more true to my own voice, true to the reason that I am vegan, and try to advocate from an authentic space and heart. We all have to follow our own voice, our own values in how we advocate. People can smell an inauthentic person from a mile away. I would not be effective if I pretended to be someone that I am not and neither will you be effective.

What is your favorite part of your work? Has there been a moment when you knew you were making a difference?
The favorite part of my work is to be able to work with some of the most dedicated, effective, creative people and organizations in the world. It is truly an honor to be on the same team as my clients. They do the lifesaving, heroic and educational work and we publicize it. Our work is our activism. In the seven years that we started Evolotus, the media landscape has shifted more favorably towards animal rights. While that is exciting, it is still a serious struggle to get the media to cover our stories to the degree that we believe these stories deserve to be covered. It’s both gratifying and fulfilling when we get a mainstream outlet to cover our client’s story. It’s also satisfying to work with vegan media as well. They do some wonderful work and aren’t always recognized by fellow activists for their work. The moments I know that our work is making a difference is when I see the comments on some of our stories where people say that they are going to make a change based on what they have read or seen. I also get feedback from time to time from journalists asking me personal questions about how to go vegan or positive feedback on a story we pitch about an animal issue.

Who has been your biggest inspiration? Have any books or philosophies or people been important to your development as an activist?
I am inspired by so many people and animals. Frederick and Douglass inspire me every day. They spent the first five years of their lives in cages in an animal testing lab, having all manner of terrible things done to them, and yet they are forgiving and open to experiencing life – some of life, at least. I look at their example and want to not only be a better activist, but a stronger and more resilient person. I am inspired by all of the farmed animals that I have met at sanctuaries. They have come from such horrific surroundings and yet seem to have made peace with the world. I am inspired by Kim Sturla and everyone at Animal Place, Nathan Runkle and the entire Mercy For Animals team, Lauren Ornelas’ work blows me away, Thomas Ponce, the 12-year-old vegan who started Lobby For Animals, Jo-Anne McArthur is a personal hero, Ari Nessel from The Pollination Project makes me want to be a kinder person, Kia Scherr from One Life Alliance has taught me about forgiveness, my friend Alicia Pell spent the year rushing to rescue farmed animals from city and county shelters before they were adopted only to be eaten, and then found sanctuaries and transported them to safety, every activist who has risked their freedom for animals is a hero, all of my past and present clients and their work inspire me. They do lifesaving and important work and dedicate themselves to making the world more just for nonhuman animals. Of course my wife Kezia inspires and amazes me. I am so grateful to be surrounded by vegan friends who are dedicated, loyal, brilliant, funny and supportive to me.

Do you have any other advice for youth activists?
Don’t give up, and take care of yourself. It’s not easy being an activist. We deal with a lot of rejection. It’s one thing to reject speciesism in your life and another to actually speak out and hold people to a higher level of goodness. The most difficult part of being an activist to me is seeing my friends and family continue to consume and use animals even though they know how important this social justice issue is to me. We cannot judge our effectiveness by whether friends and family have gone vegan or not. We can judge our effectiveness by how we are being in the world. Are we living up to the ideals that we strive towards? Are we trying our best to make the world a better place for humans and nonhumans? Are we being creative, respectful, and smart about the ways in which we do our activism? If the answer is yes to all of those questions or we are moving in the direction of yes, then we are all good.

It’s important also to take care of yourself. What I mean by this is that even though the world may appear to be a dark and sad world, there is still some good. Make sure not to overlook the kind friends you have in your life, the hobbies you enjoy, the animals that you interact with whether they are your companion animals or volunteering at a farm animal sanctuary or shelter, being active physically, enjoying nature, reading, etc. It’s important not to spend too much time in your head thinking about how animals suffer. That’s not good for you or the animals.

Thank you Gary for sharing your thoughts with us!