How do you see your personal veganism?
I see my veganism as a very effective tool for reducing animal suffering and as a statement that I don’t wish to contribute to the raising and killing of animals for food.
Why is activism for vegan food choices important?
For each person who reduces or eliminates animal products from their diet, you’re looking at dozens of animals spared from suffering each year. So each new person eating vegan food is a victory. Through advocacy, we have the potential to create many of these victories, exponentially increasing the good we can do for animals.
How do you, as an individual, make a difference?
My main form of advocacy is leafleting. I go to college campuses and concerts and give out booklets about factory farming and veg eating to young folks. We’re always hearing from individuals who have gone veg or vegan as a result of our booklets, so I find this to be a very worthwhile use of my time.
How did you get involved with activism?
When I was in college (way back in 1995), I took an intro to ethics course. One day we discussed the mistreatment of farmed animals. I went vegetarian as a result and started doing simple things like writing letters to the editor. A few years later, I read a book about activism by PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. In the back of the book, she recommended various organizations doing good work for animals. One was Vegan Outreach. I checked VO out, liked their pragmatic approach that was aimed at reducing as much animal suffering as possible, and I got involved with them. I started working full-time for VO in 2004. It’s been a labor of love!
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?
I’m much better socially than I was when I started doing outreach. I have a bit of an introverted streak, but I’ve embraced getting out and interacting with others, have enjoyed the challenge of being more effective at doing so. I found the suggestions of How To Win Friends and Influence People to be beneficial, especially the suggestions of smiling and making a concerted effort to be friendly and easy-going with others. My improvement these days comes through continuing to pay attention to what others are doing, accepting that there are a lot of smart and talented people out there who have useful advice. And there has been a push within the animal advocacy movement to gather more data on what really works the best; I find that information useful. And I’m often exploring ways to knock out more work per hour, to be more focused. Really, if one is open to new ideas, is willing to adapt to new information, is willing to accept that one has room for growth, and is eager to embrace all of this, they’ll continue to evolve as an activist (and person).
Who has been your biggest inspiration? Have any books or philosophies or people been important your development as an activist?
There have been a number of individuals who have pushed me to the next level as an activist. But in the early years, it was Matt Ball and Jack Norris of Vegan Outreach and Paul Shapiro (another member of the Advisory Board) and Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States who had the biggest impact on me — both with their ideas and their effectiveness. And I found the the biography of the late Henry Spira (Ethics Into Action by Peter Singer) to serve as a great guide for taking a practical results-driven approach to animal advocacy. Currently, there are so many individuals who inspire me that I would run the risk of leaving important people out by mentioning a few. Those who get out and leaflet regularly for Vegan Outreach make it hard for me to get complacent and continue to provide inspiration to me.
How do you see the future of the vegetarian and animal activism movement?
I see society continuing to be more broad-minded and concerned about the suffering of others (as detailed in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature), including animals. Each new generation will be more thoughtful to humans and animals than the previous generation. This is a positive thing. Additionally, technology will play a role in minimizing animal suffering, especially if in vitro meat becomes economically viable and companies such as Hampton Creek Foods continue to offer innovative alternatives to using animal products.
How do you deal with your own anger/frustration? How do you prevent burnout? What keeps you doing activism despite setbacks?
Great questions! I like what my colleague Matt Ball said — that if our goal is to reduce as much suffering as possible, us being miserable only adds to the level of misery to the world. And adding to that, the happier we are, the more others will be drawn to us. So if we take reducing suffering seriously, we have a duty to work our hardest to be happy. I take time to do things outside of activism that bring me joy — exercise, playing and listening to music, reading, spending time with those who add to the quality of my life. And lastly, the suffering of others is not fun. But preventing suffering? Very much fun and meaningful. I’m thrilled that I get to spend my days helping to decrease the amount of misery in the world. And I like that in my own humble way, along with the work of so many others, I’m playing a role in something historical — the push for a better world for animals. People really yearn to live meaningful lives. Getting involved in a cause greater than ourselves is a good way to make this happen.
Students usually deal with tons of grief from fellow students and administrators about their veganism and activism. How do you deal with anger and ridicule towards your own activism?
For starters, I always remember that whenever we’re reaching out to a large number of people, it’s a statistical inevitability that there will be those who disagree with us, and there will be the occasional antagonistic individuals. But there will also be a significant number of individuals who are open to the animals’ plight. So I just see it as a numbers game and that if I want to reach large numbers of open-minded people, I have to deal with some who are currently a bit less than open-minded. In order to reach the gold, we sometimes have to get a bit of dirt on us. Also, throughout my years of doing advocacy, I’ve found that many individuals who are initially antagonistic end up being open to our information if we respond to their antagonism in a kind, respectful manner. So I never worry if someone is a bit rude during their first interaction with me. If I respond to them with niceness, perhaps they’ll be in a better mood during our second interaction. We have a lot more potential allies than we often realize. Lastly, we’re challenging the status quo, and change isn’t always the easiest for some. But changing the status quo is exciting, and we live in a vastly more tolerant and just world now than we would if not for those who came before us and challenged their status quos, the injustices of their times. So when we’re involved in activism, we should just accept that there will be some resistance; it’s part of the deal. And instead of dwelling on it, we can embrace it, see it as a creative challenge, and revel in the fact that we’re creating meaningful change.
What hurdles must the average person overcome before going vegan and how can we as activist address those hurdles?
A lot of people worry about not having as good of a social life when they go veg or vegan. We can help that by giving them useful suggestions for dealing with friends and family members. And we can be welcoming, non-judgmental, and fun individuals so that more and more new vegetarians and vegans will want to be around us. People are also concerned about health. We can do a good job of circulating useful and accurate health information. This can help ease fears of a vegan diet being unhealthy, and it can lead to healthier vegetarians and vegans.
What are effective ways to advocate for vegan choices? Why? How can students advocate for vegan choices?
I’m a big proponent of leafleting through Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College campaign (which also welcomes high school leafleting). Getting schools to offer more vegan options is huge. Really, there are so many ways to do good for animals, and we all have our own unique opportunities to do this. What’s most important is that we think strategically with our activism so that we can have a big impact per hour worked and per dollar spent.
Do you have any other advice for youth activists?
Life has been especially meaningful for me knowing that I’m doing what I can to bring about a better world for others. So please do consider making activism a big part of your life. It’ll do good for animals, and it’ll likely bring you a lot of satisfaction and joy. If you don’t think that you’d like to do full-time activism when you graduate from school, please consider taking a job that would allow you to donate back towards the cause. We can do so much good for animals by taking non-advocacy jobs and donating back to good advocacy organizations.
Thank you for caring! It’s always a huge pick-me-up when I meet or read of young activists using their time and talents to better the lives of others.
Thank you Jon for sharing your thoughts with us!