Why are you vegan?
Many folks have been at it for much longer than I have, but it all really began back in 1993 for me. I loved and was fascinated by animals as a kid, but I never really thought much about animal abuse. Then in ’93, I saw a video of what happens to animals on factory farms and in slaughter plants, and I was horrified. Having lived with dogs my whole life—which admittedly was only 13 years long at that point—I looked into the terrified eyes of the animals in the video and saw my family dogs, struggling to free themselves from the cruelty that was obviously inescapable to any viewer. I imagined what I would have done to protect my dogs from such a fate, which of course was pretty much anything. In order to help reduce animal suffering, I became vegetarian at age 13, and about a month later, after learning that the cruelties involved in the egg and dairy industries are often even worse than those of the meat industry, I became vegan. So, I just passed my 20-year veganiversary!
What compelled you to start activism? Why did you decide to make activism your career?
A year or so after that, wanting to put my increasingly strong feelings about protecting animals into action, I formed a high school club called Compassion Over Killing. (Incidentally, I also formed several other high school clubs devoted to similarly noble pursuits, such as the Chips and Salsa Club and the Fruit Tasting Club. Fortunately COK was the only club to survive…) . When thinking about my career, I remember a mentor of mine, Colman McCarthy, said that asking kids what they want to do when they grow up is the wrong question to ask. They should be asked, “how are you going to serve? What are you going to do to pay the rent you owe for living on this planet—in other words, how are you going to make this world a better place?” I thought a lot about that and realized that my life was likely to have a lot more meaning if I chose a career that aimed to serve those who are less fortunate, in this case animals.
You started activism at a very young age. What were your early successes in activism? What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn from them?
My very early advocacy (at the beginning of my high school career) really revolved around doing vegan feed-ins at the school, where we’d pass out free veggie burgers along with literature about animal protection to fellow students. Sharing a positive message (who doesn’t like free food?!) helped win over a lot of fellow students. One mistake—among many—I made was really viewing it as all-or-nothing. People would either become vegans or they’d do nothing, I stupidly thought. Of course, I now recognize that lots of people care about animals and want to help them, but may not be ready to become vegans. We should be welcoming to everyone who wants to help animals, no matter where they are on their journey. That’s not to say we shouldn’t always encourage continuous improvement for all of us—myself certainly included—but it is to say that we shouldn’t have some orthodoxy or litmus test for people to do something helpful for animals.
So you started Compassion Over Killing as a teen, right? At such a young age, did you face any challenges? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
There are always many challenges when starting any group, especially when you’re a kid. One of the biggest challenges as a kid is of course just getting adults to take you seriously. I always think about this when working with teens now that I’m an adult (some of my friends may dispute how “adult” I am…). People like to say that teens are the future of our movement. I disagree: Teens are part of the movement today, so they’re not just the future—they’re the movement now, too!
What challenges does one face when starting something new (a new organization, a new school club, a new project, etc.)? How do you grow that something?
COK really grew once we started garnering media attention about our work. It was both good for animals to have their plight portrayed in the press, and good for COK to raise its profile and help legitimize the work. That attracted a lot of new members, which helped us grow far beyond being just a local group.
You work a lot with governments, corporations and other authority figures to make changes. What challenges do you face when dealing with these institutions and people? How do you overcome those challenges? What have you learned? How might students face similar problems when working with their school’s administration to bring about changes that promote veg choices?
Powerful institutions are made up of people. They’re humans, just like you and me, and they don’t like animal cruelty any more than we do. They may have differing priorities and motivations, but I’ve learned that corporations and governments usually aren’t heartless, mindless entities. They’re just people, and if you treat them with respect and make a persuasive, reasonable case for them helping protect animals, you just may get somewhere with them. Of course, you’re not going win every time. But no one does. The key is to keep trying. Nelson Mandela, who died this week, famously said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
What is your educational background and how did it prepare you to do the work you do today? How might students prepare for careers in animal activism?
I know it may seem crazy, but in my view, the real key to preparing for something is to do that thing—a lot. If you want to be a good runner, start practicing running and keep doing it a lot. If you want to be a good public speaker, start practicing giving talks and give a lot of them. And if you want to be a great animal advocate, you should start practicing animal advocacy. You can start by volunteering and interning at established groups, and even start your own group if you want, and see what works. You may suck at it at first (or maybe not!), but what runner starts out doing marathons? We all start somewhere, and practice makes perfect. Fortunately, there are great resources to give you a head start. Reading books like Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart and Matt Ball & Bruce Friedrich’s Animal Activist Handbook are excellent places to begin. To answer your question directly though, I studied peace studies and religion in college. Was it helpful for my career? Probably so. I liked learning about others who devoted their lives to helping others.
What are your favorite parts of your work?
No doubt that the absolute best part of my work is getting to work every day with a team of the most amazing, talented, dedicated, and effective animal advocates. My coworkers in the farm animal protection campaign at HSUS are an inspiration to me every day, and I learn so much from them. They’re more effective than I am, which can be a humbling experience, and it’s one reason I love working with them—they help me remember I should always be striving to be more effective. Of course, I also like the moral satisfaction of knowing that we’re making such a big difference in helping to reduce an enormous amount of suffering and building a more humane society. I don’t doubt for a second that future generations will look back in utter revulsion at the ways in which we so commonly abused animals in our time, and I’m honored to play any role in this historic struggle to end the atrocities we commit against our fellow creatures on the planet.
How did your friends and peers react to your veganism? How did they react to your activism? What advice would you give to a wannabe-vegan teen who is having trouble with the social aspects?
It’s definitely one of the biggest challenges. Teens desperately want to fit in. Who am I kidding—we all want to fit in with whatever social group we aspire to be a part of! It’s easier now than 20 years ago since people know what veganism is and there are more people into vegan eating. (The thought of people like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ellen, etc. touting the benefits of vegan eating back then would have been insanity.) But still, my main recommendation is to find at least some other vegan friends to help reinforce each other. It can be challenging to be the only one (of any category, vegan or otherwise) in your social group, so finding at least some other like-minded people to hang with can be helpful. And it goes without saying, but it’s good to avoid what some people joke about as “new-veganitis,” which is basically the tendency of some (not all, but alas, I was one…) new vegans to severely alienate non-vegans rather lead by positive example. My friend and Vegan Outreach head Matt Ball has some good pieces on humor and joy that are worth checking out. And Matt’s coworker Jon Camp (another member of VegYouth’s Advisory Board) also epitomizes these traits in spades.
Who has been your biggest inspiration? Have any books or philosophies or people been important to your development as an activist?
I’ve been influenced by so many people. In fact, nothing I’m doing is novel—I’m just following in the footsteps of many others. As you already know, my coworkers in the farm animal protection campaign at HSUS are a huge source of inspiration to me every day. I’ve named some of my inspirations in this interview already, but Henry Spira and Peter Singer have also had an enormous influence on my thinking about animal advocacy, as have Wayne Pacelle and Jason Gaverick Matheny. Nick Cooney and Erica Meier have both also taught me a lot. As far as historical figures I admire greatly (there are many), people like Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, and Mahatma Gandhi are toward the top of my list.
Do you have any other advice for youth activists?
Michaelangelo said that “the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” One great thing about youth is that they’re less burdened by skepticism about what’s possible. Let’s not forget the huge impact the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had during the 1960s civil rights movement. Or that Dr. King himself was in his 20s when he led the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. Young people are capable of transforming our society in monumental ways. It’s up to you to do it. The most important thing you can do is not wait for someone else to do it—start today.
Thank you Paul for sharing your thoughts with us!