Lauren Ornelas

Lauren Ornelas1. How did you get involved with animal advocacy? You have been involved in animal advocacy for years. What is food justice, and can you tell us how you began to tie in animal advocacy with food justice?

I feel like I got involved with animal advocacy pretty young as I stopped eating animals because I didn’t want to cause them any pain or suffering. The thought of separating a mom from her babies really tore at me. However, in the more traditional sense (of joining an animal group), I started one when I was 17 in high school, in Texas.What we mean by food justice is that we look to see if there are ways we can help make sure that food in the entire supply chain (grown, picked, and distributed) is fair and that healthy food is accessible to everyone in all communities, and that also means affordable. And we are also a vegan organization, as we take the non-human animals into consideration as well. We want justice and equity for all. We do not feel one life has to be sacrificed for another. These issues are all connected.

2. In your interview with The Thinking Vegan, you state that you first went vegetarian in elementary school and “stuck to it” in high school. From your own experience, do you have any tips on being vegan while in school, especially in cultures where veganism is not well accepted?

For the most part, the US culture has yet to fully accept veganism. Being vegan in school is going to be tough for any young person – not just the food itself, but  possibly not being able to participate when parents bring cupcakes or other treats for other students. Tips would vary depending on whether or not a child is vegan because her or his parents are vegan or that child is the one who has made the choice. But most importantly, my advice would be to find some support in order to not feel alone.

3. Besides founding The Food Empowerment Project, you also started Viva!USA in 1999—both of which would have required a great deal of organizing and connection-building. How important do you believe community is in helping inspire change for the better?

I think it is absolutely critical that we never underestimate the power of grassroots activism. In my experience, whether it’s been working to get corporate changes or working to pass (or stop) legislation, the power and collective voices of the various individuals helped to create change and, honestly, it gave legitimacy to the cause for non-human animals. It wasn’t just a matter of lobbyists or paid activists – it was hundreds, if not thousands, of voices that helped to create positive, tangible change. Of course, it is not just about numbers, but smart strategy to achieve a particular goal.

4. From your experience in beginning organizations, do you have any tips for students wishing to start a vegetarian or vegan club, especially on community-building and getting people to get involved?

I think one of the most important things for someone starting any group to remember is that many groups start out just having a couple of people doing all of the work (some groups stay this way); try not to focus too much on how many members you have, but more on what you are accomplishing.

5. How do you think youth can advocate for truly “cruelty-free” food? I think it begins by being informed. As animal activists, we know people who “don’t want to hear about what happens to animals” or turn away. We must not be that way about other negative aspects of our food supply. Being informed is critical. And share what you learn with others.

Second is seeing if there are ways to make changes in your own food choices. Now, I know that it might be hard, such as when you still live at home and you don’t get to make all of the choices. But see above! And finally, join and support campaigns (human and non-human) that are working toward a more just food supply.

6. Can you tell us a bit about how your approach to activism has changed over the years, if at all?

This is a great question. I think, for many of us, when we learn about what is happening to animals raised for food, used in experiments, or used for entertainment, we are horrified. Although some people feel helpless, others feel that if we just tell people and show people the horrors of what is happening, they will change. If they don’t, we think they are selfish, cruel, etc. And we do actions — any actions — to get attention for the animals. Now I do believe that it is important that we are a voice for the animals as often as possible; however, I now find myself wanting to use my time organizing campaigns, as I want proof that what I am doing is making a tangible change. It is not enough for me to leaflet and hope thatsomeone goes vegan or to protest and not have a particular goal that I want to accomplish. I want to know that I am making a difference for the animals.

7. What is your favorite part of the work you do today?

Getting away from the computer! Okay, not just that. Meeting and speaking with activists from all walks of life who want to be informed, engaged, and active to make a difference for all animals – human and non-human alike.

8. Do you feel that you have made any “mistakes” over the years regarding activism? If so, what have you learned from them?

See #6. Haha. When I was still in high school, I had many holidays in which I told my family how selfish they were for eating animals. I remember doing this at one point and retreating to continue reading Free the Animals and not sitting at the table with them. One of the things I have learned is to move on. I mean, as most of us know (and kudos to those of you who have been successful), getting our families and close friends to change can be difficult. And I think that with people close to us, we might do better with leading by example as it might help from getting frustrated (which is understandable!). Just like we don’t want to focus our attention tabling or leafleting with those who are being verbally abusive, we should remember that in all cases, we don’t want people who are interested to pass us by. And that many people who ask a lot of questions and/or seem defensive might be so because they are struggling with their own conscience.

9. What are some problems you see in the movement for veganism?

That we can’t seem to remember that no one has “the answer.” And there might not just be one answer. There will probably be a variety of tools and tactics. Each individual will have to choose their own path and will still reach people and get them to change. But acting with integrity and thinking strategically will get us a lot further on this path.

10. How would you advise youth activists to deal with set-backs and animosity towards advancing their cause?

I know how tough this can be. I went vegan in Texas in the late ‘80s and, well, it wasn’t easy. The funny thing is that many of the comments I heard then I still hear today. I know one thing that would have helped me would have been to really understand the issues so I felt comfortable talking to people. At the same time, I wish I could have known to remind people that if they cared about me that they should respect my decision (which was based on compassion and that shouldn’t be so scary!). Groups like VegYouth are so important to help young vegans remember that they are not alone, so they can share stories and feelings and inspire one another to make a difference for the animals.

11. Do you have any other advice for youth activists?

Do not allow anyone to drain your enthusiasm for making a difference. And make sure that your actions are geared toward making a change and to not just feel like you are “doing something.” That is the trap that is best to avoid. And please don’t forget to connect with others, with me, and those with VegYouth. Remember you are never alone and there are so many to help you on your path as an activist.