What inspired you initially to become a vegetarian and then vegan? Has your motivation stayed constant over the years?
In an environmental science class I took in college, I found out for the first time where our food comes from: how terribly the animals are treated, how bad livestock production is for the environment, and that we could be healthier without — and have no need to eat — animal products. I loved meat, eggs, and dairy, but I could not justify causing so much suffering and damage for the sake of my taste buds. That was 15 years ago, when being vegan was actually kind of hard, and, while my perspectives on veganism have evolved a lot, my motivation has stayed the same.
It seems that, like many other vegans, you are interested in animal advocacy as well as a variety of other causes, such as the environment. How do you feel vegetarianism or veganism fits in with these other causes, especially for youth activists?
Going vegetarian really shifted my perspective on the world and on myself. At the time of that class, I was extremely clueless about many of the social issues that concern me today, and I definitely didn’t think that I could make any difference in the world. For me, learning about the huge impact of our food choices (on animals, the environment, world hunger, worker’s rights) was like a chain reaction to thinking about other issues and getting excited to learn more about what I could do about them. I started thinking “Well, if not eating meat is something good I can do, what other good things can I do – or what bad things can I stop doing – to help others?” If I could go 20 years of my life without knowing or considering that animals are tortured to make the food I ate everyday, what other problems in our world was I unknowingly contributing to?
It doesn’t make sense to me to just care about one issue. How can you care about animals but not care about the environment? Animals rely on the environment! And how can you care about animals but not care about people? People are animals! And these issues are very interconnected. One of my favorite activities that we do at YEA Camp is called Planetary Problem Puzzle, where campers have to find connections between issues that seem unrelated to each other, like homelessness and war or poverty and environmental destruction. If you know much about these issues, you can see so many ways they are interconnected and that helping one of these actually helps others.
Of course that’s not to say an activist should work on every one of the important social problems of our time. Focusing on one or two will probably help each of us be more effective, but that’s what I love about vegetarianism. No matter what issues in the world you devote your activism to, or whether you do activism at all, you still have to eat, and eating veg has so many positive impacts. I also think we lose credibility as activists, and sacrifice some of our own ethics, if we only care about one issue and are uninformed, unsympathetic, or apathetic about others. If we expect people who are passionate about other social justice issues to be vegetarian, we should also be looking at what we can do to bring about a compassionate world in other areas besides our food choices.
Do you think there’s a specific angle for animal advocacy and vegetarianism—like, for instance, the environmental argument– that is more likely to succeed in persuasion than others?
I think the animal argument is by far the most powerful to get people to go totally vegetarian or vegan. Diets that people go on for health reasons or to lose weight are notoriously hard for most people to stick to, and sadly many people are just not that motivated by their health – fast food chains and cigarette companies aren’t exactly going out of business. For me, even though I know that eating cookies and ice cream isn’t good for our health, if you’ve got some Uncle Eddie’s or Purely Decadent Peanut Butter Zigzag, honestly my concern for my health is mostly out the window! We all know that driving is terrible for the environment, yet I have a car (a Prius, but still). I sacrifice my environmental ethic out of convenience every time I drive. Yet, I don’t ever buy milk because I don’t want to directly support animal abuse.
But I actually think it’s much more important as advocates for us to encourage people to (at least at first) reduce their consumption of meat or animal products than it is to convince them to go totally vegan (hopefully they’ll decide that once they start eating veg), and so these different reasons then become more persuasive for different people. Nick Cooney’s new book Veganomics has research on this for more information. Animals and health are by far the most persuasive reasons for people.
You have a lot of experience in working with youth to train them in activism, including founding Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, which has helped inspire many young people to return to their community and advocate for social change—including vegetarianism. How does the camp encourage and empower attendants to advocate for change?
YEA Camp is based entirely on developing four core areas that I think are essential for any activist to really be effective: knowledge, skills, confidence, and community. If you know about a problem and learn about ways others have found to address it, you have a basis for getting involved. When you learn skills like we teach at camp, like how to run a successful school club, fundraising, grassroots outreach, using art and social media for social change, and communicating with people about your issue (especially people who disagree), you see ways you can take action more effectively. We all have self-doubt and limiting beliefs about ourselves, and when we can move beyond those fears to develop more confidence, we can be more courageous to speak up and take action that might be out of our comfort zone. And when you have made friends with like-minded people who support you and your cause, and learn about organizations working on that issue, you realize you are not alone, and you become way more likely to take action for what you believe in. We plan all of YEA Camp’s activities keeping one or more of these intentions in mind.
Unfortunately, at school, many young people are made fun of for caring and being involved in activism, but at YEA Camp we make it cool to care. We are so proud of our campers, and we treat them like the inspiring change-makers that they are. We also have an honor code that we take very seriously, and we create what a lot of our campers tell us is the safest space they’ve ever been in.
Your work seems to focus largely on adolescents and children. Do you see youth as having an unique role to play in bringing about societal change?
Young people have played a critical role in most social movements throughout history. I think this is in large part because prejudice and violence are learned, and young people either haven’t learned them yet, or at least the views are not as ingrained yet as they are for some older people. I also think that, from a young age, when people first learn about problems in our world, they almost always want to do something to solve them. But unfortunately, our society typically does not provide people with training or encouragement to take action on these problems. As a result, people start living like they can’t do anything about the problems they see in the world, and that leads to the apathy and cynicism that is so widespread in our society. I think if young people in large numbers were provided with training and support to make a difference in their communities at an early age, our world would be very different.
In your experience, how important is community in advocacy? How do you believe youth activists can find community?
I think it’s really important. As I said before, it is one of the four core areas YEA Camp is based upon developing. The problems in our world are daunting enough, even with a supportive community of activists. But if you feel like you’re the only person who really cares or is doing anything about an issue, it can feel so overwhelming and make people give up. Some ways youth activists can find community are volunteering with local or national organizations, joining community meetups, attending events like Earth Day festivals and VegFests, starting or joining a school club to find like-minded people, connecting with people online (joining the Veg Youth Alliance, duh), and of course coming to YEA Camp!
What role do you think social media plays in promoting vegetarianism and building a community for people to plug-in to, especially with the younger generation?
The Internet might be the best thing to ever happen for vegetarianism, for animals, and for activists everywhere. Members of the Veg Youth Alliance probably don’t remember life before Facebook, but the Internet and social media makes spreading the word about causes we care about so, so much easier. In just seconds, we can share websites, new undercover videos, pictures of our delicious vegan meal, or anything we want to inform people in our life about vegetarianism. It can be tricky to do this well – without overwhelming people or making them feel guilty or wanting to hide your feed – but it is an incredible tool.
As for building community, social media has had a huge impact there as well. If you’re a student who doesn’t know anyone else at your school or in your town who is vegetarian or activist-minded, it can feel like nobody in the world cares or agrees with you. But when you realize there are lots of other like-minded people around the country and world, it can be very reassuring and validating. I love that students in the Veg Youth Alliance share ideas and information about what has worked at their schools so that people can learn from each other and have support from others who are dealing with the same things. After camp, our Facebook groups are very active, which is a great way for people to stay in touch and support each other even from far away.
On the other hand, online communities sometimes can’t take the place of the real thing and having time together in person. We see one of the biggest benefits of YEA Camp as bringing like-minded people together to create a community of people to support each other on the causes they each care about.
In a feature about you on dfw.com, you are quoted as having said that, when you first went vegan, you went through a more “angry” and “judgmental” phase and that you came to realize that this was not an effective way of advocacy. How would you say new vegetarians should deal with this urge? In your opinion, how should new (and “old”) vegetarians deal with advocacy in general?
It is so common – and truly understandable – for people who care deeply about an injustice in our society to be angry. Kind of like the old saying, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” But the reality – and this is backed up by research – is that making people feel guilty is not effective at creating behavior change.
Our movement is based on compassion, but it really undermines our message if we ourselves are being judgmental and preachy. This can take a lot of practice and discipline, but I think the way to approach advocacy is striving to provide people with information and inspiration to take certain actions – but without judging, criticizing, or pressuring them to take these actions. We need to let people make their own decisions and not take it out on them if we don’t agree. At YEA Camp, we talk about looking at advocacy like advertising. Most people need to see a commercial a bunch of times before they go out and buy that product, and some people will never buy the product no matter what, so you just have to focus on making your message as effective as possible and reaching as many people as possible. It can be tempting to let this make you angry or frustrated, but you can’t allow yourself to get demoralized because 100% of people are not currently open to our message. You will never get 100% of people to agree on anything, so we just need to stay positive and give people time and be effective as we can.
I think many activist-minded people feel most angry when they don’t really know what to do about the problems they see. We suggest at YEA Camp that, if you ever feel stuck or demoralized, to look at those 4 core areas I mentioned earlier – knowledge, skills, confidence, and community – to see what specifically you could develop to be more effective. Once people start focusing on taking action that works, and they’ve developed these four areas more deeply, they will probably feel more optimistic, effective, and supported.
This is actually a very involved topic, and I’m currently working on a book on this exact subject that I hope will provide people with some more tools so they don’t make the same mistakes I did. Striving to be kind no matter what is a great practice.
You spent some time in Texas working for Mercy for Animals, where it seems the culture is very pro-meat. Do you have any tips in advocating for vegetarianism in these more “hostile” areas and situations, where vegetarianism may not be as accepted?
I was actually really surprised and impressed to find that people in Texas were a lot more open to vegetarianism than I would’ve thought. In part probably because of “Southern hospitality,” in my almost 2 years of doing vegetarian outreach in Texas, I never really experienced any hostility, though of course some people were vocal about not wanting to go veg.
My main advice for activists doing veg outreach is the same wherever you are: be kind to everyone and encourage people to take any action in the right direction.
I sometimes would have people say things to me like “Honey, I am never going to be a vegetarian.” Coming from a place of anger, you might get mad or argue that the person is heartless or criticize them in some way, but that’s really not helpful. Instead, I would say (in a really kind, positive way) something like, “You know, there’s this really awesome campaign that I think would be perfect for you. It’s called Meatless Mondays, where you get to try out new vegetarian meals every Monday and discover some great new foods. It would be great for your cholesterol and help some animals too. You could totally do that! Check out this Vegetarian Starter Guide for meal ideas.” Said like this, people feel encouraged instead of judged, and like there’s room for them to try even if they aren’t ready to commit all the way. I never once had anyone refuse a Veg Starter Guide when I said that.
I think activists are making a mistake if they are promoting veganism as an all-or-nothing choice. Of course that’s the best choice for animals, but very few people go vegan overnight, and if they thought that was the only choice most would choose to do nothing. I recognize that I am not “all or nothing” with some causes I care about – like I try not to drive that much, but I do drive; I try to only buy clothing secondhand, but I don’t buy everything secondhand, etc. I am not perfect even after so much research on these issues. Why should I expect others to be perfect when they are just learning?
Whenever I do advocacy, I try to get my foot in the door by finding something the other person can say “yes” to, like Meatless Mondays. Once they get started, they’re likely to discover how delicious veg food is and to keep going with eating this way, but if they felt like they needed to commit to going vegan right from the start, many wouldn’t.
How would you advise youth activists to deal with set-backs and animosity towards advancing their cause?
Again, this can require practice and discipline to train your mind, but we have to accept that not everybody is going to change to our way of thinking tomorrow. This is actually quite a heartbreaking fact because it means so much more suffering for animals, more pollution and environmental destruction, and other serious problems in our society. But it is a simple fact that, for me, while heartbreaking also provides some relief, like the fate of the world is not on my shoulders. We have to look at our activism as a marathon – not a sprint.
Again I suggest looking at advocacy like advertising. Not everyone is going to buy what you are selling (vegetarianism), and some people aren’t ready to buy (or commit) today but will in the future. I look at it like maybe somebody you talk to who isn’t convinced at the moment (maybe they’re even rude or totally against it) still might have gotten a lot out of what you said. Because of talking to you, they will probably be more open to a veg message when Ellen talks about it on her show, or when they see Mercy For Animals’ next investigation on the news or on your Facebook page. Or maybe not. You are planting seeds, and while you want to plant them as well as possible (like by giving people an effective message and being strategic in how you spend your time) you cannot allow yourself to get demoralized when those seeds are not growing as fast as we’d like.
You absolutely cannot let yourself take it personally or allow yourself to get demoralized or hooked by people not being supportive. Think about what would have happened if Martin Luther King or the abolitionists or the suffragettes had given up when people said something mean to them or they had a setback! Change happens slowly, but it’s happening, and it will keep happening if we stay positive and stick with it. Sometimes you have to just give yourself a pep talk or convince yourself to not give up.
I’ve had people tear the leaflet I handed them into little pieces of paper and throw it in the air. That might seem demoralizing, but I don’t think so anymore. Believe it or not, I actually think that when people get aggressive or angry at us for compassionately providing information about veg eating, it is not a bad thing. (When we are being preachy, angry, or judgmental, that’s different.) Many people have a lot of resistance to our message (there are so many social obstacles, nutrition misinformation, convenience issues at home and school, food preferences and habits, etc), and I think someone who is expressing animosity is on a deep level wrestling with the issues we are raising. Most people have never even thought about their food choices before. Everyone wants to feel like a good person, and yet most people don’t want to change their behavior – whatever it is. I like to think that someone who is angered by a message based in compassion is having the dust wiped off of their brains. Our positive perspective is chipping away at their resistance.
Setbacks are part of life. We tell our campers that if you don’t have people saying no to you, you’re probably not asking enough people or not asking people for enough. Of course you can and should always evaluate if there’s something you could do to be more effective, but practicing patience and acceptance while still taking action is critical.
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?
Oh man, I don’t know where to begin except to say that I’ve been at this for a long time, and trial and error is a great teacher. When I first went vegan, I had no idea what activism was. I just criticized people and made them feel guilty while they were eating, and I started distancing myself from everyone because I could not understand how people could continue to eat meat after learning about the cruelty involved. One thing that helped me was realizing that there are so many nice people whom I absolutely love that still eat meat, and I had to reconcile that not everybody was ready to make this change at this time.
Being angry is not sustainable for me or good for animals, so I’ve done a ton of work on myself to heal this anger. I’m a big believer in self-improvement, so I’m always reading books, going to workshops, reading articles, and looking at ways to become a better person and activist. I got involved in other social justice movements I cared about and also spent time in groups of with people who don’t agree with me, and I really practiced accepting them for who they are. A lot of those people have actually come around to be veg or mostly veg. One thing I’ve recognized is that being angry or demoralized is a choice. It might seem like our feelings just happen to us, but we have a choice about whether we get stuck in them or move beyond them and take action anyway.
I’ve been vegan and involved in activism long enough to see that our movement has grown so much. When I first went vegan, you used to need to order soy milk as a powder from a mail-order catalog! People didn’t even know what it was! And now you can get soy milk at every supermarket, most coffee shops, and lots of corner stores. We have to look at all of the reasons to be optimistic versus all the reasons to be pessimistic. I try to remember Martin Luther King’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Who has been your biggest inspiration? Have any books or philosophies or people been important to your development as an activist?
I can’t really say one person, as it has been a combination of a lot of people and organizations that have impacted me. I was initially inspired to go vegan by my Environmental Science professor – a guy who I don’t even think was totally vegetarian himself – but he biked to work in the snow, exposed us to so many new ideas, and encouraged each of us to take personal responsibility for the things happening on our planet. My parents also taught me to do what I think is right, and to have confidence in myself to do things that others might not agree with.
Maybe my biggest inspiration has been animals themselves. The first real activism I did besides donating after going vegan was an internship at Farm Sanctuary where I spent time with these innocent beings. They mean no harm and are just trying to go about their lives, and I’m inspired helping people tap into their natural compassion for animals.
The person who really introduced me to grassroots outreach in 2001 was Alka Chandna, who was a great activist in San Francisco when I was first getting started, and who has done great work for PETA for a long time since. When at first I didn’t know what to do, I just followed Alka’s lead and totally trusted her as a kind, intelligent, thoughtful person I could emulate. I think we all need someone like that.
Longtime activists like Paul Shapiro, Jon Camp, and Bruce Friedrich have inspired me with their strategic approach, incredible work ethic, total humility, kindness, and sense of humor. They don’t seem to have any ego about the work they do, and they are able to continue along year after year with such positivity, hard work, and effectiveness. I’m also inspired by amazing activists from other social justice causes, like Julia Butterfly Hill, Van Jones, Bill McKibben, Dennis Kucinich, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Gabrielle Giffords, Marianne Williamson, and others speaking out intelligently and passionately about injustice. I am inspired by celebrities who creatively use their fame for good. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are one of the best examples of this, and their music and lyrics are all over YEA Camp. I’m also inspired by my good friend Ari Nessel of The Pollination Project, and other philanthropists like him, who donate generously to fund great causes, making so much great work possible.
And these days I’m inspired by so many young people at YEA Camp and in the Veg Youth Alliance doing amazing things to make a difference – things I would never have thought of or had the courage to do at that age.
I highly recommend Hillary Rettig’s book The Lifelong Activist and Vegan Outreach’s advocacy essays, especially “A Meaningful Life,” by Matt Ball, which have been hugely impactful for me taking on a more mature, strategic, and positive approach, and Nick Cooney’s book Change of Heart, which analyzes research on why people make changes to their behavior. I also have done really life-changing trainings and workshops through Landmark Education, Challenge Day, and the Institute for Humane Education, and by practicing Nonviolent Communication, which all have had a huge impact on my development as an activist, as a person, and on launching YEA Camp.
What are your favorite parts and moments of your work?
I absolutely am in love with being at YEA Camp. I find it extremely inspiring and gratifying, and I so love hearing about activism that campers have done once they go home. Many tell us that they would never have done these things if not for YEA Camp.
In my work for vegetarian issues, I love that moment when someone goes from being totally against it to actually considering what you are saying, and of course seeing or meeting people making changes in their diet.
How can students advocate for vegan choices?
There’s so much students can do. From raising awareness through leafleting, tabling, social media, writing for the school newspaper, or school presentations to more involved things like starting a club, meeting with the food service director, and getting people to speak up and advocate for more veg options in the cafeteria, the possibilities are endless.
Two great resources to check out are YEA Camp’s Top 10 Tips for Promoting Vegetarianism (tip #1: Be nice to people!) and Mercy For Animals’ Guide to Creating Veg-Friendly Cafeterias.
At YEA Camp, we also encourage people to look at what they are good at and what they like to do and to see if they can apply either of these things to advocacy. Someone who loves to bake might want to advocate for veganism in a way that’s different from someone who is a great graphic designer. We are more likely to stick with things we genuinely enjoy and are good at. We also talk about doing an “effectiveness analysis” to look strategically at taking action that makes as big difference as possible with as small amount of time or money as possible, and to be careful not to spend a lot of time or money on things that don’t make much of an impact.
Do you have any other advice for youth activists?
Get active with the Veg Youth Alliance, come to YEA Camp, be proud of yourself, practice being nice to everyone no matter what, and – I know it sounds cliché, but – focus on the positive, don’t give up, and take care of yourself.
We are making great progress. It obviously isn’t happening as fast as we’d like, but we can’t let ourselves get demoralized. When you get down, try to focus on the positive, like the increasing availability of veg options, growing awareness of veg eating, statewide laws protecting animals, Meatless Mondays in school districts around the country. And next time you start doubting yourself, make a list of all the ways you are proud of yourself. List your accomplishments and the things you are good at, that you’ve gotten compliments on, and that you like about yourself, and start focusing on these things instead of any negatives.
At YEA Camp, we ask campers multiple times to look back at those four areas I mentioned – knowledge, skills, confidence, and community – and to see where they still need to grow. I see specific ways I would benefit from growth in all of those areas! It is up to each of us to figure out what we need to get better at and then to get better at it. If, for example, you want to start a club at your school, but you’re shy and you don’t know how, work to overcome your shyness by speaking up even when you’re scared, and learn about how to start a school club by checking out our tips, working with members of the Veg Youth Alliance who have experience with school clubs, and asking others for advice. If the club isn’t successful at first, keep at it and keep learning. Keep looking at what you can do to have the biggest impact, and – no matter what someone says, including that little voice in your head that might be telling you that you can’t – keep taking action to become the person you want to be and to create the world you want to see.