Wednesday, October 26, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Michelle Taylor Cehn

One of the things I love most about this feature is getting to know the people I admire a little bit better. Michelle Taylor Cehn is one of those people I have admired from afar for years and today, I feel so grateful to be able to shine a little spotlight on. Michelle is a prolific and gifted video journalist, photographer, web presence, social media maven (making videos for organizations like Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary and Mercy for Animals, to name a few), and author. (Review of The Friendly Vegan Cookbook will be coming to Vegan Street soon.) With a friendly, welcoming voice that speaks truthfully about animal cruelty, Michelle strikes an admirable balance of being understanding while never wavering from her commitment to promoting veganism. With her new The Dairy Detox program, co-founded with Allison Rivers Samson, I thought there was no better time than the present to draw some attention to this amazing mover-and-shaker. I am so honored to feature Michelle as this week's Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I’ve been a huge animal lover forever. I went vegetarian when I was just 8 years old, when I first made the connection between the meat on my plate and my animal friends that I loved. The moment I made that connection, I pushed away my plate, turned to my mom, and said I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. She said, “Okay honey—that’s called a vegetarian.” I didn’t know anyone else who didn’t eat meat at the time, let alone that there was a word for it. I’m sure my parents thought it would be a short phase, but from that point on I got used to making my own food (lots of cereal and pasta—haha), and I never looked back. Over time I learned about factory farming and how terribly animals were treated in the meat industry, and I became an eager activist. I started animal rights groups at my high school and college where I gave speeches to my student body, hosted animal rights documentary screenings, held bake sale fundraisers, leafleted, hung animal rights posters all around campus, and more.

I was half-way through college when I picked up a copy of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer at a used book store. That book opened my eyes to the horrors of the dairy and egg industries, and I felt I had no choice but to go vegan. It was a challenge at first, and I assumed it would be a lifelong sacrifice I would make for the animals. I had no idea that becoming vegan would ultimately be the best thing for my health, that it would actually expand my palate and food options, and that it would become easy, delicious, and fun! That’s why I am now so passionate about being a resource for others who are transitioning to vegan.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I really just needed the information. I wish someone had said to me, “Michelle, did you know that calves are torn from their mothers at birth so that we can drink the mother’s milk instead?” And so forth, with all the other facts I pieced together over time.

Documentaries and video clips always had a huge impact on me as well, so if someone had shared an undercover investigation video with me sooner, it would have moved me to act in an instant.

Finally, it would have been amazing to have role models in my life who could have led the way, so I didn’t have to navigate the path on my own.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
I’ve done many different forms of activism in my day, but what I’ve found to be the most effective is leading by upbeat, positive example, and showing that being vegan is delicious, accessible, happy, and enjoyable.

I used to post graphic videos and dramatic posts on Facebook all the time, and saw very little actual change in my network of friends. But in more recent years I’ve kept my posts really positive. I focus on the benefits rather than the unhappy realities, and I have been amazed—like, really floored by all the messages I’ve received from people who I haven’t talked to in many years, who want to try vegan for one reason or another and turn to me for help. They know I’m a no-judgement zone, and a resource who will encourage them every step of the way. Friends of mine who have gone vegan since meeting me continually tell me how my non-pushy, positive and supportive attitude is what helped them give vegan a shot.

Something as simple as changing my language from: “Did you know that you kill X animals a year when you eat meat?” to “Did you know that you can save X animals a year when you choose vegan?” has helped me reach people in a more welcoming and effective way.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Every single vegan, vegetarian, and veg-curious person is a strength of the vegan movement. We are collectively what we each individually bring to the table, and it’s really exciting that as veganism is rising in popularity, so are our cumulative talents and strengths.

We each hold an incredible capacity to change the world, but many of us haven’t tapped into that potential yet. That’s why I’m so passionate about promoting advocacy and sharing everyday activism resources. I am a huge supporter of leafleting with Vegan Outreach, sharing online memes like those you create at Vegan Street and videos like those I create at World of Vegan, and I love new initiatives like the Vegan Chalk Challenge started by James DeAlto. These are simple actions that anyone, anywhere can do in an hour to amplify their impact on the world.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
At this point, with the internet and social media at our fingertips, anyone, anywhere, can be a voice for animals. We all have a loudspeaker in front of us. The only hindrance is our own hesitation to use it.

Make a video about why you’re vegan. Organize a vegan potluck. Plan a leafleting outing with friends. Volunteer with your favorite nonprofit. Intern at an animal sanctuary. Invite your family over for a home-cooked vegan meal. Bring vegan cupcakes to work. Wear a compassionate message on your t-shirt. There are endless opportunities to save lives—now it’s up to you—yes, you, who is reading this right now—to go do it! Take your talents and the tools available to you and put them to work for the animals who otherwise have no hope. 

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Oh man, I’m glad you asked this question, because I really need to work on this! It’s been on my to-do list for a decade! Truthfully, I handle every conversation and interaction differently. It all depends on the vibe I’m getting from the person I’m talking to, and I always respond genuinely with whatever comes to mind.

That said, I encourage anyone looking to refine their communication about vegan and animal rights issues to check out Bruce Friedrich and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau—they both have excellent elevator pitches and responses for every situation imaginable. In fact, I started a “VegAnswers” expert video series on World of Vegan for this very reason! I never felt like I was expressing myself as effectively as I wanted, so I began filming videos with experts who give concise, articulate answers to the most commonly asked vegan questions. You can check out Colleen’s answers to the most common vegan questions here, and the full VegAnswers series here. Many more VegAnswers videos are coming soon, so I hope you’ll subscribe!

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Philosopher, author, speaker, and educator Peter Singer has had a tremendous impact on my life and my advocacy. I discovered his work in college, when I picked up his book Animal Liberation, the same book that inspired me to go vegan. Through that book I learned all about the utilitarian philosophy, which became a guiding force in my life, and has made me a much more effective animal advocate.

This is my favorite article of his that I like to re-read every so often. If everyone read this article, I imagine our world would be a much kinder place.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I’ve recently made a big shift that has helped me tremendously with preventing burnout. I used to feel the need to do it all. To show up at every protest, be there for every vegan event, and volunteer whenever I was asked (and even when I wasn’t). As a very extreme introvert, this was incredibly draining for me.

I started to realize that while I personally felt guilty any time I missed a demo, or didn’t show up at an event, for animals—in most cases—it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. I realized that I could have a much bigger impact on animals by doing the forms of activism that utilize my individual strengths and that also fuel and nourish me. For me, this consists of producing vegan videos, crafting creative online resources, and working on innovative projects to inspire positive change.

It was hard to pull back from the “social activism” scene that I was once such a huge part of, and it took a lot of practice to learn how to say “no.” But here’s the thing. When you say “no” to one thing, you are saying “yes” to another! Here are just a few of the exciting projects I’ve been able to release because of this shift:

The Dairy Detox—a 12-day online video course that I created with my partner Allison Rivers Samson that teaches people how to thrive dairy-free. 
The Friendly Vegan Cookbook—a vegan recipe e-book that I crated with my friend Toni Okamoto.

Draw My Life: A Cow in Today’s Dairy Industry
—a video illustrated by vegan artist Sooyeon Jang that shows the life of a cow in today’s dairy industry without the use of graphic images that make so many turn away.

And of course, when you start to feel overwhelmed, depleted, or burned out, a visit to an animal sanctuary is one of the most nourishing things you can do for your soul. I visit farmed animal sanctuaries often, and can say that for me, there’s nothing quite as healing as rubbing noses with a cow.

If you’re struggling with burnout, I hope you’ll also check out this phenomenal article by Mark Hawthorne with tips for avoiding activist burnout.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
The dairy industry causes me the most heartbreak, not only because it’s one of the most cruel to the animals, but also because I know that there is absolutely no need for dairy—and that most people would want no part in it if they only knew everything that was involved.

I spent the past year working on a program designed to help people who think they could “never give up cheese” or “never live without milk” find dairy-freedom and love it. It’s also a great resource for vegetarians who are ready to take the next step. It’s called The 12-Day Dairy Detox, and I hope you’ll check it out and share it with friends and family who need a little support making the transition!

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan means...”

that I don’t value my life above anyone else’s.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Critical Herbivore...

Because you know when you suggest going to a vegan restaurant with your meat-eating friends, this is what they are expecting...

Monday, October 17, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie with Zsu Dever...

Zsuzsanna “Zsu” Dever is a mother, longtime vegan, popular blogger, prolific recipe developer and author published by the wonderful Vegan Heritage Press. With an inventive new cookbook out that explores many applications of that magical ingredient we once called “bean water” and poured down the drain, Aquafaba: Sweet & Savory Vegan Recipes Made Egg-Free with the Magic of Bean Water, Zsu shows again why she is vegan tour de force. With gorgeous, fun and enticing recipes and abundant photos, Zsu’s new cookbook puts the fab in aquafaba, demystifying this new egg replacement and creating a lot of lovely food in the process, including things that haven't been so easily found in the vegan world, like nougat, lemon meringue pie and challah bread, as well as a good measure of tantalizing savory recipes. (I will have a review up next week on Suffice it to say that Zsu is another example of a creative talent who is helping to shift people into the vegan world by using her passion, dedication and considerable skills. I am thrilled that we could highlight Zsu as a Vegan Foodie this week.

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

That’s very sweet of you to say so! My family has been in the restaurant business for over 500 years. Although I grew up in a restaurant-setting myself, I was determined not to follow down that path. My dad was a chef and my mom worked front of house, so I had great foodie influences. They cooked homey, delicious foods that people came from all over to enjoy. Sadly, none was vegetarian let alone vegan, but the pride and ownership of cooking delicious food was installed in me early on. When we went vegan about 16 years ago, I realized that we couldn’t stay that way unless either my husband or I learned to cook vegan – and cook it well. It just so happened that I was the logical volunteer.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

My book is full of childhood Hungarian favorites. At home we cooked more plant-based, because most cultures historically have (except the US and even they habituated toward heavily meat-based eating only in the last 80 or so years), so those meals I share in my books, but the ones that were meat-centered I have given the vegan makeover. Those include stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, and my very favorite, Brasoi – fried potatoes and meat in a heavy garlic sauce. My children enjoy Hungarian favorites to this day and have learned to make them themselves.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

Wow. That is tough! We’ve traveled all over the US because my husband is a computer consultant, so we have had our fair share of amazing food. I love spicy food so I’ll go with Pad Prik King, but I have to say that I cannot so easily discriminate and say it is the best meal I’ve ever had. The world is full of amazing vegan dishes; one has to only look. Pad Prik King is a pretty simple Thai dish made with plenty of red curry paste and kaffir lime leaves. It has vegetables such as green beans and red bell peppers and tofu, although the whole thing can be made with just vegetables. The vegetables are sautéed in the curry paste and it is seasoned with tamari and lime leaves. Of course, it had to appear in one of my books!

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

I would make it for my mom and I would make her stuffed cabbage. She always loved stuffed cabbage and even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she never stopped eating animals. We had just become vegan and my vegan “skills” were non-existent. If I could make her a favorite meal that was animal-free, perhaps she would see that vegan foods are delicious and healthy and, just maybe, she would forgo all the suffering she continued to contribute to even in her last days. In turn, she might have been able to stay with us a little bit longer.

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

I think becoming vegan is a journey, one that goes through many transitions. Unless people adopt veganism for health reasons and start out as either raw or whole food, plant-based, there is a learning curve. As far as I’m concerned it is equally challenging to jump straight into WFPB or raw, but then at least the person knows what to expect in terms of flavor. By a journey, I mean that the taste buds go through transition. People who become vegan for ethical, environmental or moral reasons (or believe that veganism is itself healthy just by virtue of avoiding animal products), typically start with plant-based meats such as Gardein or Beyond Meat, but then they don’t take the time to season their vegetables and grains. Season your food because once you go vegan you are automatically cutting out processed meats and cheeses, which are full of sodium. If you go to the extent of not seasoning your food thinking you need to cut salt out of your diet as well, you are basically shocking your taste buds into bland-ville. Food just won’t taste like anything and you will blame the vegan food instead of blaming your lack of seasoning. Once your taste buds have adjusted to the reduced sodium from the cutting of processed meats and cheeses then you can further lower your sodium in your cooking, but don’t do it prematurely.

Secondly, learn to properly cook with tofu and learn to make a great seitan.

Thirdly, learn to cook vegetables. Roast it, braise it, sauté it, steam it, etc. Just learn to cook with it because there are thousands of different kinds of vegetables. Sample them all.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

Aquafaba for one and yogurt for another. I love making homemade yogurt and using it in all kinds of recipes, from cheese to dressing to cakes and bread.

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?

Hungarian (of course!), Ethiopian, Mexican and Korean. At the moment. Oops, is that four?

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

My biggest inspiration has always been and always will be the animals. To that end, Robin Robertson, Bryanna Clark Grogan, Tamasin Noyes, PETA, PCRM, Peter Singer and Erik Marcus have all paved the way.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Boy, I don’t know how to pick just one. If I did it would have to be veganism itself. Whether people become vegan for their health, for the animals or the planet, it just makes the most sense for all involved. We should have a vegan world because that is the surest way to become in touch with other beings who are invisible if we continue to consume them. Once that connection is made, it is easier to make other connections regarding our abuse of animals for other reasons. At least that is my hope. Sadly, many people who become plant-based for one reason or another, either fall back to eating animals or never make that connection.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

To me, veganism is the ultimate way to live your life, to benefit you and all those around you. We have just a few degrees of separation from any other being on this earth and veganism is the only way to live that respects all those who we touch, whether directly or indirectly. Veganism has to be the future or, as a society, we are doomed to be without one. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

This is all I've got...

So I didn't want a week to pass without an update but I really don't have time for anything more than this pathetic excuse for a post. I have been slammed with Chicago VeganMania (it was a great success, by the way, and, whew!, it is off my plate again!) and then, I had to hit the ground running right away for some pieces that I'm writing for my favorite little glossy. Oh, and maintain Vegan Street and keep my humble home from collapsing in on itself. This has all added up to an overtaxed, maxed out mama. I will be back with regular content starting next week. In the meantime, how about looking at some happy pictures and getting a good smile?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Justin Van Kleeck

Justin Van Kleeck is an activist, animal caregiver and co-founder of the inspiring Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary along with his partner, Rosemary. As a pioneer of the microsanctuary movement, Justin is helping the average person who wants to start rescuing animals understand that it doesn’t need to take many acres and a big bank account. Using the example of TCfA, a small sanctuary in central North Carolina, which mainly focuses on chickens, he is helping people to not defer their dreams until when the stars magically align and their lottery number gets called but helping them to learn how to start a sanctuary in the here and now. It may not be a massive sanctuary but that may also be perfect.

A former academic, Justin is a freelance writer and editor, working on a variety of projects from the Project Intersect zine to his pro-intersectional blog, Striving with Systems, and is involved with different vegan endeavors in advisory roles. I am so glad that Justin could take some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts with us today. He is a true Vegan Rock Star. (My apologies for the weird spacing here that is making my perfectionist tendencies short-circuit: it appears to be a Blogspot issue.)

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My connection to other animals started at a very early age—early enough that it seems like something that was “always there.” I grew up in a middle class American family that fed on fast food, junk food, and meat-laden meals (though I am proud to say I always loved vegetables and fruits!), and I had no inkling that eating differently was an option until my teens. I remember trying to go vegetarian in middle school, which lasted about a week. I lived with my father and, since we were on welfare due to his work-related disability, we relied heavily on others for our food access (which is not an excuse by any means, but it contextualizes the scope of my lived experience with food, dietary norms, and prevailing culture). Anyway, fast forward a few years: I went vegetarian as a high school senior and stuck with it into college. My transition to veganism happened after a period of reflection on the impact my lifestyle choices had on other beings and the planet. It was my sophomore year at Virginia Tech, shortly before my twentieth birthday. I forced myself to face the hard question of whether or not I could accept consuming products that might, in any way, have caused suffering to an animal (this was many years before I knew the full extent of the horrors of dairy and eggs). The answer was “no,” and I was vegan. I have never looked back.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

This is a very hard question that I think about a lot as an activist, and especially now that most of my activism and advocacy focuses on chickens and other farmed animals in the context of rescue and sanctuary work. My positions have shifted seismically over the last seventeen years, but throughout, my concern has always been with ethics. What I wish I had known as a pre-vegan, and what would have gotten me to where I am now much more quickly, is just how deeply the process of domestication, selective breeding, and genetic manipulation has made the problem of exploitation a biological (and therefore inescapable) one. So many vegans tend to focus on conditions and treatment when it comes to humans’ use of non-human animals. But what my partner, Rosemary, and I have realized so clearly is that whether they are crammed in a battery cage or frolicking on the range, in an industrial shed or in a sanctuary barn, farmed animals are never free from the cruelty of domestication. “Laying” breed hens, who lay as many as twenty times the eggs that their wild ancestors lay, are just one example of this. But it shows up in every domesticated species: their biology has been twisted, shaped, and stunted for the specific purpose of providing benefit to humans. They have lost the true liberation of their free-living cousins—or I should say, they have had that liberation stolen from them.

If I had understood the true horror wrought upon the bodies of these innocent beings, I would like to think my path to veganism would have been much shorter, and I would not have wasted my time pretending that bigger cages and toothless regulatory programs actually meant anything.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I wish I knew what was truly effective, but at this point I feel that grounding everything we talk about and advocate for in the stories of our family members has the biggest impact and is the most ethically consistent. By sharing their lived experiences, from the horrible situations they have escaped to the constant care they need once they arrive at our microsanctuary, I find it easier to frame larger issues in making a case for veganism. I am not convinced that a focus on astronomical numbers— for example, the nearly ten billion land animals slaughtered annually for food—creates a visceral connection to the reality of their suffering. Getting to know one individual, however, puts the entire system of exploitation into a perspective we can grasp and respond to. This personalizing potential of individuals is why non-vegans can get so frantic about saving one pig or cow who escapes a slaughterhouse, all the while munching on a bacon cheeseburger.

So, we work very hard to promote the understanding that those billions and billions are all comprised of individuals, each one unique and amazing and worthy of consideration. For Triangle Chance for All, this general philosophy informs a lot of our discussion of the residents, and Rosemary takes fantastic photographs that convey so well their personalities and lives. These are both very important (and very deliberate) methods of presentation, through which we seek to scale down how vegans and non-vegans alike see farmed animals…so that we can then recognize the true tragedy of their suffering and death.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Vegans actually give enough of a shit to actually try to do less harm to other animals. That means something.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Since I do so much direct caregiving and rescue for animals through our microsanctuary but also stay involved in the pro-intersectional vegan movement as well (through my work on Striving with Systems primarily), I see multiple sides of the vegan movement directly.

Firstly, veganism often seems to be shifting dangerously into the realm of consumerist lifestyle solipsism, which creates a general sense that swapping out what we buy is central to being vegan. Absorbing that capitalistic narrative risks deflating the inherently radical core of ethical veganism. For the long-term success of veganism, I believe that we have to focus on ethics and advocating for the end of all forms of use, not welfare reforms, and do a better job of talking beyond (but inclusive of) domesticated species so we recognize the importance of individual autonomy as a gauge for freedom. We need to be better about creatively engaging non-vegans in those discussions, for sure, but it has to be central. And a big part of doing this means understanding the subtleties of speciesism, and committing to an anti-speciesist position as a vegan activist.

Along with that, I think the vegan movement is doing a horrible job of shaking off the cultural history of white patriarchal society. I have been privileged to work closely with vegans of color, such as Aph Ko and Christopher Sebastian McJetters, along with others who are creating so much fantastic knowledge and grassroots community. Yet often the very best the popular vegan movement can do is link them in posts and talk about “inclusivity.” I am convinced that veganism has to be radical in every way, which means working towards collective liberation for all beings. That means we need to start recognizing all of the work being done outside of “the spotlight,” listening to these communities rather than trying to subsume them or silence them (please stop saying “All Lives Matter,” folks), and getting out of the way as they build intersecting but in many ways independent vegan movements. A few examples I would like to highlight are: Aph Ko & Black Vegans Rock, Grow Where You Are & Maitu Foods, PEP Foods, The Vegan Hip Hop Movement, and Women of Color Speak Out.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

All beings want to live and be free, and humans have no right to take life, liberty, or bodily autonomy from them. Oh, and you cannot “love” someone while slitting their throat. EVER.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I wish I could concretely pinpoint specific resources in my evolution. Perhaps what might be more relevant is a list of resources that are definitely important for me personally in my current work:

·      Free from Harm
·      Chicken Run Rescue
·      Aph Ko & Black Vegans Rock
·      Lee Hall
·      A Well-Fed World

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Clean up chicken shit as a meditative practice! Honestly, watching a hen who is at death’s door slowly come back to life, or catching a rooster who has been dumped and would have died in short order and getting him to safety, or busting your ass to coordinate a rescue, transport, and placement for someone whose time is almost up, are all very good ways to stay motivated. A lot of small-sanctuary folks, like us, are charged with doing everything and then some—holding outside jobs, caring for animals 24/7, doing outreach, fundraising, and engaging in rescue, to name a few—while also shouldering what is possibly the biggest challenge: losing family members, even when every possible effort has been exhausted to make them well again. Sanctuary life is emotionally traumatizing, to a degree that I could never have grasped before getting into it, even while it is without doubt the most rewarding, fulfilling, and important work I have ever done in my entire life (one of these days I will use my doctoral diploma as a liner for a chicken crate!). I wish I could give good advice for this question, but I am not adept at “self-care” and taking breaks; there is too much to do. I eat some, I sleep some, and that seems to be working so far.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Chickens. They are amazing. Even with everything we have done to them, they are awe-inspiring. Learn about who they are, their horribly distorted biology, and the standard practices involved in keeping them at any scale. We know so little about them, still, and most of what we know is pathologically influenced by husbandry and production standards, so there is much work to be done here (and this is fairly true for all farmed animal species).

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with James DeAlto

One of the things that is most exciting to me about veganism today is all the activism and outreach coming into the movement from so many different points of entry. Chefs, lawyers, academics, artists, accountants - you name it - people are using their talents and skills for leveraging change and the cumulative effect is really starting to add up.

James DeAlto of the Vegan Chalk Challenge is one such individual who has not only brainstormed a new (and yet not-so-new) way of getting the word out about compassionate living but also built a real momentum behind it, empowering people to create their own colorful and effective messages right where they live. I am a big believer in the importance of community when it comes to our well-being and longevity as advocates for the animals and the VCC fills this human need powerfully. I also love the simplicity and accessibility of the VCC, how it really enables people their own spin on messaging in colorful, bold and smart ways.

On October 1 and 2, please consider participating in the first Worldwide Vegan Chalk Bomb in your community. (If you’re in Chicago, come to Chicago VeganMania, too!) Got an hour? Pick up a box of chalk and join this creative movement. I am honored to be able to spotlight James and the VCC today. He is a true Vegan Rock Star.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I grew up mostly in rural Wisconsin where some of my friends were farmers. I was about 12-years-old when a buddy took me to a huge pit on his dairy farm where the bodies of at least 100 baby calves had been discarded. It was like nothing I’d ever seen - dead babies piled 10-feet high, rotting, covered in flies. I had to cover my mouth and nose to keep out the stench.  I was shocked, but also unsure what to think. I distinctly remember my friend laughing at my disgust, which confused me even more, but I didn’t ask questions.

Several years later, I was taken taken on a high school field trip to the local butcher shop. My classmates and I were instructed to gather in a circle as a pig was dragged out to be slaughtered within a few feet of us. Before the gruesome act was carried out, I felt compelled to step away. From the corner of my eye, I could see the butcher wielding a circular saw to behead the terrified pig. The pig was fully-conscious as it happened. I was mortified. What was especially disturbing was the fact that some of my friends cheered and seemed genuinely delighted by what they had witnessed. When it was finished, I glanced over to see the pig’s head flopping on the blood-soaked ground. I never went so far as to question the ethics of what I had witnessed, but it was the first time I had ever seen anything so violent.

While I never identified as an “animal lover,” these experiences planted seeds that later helped me think more about what moral obligations I had to other animals. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that a girlfriend asked me to watch a PETA video. It was enough to make me go vegetarian on the spot. I didn’t make the egg or dairy connection, but I gave up meat for ethical reasons.

Two years into my vegetarianism, I developed an autoimmune disease unrelated to my diet. I had lost a lot of weight and muscle, which my family and doctor attributed to a protein deficiency. I remember feeling I had little choice the matter, so I compromised by opting to consume animal flesh from local, “humane” farms. Regrettably, it wasn’t long before I went one step further and resumed eating animal products without any consideration for their source. For at least the next ten years, I maintained a steady diet of McDonald’s double-cheeseburgers and Red Baron Pizza.  

Not until 2009 was I reminded of why I had once gone vegetarian. My former wife, Andrea, came home from visiting her aunt and declared she was going vegan.  While away, she had read a book called The Pig Who Sang to The Moon. It’s a book about the emotional lives of farmed animals that moved her enough to immediately clean out the fridge and pantry of all animal products. I was supportive, but not enthusiastic about making the same decision for myself. Instead, I thought it would be okay if I just went back to the “humane meat.” Andrea asked me to watch Earthlings and do some research on I did both and subsequently cried my eyes out, but part of me was still desperate to find a loophole that would allow me to continue eating the foods I had associated with so much pleasure.  

While Andrea continued to set the example, I was able to give up meat easily, but it took me a few months to swear off my addiction to McDonald’s .99-cent ice- cream sundaes. I would stop by the drive through after work, have my guilty pleasure, then hide the evidence. My conscience would eventually catch up with me as I had to force myself to re-watch the dairy segment in Earthlings. For a second time, I broke down in tears and knew I had to go vegan or live with the guilt of hurting animals for my own pleasure. It was a decision I made with considerable reluctance, but I felt good knowing that my actions would be aligned with my deepest values. I didn’t realize until much later that it would turn out to be the single best decision of my life.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I’m one of those people who responds to graphic images. If someone had shown me Earthlings years ago, I think I would have moved toward veganism more quickly. That’s why I love what groups like Anonymous for The Voiceless are doing. They’re using graphic footage on iPads to show people on the streets what’s actually being done to animals. I’ve participated in this kind of outreach and have seen the impact it has on people. If someone had told me years ago that veganism was not only a moral imperative, but also a big part of solving major issues like world-hunger, global warming and our human health crisis, I think I would have considered it much sooner.

I also think it would have been a huge help if I had been invited to events where I was surrounded by vegans. It’s so important that we keep building loving, supportive, open communities where the vegan-curious can connect and receive appreciation for every effort they’re making to fully embrace veganism. 

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I try to communicate honestly and to be a compassionate listener, but I think it’s my passion as an activist that my pre-vegan friends and family respond to most. I don’t worry so much about converting people anymore. I’ve learned to detach myself from outcomes and not spend too much time/energy on a single person. It’s too exhausting. I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten lots of people to talk about veganism in my own neighborhood with relatively little effort. I prefer the idea of counting the number of seeds I plant rather than the number of converts I personally get to go vegan. Right now, my mission is to make veganism much more visible in public spaces and inspire others to do the same.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Right now, we’re seeing more and more vegans come to the critical understanding that all oppression is linked. It took me a few years to learn this basic truth. I believe we’re moving toward a more expansive vegan philosophy and praxis which are essential if we’re going to build solid relationships with other social justice movements. That’s what we’re working toward with our local grassroots group, Vegans for Peace.

I’ve been incredibly inspired by the work of people like pattrice jones and VINE Sanctuary, Christopher Sebastian McJetters – an amazing activist on many fronts – lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project and her husband, author Mark Hawthorne. I’m so appreciative of the work Dawn Moncreif and A-Well-Fed World are doing to address the direct links between world-hunger and animal exploitation. Justin VanKleeck and the brilliant team from Striving Within Systems are on the cutting edge of critical thought in our movement.  Aph and Syl Ko from Aphroism and Black Vegans Rock are doing incredible work to foster greater diversity and awareness of the experiences of people of color in our movement. I love the work of Project Intersect and am a big fan of feminists like Carol Adams, Lisa Kemmerer and Kim Socha. The list would be so much longer if I were to give everyone their due credit, but it’s people like these who have been instrumental in helping me and so many others to better understand how oppression actually works.  

In terms of outreach, I see social media as the single best thing that’s happened for our movement. We’re reaching more people than ever and it’s become so easy to connect with like-minded people. Facebook is, by far, the most important tool in my activist toolbox. I see all the organizations and activists capitalizing on the power of social media - and we’re beginning to get a lot more sophisticated with it. The Vegan Chalk Challenge would have been impossible without Facebook.   

It’s hard to nail down what our biggest strength is. Locally, our biggest strength has been community and the efforts of some very dedicated activists to bring people together. Without ordinary, everyday people feeling welcome and inspired to join our movement, we will remain isolated and ignored.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

I don’t think most vegans give enough consideration to the urgency of our movement. Right now, I still see too many vegans focused primarily on gourmet vegan food or activists spending precious time having fruitless debates as opposed to doing real-world activism. I think street-level activism can be scary and most people don’t want to rock the boat. Even handing out leaflets or writing a chalk message comes with some risk of ridicule. But, if we’re going to be taken seriously, we need to start organizing, coming together in huge numbers and demanding attention for the billions of animals who are enduring a living hell at this very moment. To address the obstacles that prevent people from getting active for animals, I promote easy, everyday activism that comes with little risk – things like dropping vegan leaflets in grocery carts, chalking, Posters Against Cruelty and the Vegan Sticky Note Challenge. Again, I think it’s essential that we each ask ourselves what we would want done for us if we were an animal locked in a cage and start making greater sacrifices of our time and resources when we’re able.    

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Animals have inherent moral rights. There is no fundamental difference between a dog, a pig and a human. We are all subjects of a life. We all feel pain, we all suffer, and we all have a desire to live freely and without harm. Since we have zero biological need to consume animals, there is absolutely no moral justification for causing someone else to suffer for our own fleeting pleasure. 

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I mentioned some of the people and organizations earlier, but the person who comes to mind right away is Carolyn Bailey from AR Zone. Carolyn was the one who introduced me to so many amazing activists and new ways of thinking. From the beginning, she was someone I recognized for her wisdom and patience. She has a unique ability to be incredibly kind while challenging new advocates to think more critically. I will always owe her a huge debt of gratitude for her mentorship. I encourage anyone looking to deepen their understanding of our movement to tune into the AR Zone podcast.

Kim Socha’s Animal Liberation and Atheism helped expand my understanding of the connections between animal exploitation and religion – I recommend this book as well as her other writings. Kim is an incredibly gifted scholar and a tenacious activist. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and am so grateful for her friendship.  

David Nibert’s books Animal Rights/HumanRights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation and Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism and Global Conflict along with Jim Mason’s An Unnatural Order helped me to gain a much deeper understanding of the history of animal exploitation and the systems we’re trying to dismantle.  

Joan Dunayer’s books Speciesism and Animal Equality helped me to understand just how much speciesism is still ingrained in our own movement and in myself.  

Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and Defiant Daughters, an anthology by 21 different women who share their personal stories on how Carol’s book impacted their lives, helped me gain a much better understanding for the links between patriarchy and animal exploitation.  

There are so many others I could mention…The Oxen at the Intersection by pattrice jones, Sistah Vegan by Dr. Breeze Harper, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters edited by Steve Best and Anthony Nocella – to name just a few.

***For any new vegan activist, my best advice is LISTEN TO THE WOMEN!***

Films – Earthlings, Peaceable Kingdom, The Animals Film, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, Ghosts In Our Machine.  I’m excited to see so many new ones coming along as well as so many great shorts by talented activists like Kelly Guerin, Michelle Taylor Cehn, Klaus Mitchell and Michael Goodchild. Films and short videos are essential to the progress of our movement.  

Organizations – Free From Harm, A Well-Fed World, Food Empowerment Project and Animal Equality all inspire me. Our local sanctuaries, Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge and Triangle Chance for All are doing incredible work and have become invaluable focal points in helping to build our local movement. I’m a huge supporter of The Save Movement started by Anita Krajnc and regularly take part in vigils with my wonderful friends from North Carolina Farmed Animal Save. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Triangle Vegfest for the amazing work they’ve done. I believe the organization we launched earlier this year, Vegans for Peace, is set to accomplish some great things as well. Again, there are far too many people, organizations and resources to list!   

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I listen to music, rock out in my car and often act like a complete fool. My three dogs and their unconditional love help to keep me grounded.  I love volunteering at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge where I get to hang out with my vegan peeps and connect with the animals. I just bought a new bike, which I’m loving.  To recharge, I usually surround myself with the amazing activists in my life who have also become my best friends. They’re the ones who inspire me the most. They’re the ones who teach me to be more effective and who help me be less of a jerk. We have a great crew of supportive, loving, dedicated activists here in North Carolina and we’ve been making some big strides in helping to grow our statewide movement.   

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

There are so many issues that affect me on the deepest level of my emotional being. The suffering of nonhuman animals is what drives me most for that fact that it’s so hidden, so widespread, so horrific and so ignored by otherwise-compassionate people.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

Clucking awesome. Nothing is more important to our future than being vegan!