Animal Protection Movement Struggles to Reckon With Deep-Seated Inequalities

racial justice

On April 20, 2022, the nonprofit Encompass, whose mission was to cultivate racial representation and equity, announced that it was disbanding and disbursing its funds to animal protection groups led by Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority (BIPGM).

This news came as a shock for many in the movement. In the five years since it had launched, Encompass had created a talent database, solicited Equity Based Dialogue to conduct research and report on equity in the farmed animal protection movement (FAPM), published a book on moving towards anti-racism in the FAPM, consulted with numerous organizations on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) issues, and created a community space for BIPGM in the movement called the Global Majority Caucus. While other organizations and consultants like Critical Diversity Solutions and Jaya Bhumitra work with the FAPM, many perceived Encompass to be the leading voice for DEIJ in the animal protection movement.

The reason for Encompass’ disbanding is largely a mystery, but many in the movement, such as Founder of the Plant Based Foods Association, Michele Simon, believes that it is “another sign [that] the vegan movement remains firmly in the hands of a few white men… [and] is not able or willing to properly address its deeply entrenched inequities.”

History of justice and labor issues

Animal advocacy has a long record of racial and sex-based discrimination, sexual harassment, exploitative and toxic work environments, and retaliatory management practices at some of the movement’s largest organizations.

In 2018, the animal protection movement had its own #metoo movement, which led to investigations at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Mercy for Animals (MFA). In the summer of 2020, the staff of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s (ALDF) intent to unionize, which was primarily initiated out of dissatisfaction with the organization’s lack of response and public solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, was met with classic union-busting tactics.

In August of 2020, Civil Eats journalist Charlie Mitchell asked the question “Is the Vegan Movement Ready to Reckon with Racism” which, in part, exposed the movement’s pattern of appropriating social movement strategies from Black leaders and analogizing the systemic oppression faced by Black people in America to nonhuman animals. In his article, Mitchell explains that many of the nonprofits in the FAPM, including the HSUS, MFA, and ALDF are largely staffed by white executives and are largely funded by white donors which influences the strategic goals of the organizations.

Similarly, Simon published an article regarding the equity report that Encompass and Equity Based Dialogue had released which found that funding in the FAPM primarily goes to white, male-led organizations and that BIPGM in the movement “described regularly being discounted or having their ideas, suggestions, or approaches dismissed by leadership and/or others at their organizations.”

Not only are white goals and interests centered in the missions of these organizations because of the racial makeup of management and funders, but this dynamic also leads to organizational cultures that overwork, alienate, and marginalize BIPGM animal advocates. BIPGM employees in the FAPM have increasingly spoken up about the racism that they have experienced in the movement and the implicit bias that is built into the fabric of many animal nonprofits.

In addition, the FAPM has been critiqued for its adversarial relationship and history of villainizing meatpacking and slaughterhouse workers. Journalist Hailey Huget in Current Affairs has argued that “if the animal rights movement ever wants to win an end to animal exploitation… it needs to radically rethink its relationship to workers.” This includes its own workers, which has become apparent with recent allegations of unfair labor practices at No Evil Foods and Amy’s Kitchen, as well as the wave of employee resignations from the ALDF within the past two years.

The nonprofit industrial complex

While many organizations have now hired their own DEI managers and have committed to creating a more equitable farmed animal protection movement, some have critiqued FAPM organizations as “woke-washing” their images for public relations reasons without creating actual material changes in their strategic goals, internal organization cultures, or external campaigns.

“The mainstream animal movement, as well as ‘good food’ movement’s most influential leaders and frameworks, are simply used as an extension of [sic] empire,” Dr. Breeze Harper explains in a comment to a LinkedIn post by Simon about the dissolution of Encompass. “Neoliberal-capitalist-whiteness sold to the average untrained mind as ‘green’ or ‘social impact’ when the outcomes will still be concentration of power amongst those (mostly white men, but there are also those who may not be white men but uphold [sic] the power structure) who have held, maintain, and created power for centuries.”

Harper believes that the FAPM’s white executives and funders have profited off of the perceived social impact of their work while not actually targeting or dismantling the structures that uphold and sustain speciesism, white supremacy, and other -isms. Instead of funding the work of BIPGM who are vocal about the interconnections of oppression and the importance of troubling neoliberal capitalism and the state, Simon says that the white leaders of the animal protection movement have accumulated social, cultural, and economic capital by selling consumers the concept of “good food.”

Harper’s comment clarifies that the nonprofit sphere, much like the broader philanthropic and humanitarian sectors, is part of an industrial complex saturated by white supremacy and colonialism. This is especially apparent in the FAPM’s increased involvement with corporate interests, which has been dubbed “vegan capitalism.” This concept is not new, but it is deeply intertwined with the DEIJ issues facing FAPM organizations today. For example, the growth of the global vegan food market generates large profits for corporations, but hasn’t successfully disrupted industrial animal agriculture, nor has it addressed the harm done to marginalized communities, the environment, and nonhuman animals. 

Is the farmed animal protection movement ready to reckon with racism?

The answer to Mitchell’s question, in my opinion, is unequivocally no. While some organizations may be hiring DEI consultants and performing DEI advocacy for public relations and marketing purposes, many do not seem ready to make actual organizational changes to their culture or strategic goals. However, other organizations are stepping up to advocate for workers in Encompass’ absence.  

Apex Advocacy, a new organization founded by Christopher “Soul” Eubanks, is working to diversify the FAPM movement and support BIPGM animal advocates. The organization is on a mission to draw attention to the intersections between systems of oppression that affect nonhuman animals and marginalized human communities.

Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) is another BIPGM-led organization that is attempting to heal communities from the lack of inclusion within the animal welfare field. CARE amplifies BIPGM voices to help build a more equitable human and animal advocacy movement. The organization also advocates for BIPGM communities, which are most impacted by the environmental consequences of global climate change.

Another new organization, Rights for Animal Rights Advocates, is on a mission to increase workplace transparency and accountability and advocate for just and sustainable work conditions for nonprofit workers in the animal protection sphere.

While it is unclear how the dissolution of Encompass will affect the broader movement, animal protection organizations can still learn from the organization’s work and follow their recommendations: acknowledge and eliminate exclusionary practices, engage in open dialogue about racial equity, and evolve internal policies and external funding practices to support BIPGM-led groups.

The author is a former employee of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. They now work at Rights for Animal Rights Advocates.