I am not the first nor the last to point out that as a person in the global majority (PGM), it can be difficult to feel like you belong in the animal advocacy space. Encompass has made clear the need for animal protection organizations to operationalize racial diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to effectively further the mission of animal protection.
And I should know. Depending on the situation, I present as white—like my Dutch mother—and I receive many of the unearned benefits that come with that.
But I relate just as much to my father’s Indonesian Dutch heritage as an Indo—like him, I am a “product of colonialism.”
Aside from my mixed heritage, my parents can also claim some responsibility for the good I do for animals—a passion that has morphed into my career working in animal advocacy. My mother, Ria, has been a vegetarian since before I was born. And when my father, Dré, caught me stomping on ants like the other preschoolers did, he taught me that even though we might not want them in our home, they deserve to live their lives.
Benefits of a diverse movement
Some time ago, during my preparation for a talk I was to present at an international animal rights conference, I asked the organizers if all other speakers were white.
My question was met with defensiveness, which caught me by surprise.
When I reacted by volunteering to help find relevant speakers of color, I heard crickets.
For a moment, I doubted if I still wanted to be there. I wondered whether it made sense for me to put my energy into volunteering to present at a conference that didn’t put the effort into trying to reach and relate to a wide audience and present different perspectives on effective animal advocacy.
It should be without question that any organization that wants to realize the full potential of its employees should be taking action to create safe and inclusive workplaces so that their staff is set up for success, and the same should hold true for speakers invited to a conference that benefits a social justice movement.
Research backs this up by showing that a diverse workforce can be a potent source of innovation, and a diverse team is better at selling products and ideas to diverse audiences. Plus, animal advocates want everyone to take a stand against nonhuman animal suffering—not just the people with identities similar to our own.
So if animal protection is positioned as a cause for and championed by the privileged, my friends who struggle with the marginalization of their own communities will find it hard to devote energy to nonhuman animal issues. And I would rather see us fight oppression together.
Aside from being better for animals and our coworkers, if we want to live in a racially just society where all people have what they need to prosper, we must reflect on the ways our own animal advocacy community might perpetuate inequity (such as hosting animal protection conferences that are disproportionately white).
The context of colonialism
As European and US animal organizations increasingly expand globally—running projects and offices around the world—the necessity to learn how racial inequity is woven into our nations’ power structures as well as our organizational cultures becomes even greater.
We cannot allow colonialist thinking and racial inequity to poison our impact on the liberation of animals or our fellow humans.
As animal advocates in the West expand the scope of their work to areas in the global South where meat production and consumption are growing, it’s important to remind ourselves that the legacies of colonialism are still being felt across the globe.
The hundreds of years of domination of Indigenous peoples and lands shaped the current unequal distribution of power, poverty, and dependency on foreign aid. Eurocentric strategies held by our movement—alienated from heritage and history—risk setting our work back by many years and causing further distrust among PGM and white animal advocates.
Disregarding the effects of global power relations and cultural differences on local animal advocacy can result both in disempowering local advocates and counterproductive interventions. We need to find a better way.
Decentralizing, cultural humility, and antiracism
Before I discuss racial justice in our global animal advocacy movement, I’ll distinguish three general ways in which exclusion and inequity can be at play in international organizations. By tackling each of them, teams will likely be more effective, as we create new systems that allow well-meaning advocates to contribute to both animal welfare and human well-being.
First, there’s headquarter-centrism, where feelings of exclusion exist due to inconsiderate central bureaucratic control over satellite offices—such as when all meetings are held in the head office’s time zone or when all decisions need to be approved by people at headquarters. Without location-neutral and decentralized communication and administration processes, colleagues abroad will feel disconnected and underappreciated.
Second, without cultural humility—when we embrace that our way is not the only way—there is a high risk of a clash between the customs and values of the different regions of operation.
These conflicts not only can lead to job dissatisfaction, but also to failed projects; without learning about the norms and moral principles of the countries you operate in, coworkers will lose trust in each other and fail to collaborate or share resources productively. And campaigns could also fail because the best strategy in Western Europe might not work in Russia or Indonesia due to different socio-political and economic contexts.
The third is the most complex issue: structural racism. The specific injustices that Blacks in the U.S. face might at first seem irrelevant to the impact you make on factory farming in developing countries, but racial biases and systems that perpetuate white supremacy—and particularly, anti-Blackness—have spread around the world through hundreds of years of colonialism and cultural imperialism, and influence our approach to animal advocacy everywhere.
Without addressing those issues both abroad and at home, our coworkers in the countries outside our original base of operations will suffer the same inefficiencies related to uniformity. Racial injustice takes distinct forms in different cultures, but knowledge of how privilege functions in the US can help your coworkers abroad detect normalized discrimination of marginalized communities in their own country.
When we do not root our international organizations’ strategies in antiracism, we could perpetuate Brazil’s myth of racial democracy as we encourage Brazilians to go cage-free and preserve colorism in Nigeria while spreading plant-based diets.
And we also limit the results and impact of our efforts. Race consciousness—not color blindness—will help your white team in Eastern Europe partner productively with their colleagues of color abroad. But far too few organizations even consider that.
Issues of inequality in international animal advocacy
Now that I’ve identified these three levels of exclusion and inequity, I’ll share just a few examples of how the third issue—racism—operates in global animal advocacy.
I grew up in the Netherlands. When I was little, my father taught me how to love our dogs and cats; he let me skip school when my class went on a field trip to the town’s butcher. But he also cooked chicken and beef the way they do in Indonesia where he was born.
Eating is central to the bond between me and my father. As an immigrant, food is the most visceral and positive connection you have left with your roots. His food is part of my identity.
When I stopped eating animals, he lovingly made me tofu and tempeh goreng—which I devoured—but I brought cheese sandwiches to school like the other kids who thought tempeh was disgusting. Now, it has been discovered (or more aptly, columbused) by vegans as a meat substitute. The painful irony of popularizing foods that were previously seen as marking “inferior” cultures is even greater considering how much colonizing Europeans changed agriculture, the use of animals, and diets in the countries they conquered.
People of the Global Majority suffer disproportionately from the conditions and effects—both direct and indirect—of intensive animal agriculture. The pollution, climate crisis, and health risks caused by factory farming affect marginalized communities the hardest, both in Western countries, like here in North Carolina, and across the globe.
In that light, the current growth of factory farming in developing countries and destruction of their forests to grow animal feed—all as local communities are priced out of their traditional staples by Westerners—seems like a cruel joke.
Meanwhile, the most dangerous jobs in the meat industry are often filled by migrant workers with few labor protections. In the US, chickens are slaughtered by people from Central America. In Denmark, Polish workers kill pigs, and in Thailand fish is processed by Burmese people working in forced labor conditions. When will we start connecting the dots between human and non-human animal oppression?
What can we do?
If we want to collaborate across borders, fighting for animals together—and if we want to right our wrongs—it’s imperative that we learn how our economic policies impact agriculture and consumption in developing countries, and how our ancestors affected the histories of the people whose behaviors we want to change.
We must consider the plight of slaughterhouse and farm workers and involve those most burdened by our unjust food systems in the process of finding and creating solutions.
We can learn more about how diversity, equity, and inclusion affect the efficacy of the animal protection movement—and how research done in other fields applies to our work.
And if we want our message to resonate locally as well as with marginalized communities in every region, we need to ensure that our organizations are composed of diverse employees who feel like they belong—who proudly speak at conferences and enthusiastically encourage their networks to protect animals.
Some practical tips:
- Have culture committees with representatives of each region you operate in
- Form a DEI committee with representatives from each department and leadership
- Make learning about DEI principles a mandatory component of the onboarding process—especially for leadership, the board, communications staff, and executives
- Establish DEI benchmarks in strategic plans and objectives
- Recognize “micro”-aggressions as harmful and hold people accountable for the impact their words have—even, or especially, if their intentions are good
- Hire locally, and offer exchange programs between coworkers in different regions, without pay gaps
- Discuss the articles and action items on the resource lists created by Animal Charity Evaluators and Encompass for individuals and organizations interested in building a just animal advocacy movement
- Funders of the animal advocacy movement can encourage equity and inclusion in their criteria for grantees
Stien van der Ploeg works pro bono for effective animal advocacy causes. She is particularly interested in helping organizations find the optimal systems for facilitating their employees’ achievement of their full potential.