Self-Discovery and the Pursuit of Racial Equity in Animal Advocacy: Introducing “The Encompass Essays”

The forthcoming collection of narratives examine how a cohort of advocates in the farmed animal movement intend to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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Perspective Encompass Policy Reflections

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There’s a banner on a store around the corner from where I live in West Hollywood that says, “This is the year you will get everything you want.” It should be noted that this sign appears in the window of a tanning salon, which—along with each of its neighboring businesses—has been shut down since this global pandemic began, nearly three months ago at the time I’m writing this.

Aside from the fact that even in “real life” (or is this real life now?), I’m perplexed as to how something as banal as a tanning bed could purport to result in realized dreams, every time I pass that sign—walking my three little old dogs whilst I don a penguin-printed face mask and do my best to maintain social distance orders, despite my many neighbors who apparently missed that memo—I roll my eyes (a gesture that is blissfully still visible to passersby). As a longtime animal activist whose social justice seeds were planted when I came of age twenty years ago working in an AIDS-awareness theater company, which eventually opened the doors for me to explore social justice from the vantage point of being a giant loop-de-loop, it never ceases to astound me how asinine and marginalizing marketing can be.

Divides & disconnects

The colossal and dangerous disconnect between the glitzy signs above me on Santa Monica Boulevard and the real-life signs that our nation is digging its heels even deeper into a racist divide staggers me—especially since I am regularly confronted with privileged white neighbors who callously and carelessly abandon their face coverings, along with any recognition that the novel coronavirus is yet another modern-day manifestation of racism, as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by this devastating disease.

And so, just as up-charged dairy-free lattes are, from where I stand (six feet away), an example of normalizing racism (lactose-intolerance runs rampant in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities, so why is it still a recommended food group by a government who knows this?), so is choosing to go out in public unmasked.

I lie awake thinking of these things night after night, desperately searching for an answer to injustice—weeding through countless Instagram feeds, New York Times stories, or forward-thinking podcasts for anything that will tell me how to right this wrong. As you can imagine, I don’t sleep particularly well. And as you probably already guessed, though late-night internet sessions are good for finding fun rainbow socks or deep-diving into old high school friends’ Facebook pages, they don’t result in solutions to systemic racism.

As a white person who has spent the greater part of the last two decades advocating for the many individuals our society has arbitrarily decided are “less than,” I have come to realize that the answer to injustice is not going to be found in a meme or a clapping emoji; the solution to fighting racism once and for all lies in my very own actions, my accountability, and the ways I choose to intervene in an oftentimes sleeping society (because not intervening is no longer an option—in fact, it never was). Just like my decision to stop eating animal products, which I made 17 years ago when I learned about the various feminist issues entrenched in dairy and egg production, the answers to combatting racism have got to start with my behavior.

Global pandemics & global solutions

Just a few days after California (as well as so many other areas of the United States and of the world) implemented a “shelter-at-home” order, I was told that a conference I had been eagerly awaiting attending was moving digital. Though nowadays, in such a short time, that societal pivot to Zoom has become commonplace, I’m pretty sure that this conference was one of the first ones to make that electronic leap—leaving myself and the 23 other attendees wide-eyed, curious, and a bit confused as to how this was going to go down.

The conference was called the Encompass DEI Foundational Institute and was organized by Encompass, a nonprofit I’d long admired that aims to make the farmed animal protection space more equitable by fostering racial diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Encompass accomplishes this by working with organizations to operationalize racial equity and with individual advocates of the global majority by helping them cultivate their leadership potential.

Originally intended to be an in-person two-day training, the Institute immediately called to me, as racial discrimination is one of those major contributors to my sleepless nights and I’m hellbent on doing what I can to operationalize equity. And since late-night meme-sharing wasn’t getting me very far, I figured that the concrete strategies I could glean from Encompass would not only benefit me, but in turn, would benefit those on the other side of the media I create as my living.

Advocacy & action 

My history working in farmed animal protection is a long one. I’ve held positions including Campaigns Manager, Senior Editor, Director of Content, and—ever since co-founding the media nonprofit Our Hen House over a decade ago alongside animal law guru Mariann Sullivan—Executive Director. I’ve authored books (Always Too Much and Never Enough, which was published in 2016, and the forthcoming manifesto, The VegNews Guide to Being a Fabulous Vegan, which drops later this year), consulted for dozens of animal rights-related projects and campaigns, helmed editorial departments, and partook in a pretty epic speaking tour that brought me far and wide to tout the message that we must obliterate animal suffering.

And though my focus has been farmed animals (alongside the very tasty solution of going vegan), given my early roots in LGBTQ work and AIDS awareness, my advocacy has always come from an all-encompassing, overlapping approach. In order to work towards the liberation of one group, we must actively stand against the violence of another.

This is the modus operandi I have long stood by. In many ways, it has been a core tenet of my writing, my media-making, and my one-on-one conversations with friends and fellow advocates for what feels like eons. Our Hen House was founded on the belief that we each have the ability to change the world for animals, and that our actions to achieve that change can collectively be multi-pronged and replicable, artistic and unique, scholarly and grassroots. There is no one right way to change the world for animals, but there is one wrong way: to do so while oppressing someone else.

Intervention & invention

The work of Encompass—and of its Executive Director Aryenish Birdie, a longtime friend and role model—has proven to be pivotal and necessary to the animal rights realm. By its very existence, Encompass has shown the desperate need for intervention and a reimagining of the way we approach changing the world for animals.

Although I have long believed in equity—and can trace my own activism back to being on the playground in third grade and standing up for the new kid who was baselessly bullied because I just knew in my core that what was happening to her was wrong—the truth is, the professional movement that I have called “home” for so many years has been, and continues to be, dominated by white leaders, white ideas, and white strategies. And yet, this whiteness is not representative of veganism, as vegans are as diverse and varied as the world itself, and animal advocates can be found everywhere.

As a white person in this fight to end the exploitation of animals—especially as one who is so regularly allotted the privileged position of disseminating information through interviews, articles, podcasts, and books—it is paramount that I dig deeper and do the hard work to foster a community where no one is oppressed or unsafe, and where the principles of DEI are central and relentlessly implemented in our collective quest to change the world for animals. We simply will not and cannot accomplish that unless and until we unite.

What I’m learning is that we cannot unite without following the necessary steps that Encompass lays out: We must explore the ways racism operates while learning a practical framework for DEI analysis; we must foster racial equity in organizations, which will lead to increased innovation, collaboration, and impact; we must understand that opting out of racial equity leads to underperformance; and we must develop and practice methods for implementing racial equity in our organizations and our lives.

Accountability & participation 

Though the global pandemic resulted in the DEI conference moving digital, nothing was lost on the 24 participants—each of us working in various corners of the farmed animal protection world, from sanctuaries to campaign organizations and lots in between. We Zoomed in from multiple continents ready to learn, to join virtual break-out rooms, and to come together honestly and eagerly in order to understand how to develop these strategies and to hold ourselves and one another accountable.

The entire conference was moving, jarring, and ultimately emboldening. From our little Zoom boxes, we participated in activities that required us to define and discuss terms like white supremacy, explore ways inequities permeated our movement, and imagine what an equitable organization and movement could actually look like.

Many of us were jostled outside of our comfort zones, facing with necessary discomfort and overdue humility the ways that we—the white participants, anyway—partook in this oppressive, non-inclusive system by sheer complacency. And just as swiftly, we were bolstered with exercises, tools, reading and writing assignments, and suggestions for staying accountable that left us feeling informed, empowered, and ready to go back into our organizations and communities and prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is, after all, how it should have always been.

Ideas & inspiration

Sometime toward the end of Day 1, I raised my hand with an idea. I have a long history of getting in trouble for spouting off my mouth with ideas and assignments, suggestions and newly imagined projects.

I was looking at a Brady Brunch-style grouping of fellow animal advocates on the little screen on my laptop—each of us at times deep in thought or focus, coming together with our shared goal of bringing this work back to our various platforms in farmed animal protection.

“What if we all come together and publish an ongoing collection of essays exploring—through a mix of personal narrative and professional objectives—how to move forward on this work?” I heard myself say the words even before the idea was solidified in my head.

And immediately, the chat window became alive with people saying, “Count me in,” and, “Yeah, I’d be into that!” I momentarily wondered what I had gotten myself into, but was quickly overtaken by a strong sense of community and purpose. If the baseline for what I stood for was equity for all individuals, and if I was going to follow my own advice of contributing to a better world by using the skills and interests we already have to create change, then helming this project was a no-brainer.

Two weeks later, Aryenish—along with antiracist activist and Encompass’s Managing Director Michelle Rojas-Soto—asked if we could make this happen.

Collaboration & cohorts

Enter Sentient Media. I had recently been asked to join the Advisory Board for this truly stellar organization, which publishes deeply thoughtful articles about animal agriculture and its impact on the world (and, notably, has created a unique fellowship program where newer journalists are mentored by seasoned ones), and I quickly saw a very direct overlap.

The nonprofit I co-founded, Our Hen House, has been tapping into the brains of the greatest thinkers in the animal rights world for over a decade while providing commentary on issues impacting animals and their advocates. This has been done mainly in podcast form (we have literally never missed a week of production since we started). On a similar track, Sentient Media fills a gap in written journalism, using the collective power of writers and activists to intervene on what mainstream media too often ignores—the plight of non-human animals—and what that means for the rest of us. And Encompass was created to step foot into an area where no organization had previously existed: to build an inclusive and equitable farmed animal protection movement.

What would happen if we all joined forces to collaborate on an epic, inaugural collection of personal narrative essays written by a cohort of farmed animal advocates who believe whole-heartedly in DEI as a means to a just and effective way forward on our collective quest to change the world for animals?

Encompassing & examining  

And so I present to you Encompass Essays: Pursuing Racial Equity in Animal Advocacy. This collection marks the beginning of what I hope will become an ongoing dialogue. Along with Ana Bradley—Sentient Media’s Executive Director—Aryenish, Michelle, and I will continue to unfold the various aspects of this multi-media project, which begins with the publication of these essays, written by about a dozen farmed animal protection advocates who attended or organized the 2020 inaugural Encompass DEI institute.

We are a group of advocates who care deeply about this work, wish to document our stories and processes in an exploratory space from which we can grow, and would like to use our words to hold ourselves and our peers accountable and create new ways forward. We also come to you with humility, as many of us are in the early stages of our DEI journey, and want to share challenges and insights in real-time. As many can understand, the fear of “messing up” means people don’t often engage in this work in the first place. So, as you can imagine, this is a scary process (putting challenges we’re working through in writing is no small feat!)—albeit a necessary one. The essays will be published every two to four weeks from now through the end of the year and will be housed here on Sentient Media’s virtual pages.

Down the road, we will invite you to join us for digital panels and discussions, and I’m looking forward to rolling out the audio versions of these essays next year on the Our Hen House podcast. As always, Encompass will continue to offer transformational DEI consulting and training to leaders and organizations who want to step up their DEI work, which should frankly be all of us. I am humbled and eager to work with this incredible group of people—Aryenish, Michelle, Ana, and the farmed animal protection advocates who are going above and beyond by putting their thoughts into words and their words into movement.

Over the next several months, you can expect to read essays that will examine such questions and subjects as:

  • “I used to think to be non-racist was the goal; now I realize I need to be anti-racist.”
  • “We live in a white supremacy culture. Here’s how the animal protection space upholds that same theme.”
  • “It’s taken me many years, but I’m finally building my racial literacy. Here’s how I plan to plug this into my work in the farmed animal protection movement.”

These essays will be written from a variety of perspectives and for a variety of people. Amongst other goals, it is my hope that white people, including myself, can use these as a jumping-off point to do the hard work ourselves, rather than looking to late-night memes (ah-hem) or advocates of color to point us in the right direction. It isn’t their job to do that, any more than it’s my job as a woman to explain to a male colleague why it’s not okay for him to call me bossy.

The work of white people in farmed animal protection to create more just systems will be extremely uncomfortable. But I am sure it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as the harsh reality that those in the global majority face: being erased from stories, brochure covers, boards of directors, executive suites, etc. Being looked past when they apply for jobs (because maybe they didn’t have the same easy access to schools white people had access to). Being tokenized as entry-level community outreach coordinators. Being “let in” by white people who either knowingly created exclusionary constructs, campaigns, and organizations, or sat idly by while others created those (needless to say, complacency is dangerous).

Personal & political 

As a longtime activist, there are mechanisms of racial equity that I am only now beginning to understand, and I am here for it. I’m sure this will be a lifelong uncovering, and I’d have it no other way.

After participating in the DEI Institute (of which Our Hen House was a proud sponsor), it has become clearer than ever that despite how busy I endlessly proclaim to be (and in fact am, but there’s a chance I’m vaguely addicted to the hustle—which is really for another essay collection altogether!), I must and will regularly make space in my priorities to read and observe the narrative and experiences of those in the global majority, both involved in animal protection as well as in general.

Secondly, I must regularly ask myself how I can make more space for those voices and perspectives—especially in the farmed animal protection realm—and how I can create systems where it’s those voices that rise to the top.

Finally, my longtime animal activism begs the question: How is it that I have been involved in the “mainstream movement” for so long, yet so much of it continues to largely reflect whiteness, and how can I relentlessly work to change that?

If you are also involved in animal rights work and are white, I hope you’ll join me as we untangle the answers. And while looking back is important, let’s also focus on moving forward differently, effectively, and ethically.

And for the readers who are part of the global majority, thank you for leading the charge for racial equity in the movement this whole time, and for demanding your seats at the table in the animal advocacy movement despite its many inequities and obstacles. My hope is that my fellow Encompass DEI Institute trainees and I step up and work within the system to recreate it with you, for the benefit of all human and non-human animals.

Refine & reimagine 

As I write this, the news headlines continue to swallow me whole. My gallivants around the corner to take my dogs out feel loaded with injustices, yet my own unjust privileges that let me feel safe anyway are not lost on me.

On the contrary, it is the awareness that I am part of the problem unless I become part of the solution that propels me forward.

Though my sleepless nights come in phases—which I recognize will be a lifelong challenge—I am nonetheless emboldened and charged by the change-makers who offer glimpses of how to move forward despite the hurdles. And I’m learning that the way to move forward is to just … move forward. What choice do we have? The only other option is to stand still, which ultimately means that the oppressors win.

When it comes to recreating a society that is built on true justice, sometimes we need to dismantle it first. Encompass Essays: Pursuing Racial Equity in Animal Advocacy is our effort to begin to rebuild a new way of being, where those of us on the frontlines of animal rights and farmed animal protection can step down when appropriate, step up when appropriate, and create a system where liberation from cruelty is a collective mission that can only be truly accomplished when every single individual is seen, counted, and actively involved in what happens next. Let’s begin already.

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