Last month, on our way home from an inspiring trip to the National Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles – where each of us was presenting on a variety of subjects, including “Promoting Your Cause on the Internet” and “Enacting Protective Laws” – we got to talking about the role conferences play in our quest to end animal cruelty. From our experience at “AR,” as it’s more commonly known, as well as the other conferences at which we’ve spoken or which we’ve attended, we love how they bring animal rights folk from all over the country (and even the world – we met a new vegan from South Africa!) together to learn, to socialize, to share ideas and to just have a good time amongst our own. Clearly, these kinds of events are not only enjoyable, but are necessary to maintain our sanity. They also inform us, enlighten us, and, perhaps most important, motivate us. One of our favorite parts of conferences such as “AR” is the fire it lights beneath us – the drive it replenishes inside of us that makes us eager to go out and change the world for animals.
And, more and more, you don’t have to travel to Los Angeles (or wherever the latest conference is being held) in order to attend an animal rights-related event – even if it’s a micro-version. Whether it’s a screening of an animal-related film that’s playing in your area, or the increasingly popular Vegan Drinks, or a vegan potluck with your local animal rights community, like-minded people are coming together to support each other, enjoy one another’s company, and maybe even spark a romance or two, for those in the market. It’s a whole new world that’s full of sharing compassion, knowledge, and, when we’re lucky, cupcakes.
It is important, however, as the vegan community grows, to remember that we don’t want to stay within it all the time, since just talking to each other isn’t going to create the change we want to see in the world. Activism can only take place when we reach out of our vegan comfort zone into the world of non-believers. Or, we should say, not-yet-believers. For that reason, we wouldn’t classify conferences and other inside-the-vegan-bubble events as activism per se. Rather, they are benchmarks in between the real work.
This is not to say that we take a narrow view of what constitutes “activism.” Changing the world for animals can be accomplished in many different ways, and it’s important to find a way to spread your message that you find personally fulfilling. That’s what Our Hen House is all about, after all. But whatever it is, make sure that it is pointed outward, toward the world at large, and not just at your vegan compatriots. That is something that we constantly reassess within ourselves – are we solely being social, or are we also doing our part to make change? While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with relaxing in a social setting with fellow vegans – and, in fact, we highly recommend that you surround yourself with like-minded people when you can, if for nothing else, to remind you that you’re not in this fight alone – you can only create change when you are engaged, in some way, with non-vegan communities.
Of course, there are always risks in engaging with those who don’t agree with you. In fact, sometimes the way you know you are doing a good job is if someone starts to push back, or complain, or criticize. Don’t fear the push back – celebrate it! And deal with it in a way that feels right to you. If you like a good argument, jump right in. But if you are someone who hates to argue, don’t let that stop you from confronting people with the truth. You are not obligated to take the discussion any further than you want to, and are comfortable with. It’s much better to walk away when you need to than to let the fear of confrontation prevent you from even broaching the subject of animal exploitation in the first place. Remember, we are all the animals have.
Don’t forget that when someone is arguing with you, they are frequently struggling with their own conflicting feelings about their behavior. Try not to take it personally. And, instead of setting out to “win,” so often it can be more productive to just ask questions and listen. It can be fascinating to try to pin down the reasons people think it’s okay to participate in animal abuse. You never know – sometimes being questioned in an open and honest way can lead someone to re-evaluate their own thought processes, while an argument can just harden them in their position.
It is so much easier to talk amongst ourselves, and there are many reasons for having those conversations. But the real work lies in the conversations we have outside the vegan bubble. Learn to embrace those conversations and have them in the way that you find most appropriate. As Matt Ball, director of Vegan Outreach (an organization that just handed out its fifteen-millionth leaflet!) likes to say, “We want a vegan world, not a vegan club.”
Mariann Sullivan & Jasmin Singer are, respectively, the Program Director and Executive Director of Our Hen House, a multimedia online resource for everyone who wants to change the world for animals. They are partners in life and in activism, and live in NYC with their pit bull, Rose. Subscribe to their weekly podcast on iTunes.