What Does it Mean to be An Activist?

A few weeks ago, in my recaps of Vida Vegan, I mentioned that I’d attended—and would have more to say about—the activism panel, which took place on the last day of the conference. The theme of this panel was to approach activism from a newcomer’s perspective: what does it take to create a successful campaign? How can you manage the power of the Internet effectively as a means of creating change? How can we use our unique talents and skills to make a difference for animals?

I was more excited for this Vida Vegan Con panel than any other, for many reasons. First, it was moderated by Jasmin, who may just be my new favorite person. Her site, Our Hen House, is a great place to visit if you’re looking to dip your toes into the AR world.

More importantly, I’ve been thinking a lot about activism this year. As you all know, when I started writing my blog, animals had very little to do with it. They’re now the focus of my life as a vegan and a huge focus of CR. I love learning about activism. And the more I learn, the more I see that “activism” has no absolute meaning. There are many approaches to activism, and many kinds of activists.

On the panel were the wonderful and talented Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Ryan Patey of T.O.F.U. Magazine, Sunny Subramanian of Peta2, Leigh Chantelle (who I had met on our positivism panel) and Chelsea Lincoln (who writes the blog Flavor Vegan).

Jasmin asked a number of really provocative and rich questions. For example, how do you bring activism to your community when it isn’t necessarily germane?

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Isa spoke about throwing vegan dinner parties in her hometown of Omaha, which doesn’t have as robust a vegan community as do Portland and Brooklyn (her other home towns). She said that there are unique rewards to cooking for non-vegans: it’s fun to cook for like-minded eaters, of course, but nowadays she has the change to introduce vegan cuisine to those who might never try it otherwise, and that gives a special meaning to her meals.

Ryan Patey mentioned that he’s trying to think of ways to help the vegan movement become more inclusive, and to initiate dialogs about gender equality, sexual orientation, and race that can be adjacent to conversations about animal rights. Jasmin echoed this sentiment. It seems logical to me that sensitivity to discrimination and prejudice in any arena would translate into an understanding of animal rights—or at least, a receptive mindset—so I enjoyed this part of the conversation.

Leigh-Chantelle, meanwhile, told us about the green earth celebrations she’s organized in the UK. She rarely states a vegan agenda explicitly at these events, but she does do her best to share any and all knowledge about the benefits of plant-based diet and sustainable, eco-friendly living. In this way, she serves two causes that are important to her, and helps others to see that they’re naturally complimentary.

If there was a unifying theme, then, it was this: vegan activism doesn’t live in a vacuum. We all draw upon the things that make us unique–our strengths, our personal histories, our professions–to help spread the word. If you happen to be a marine biologist, use your knowledge to foster sympathy and understanding for aquatic animals. If you’re an environmentalist, tell people in your community about the benefits that plant based diet will bring to mother earth. If you’re a fabulous cook, then share your meals with the world: this will help others to understand that being vegan doesn’t mean living without delicious and accessible food.

This was a really important message for me to hear. As a newcomer to the world of animal rights, I still tend to perceive myself as an outsider. “Activists” are the people who attended protests when they were twelve, started student leagues in their high schools, and flocked to anti-fur rallies while I was still steaming chicken breasts and shopping for triplicate pairs of leather boots in college. What can I possibly have to contribute?

The answer, of course, is that I have as much to contribute as anyone else. Animals need as many active voices as possible! We become activists as soon as we feel the urge to share our passion with others. And we share it in our own voices—the voices of doctors, parents, chefs, lawyers, artists, and bloggers alike.

As the panel wrapped up, there was some time for questions. I raised my hand and asked a burning question: how do you reconcile a strong animal rights message with a nonthreatening voice? My blog has always been an open forum, wherein people can share different perspectives. For that reason, I try to maintain an open and gentle tone: it feels right to me, and I know that I’m more likely to intrigue readers who are curious about veganism with kindness and enthusiasm than I would with vitriol and outrage. Even so, I do sometimes feel that, for the sake of collegiality and friendliness, I’ll mute an opinion or fail to convey how strongly I feel about something. It’s not fear of being judged myself, but rather a fear that readers might feel alienated from veganism. And that’s the last thing I want.

Isa chimed in almost immediately. “It sounds as though you’re being really hard on yourself,” she said. For a moment I wondered what she meant, and then she continued, reminding me that my only real responsibility as a blogger and an activist is to be honest. “It’s your blog,” she said, and then (forgive me as I paraphrase), “you don’t have to speak for the entire vegan movement. Just do your best.”

Identifying as an activist, in other words, doesn’t have to mean taking the weight of  an entire social justice movement onto your shoulders, and feeling personally responsible for how it comes across. If anything, that’s a slightly egotistical interpretation of activism! It simply means sharing your passion. If you’re lucky, you brighten the message for at least one reader with your own enthusiastic voice.

So now you’re wondering “what does pie have to do with all of this?” Well, at Vida Vegan Con, my new friend Kittee taught me about “baketivism” (which is actually Isa’s term). This simply means using great food as a form of activism. One of the fears that keeps people from exploring veganism is the idea that it’ll be a sad diet of sprouts and rice and cardboard meat substitutes: as food lovers, we can help to gently displace that notion by sharing the things we really love to eat.

I came home with this idea in mind. When two of my post-bacc friends moved up the road from me–a happy development, since my little corner of DC is a little remote–I decided to welcome them to the ‘hood like a proper neighbor, with some pie. Vegan pie. I had never made vegan pie crust before, and I braced for disaster, but with the help of Isa’s apple pie from Vegan with a Vengeance, things went swimmingly. And it wasn’t until my friends were raving that I mentioned–happily–“you know, it’s also vegan and organic.”

Needless to say, there was some shock over the fact that no butter had gone into the pie crust. And some curiosity–no matter how faint–about what else might be await in the wonderful world of vegan food.

Obviously, there’s no comparing pastry crust to picketing or protesting: these are different forms of activism, and the risks of the latter are greater. But it’s important for us all to remember that we can champion causes in a way that feels germane to who we are. Two of the causes I care most about are health and animal rights. I hope to serve them well by writing about veganism, by talking openly about it with friends, family, and strangers, and by bringing my passion for plant-based diet to my career in medicine. But most of all, I hope to serve them well through cooking. Because we all need, want, and love to eat.

How do you bring activism home? What does being an advocate mean to you? I’d love to know!


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  1. I really REALLY enjoyed this post. When I decided to pursue a vegetarian diet and lifestyle over a year ago, I was committed to NOT be an activist. I didn’t want to be the person who judged people because of what they ate, wore, etc. Hopefully, I’m still not that person, but I do believe that it is my responsibility to share what I know and how I feel. If people ask (or try to tell me that I wouldn’t have gotten sick if I’d just eaten meat), I tell them how I feel – that a vegetarian diet has helped me to recover and to create a healthy gluten-free diet – and that studies show over and over again that a vegetarian diet, when well-concieved, is much healthier than a carnivorous one. I want my passion to inspire, but I’m much more willing to defend my diet and lifestyle to people who are judging me for mine!

  2. I really love this post because my inner activist was also inspired by Vida Vegan Con. For me, being an activist is taking steps such as telling people more often that I’m vegan to actually trying to talk to people about my choices and the realities of factory farming and other issues. Little by little, step by step, I think we’re making a difference.

  3. None of us were born vegan, although almost all of us were born animal lovers, so I think we all have as much right to speak our minds about animal issues as anyone else. And to me, talking about veganism to people who are unfamiliar with is is the best form of activism. I think that protests and public actions have their places, but it’s hard to find an audience and it’s hard to make it stick.

    I started learning about the effects of the meat and dairy industries on the environment in 2008, and then quickly I learned of the animal welfare side and then the health side. I started cutting meat products out of my diet, one by one. I thought that if I cut out the beef and pork, I was making a difference. I wasn’t. And I felt bad that my choices were matching up with the knowledge that I had gained about the environment, factory farms, and my own health. It was then that I realized that in order to be a real activist, I had to make the right choices for myself. I realized that if I went completely vegan, it would give me ample opportunities to talk about these issues with other people. What better way to bring up the reasons behind my dietary choices than to order a cheeseless pizza in front of someone who didn’t know I was vegan? What better way to force restaurants to stock more vegan ingredients than to make them go back to the kitchen three times to make sure there is no dairy in any of the items I ordered?

    That’s what I love about being vegan. I feel like an activist three times a day.

  4. The best activists are those who can convincingly empathize with, or more recently were on, “the other side”- for example, someone who was homophobic and then realized how wrong they were. I think food activism is an awesome way to go!

  5. I love the sentiment that you don’t have to do everything within the scope of your blog. I remember in grad school one time lamenting that I never did anything political, had never even voted, and a friend pointed out to me that all the community garden work I did, let alone the raw food potlucks back then, were a political statement of a really important kind. It’s a good message to remember. I still don’t think of myself as an activist, but that’s partly because I’m not around people most of the time. I do want to share passion through my writing.

    So interesting that being vegan has made you more tuned to animals. My experience was that as a vegan, I wasn’t interested in animals at all, and that when I experimented with animal products, I felt much more compassion for and connection with the chickens whose eggs I was eating and the goats I was milking. Now, vegan again, I feel like I have somewhat a more balanced perspective…

  6. What a lovely post! I used to be a very “loud and proud” activist, so much so that even at 8 months pregnant I was leafleting outside a fur store on Fur Free Friday in the dead of a freezing cold Chicago winter. After I had my daughter all of my energy went into raising this tiny little human being (who also happens to be a whirling dervish who is almost impossible to keep up with) and I felt guilty about turning my back on the form of activism I was most familiar with. It took me a long time to realize that I was continuing my activism through my love of cooking, through my writing, and even through my daughter (she heckles both meat-eating relatives and people in line at our co-op’s deli with equal fervor).

  7. I’m definitely into Baketivism, and regularly take delicious cakes into my workplace, to friends and family. And they all know I’m vegan and enjoy tucking in!
    I also ran my first organised run last Sunday (10kilometers, which is about 6.2miles) with 650 other mad people ;). By doing it, not only did I raise money for a favourite cause, I also emphasized to friends, family and coworkers that being vegan does not mean being weak and feeble, but most definitely the opposite!
    I do get a little frustrated with the ‘what do you eat’ question, which to me is the easy part! Sometimes it’s finding toiletries, clothing and cleaning products that are vegan approved and ethical that is the harder part, but I don’t mention that bit ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Baketevism! I think it’s going to be my new favorite word, and it totally describes what so many of us have been doing to gently raise awareness of the possibilities of animal friendly lifestyles. I love saying, “I’m glad you like it, it’s vegan!”. Some of my non-vegan coworkers have even started bringing vegan dishes to potlucks so that I (the only vegan in my department) will have more options. And my manager has started providing frozen juice bars at our ice cream parties. It’s a great conversation starter, and I feel like every vegan dish that shows up at a work event is a win for animals, our health, and the environment.

  9. I love this post for so many reasons. You really tapped into what so many people feel when dabbling into activism: overwhelmed! But you’re right. Activism is something that can be small and gradual. You don’t have to think big if it’s not your thing! Every bit counts.

    People ask me for nutrition-related advice because they can see how much energy I have and how well I feed myself. Helping people incorporate more plant-based foods into their lifestyle with suggestions (and yummy recipes to boot!) is my favorite part of activism. (:

    Stay lovely,

  10. This one makes me happy, Gena. You’ve come a long way from not feeling affinity with animals to positively burgeoning with the wish to stand for their voices. I’m happy for the net positive, once you’re on a roll it seems you’re there for good. Well done you! And thank you on their behalf.

    • Thanks Susie. Our conversations (which, if I recall, took place right around my Thanksliving post) were really influential in my own growth.

  11. Love this post – I’m a very new vegan (only since April of this year!), but the majority of people in my life still don’t know about the switch. This post has given me a slight nudge to be braver, to speak out, and to advocate what I’m passionate about. Thanks!

  12. As an omni who is surrounded by omnis, I strongly suspect that pies bring more social change than protests. I have been slowly increasing the percentage of plant-based foods in my diet, and when I have a chance to share a recipe with others, it’s been a plant-based one. The population majority is omnivorous, but if that majority halfed its meat and dairy intake and went away from factory farming because they now had delicious plant-based alternatives, we would have a much better situation than we do now.

    And people have a huge capacity to ignore what they want to ignore. If many people can ignore factory farming even after they’ve heard about it, they can also ignore protests. It’s the addition to and enrichment of their lifestyle that imho is likely to have a much stronger pull. We would still not be where the AR activists want to end up, but it would be a huge (and potentially, ongoing and steady) progress of small steps compared to the status quo.

    P.S. And I believe that your burning passion truly is evident and reconciled with a non-threatening voice already. You genuinely don’t judge others and try to understand everyone – and because of that, your strength isn’t threatening to people who are different from you. That’s how.

  13. I suppose I am a “baketivist”! What a great word!

    Although I’m not 100% vegan, I feel that I bring activism home by sharing delicious, vegetable based meals in my blog writing and work. I also always bring dishes to gatherings and meals with others that have been created with consciousness. To me, “created with consciousness” means that I make everything with the highest quality ingredients. I sometimes will make wild fish, eggs or frittata, or melt some goat’s cheese on steamed vegetables with marinara sauce, but I never cook meat. After many, many years of learning about food and nutrition, I find meat totally unnecessary for both taste and health purposes.

    On the other hand, I do sometimes feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I consume these animal products because I believe in animal rights and honoring all life so deeply. I don’t always reflect this in my food choices. For me, it’s important to be compassionate with myself in this circumstance. I remind myself that I don’t eat these things every day, and that my diet is mostly vegan, and that I purchase very high quality animal products (such as raw goat cheeses from a local goat dairy and free range, organic eggs from local farms). It still doesn’t always sit well with me. I think I’m slowly transitioning away from eating these foods even weekly. To me, it’s important to back up our belief with behavior, but it’s also equally important to me to feel satisfied with my meals.

    It really makes me happy when you link animal rights with all rights. I don’t think that animal rights are separate from gender rights, or any other rights. As long as we exploit what we can because that’s what accepted in the mainstream culture, there will be unnecessary suffering in the world. I think that food blogs and baking vegan pies is a wonderful, non-intimidating, and inclusive step in ending that suffering!

  14. Oh, i really really love this post! Especially since I missed the activism panel.

    I think the best – perhaps the only – truly effective form of activism is through your own unique passion. Since everyone has varying interests, it creates a rich tapestry that blankets the mainstream with our message – a multi-pronged approach has maximum reach!

    For me, that means writing. And through my blog, trying to live and lead by example in a way that (I hope!) will inspire people. That second one is tough, and ties into Isa’s (very acute) insight regarding “only doing the best that we can”. I loved that and it’s good to hear it.

    Baketivism is great too. I have a raw chocolate pie recipe on Bonzai that has singlehandedly changed more minds about the possibilities of veganism, than anything else I make. That thing is like crack! =D

  15. I think we are protesting every time we go to the grocery store and do not purchase any animal products. If no one bought them, they would stop having a reason to do what they do! And I totally second the sentiment, it is your blog, be honest about how you feel. It is always your genuine self that is the most magnetic!

  16. You’re truly inspiring Gen, thank you for this wonderful post ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Heh I was one of those on the streets protest kids pretty early. I was so proud of my activism. But I felt bad when I was transitioning to veganism because there was a lot to learn and I didn’t feel “as vegan” as others. But they accepted me pretty quickly once they realized I was currently on board and my past didn’t matter too much. There’s a huge learning curve becoming vegan not to mention animal rights issues. We have to unlearn a lot of what we’ve been brainwashed with/told for many many years. So I think Isa is right, don’t be too hard on yourself, you are where you are now and you can’t control the past.

    It’s funny people do worry about alienating nonvegans but in turn often as a vegan I am at times alienated from some vegan (or mostly vegan) but more “healthy living” type blogs that try too hard not to upset others with recipe notes like “nondairy or organic milk” or “feel free to unveganize with butter” stuff like that. It feels sad they have to do that. Will nonvegans really judge them and stop listening if they post an all vegan recipe? Or state the reasons they are vegan and about animal rights instead of just acting like it’s a diet? I think you’ve done a wonderful job of NOT being afraid to alienate readers and hopefully you’ve gained more by doing so. And continue to have to strength to share even more as you develop what activism means to you.

    • Thanks so much. I feel like you’ve watched my own ideological transformation with such a supportive eye.

      As for the “substitute dairy” thing, I agree. My whole purpose and goal is to show people that dairy is NOT necessary for taste and texture: why would I negate that?

  18. Thanks so much for this, Gena! Unlike you, I first became a vegan for animal welfare reasons and am welcoming the environmental, economic, and health benefits as well. I was feeling a little guilty because, for now, my activism consists of educating myself on these issues, blogging, and discussing my lifestylw with those who ask. I haven’t been very open about it for fear of judgement, but after reading this post I think I owe it to myself and to the reasons I choose to live a vegan lifestyle to be open and honest. Like you, I was also a bit afraid to start talking vegan on my blog for fear of alienating readers, but the little I’ve done so far was met with warm reception. I applied to volunteer at an animal sanctuary and am in the process of pestering them until they get back to me! I’ve been reading every bit of information possible to arm myself with knowledge, and I hope to start being more active in the vegan and activism worlds (Vida Vegan 2013, perhaps?)

    Thanks so much, Your posts are always so inspiring and reassuring to me as a vegan and a blogger!

  19. This is so beautiful but not to mention empowering as well, Gena! I easily get overwhelmed by the global and environmental issues that are so pervasive today, and sometimes I throw my hands up in defeat, feeling like there is nothing I can do. But that attitude is a waste because I will help no one with that outlook! We need more posts like this to remind us how we can do our part to make change in the world, no matter how small.

  20. “Baketivism”: I love it! Last night I made banana soft serve for a group of non-veg friends and they were FLOORED (and all running out to buy food processors now). This is definitely the sort of activism that best suits me, though thanks to this post and other things I’ve read and heard recently, I think you’ll definitely be seeing more activism-y posts on my blog in the near future.

  21. I love this!

    I’m in college, and when people ask me why I’m vegan I simply say “For health and ethical purposes.” That’s it. Usually people joke around, and are like, what do you eat? Cardboard?

    It’s hard to be an activist when your scared to get even more ridiculed. But in reality, your right, activism is about sharing passion. So even though I will never be able to convince the people in my dorm to go Vegan, I can show them that a vegan meal is still really good, and hey, it saves a ton of cash (that seems to get to them). One of my housemates is even eating Kale salad at lunch with me!

  22. I love two parts to this…First, the…You dont have to speak for the entire vegan movement; just do your best.

    That can be said with ANYTHING. Not having to be the poster child for such and such cause but just doing your best. Gosh..from parenting to blogging to vegan causes, that is such a great reminder and message.

    “Even so, I do sometimes feel that, for the sake of collegiality and friendliness, Iโ€™ll mute an opinion or fail to convey how strongly I feel about something. Itโ€™s not fear of being judged myself, but rather a fear that readers might feel alienated from veganism.”

    I do the same thing and although I am not vegan, I am a strict vegetarian, and I don’t always proclaim the virtues of a plant based diet or speak the fullest extent of my opinion (on anything, not just this) b/c you catch more flies with honey and sometimes saying less is more, in my experience ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. I have used amazing food as a central component of my activism for years. When people realize that their food needs can be met on a vegan diet then they can look beyond themselves and start to understand the broader impact of their choices. Being well fed is so central to our survival that until that concern is dissuaded people can be blind to the plight of others. I know it might sounds silly because our society generally has plenty to eat, but people still say “I’d die without cheese”. Sharing an incredible cashew cheesecake may actually allow them to change their perspective.

    I also love creating big events like potlucks and bake-offs that serve as both a celebration of compassion and an opportunity to reduce the “otherness” that sometimes exists between vegans and mainstream society.

    • Lisa,

      No one sets a more beautiful example than you do of marrying culinary talent with an activist’s heart. This is a lovely articulation of what I was trying to say, and so insightful.

      And I’ve been sitting around since your last tweet trying to come to terms with the fact that we’re not next door neighbors. No fair.


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