Vegan Activist Spotlight: People of Color and the Vegan Movement – Interview with Aryenish BirdieLeolin Bowen
Back in 2016, I sat in a room at a large animal rights conference listening to David Carter, the 300-pound vegan, talk about the importance of racial inclusion in the animal protection movement. As he was explaining how the lack of color in the movement negatively affects its effectiveness, he looked around the room pointed at me and said, “look, she and I are the only people of color in this room”.
As a vegan person of color (POC) who is active in the animal protection movement, I am usually the only person of color in the room. Although I know many people of color who follow plant-based diets, that number is next to zero when thinking about the ones who are actively working toward animal rights. That is why I am so excited about Aryenish Birdie and her organization, Encompass.
Aryenish is the founder and executive director of this non-profit organization, whose mission is to increase effectiveness in the animal protection movement by fostering greater racial diversity, equity, and inclusion while empowering advocates of color.
Interview with Aryenish Birdie, Founder and Executive Director of Encompass
Aryenish, tell me about your vegan journey.
My vegan journey began in 1997, after my mother objected to me performing a frog dissection in school. I became curious about her objection and did some research on dissection. Through that process, I learned about the ways animals are used in laboratories and about factory farming. I then decided to go vegan in 2000.
What made you decide to work for animal rights?
I first learned about intersectionality and how human rights issues are bound up with animals rights when I attended Hampshire College. Throughout college, my own identity became more important to me, and I began to become aware of the ways in which I was socialized. I ended up writing my thesis on the interconnections of oppression.
Many years later, I obtained a Masters degree in public policy and worked at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, where I was a lobbyist promoting alternatives to animal testing. But like you, I became tired of being the only POC in a room when talking about animal issues.
What made you decide to found Encompass?
I saw an opportunity. People of color make up 38% of the U.S. population, but less than 11% of staff and a mere 8% of leaders at the top 20 U.S. farmed animal protection organizations. This has led our movement to earn the label of a “white movement,” one that many people of color find difficult to join. This problem will only intensify, as the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2044, people of color will be the majority of the U.S. population. This raises the question: can we change a country if we do not reflect the demographics of the people we are trying to influence?
How does the lack of inclusion negatively affect the animal rights movement?
In a mostly white movement, POC don’t feel like they belong. As a result, they avoid this cause, don’t choose vegan eating, feel like they have to ignore a part of themselves when they’re in this movement – and if they do join, they often abandon it out of frustration. Alienating people is a disservice to animals. Race is a core component to many people’s identities and we can’t ignore that.
How do you respond to people who use racially-charged messaging to try to get a point across (for example, comparing factory farming to slavery or the Holocaust)?
I don’t think it is effective. These comparisons are a tool that is often used to communicate to other people who already hold this perspective, and it doesn’t land on others the way that it is aimed to. I have never met someone who said that they went vegan because they read those comparisons or saw those memes. Our movement needs to listen to others when they say that things are hurtful or triggering. There are other ways to fight for animals without making those types of statements.
What is the first step that an organization can take to foster more diversity?
This conversation should be included in leadership. Without that, long-term change can’t happen, and we are looking for culture change. I encourage leadership to make the “business case” of the importance of inclusion. If they make the case for themselves on why inclusion is important, this will serve as the blueprint for their organization. Of course, part of this conversation should be an understanding that not only will this help more animals, but that it’s the right thing to do.
What can an individual do if they feel like they aren’t able to thrive in this movement?
I would tell them to reach out to me. We can have a confidential conversation, and work through unique challenges that may be organization-specific. I want Encompass to be a safe space to think through these issues.
Your program is relatively new. How is it being received?
Yes, Encompass just launched in August 2017, and so far, the reception has been positive on the side of organizations and advocates. Some people question the role of race in animal activism and some feel that inclusion isn’t the right goal, but I believe that there is room for change. The momentum is moving fast – faster than I expected! – so I am excited to continue to flush out programs and have a positive impact.
What is your endgame?
Ideally, a world in which animal suffering and exploitation is over. In the process of getting there, I want a movement that more accurately reflects the state of the country and where a culture of inclusion is the bedrock of our work. I want a movement in which we are not hurting or exploiting POC and a movement that thrives because it’s inclusive and equitable.
For more information on Encompass, visit their website.