Sunday, January 24, 2016

What does sustainable mean?

Alive and well: the only truly natural state for chickens

Sustainability means different things to different people and different organizations. For Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), the word is in the first sentence of our mission statement: Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. 

Recently, I was invited to a small planning meeting for an upcoming conference on sustainability. When there was talk about having a company participate that had done some work related to environmental sustainability, but was not great when it comes to human rights abuses, I had to ask, what was their definition of sustainable?

So when they asked me for my input on food issues, I had to tell them that my definition of sustainable was probably different than theirs.

To me, how is any system sustainable when it involves the suffering or exploitation of any being.

Animal consumption is clearly not sustainable for the planet when you look at the environmental impacts of just the waste and the water usage. And then look at the impacts of this waste on communities of color who live near these facilities. Living with the smells, dealing with the health impacts, etc., is not sustainable for them.

And how is it sustainable to the animal for them to be killed? Clearly it is not sustainable for them at all. The idea that animal consumption is sustainable is like seeing the word “natural” in relation to dead chickens being sold in a supermarket. Chickens are naturally alive and walking around.

Given the 100% turnover rate of slaughterhouse workers, surely that cannot be considered sustainable. Who can continue to kill other sentient beings every day, and why should anyone else expect someone to do this? Psychologically the toll is great, as are the impacts on their bodies and the injuries they face. It is not sustainable.

And how sustainable is produce for the farm workers? They deal with low wages, wage theft, horrible working and living conditions, the women face sexual harassment, and they are exposed to agricultural chemicals.

It is not sustainable to treat farm workers like this by exposing them and the planet to chemicals.

Nor is it sustainable for children to be working in the fields because their families (who are also working) are too poor to send them to school.

Is it sustainable that portions of our population do not have access to healthy foods that are necessary for them to be healthy themselves?

Is it sustainable to not pay workers living wages?

So far I have used the word “sustainable” more than a dozen times in this blog, so I think you get my point. I have been asked to give a talk to some students about sustainability and I am looking forward to what they think of my definition.

The word “sustainable” has no boundaries and neither should we when we talk about what it means and what we need to work on to achieve a truly sustainable world. 

Photo courtesy of VINE Sanctuary. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why every vegan should support living wage efforts

Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) is an organization based on ethics – we promote veganism because we do not want animals to have to suffer and/or die for human consumption, for entertainment, for cosmetics, etc. 

We advocate for the rights of farm workers because every worker should be treated with dignity and respect, be paid a living wage, and have safe working conditions. We also do this because, as vegans, we need to be reminded that our food is also tainted with suffering until these rights are attained.

Additionally, we work on the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities because it is a grave injustice that eating healthy foods ends up being a privilege and not a right. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that everyone should also be able to eat with their ethics too! You can really see a connection to the colonial dimension of eating here.  

And, as a vegan organization, we know that if we want people to go vegan, we have to do more than just encourage them to do so. We need to help make it possible for them to actually do it.

Currently, not everyone has the ability to go vegan (regardless of how many times you hear going vegan is easy). It is not that easy, especially for those who cannot afford it and/or do not have access to healthy foods (even just basic fruits and vegetables).

No matter how many vegans do stunts to eat vegan on less to prove you don’t need a lot of money to go vegan – these do not work and they do not help. Vegans need to also understand what it is like to have their wages be inconsistent, to not have access to healthy foods nearby, to not have a kitchen or a car, to not be able to carry more than two bags of groceries on the bus, or to have to work 2-3 jobs (and I don’t mean office jobs, I mean jobs where someone is on their feet all day). Sure, some people do live on limited budgets, but many people do not have budgets at all.

In our work surveying impacted communities in San José, we found that one of the biggest barriers for people to access fresh fruits and vegetables was the cost. We also found that this is a real and pressing concern for parents providing for children who have decided to avoid animal products: we had three focus groups, and in two of them, parents actually had children who were vegan or vegetarian.

That is when we at F.E.P. decided we needed to do more to push for living wages for everyone. We feel that everyone should be supporting this, but it’s especially important for those who want others to go vegan to support these efforts.

Living wage campaigns are taking place in various sectors on both the city and county levels (we have been working to help push one in Sonoma County). The Fight for $15 campaign, for example, is a nationwide movement agitating for a minimum wage of $15 an hour for workers in places such as Wal-Mart, restaurants, and fast food chains (you can read my blog about when I worked fast food as a vegan teenager).

And when looking at service workers, many are people of color.

According to a new report by the Haas Institute (the US Farm Bill):
Communities of color frequently overrepresented in lowest-paying jobs. In 2012, 26% of Blacks and 26% of Latinos were employed in service—a notoriously low-paying industry—while only 17% of whites and 18% of Asian Americans were employed in service.

Again, for me, I want to take up this fight for workers because it is what is right; however, I call upon other vegan organizations and individuals to join us in this call if you truly want people to go vegan. It takes more than just asking people to go vegan for something like this to be possible.

How can you do this? Sign up for alerts from groups such as the Jobs With Justice, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Keep in mind that these are not vegan groups, so it is important to carefully read any petitions before signing to make sure you agree with them, but it is easy enough to post an upcoming event or call to action on social media.

Just lend your voices and those of your supporters to equal justice for all.

We all need to be part of a holistic movement that demands respect and equality for human and non-human animals to live free of suffering, harm, and exploitation.

Who’s with me?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

My Scariest Halloween: Racism at an animal rights protest

I have been attending (or organizing) animal rights protests since 1987, and I have cried at them due to the cruelty that is inflicted on animals – from the rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma to walking with the elephants back to the railroad cars. But I have never left a protest in tears because of comments I heard from an animal rights activist until now.

This Halloween, I was among about 30 other activists protesting an amusement park that offers both rides and animals in captivity for entertainment.  After leafleting at this location for years, we know that many people go just for the rides and not the animal abuse.

As a Black family walked past us toward the park’s entrance, I heard (but did not see) one of my fellow activists make a comment to them. Someone from the family replied, “We are just a Black family trying to enjoy ourselves.” Although I did not hear what the family said first, I did hear part of what the activists said in response: “It doesn’t matter; we are all the same” and “We are all Earthlings; we are no different.”

I watched the family’s response, and the husband laughed to his friends and said, “They say we are all the same.”

Looking at two activists nearby (a Latina who I knew and a white woman), I said, “This is the problem when animal rights activists say shit like this.”

They were confused as to why I had a problem with this and then I realized that they were the ones yelling this rhetoric.

Recognizing that I initially did not handle the situation in the best way, I tried to recover quickly and show patience, and that was when I realized that nothing I said mattered. What I’d heard was only the tip of the iceberg.

They continued to say, “It is true; we are all the same, and all of the oppressions are the same.” I said that saying things like that and “All Lives Matter” is problematic.

I tried to explain that we as animal people need to show that we are not racists (well, at this point I had not realized what I was in for) and that we need to fight the image that we care more about non-human animals than human animals.

What followed were some of the most racist comments I have ever heard.  They told me that they (meaning Black people) complain about everything, they all say they are too busy with their own lives, they are always rude and angry, they don’t care about animals, they like to eat meat, and they are not special.

When I tried to relate to the Latina about how people say horrible things about our people as well, she looked shocked and told me it was not true. She said, “Yeah, but our lives were different,” and I said, “Yes, for some of us, this was our land— but they were brought over as slaves.” She said, “They need to get over that – it was a long time ago.”

I truly believe I was in shock, and my mind could not process what was happening.

I continued to try to relate to the Latina from our perspective by using the word “we,” but it was clear they thought I meant animal activists. Eventually I had to tell the white woman I wasn’t talking to her, to which she let me know what she thought of me, and the Latina told me she didn’t care about me and she only cared about the animals.

I tried to explain that if they truly cared about helping the animals, then we needed to relay the information in more effective ways in order to connect with more people.

I did mention how the Black community is taking the vegan and animal rights causes to heart, with vegan hip-hop dinners, etc.

I also apologized for this venue not being the best place to talk about these issues, and the white woman said she didn’t need me to tell her how to think.

I also tried to continue to explain how when I speak to people of color about being a vegan and an activist, I have to dispel the notion that we do not care about people.  (In hindsight I wonder why I continued.)

I have dealt with racist people in the animal rights movement before (people not knowing I was a Chicana and over the phone telling me not to move to particular areas because Mexicans lived there), not to mention racist comments when issues like charreadas come up, or Sheriff Joe, and of course, there was the time I was speaking at Boston University and a white woman interrupted me to insist that farm workers love their work. (The brilliant Dr. Breeze Harper reminded me the next morning that many white people have a romantic notion of what farm work is like.)

But I admit that it absolutely horrified me to have someone defend their racism to my face.

I was going to apologize for how I handled the issue to begin with, but by that time I was crying (I don’t think I realized it at first) and my wonderful husband asked if I wanted to leave.

I decided I needed to leave, mostly because I could not imagine staying at an event where these types of comments were being yelled at people of color.

The Latina asked me if I was leaving and I told her I was.

She seemed shocked and tried to explain to me that there are plenty of people helping people, but not many people to help the animals (she said this repeatedly). I tried to explain how untrue that was (and what came to mind was Hurricane Katrina), but I mentioned farm workers and she said there are always people to help people and the government could help the farm workers. I tried to explain many were undocumented….and just had to walk away. Sigh.

I was there for the non-human animals and this campaign is one I have been intimately involved with for two years, but I just couldn’t stand by and be complicit in these racist comments, so I left.

I am still sick to my stomach writing about it. And not because they were telling me that they cared more about non-human animals than human animals –I have been doing this long enough and unfortunately know how common this is.

Clearly, I should have started the conversation off better.

But did I do the right thing by speaking up?  I felt outrage and I would hope if I am not around people would defend me with the same passion as I have always done for non-human animals.

Would I have felt better now if I continued with an angry outburst of shock and incredulity?

Some of the irony of this is that these activists were trying to tell me (and the Black family) that we are “all the same,” and yet they said all of these racist things about Black people and how they were different.

You can’t have it both ways. It reinforces to me how problematic it is to say things like All Lives Matter (or those types of comments) and worse, what people really mean when they say this.

Halloween is by far my favorite “holiday,” and part of me wondered if I should have allowed myself to get so physically upset about this, but sometimes, you just can’t help it.

The best part? Other than seeing so many activists out for the animals and a beautifully put together event was the fact that a Black family with two kids walked by while all of this was going on. I handed them two leaflets, to which the Black little girl turned to me and said, “I agree.”

When I pointed that out to the two women, there was no response. But did I do right? I might have been better off trying to speak with that little girl more, but instead I wanted to prove my point.

I have continued to self-reflect about why such an incident caused me to cry even an hour after the interaction. Part of me wonders if it is because she was a Latina, or because this was at an animal rights event (having done animal rights since I was 17, I do consider animal rights activists “my family”), or because they felt comfortable defending their racist beliefs in person.

Mark and I spoke about it last night, and he said he sees these types of racist comments on social media. I am not on Facebook, so I guess I am spared, but I do know there are a number of animal rights groups that are indeed racist and promote this under the guise of “animals first.”

I realize it was probably a combination of all of these things as well as my overall feeling, Am I doing enough? Food Empowerment Project works on a number of issues impacting people of color to demand justice, but what do you do when racism is at the core?

Recently, I attended a vigil for the two-year anniversary of the killing of Andy Lopez (a 13-year-old boy who was killed by a cop in Santa Rosa for holding a toy gun), and a colleague of mine in the living wage campaign reminded me how prevalent white supremacy is. And I wondered, Am I doing enough?

When I think of all the excuses animal rights people use to treat each other with disrespect and at times act with cruelty – many excuse such behavior in the name of the animals – it reminds me of how some people use religion as a shield to hide bigotry. I can’t imagine the animals truly wanting us to be so cruel toward one another because, if nothing else, if we can’t live with solidarity among our own species, how can we save them?

Other similar blogs to link to: