Sunday, April 5, 2015

No Accountability, No Justice

I was driving in Oakland the other day and saw a billboard that said simply “Fruitvale” on it. My mind immediately went to Oscar Grant and the film Fruitvale Station.

Want to know how delusional I can be? Every time I hear in the news about cops killing an unarmed Black man, I imagine the cop saying, “Oh, no! I can’t believe I did that,” and then think back to Ferguson. (Yeah, I don’t imagine their anguish for the innocent person who has just been killed.) But as I was driving, I wondered WHY? I mean, why would they think that? Why would they worry?

From the officer who killed Andy Lopez (teenager!) to the one who killed Michael Brown, every single cop has gotten off. They have nothing to fear as there is absolutely no accountability for their actions.

Why would cops stop killing unarmed people of color when they know they will not face any consequences?

But if one of these cops were truly held accountable, would they think twice? If the district attorney’s office and the Justice Department were held accountable by someone other than a pained and frustrated public, would that help?

In April of last year, a number of young girls were kidnapped in Nigeria. When interviewed by an English TV station on the issue, a prominent US actress stated, "These men thought that they can get away with this, that they could abuse them in such a way, sell them, rape them, take them as property, because so many people have gotten away with this in the past because of this culture of impunity.”

Clearly, that one sentence stayed with me. Why? Because it is true. Where are the drones searching for these young girls? Where are the countries banding together, organizing search parties to find them? By no means do I mean to simplify a very complicated political situation, but violence against women seems to be another issue where few are held accountable.

We have women who are trafficked into this country and used for the sex trade, we have women farm workers who are constantly being sexually assaulted, we have an epidemic of women being raped (in colleges and outside of them), and we have women who go to prison because they defend themselves against violent husbands (such was the case with Marissa Alexander, for example:

Where is the accountability?

Within the animal movement, we re-victimize those who are the most vulnerable as well. Accountability, such as it is, falls always on those who are seen as the least empowered among us.

Over and over, when slaughterhouses are investigated, workers are caught committing egregious cruelty to the animals.

But very rarely are those who are responsible for this type of environment held accountable – the owners.

I would imagine that when and if the owners of slaughterhouses are separated from their families and held accountable (and, better yet, the slaughterhouses are shut down), things will be different. Because honestly, it is the owners who need to be held accountable.

There are loads of examples of these situations – companies blame suppliers when issues ranging from slavery and child labor to wage theft and dangerous working conditions are raised.

Is there a better way to hold some of these people accountable? I don’t know. But what I do know is that they should not be allowed to profit from such deeds – cops continuing to carry a gun and collect a paycheck certainly should not be an option, nor should corporations profiting from egregious cruelty, death, and torture.

Justice demands accountability.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Veganism is not health insurance

Last year was a tough year for me. I lost a very good friend, a mentor, some colleagues, and a family member. It was a very painful year.

This has led me to be constantly worried about everyone around me, wondering whether or not they are taking good care of themselves. And it does not help that I have some vegan friends right now whose health is not the best.

Granted, I am someone who struggles with eating healthy and even more with exercise. I know it is important, but I seem to enjoy working in front of my computer more.

But I need to get better.

When I talk about the people who I lost last year, some were vegans – in fact, half of them were.  And the ones whose health is not the best? All of them are.

I know that some vegans say things like this as some sort of badge of honor: “I haven’t been to the doctor in years”; “ever since becoming vegan, I don’t suffer from colds and I rarely ever go to the doctor.”

What is worse is that I was recently told that some vegans have been saying, “Veganism is my health insurance.”

While there certainly are an immense number of health benefits to being vegan, I think everyone needs to be realistic that not all health issues are related to what we eat.

We know that genetics can play a role, as do environmental factors. In fact, there can be serious consequences for people who live near factory farms (as many in the central valley of California do) and for those who live in toxic waste areas and other polluting locations. Not to mention that many are impacted by what they are exposed to at work. Many workers are completely unaware of what they are being exposed to and how to protect themselves.

And as activists, we are often in a state of sadness and stress (always unfortunate when created by our own side). My mentor who passed away saw firsthand what was taking place in Western Africa in the chocolate industry and in the fields of California, which I’m sure was extremely stressful.

Too many times I feel as if we seem to respect those who work 24/7 (ahem) and sacrifice themselves for the cause (I consider that the 1980s ways of thinking – outdated). However, I have recently shifted my way of thinking and now have a greater appreciation for those who have a balance in their lives and who actually take the time to encourage activists to take care of themselves rather than continue to work until it hurts.

So what can we all do?

My hope is that all organizations will give their employees benefits that include health care and paid holidays and sick time. Kudos to those that are at least encouraging their employees to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Even if you aren’t sick, get check-ups. If nothing else, you can brag about how perfect your B12 and Vitamin D levels are!

Take care of your mental health, too, as stress can have a great impact on your body in ways you might never have imagined.

Read Mark Hawthorne’s book Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, which dedicates a chapter to burnout and provides super helpful tips on how to take care of yourself. And also pattrice jones’ book Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, a Guide for Activists and Their Allies includes practical tips and information on how traumatic events affect our bodies.

I also want to give a shout out to activists who speak frequently about the need for us to take care of ourselves: Veda Stram, Charlotte Cressey, and Breeze Harper (who even has a kale smoothie recipe for racial tension headaches).

For as long as I have known Veda she has begun her newcomer orientation at the national Animal Rights conference by talking about the need to take care of ourselves as activists. And I have always thought, “Isn’t she sweet to do that?” And now I say to myself, “Thank you for doing this, Veda!” It is truly important that we give her credit for giving us all such great advice.

We must remember that those who take the time to encourage activists to take care of themselves are the ones who are truly looking out for the movement and making sure that we have a healthier and more well-balanced base to encourage others to join us and ensure that we are all active for many years to come.

So, let’s all be sure to not only take good care of ourselves, but to look out for each other!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making Human Rights Day More Than Just a Symbolic Action

Below is what I wrote for Pachamama Alliance's blog for Human Rights Day.

With Human Rights Day upon us, Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), like many, looks at this day and wonders what we can do to end many of the heartbreaking and abhorrent human rights abuses here and abroad. With the killings of the unarmed Andy Lopez, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of cops, and the horrific murders of the students in Mexico, Human Rights Day feels more like just good intentions with no follow through.

I am overwhelmed by sadness and rage, mostly because I feel absolutely helpless.

One of the reasons I started F.E.P. is the desire to do something to alleviate some of the injustices in the world that I contributed to on a frequent basis, and so I chose to focus on food. And I wanted to encourage people to use their individual choices to reflect their beliefs and their collective voices to help create change.

Going vegan to help eliminate forms of animal oppression is just one part of this.

But it would be a shame to not acknowledge that some of the outrage that is taking place is tied to situations of similar abuse and oppression, and much of it is taking place against people of color, from the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities to those who pick our food.

Farm workers in this country are victims of human rights abuses, and many are people of color and undocumented. Farm workers feed not only those of us in the state of California, but people around the globe. Unfortunately, farm workers do not make living wages, are often forced to work in dangerous conditions, and are retaliated against and dismissed for exercising their rights. It is well documented that many of the women workers experience egregious forms of sexual harassment, including rape.

Here is an area where changes are coming, but clearly not fast enough. F.E.P. has worked to assist farm workers by organizing not only school supply drives for their children but also food drives for these same workers who help put food on our tables. We are currently working with a coalition to change a regulation that negatively impacts the education of children living in farm worker labor camps in California. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers unveiled the new Fair Food Program to have workers monitor humane wages and working conditions in the fields.

If only such changes could happen more quickly. A majority of chocolate comes from Western Africa, where children are victims of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. In fact, according to one report, there are about 1.8 million of these children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone. Children are forced to carry heavy cacao pods, and if they do not move fast enough, they are beaten. The children come to the plantations in variety of ways: some are stolen, some are sold, and others go thinking they will be able to help provide some income for their families, whom many will never see again. Some children are locked in overnight and if they try to escape are beaten or killed.

In order to help those who feel compelled to avoid contributing to these kinds of abuses on Human Rights Day – or on any day, for that matter – we created a chocolate list (available on our website and in app form: so that people can buy chocolate that is not sourced from areas where the worst forms of child labor are the most prevalent. And since we are a vegan organization, to be on our list, the companies have to make at least one vegan chocolate.

We recently were able to convince Clif Bar to be transparent about the country of origin for the cocoa they use. Transparency from corporations is one of the first steps. Although the road to ending the worst abuses in the chocolate industry, including child and slave labor, is going to be a long one, corporate transparency is an important step corporations can take to show they are beginning to view the issue seriously.

There are always things we can and must do. And part of this is recognizing that this system that seeks to exploit is one that we must fight – in every form it takes. We must use our voices and actions to speak out against it and hope that one day we can make Human Rights Day more than just a symbolic action. And we need to make sure that we, in the US, take a look at all of the ways we too contribute to human rights violations.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Critical Thinking: Thug Kitchen and “Lactose Intolerance”

Do you ever learn something that makes you look at things in a completely different way? Clearly, many of us probably experienced this when we learned about how animals are abused in our society, or how the worst forms of child labor and slavery exist in the chocolate industry, or what happens to our electronics when we stop using them.

I know that this is how I felt when I learned about the issues above. There was no going back on how I looked at them.

While some of the things we learn about just widen our perspective and help us understand things at a deeper level, others mean that we need to change. And that is part of the mission of Food Empowerment Project, to help people use their food choices to make positive change.

I thought I would have you hear from whom I learned recently.

By now most of you have probably already heard about the controversy regarding Thug Kitchen. I had never heard of Thug Kitchen, and suddenly I was having people ask me about it.

As we have all now learned, it was revealed how these two white people were clearly trying to deceive people by keeping their identities hidden because they were not Black as they had implied. Many feel they were appropriating the vernacular of a certain aspect of Black culture.

However, the reality of what was really going on was crystallized to me when I spoke to Liz Ross, co-founder of Cali Vegans of Color, who explained what was happening here was more about how they were reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people – and more pointedly, Black men.

I feel like I could say a lot, but I prefer to allow you to hear how Liz explains it:

This vegan cookbook is viewed as creative and funny by those who unfortunately only get their exposure of people of color through Hollywood stereotypes and the sensational evening news. The decision to hide their identities until now clearly indicates culpability. What is even more troubling is that Michelle Davis’ and Matt Holloway’s poor, but obvious, attempt at imitating negative stereotypes of Black men has a serious side, which is why it is offensive.

“Statistics show that Black men are more likely than white men to be stopped by the police without probable cause, frisked, assaulted and murdered, because they tend to view Black men as ‘thugs,’ as criminals, by default. Regardless of whether you agree with this fact, the message you will send to our community is one of indifference to making the connection between the mindset of many Whites and law enforcement officers that criminalizes Black men and the tragic consequences of this.”

To me, enough said. 
There is no need for a dialogue about whether what they did was irresponsible, and the writers need to acknowledge and apologize for perpetuating racist stereotypes. I also think they should donate the proceeds to community groups working on healthy foods in communities of color – and, no, I don’t mean Food Empowerment Project, but groups that are working and living in these communities – Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, areas of L.A., etc.
What they have done here is profit off of racist stereotypes of Blacks in this country. THIS is far worse and offensive than I believe I first understood it to be. 
Around the same time that all of this was going on with Thug Kitchen, a wonderful food sovereignty advocate from Kansas City, Maria Whittaker (program director for Local2Global Advocates for Food Sovereignty and KC Food Justice) posted a study called The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and the USDA.  
 I haven’t read the paper in full, but one morsel of information I found will mean we at Food Empowerment Project will refer to lactose intolerance differently. 
The author, Andrea Freeman, writes: “African Americans and Latina/os suffer from the most serious health conditions associated with saturated fats at higher rates than whites. There are significant racial disparities in the number of deaths from cancer, rates of cervical cancer, rates of prostate cancer and the likelihood that a person with prostate cancer will die from it. …African Americans and Latinas/os suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes at higher rates than whites do.

“Lactose intolerance also affects more African Americans and Latina/os than whites. Even the phrase ‘lactose intolerance’ reflects a cultural bias. A significant percentage of individuals from all communities, with the exception of Scandinavian and Northern European whites, do not retain the enzyme lactase through adulthood. …It would be therefore more appropriate to label people who retain the enzyme as ‘lactose persistent,’ instead of pathologizing the lack of the enzyme.”

She goes on to state that, “Characterizing lactose intolerance as abnormal appears to reflect the belief that the appearances of whites defines the baseline of normal, and any departure signifies an unusual and undesirable condition.”
Pretty cool, eh? Oh, I am sure our volunteer webmasters probably will not be happy and, of course, I am going to have to re-wire my brain when talking about these issues.

But she is right. And sometimes we all need to be willing to make changes in how we think and talk.
How can we improve the world around us if we are unable or too uncomfortable to make changes ourselves?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

So many lives….

The reality of sitting in front of a slaughterhouse as animals are brought in to be killed is never something those who care about animals can really prepare themselves for.  I had to do this again recently in preparation for our vigil in front of Petaluma Poultry, a local slaughterhouse, and I was thankful to have one of our volunteers with me (thanks, Sarah!), as no one wanted me to do it by myself.

I can get into “work mode,” like I did when I was doing more factory farming investigations – get the footage and get out – and break down later. It was different at the slaughterhouse, as we needed to stay and watch trucks come in order to know what times we should be there to bear witness.

So many lives! That is all that kept running through my head – these are all babies, so many babies. All of these gentle little birds crammed into crates, loaded on trucks, and moved around like boxes.

Soon we will also do our part to bear witness to these birds as they arrive.

Petaluma Poultry can talk all they want about how their chickens are raised, but in the end, every individual bird will perish at the slaughterhouse.

Last year, Mark and I traveled to Toronto, as I was giving a talk at the conference, “Human Rights Are Animal Rights: A conference on commonalities of oppression” held in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Mark’s book Bleating Hearts had just come out, and we met up with Jo-Anne McArthur, who took the photo on the cover. (Read more about Jo-Anne in Mark’s recent interview with her.)

I was very familiar with Jo-Anne’s powerful images of activists giving water to pigs in a transport truck on their way to the slaughterhouse. The person I was not familiar with was the woman who started Toronto Pig Save: Anita Krajnc.

We were lucky that Jo-Anne had invited her to lunch with us. She talked about the influences of Tolstoy on her life and the concept of bearing witness: “When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help.”

Anita invited us to participate in the vigil that night at the cow slaughterhouse. Mark and I had never been to Toronto before and, being activists, we felt this was an important way to get a feel for the city.

Did I mention it was November and it was freezing? To those of you who know me, I don’t mean it was below 70 degrees: it was really freezing!

We went.

There were about six of us. We got there before Anita and were welcomed by some of her crew (including a great activist named Bo). Those we met included a former chicken slaughterhouse worker and a couple of other activists. It was one of those rare animal events where men were the majority and it was equal between people of color.

We held signs as people drove by.

The owner of the slaughterhouse was leaving as we were there and Anita pulled us over to meet him, which Mark and I were both incredibly uncomfortable with. But it was clear Anita was engaging him in respectful conversation, and she gave him a copy of Forks Over Knives to read and encouraged him to no longer be a part of the bloody business he was in.

Later, we went over to the chicken slaughterhouse where they also do outreach. This happened to also be the slaughterhouse where our fellow activist had worked. He pointed the setup out to us.

While we were there, I mentioned to Anita that I wanted to work with her and figure out how to be a part of what she had created – I was inspired!

Coming back to where I live now in Sonoma County, we have a number of slaughterhouses. It has always amazed me that people could pass by and not think once of the lives taken inside them on a daily basis. So that is also where Sonoma County Chicken Save has come from: a desire to not let people drive by slaughterhouses guilt-free, and also to bear witness as an activist.

Would I love for the slaughterhouse to shut down? Absolutely! But until that happens, I want to make sure that those who drive by are reminded that when they eat animals they are taking a life. I want them to see us on a regular basis and eventually come to talk to us and make changes.

But in addition to this, we will also be handing out whistleblower cards to the workers.

No one who kills animals every day wants to do this job – circumstances are why they are there and given the 100% turnover rate, it is clear that most want to get out.

In fact, Rick, one of our board members, sent me a fascinating article on some workers who, in 2012, filed a complaint to OSHA against a pig farm due to the horrifying conditions they encountered, including dangerous workplace hazards (like toxic fumes and unsafe structures), inadequate or totally absent safety equipment, being discouraged from going to the doctor for injuries, wage theft, and similar treatment.

They also filed a civil rights complaint based on the racial discrimination they faced – such as white workers being treated very differently than the Mexican workers, and being berated for speaking Spanish – and an animal welfare complaint documenting the abuse they had witnessed.

What was interesting to me was the fact that when these workers were empowered to talk about their own abuse, they also chose to take the opportunity to speak about the pigs. They reported pigs who were sick, had maggots on their legs, and pigs who they had seen kicked, slapped, and hurt by supervisors.

Maybe when workers are able to speak up and defend themselves, they might be more likely to speak up about the other non-human animal abuses that they see and which bother them.

Anita’s work with the Save movement inspires me with her intelligence and heart.

And this work is about the animals and keeping the focus on them - not just for a day, but for as long as they are there, and not just once and walking away, but being a constant presence for them.

And that is something we all owe them.