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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chipping Away at Injustices

I consider myself a fan of sci-fi, but I also consider myself a Trekkie, though I don’t know the name of the grain that kills the Tribbles, and I am really more of a fan of the original and Deep Space Nine. Real fan or not, I do like to watch it. Those of us who like sci-fi know that one of the beauties about it is how cleverly writers can weave in commentary about things such as racism, animal exploitation, sexism, etc. – setting these issues in another time and place while making them relevant to the here and now.

My husband and I have been watching all of the
Twilight Zone episodes, and one struck me that I can’t shake. The episode is called “He’s Alive,” and the description from IMDB is this, “Around 1960, a tiny neo-Nazi organization struggles pathetically to succeed in a big city. A mysterious figure begins to ruthlessly guide a young, insecure U.S. Nazi leader, and the group begins to draw more attention.”

An old man who survived WWII is speaking to a bartender across the street.

The bartender says, “Used to be people would laugh at him, and lately he gets the crowd and not many people laugh either.”

The old man says, “I’ve seen it before. I have seen it all before.”

Bartender: “That was another time, another place, another kind of people that doesn’t go here.”

The old man: “That is what we said, too. They were brown scum, temporary insanity, part of the passing scene too monstrous to be real, so we ignored them or laughed at them because we couldn’t believe there were enough insane people to walk along side of them. [Sigh]… and then one morning the country woke up from an uneasy sleep and there was no more laughter. … But not again. It must not happen again. I can’t let it. We simply can’t let it happen again. All that nightmare. Oh, no. No, not this time.”

I guess it had me thinking about how people treat various forms of discrimination from racism, homophobia, cruelty to animals and the treatment of immigrants. You have those who speak hate and vitriol, those who listen and are uncomfortable with it but laugh as they do not know what to say, those who agree and those who speak against it.

I often think many of us are put into these situations, mostly with people we don’t know well or work with.

I was faced with this when my husband and I chose to protest Prop 8 in California (Prop 8 made marriage equality illegal) by having our wedding in Massachusetts, which has legalized marriage equality. I was asked, and continue to be asked, why we married out of state. People want to know if it is because we had family there or if we met there.

Every time someone asked, I knew this was an opportunity. An opportunity to make a statement against hatred and discrimination. I told the truth and said it in a way that would assume that any decent person who does not believe in discrimination would agree with me and understand why we had to make this choice. Did everyone agree with us and embrace what I had to say? Certainly not. Should I worry about offending people whose point of view is different? To me, that would be no different than being silent and not speaking up about other forms of discrimination.

And that is a small way in which we all can use our voice. It doesn’t mean we have to scream (although clearly there are times when this is necessary), but we must not be silent. We must not laugh or ignore the hatred that is being spouted these days. We should not listen to these shock jocks and laugh. We should not give them anything.

Why should those with the most constant and loudest voices be those who speak such absolute disgust? Even if we don’t have the microphones they do, we must use our voices because collectively we can be loud.

I remember when I started Food Empowerment Project and explained to fellow animal rights activists about some of our goals. I was told that racism isn’t that bad. Well, I don’t think that anyone can deny now the blatant racist comments and actions that are taking place across the country. The time is up for us to ignore it; we must constantly use our voices to speak out against it. 

Now most people who are reading this (if you have continued to read) are not ones who would remain silent when animal cruelty is involved. However, I start to worry that this trend is creeping into our movement in an insidious way. Every time someone talks about “humane” meat or cage-free eggs, it is as if the discussion of the reality of the actual suffering, cruelty and deaths of these animals is erased, because the conversation, for the most part, stops there. 

Why is it that those who bring up these injustices are seen as not allowing others to have a good time? Why are not those who make homophobic, racist or sexist jokes seen as the killjoys?

These conversations, as uncomfortable as they might be, must see the light of day and not be overshadowed by laughter or the thought that it will all go away if we don’t talk about it.

I don’t want to have to worry that my group will lose support because a racist or a homophobe reads this. Enough. We must take stands against those who seek to oppress people, even if they support animal issues.

We must use our collective voices to speak out against all forms of injustice if we think we can ever chip away at it.

And below is the end of that episode from the wise and talented Mr. Rod Serling:

Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare (Adolph Hitler) - Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami, Florida; Vincennes, Indiana; Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry.  He's Alive.  He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being.  He's alive because through these things we keep him alive.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

When Will It Be Enough?

It has happened to many of us, but admittedly it had not happened to me in a while. Having recently moved from a very urban area to a more rural area, I had forgotten how common it is. So I was not prepared for the incredible emotional reaction I would have. Mostly that of anger.

When I saw it ahead I had to make the decision whether or not to look to see if anyone was inside. 

While driving down the highway, I passed a transport truck, filled with animals destined for a slaughterhouse. 

Now, I am someone who has done investigations of numerous factory farms, slaughterhouses, and auction yards. I have a tendency to not turn away from such atrocities. I prefer to confront it.

But I wasn’t sure I could deal with it that day.

I looked and, yes, I could see there were animals inside. I admit to being relieved that I could not see them staring back.

After I gave the driver an incredibly dirty look (which, even if he saw, he would not have understood), I drove on, thinking about the encounter and the decades that I have dedicated to trying to educate others in order to stop animals from being killed. 

And I know that many of us are looking for that one thing that will make those people who eat animals open their eyes and see the millions of deaths they contribute to so that they stop eating them.

Which direction do we, as animal activists, take? Do we only talk about the ethical aspects of animal consumption? Or do we talk about the environment? Or just stick with the health benefits? Is there one of these approaches that will help people stick with it? Which one is the best? Do we do them all, or does it weaken our credibility if we do?

In terms of outreach, is it leafleting? Is it protesting? Is it vegan food giveaways? Is it investigations? What reaches the public in the most effective way to make change?

The animal rights movement has certainly been going down a dangerous path of becoming homogeneous.

I have always been an activist who believes in the “we need all of the spokes in the wheel” philosophy to move us forward. Yet I felt anger and frustration when I saw that truck. I wondered, why is none of what we do enough?

I wish I was going to have some wonderful answer here, but I don’t. I still believe that it is going to take all forms of outreach and reasons to spread the word (although as a vegan food justice organization, Food EmpowermentProject focuses on the ethical stance as we do for all food issues), but I do worry that we have lost sight of the real goal.

I worry that some animal rights activists have gotten so focused on the living conditions of the animals (which I agree are deplorable and should be worked on by some) and have forgotten that we need to stop them from being forced into these trucks
that all of our attention and energy needs to be focused on stopping these animals from being trucked off to slaughter. Regardless of how they are raised, they will end up here and at the slaughterhouses.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize, and that prize is saving their actual lives and preventing more from being kept in cages and crates.

To see, hear and smell their fellow beings be killed is an incredibly traumatic aspect of these animals’ lives – actually the end of their lives.

Truly, I can’t think about it in too much detail; I don’t feel like my mind can handle it. But we know from humans who have had to endure such situations that it is psychological terror.

I really worry that we can get so caught up in other things that we forget that what is most important is stopping these trucks from continuing down the highways to the slaughterhouses. 

And saving their lives. As we know, getting more and more people to go vegan is what will accomplish this.

Continuing my drive, with tears in my eyes and anger in my heart, I saw a sign of hope. A car drove past me with a paw sticker on the bumper that read “Who Rescued Who?”

And, well, that gave me hope. Now, do I think that the person driving that car was vegan? Not necessarily; however, it reminded me that at their core, most people truly care about animals, and our job is simply to open their hearts and minds to the plight of all beings.

Thankfully I know that is a task we can do.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

When did slavery get a pass?

All of us are raised in a society that indoctrinates us to believe that animal consumption and, in fact, many forms of animal exploitation (animal testing for cosmetics or keeping animals in captivity for human amusement, for example) are acceptable.  So, I tend to give people some latitude if they haven’t thought about these issues and don’t really know the details about them.

However, none of us have been raised to believe that slavery is acceptable. In fact, most of us look back at slavery in the US and abroad as a scar on humanity – as something that we later learned was reprehensible and inexcusable.

And yet, it seems that slavery today gets some sort of pass. Now, is that because much of the slavery taking place (and here I am specifically speaking about commercial slavery) is done at the hands of corporations? Is it because some feel it is too inconvenient to make changes in their lives so they don’t contribute to it? Is it because people just don’t know about the issue? Or is it because much of the slavery is happening abroad? 

In this blog post, I am specifically addressing slavery in the chocolate industry, as that is something that Food Empowerment Project is working to expose.

How can corporations talk about how they are working on this issue? Here is what Hershey has to say:
“Over the next five years, Hershey will also expand and accelerate its programs to improve cocoa communities by investing $10 million in West Africa…”(

Is that supposed to make my jaw drop? Unfortunately, it makes my stomach turn.  While Hershey’s $10-million investment sounds magnanimous, it is $600,000 less than their CEO made in 2011!

But we are talking about slavery here, people – we are talking about kids working in the fields, forced to carry heavy loads and dangerous tools and not being able to leave.

How can a company say they are working on it? Why don’t they say they are outraged and will ensure these farmers are paid a living wage so that they are not forced to enslave children to do the job?  Is it the extra house? The yacht? What is it?

Is chocolate addiction so serious that they know people just can’t give it up even to make this world a more just place? Do they know that people simply accept that the corporations are “doing their best” and leave it at that?

And why is a company like Clif Bar getting a pass from everyone? Why doesn’t our petition have more than 100,000 signatures by now? All we’re asking is for Clif to disclose the country from which they buy their chocolate.

Being an animal rights activist for more than 25 years, I have heard the phrase “Animal liberation is human liberation” more times than I can count, and I see buttons, t-shirts, etc., with the paw and the human fist. So why is it that vegans and vegan organizations can’t get behind this effort?  If nothing else, I hope that vegan organizations can at least not list or promote companies that have not responded to us about the source of their chocolate. 

We don’t need to give up our mission to show solidarity with other causes. 

I am sure you can tell my exasperation is overflowing, but as someone who believes strongly that oppression is oppression and we must work to stop it, I am confused. Very confused.  With something as simple as our food choices and as simple as speaking out to corporations, I just can’t believe that we will give slavery a pass. We aren’t asking people to give us $1,000; we are just asking for a signature that could make real change.

If we can’t get a company like Clif Bar to disclose if we can’t get people up in arms about child slavery in the chocolate industry what are we saying about ourselves and what we can accomplish?

I strongly believe in the power of the individual. I strongly believe that we can encourage corporations to be more ethical because it matters to us and we can make it matter to them. And most of all, we can tell those people around the globe, whose exploitation we are contributing to, that we will not be silent anymore.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Parting with Palm

Recently Food Empowerment Project completed our website with our final section on Ethical Food Choices. Included in that section was a description of the palm oil industry.

With many of the sections on our website I am very familiar with why we are discussing the issues, and I had already made changes to what I eat based on what I knew or was learning.

With palm I was less familiar. In fact, much of what I had been reading (through the work of my paid job) was the use of palm for biodiesel and the negative impacts this was having on the animals and environment.

However, when our volunteer writer, Rick Kelley, sent the first draft, I knew immediately I was going to have to make changes.

And that is why I decided to write this blog, because many of you, like me, are learning about this issue and do not want to contribute to what is happening in places like Malaysia, Sumatra, and Cameroon, where deforestation has been devastating to animals such as tigers, rhinos, elephants, and of course, the orangutans, who have actually been killed in order to clear land for palm plantations.

Meanwhile, workers are exploited by the working conditions and chemical use, and indigenous people are forced off their land to make room for palm plantations.

Now, I know shopping or eating by our ethics can’t solve all of the problems impacting the animals and people, but for those of us at Food Empowerment Project, it is an important first step. When we started learning more about slavery in the chocolate industry, we did our research and did a lot of outreach on the issue. And now we have started an effort to get Clif Bar to disclose where they source their chocolate from in order to make companies accountable to consumers who do not want chocolate from the slave trade.
So for those of you who have asked us to start a campaign on the palm issue, please know we just might, but we aren’t ready yet.

We know that some vegans have been a bit slow to come around to see how these social justice issues are connected (whether it be human or non-human animals), but we are hopeful that these are all issues we can work on together.

Getting off margarine has been easier than I thought, but admittedly, I am not there yet. I have been holding on to our last stick of Earth Balance so as to not waste it. But my pancakes taste fine without margarine as does my corn on the cob. But it is something I think about now, and just like with other cruelty-free vegan choices I have made in my life, I am sure I will have dreams that I am accidentally eating food with palm oil, and I know it will eventually become routine to look for it when I am reading ingredients.

To make it easier, Food Empowerment Project has revised our vegan food list. The list still includes vegan products, but now those with palm ingredients have a line going through them. We decided to keep them listed so that people would not be confused as to whether we knew of a product’s existence or not. We have done this to make it convenient for people who do care about this issue to quickly see what products are vegan and which ones do or do not contain palm.

We ask you to please help us to populate our list of palm-free vegan products, and don’t be scared to look at the list – I imagine many of your favorites will still be listed!

A HUGE thank you to all of the volunteers who helped to double check our list so we knew which products did and did not contain palm oil: Lisa Goetz, Molly Jordan, Jessica Spain, Melissa Tappis, Joseph Valdez, Michelle Waters, Heather Veleanu, and Nikki Woelk.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Schaeffer/RAN. Thank you!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Is Divine truly divine?

Food Empowerment Project has received a lot of pushback from corporations and those with chocolate certification systems about our chocolate list because we do not simply give a blanket approval to these schemes; however, we do pride ourselves on recognizing that this issue is complex and there are a lot of grey areas.

When it comes to comments about our list, we have received the most from consumers who are disappointed about particular companies (such as Clif Bar), but the most feedback we have received from companies is regarding Divine Chocolate.

We have had numerous phone calls and email discussions about Divine, and our stance has been that since child labor was found in the fields of their cooperative, we could not (at the time) put them on our recommended list. We have never said the door was shut.

Recently, I was contacted by the CEO of Divine regarding our stance on cacao from Ghana. We had a lengthy conversation about where we were coming from, and she took the time to explain to me what was happening at the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative, an organization established in Ghana in 1993.

I am not going to go into that in this blog, because Divine’s website can explain it better than I, but she talked about their sourcing with pride. Wouldn’t it be great if all corporations could beam with pride and really mean it?

When I asked about the children found on the farm, she explained to me that “they” (the farmers) were working on this issue to make sure those problems with education and monitoring didn’t happen again.

And that stuck with me. She had been telling me that they were the only fair trade cooperative and I heard her, but not until she said “they” did I have this, well, epiphany. She didn’t say, “We are going to do this” or how any scheme was going to be adjusted, but what “they,” the farmers, were going to do.

When looking for solutions to the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities, I have talked about one of the problems being not asking those who are living with it. I feel that decisions being made by well-intentioned people without input from those who are impacted is a mistake. 

And this struck me as the same thing. What is going to help end the issue of child slavery in the cacao industry may not come from Westerners telling the farmers what to do – they know their culture and they know what will work. (Please note, I am making a lot of qualifiers here if you can’t tell because I am not saying it is impossible for someone else to do – just a powerful perspective.)

These are farmers who are learning and wanting to improve the lives of their families. They aren’t getting paid for a certification they understand is a way out of poverty for themselves and their families. They are the owners of the farm.

As a vegan organization, we know that there is never going to be a way that anyone can or will ever convince us that animal products can be acquired without suffering – the animals are part of a commodity, not a system.

With something like this cooperative, however, we know that they are the ones living it and working on it, and therefore, things can change.

Oh, and to answer the question at the top, Divine is now on our recommended list.

If you have not already, please sign our petition to Clif Bar: