Last month, I attended the 2016 Animal Rights National Conference, which felt like a rite of passage as an animal rights activist. This year's theme was "Until their voices are heard, I will raise mine!"
It was Inspiring, Emotional, Transformative and Empowering.
It has taken me a while to write this post because it's a little overwhelming how much can be said about my first experience at the conference. My boyfriend and I volunteered to work a few shifts throughout the event (which I highly recommend because it really does enrich your experience and makes it a lot easier to meet people).
When we first got to the hotel, I was blown away by how many people were already milling around the lobby during check-in and registration. Day 1 of the conference consisted of the welcome reception, film screenings of "Vegan Everyday Stories" and "The Pacer in the Marathon", and the opening and welcome reception. Unfortunately, we missed the opening reception because we were working our first shift prepping food for the networking reception later that night. It's OK though because it was a cool way to dive into the event--getting a behind the scenes look, meeting people and working as a team.
The Power of Social Media
The first session I attended was on the Power of Social Media, with John Oberg (Director of New Media of The Humane League) and Colleen Holland (Co-Founder and Publisher of VegNews Magazine) as the speakers. They discussed the best practices of promoting animal advocacy through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
John shared examples of social media posts that have worked well for The Humane League. He talked about how to create a balance in the different types of posts we make:
- "Like" Baits - Post things you know that people are sure to enjoy, like cute, adorable animals
- "Vegan Food Porn" - An overwhelming number of people have a strong affinity for avocado. So post things fun and unique recipes that feature avocado and other popular foods in order to increase engagement
- Activism and Empowerment - Post things like victories over the years, which inspire activists, staff members (of your own organization) and supporters. (e.g., women protesting vivisection before they were even allowed to vote, end of male chick culling, etc.)
- Vegan Humor - You can be snarky and posts funny memes about veganism
- Pro-Vegans and Pro-Animal Celebrity Figures - Have a celebrity as a vegan/pro-animal ambassador can be huge
- Factory Farming - We still need to show the ugly reality of factory farms. You can present it through thought-provoking memes, like side-by-side pictures of dogs in cages versus pigs in cages.
- Simplicity - Remember that people have short attention spans. While it may be tempting to write long, informative posts about the various forms of animal cruelty, always try to simplify your message
- Be Creative - Find creative ways to get your message across. One example John showed us was a screenshot of what a vegan's iPhone alarm clocks look like (with each alarm named). He also showed us an example of vegans' frustration with autocorrect (e.g., seitan autocorrected to satan, etc.) and memes with funny captions.
- Videos - People love videos. John said that 90% of people who were not vegan or vegetarian were engaged after seeing videos of male chick culling.
- Timely - Post about breaking news stories, like the death of Harambe the gorilla. Capitalize on that by bringing attention to other animals in captivity. One example he showed us was a picture of an adorable pig with the caption, "I am Harambe, too."
He told us to have a goal in mind each day (a benchmark on social media). For example, have a goal of achieving 1,000 likes per day on Facebook, 300 new followers per day, etc.
Another important reminder is that trolls come with the territory. It's OK if you have people trolling your pages and posts. That will happen. You just have to ignore them.
The key is to keep your audience guessing about what's coming next. Posting a variety of content with various tones and information helps prevent burnout from your social media posts, and will help to keep people engaged.
Colleen of VegNews then took the stage, opening up with VegNews' popular buzzwords, like "avocado", "ice cream" and "Moby". People simply love them. So use words that you know tend to attract and engage people. Here are other things she shared:
- Have a plan!
- Successful content based on social media platform:
- Food and animals work best on Facebook
- Twitter is great for news info and humor (but this is declining in numbers)
- Instagram is the fastest growing platform (for VegNews at least) - helps shape our brands with photos, new products and vegan recipes
- Pinterest - It uses compelling fantasy images; 85% of users are women; Include clear titles and links with every photo
- Tumblr - It's good for humor and animated GIFs
- 7 Tips for Best Social Media (mainly for organizations)
- Get the right person on the job - Knowing how social media platforms differ is key to matching the right person to manage each platform. (e.g., one who understands Facebook humor, one who knows how to create entertaining posts, etc.)
- Know your magic number - Decide on your ideal amount of daily social media posts (VegNews publishes about 10 Facebook posts a day). Make sure it's sustainable/realistic so you can post consistently and at a regular scheduled time; look at competitors to see how many times they post. Quality over quantity matters.
- Limit self-promotion - Promote content from other members of the community, like food bloggers, organizations, etc.
- Keep content clean - Make sure there are no spelling errors, no grammatical mistakes, no broken links, and more importantly, be factually accurate.
- Follow the metrics - Know and examine your metrics so that you can repeat what works (e.g., type of content, time, day of the week, etc.).
- Engage with your audience - Don't just schedule posts and walk away. Engage with your social media community on a regular basis and respond promptly!
- Get creative - Post a variety of content to keep your audience interested: infographics, videos, comics, giveaways, etc.
- VegNews' top posts:
- Your social media posts should be simple, memorable, interesting, fun to read, and support others.
- Above all, make it about your audience. Give them content they want and are likely to share.
Here are other important tips and best practices that were discussed (I can't remember if this was part of the Q&A in which John and Colleen answered, so I'll group them together here):
- What has worked (I believe this was for VegNews):
- Post a news story in the morning, and lifestyle in the afternoon
- Fridays and Sundays seem to work (although this depends on the platform)
- Organizations need to post once a day
- Post once in the late morning, between 11:30 am - 12:00 pm; post right before people leave work, which would be no later than 4:30 pm or even 4 pm
- Post once every week or two, or a maximum of once every day for individuals (not organizations)
- How people share is a measure of effectiveness. Make sure your post is as shareable as possible because Likes and comments aren't going to reach others as much as shares.
- Use popular hashtags on Twitter, Tumblr
- Since social media accounts can grow slowly, reach out to influencers to promote your posts, pages, etc.
- While some people like to post controversial content, John stays away from such posts (e.g., don't draw parallels between animal suffering and human suffering)
- If people are trolling, ban them or delete their posts. You should engage in a positive way.
Growing Our Personal Potential
The next session I attended was about Growing Our Personal Potential - Part 2, by FARM Founder Alex Hershaft and a longtime friend of his, Scott S. Smith. While they offered valuable advice on leadership and success, I felt like more time could have been spent relating content specifically to our personal potential as animal rights activists. I guess I was expecting more examples and advice about how to demonstrate leadership and achieve success when advocating for animals.
However, in their defense, I did miss their Part 1 session on Growing Our Personal Potential, which focused on shedding fears and inhibitions as animal rights activists. So maybe that presentation covered more of the information I was seeking.
We did come away with printed guidelines and a list of recommended books from some of the great leaders that Scott S. Smith interviewed. The list featured:
- Frances Hesselbein, CEO of the Girl Scouts, My Life in Leadership
- Richard Branson, Chairman of Virgin Group, The Virgin Way
- Kathy Ireland, CEO of kiWW, Powerful Inspirations
- Tony Robbins, Chairman of Anthony Robbins Foundation, Awaken the Giant Within
The list also included role models for success Smith profiled in www.ExtraordinaryPeopleBook.com:
- Anne Rice, bestselling author of novels about the supernatural, Called Out of Darkness
- Jim Henson, The Muppets creator, Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones
And finally, here are Smith's other recommended books that we could learn from to improve our leadership skills:
- The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
- How Successful People Think by John Maxwell
- Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy
Effective Strategies for Farmed Animals and a Call to Action
One of the evening plenaries I was able to attend featured powerful and emotional speeches including one by Kevin Kjonaas of ARME (Animal Rescue Media Education) and the Beagle Freedom Project. Kevin was the former president of SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) and one of the six members who was imprisoned for several years in violation of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, a United States federal law that prohibits "physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise resulting in economic damage exceeding $10,000"* (click here to learn more about this law that was created to protect corporations that profit from animal exploitation).
SHAC members were basically charged for using their website to post about the international campaign to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences for its cruel animal testing, as well as information about those associated with HLS, which was seen as inciting violence and terror.†
Kevin received a huge applause and standing ovation as he returned to the podium as a free man--and a hero for the animals. His speech was heartbreaking, impassioned, uplifting and motivating. I think everyone left that room feeling fired up--perhaps even ready and willing to go to jail for the cause, for the helpless animals who are at our mercy every day.
Kevin spoke of finding the strength to overcome his experience because of his beagles who were rescued from animal-testing labs and had endured so much more physical and emotional torture and suffering. He realized that if even they could learn to trust and love humans again, and have the resilience to lead normal, happy lives despite their dark past, then he too could overcome his experience.
During that session, I saw one of the most haunting images of pure despair and hopelessness: a hairless monkey covered in stitches, peering through its cage and seeking mercy. They spoke of a lab worker who worked with this monkey, and left the research lab for nearly a decade, and when he returned, he saw that same monkey, still in that cage--the victim of daily experimentation. This lab worker was struck with guilt, knowing he had experienced so many things in his life--got married, had children, etc.--and yet here was this poor monkey who had been trapped in that same cage, in that same lab all those years. Nothing had changed for him--just the same routine of cruel experiments with total disregard for his wellbeing. My heart shattered to pieces just hearing that.
PETA Founder Ingrid Newkirk closed out the session, in which she discussed the many other issues of animal cruelty beyond farmed animals and the progress made to help them. I know there are many people who don't view PETA in a positive light--whether it's their stance on euthanizing shelter pets or their controversial ways to get people's attention on animal cruelty--but they still have my appreciation. My take on all the controversy surrounding them is this: Unless you have helped to achieve victories for animals to the same degree PETA has, you can't really judge them.
10 Habits of Highly Effective Advocates
The speaker I was most looking forward to seeing was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, aka "The Joyful Vegan." I first discovered her on YouTube in which she gave a speech about the different aspects of being vegan, from nutrition to the absurd notions our culture has in how we perceive food (e.g., how we think we need milk to get calcium when the only reason cows have it is because they eat grass/plants, and the same goes for fish who get it from plankton). Her presentation was polar opposite of Gary Yourofsky's The Best Speech You'll Ever Hear, but it was equally impactful because she balanced reason and facts, with humor and non-judgmental views. She played a huge role in helping me navigate my way through the different stages and issues of being vegan.
Her presentation on the 10 Habits of Highly Effective Advocates (how to be an ambassador of compassion for animals and humans) at the conference did not disappoint. She brought down the house, and those who were already fans raved about her, and those who had just discovered her had found their new inspiration.
Here are the 10 Habits of Highly Effective Advocates:
- There is no such thing as a "certified vegan". Often times, vegans are so hard on themselves and think that we aren't doing a good enough job of advocating for animals. Compassion is the goal, and nobody is perfect. No one is an expert at being vegan, and we are on a continuous journey. The problem is those who do nothing because they think they have to do everything. They're overwhelmed; that's why perfection is the enemy of good.
- Believe that non-vegans are compassionate, too. They're just not manifesting that compassion through their actions. The majority of people contributing to cruelty to animals is due to social conditioning or sadism. Their compassion is conditional. They're asleep; their compassion is there but it's blocked. It may be because compassion as adults is seen as sentimental--as if those who are compassionate are sissies. We all ration our compassion when it comes to different things.
- Be humble. Those who are effective advocates for animals remember their own story before becoming vegan. We, too, were unaware and asleep. If we think and act otherwise, we risk being self-righteous and arrogant. We're not better; we know better and remember who we used to be.
- Find common ground instead of enemies. Choose to stand against violence instead of against each other (other vegans and animal advocates). Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be effective? Relate to what non-vegans are saying. Help them identify with you. There's a reason why "communication" means "common", which means "shared by all". Being an effective advocate means meeting someone on the common ground of compassion.
- Compassion isn't conditional. It has to be equal opportunity or it's not compassion. That includes having compassion for those you disagree with. It takes vigilance to be compassionate. The more violence (even thoughts) you create, the more violence you put out into the world. If we see people as monsters, as anomalies and not human, then we miss the opportunity to understand how to reach them.
- Watch your body language. Find your voice and express it in a way that's truthful and productive. We have to understand why people don't get it. Start there. Be sensitive to it. Our audience is everyone we encounter. We represent ALL vegans each time we encounter a non-vegan.
- Have a sense of humor. This is really important for maintaining your sanity despite the darkness that surrounds animal cruelty. Having humor helps to lighten up the most intense situations and issues.
- Don't take it so personally even if people are passive-aggressive. It's simply their defense mechanism because we are holding up a mirror to each other. This forces them to examine themselves. Their ego is heightened so they try to deflect it and get defensive. Speak the truth without being attached.
- Plant the seeds. Remain unattached to how these seeds germinate. Don't approach things by trying to change minds. Just speak the truth. Don't convert. Don't recruit. Just raise awareness. Intention is everything. People can sense your hidden agenda if you try to convert them.
- Have hope! This is critical to being an effective advocate. Know that people are speaking up on behalf of animals everywhere. Focus on that to have hope. Hope that our daily choices and advocacy are making an impact.
Have the grace and integrity of cows, the liveliness and humor of goats, the nurture of hens, the humility and sensitivity of donkeys and the faithfulness of geese. Learn from the animals to be effective advocates for the animals.
Walk the fine line between shock and truth. Don't be accusatory; find common ground instead. It's about creating space for them to figure it out based on what we're telling them. We're just conduits. This is why Colleen doesn't take credit for "converts". She credits the person for being open.
I believe one of the questions she was asked during Q&A was how to respond to people who try to challenge you and your beliefs, particularly in a silly way (e.g., "Plants have feelings too"). She said to let people be accountable for what they're saying. Don't back away if you don't have the answer. Ask them to explain what they mean. Create dialogue and facilitate people to come up with their own answers by saying things like, "Yeah, what do you think?" Remember, you don't need to have all the answers or be experts in order to have an effective dialogue.
One of the biggest ways to help farmed animals is by working with institutions to improve the systems that play a large role in contributing to animal suffering. This session covered victories that were achieved by affecting change within institutions like school districts, university cafeterias and food companies.
They kicked things off with Compass Group's announcement to end battery cages for chickens (they committed to switching to 100% cage-free eggs in the U.S. by 2019). This is huge because this leading foodservice company serves 8 million meals every day through college, corporate and hospital cafeterias.
They talked about certain individuals who worked to get Meatless Mondays implemented: Miguel who started Meatless Monday cooking classes and who teamed up with school's local chefs to get it running; then there's Theresa who, through persistence, got Tustin Unified School District to adopt one to three Meatless Mondays per week at their schools.
They discussed why encouraging people to try Meatless Mondays could really make a difference for animals. For instance, 400 million fewer animals are being killed for food compared to just nine years ago. This isn't because these people are vegan or vegetarian; it's because they are just eating less meat.
All this to show that one person can really make a difference--all you have to do is think about opportunities in your community. If you need help figuring out who to contact for your campaign, you can reach out to email@example.com, and she'll put you in touch with the right representatives.
Erica Meier at Compassion Over Killing spoke next, also listing the strides made in the fight for animal rights:
- QSR Magazine's headline: "When Vegan Goes Mainstream"
- 70%-80% of Veggie Grill customers aren't even vegan
- White Castle coming out with a veggie burger (vegan), as well as Wendy's and Subways creating vegan-friendly options
- Dunkin' Donuts now offering dairy-free almond milk with coffee
- Ben & Jerry's four non-dairy flavors
- Girl Scout cookies offering vegan option
- Disney World's vegan-friendly foods
- Bloomberg - "meat" now has a negative connotation; Taco Bell replaced the word "meat" with "protein" and have some vegan options
- MeatPoultry.com story: "Why Doesn't the Meat Industry Have Meat Analogs? Don't Fight Them. Join Them."
- Former McDonald's CEO joined a startup vegan company
- Reduced eggs by 25 million since 2008
They reminded us that change is possible, but only if we ask for them. Like when they reached out to Morning Star asking them to make vegan options, they said it wasn't a good idea because they didn't hear enough from consumers. Email and call companies over and over again until they make the changes you want. Companies need to know there's a demand.
How to Campaign Effectively - presented by David Coman-Hidy
- Be relentless! Accept that you have to work a lot of hours
- Be competitive. You can only accept victory until your campaign is done.
- Be creative. Try new things--sometimes dogmatic, sometimes friendly.
How to Decide on Campaigns
- Severity of suffering
- Number of animals
- Vulnerability (Is it a campaign you think you can win?)
Before launching any campaign, you have to do extensive research. Know the industry, its competitors, and then contact them. Update with every single new policy, breaking news and investigations when a campaign is imminent.
Launch Your Campaign
- Decide which company is most likely to do something
- Prepare everything for the first few weeks of the campaign
- Start your campaign with overwhelming force
- Informative website
- Video content
- Demonstrations, petitions, leafleting
- Op Eds
- Take over the social media accounts of the company you are targeting
Stay in constant contact with all relevant people (every relevant employee of the company), from board members and investors, to partner organizations and the company's clients.
- Look for unique vulnerabilities
- Constantly try new tactics
- Stick with what works, and drop what doesn't
- Put yourself in the company's shoes. What would they find very frustrating?
- Organize demonstrations outside of restaurants with outdoor seating or restaurants located in malls (e.g., Cheesecake Factory). Reach out to the malls warning them that since they do business with Cheesecake Factory, they'll be associated with the campaign.
- Nonprofit Quarterly's article headline: "Harvard Donors Take a Stand on Chickens, Threaten to Withhold Gifts" - Harvard students circulated a petition calling on Harvard to switch to cage-free eggs in all their food services. The students also contacted donors, resulting in 21 donors signing a letter and pledging that they will withhold further contributions until Harvard makes a complete switch to cage-free eggs.
- Get a public policy statement
- Start over with a new company
- Don't give the company any reprieve; when they show a moment of weakness, that's when you should really ramp up your efforts
- Take a step-by-step approach (I think what David meant is that you should tackle one issue at a time, gradually improving animal welfare, like banning battery cages in the U.S., in your state, on your college campus, etc.)
Advice on Vegan Lifestyle
This session was held by two of my favorite speakers at the conference: Colleen Patrick-Goudreau and Melanie Joy. I had just finished reading Melanie Joy's book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, which I highly recommend, so I was eager to hear her speak. Melanie, who is a social psychologist, explains in her book the belief system and psychology of eating meat. It's a fascinating look at how we've become so numb and disconnected to the living, breathing beings who become our food, and how we've been socially conditioned to draw a distinction between the animals we love and care for (our pets), and the animals we use for food, clothing, etc.
The session was in a Question and Answer format, which was a great way to wrap up the last day of the conference, as many people probably had questions after all the information we had digested. One of the more important topics they discussed was the polarizing beliefs among vegans and how we criticize and judge and other vegans. They suggested we read Melanie Joy's article, "Shaming Vegans Harms Animals", in which she discusses at length the major problem in the animal rights movement.
The other issue they addressed was what a lot of vegans and animal rights activists face--whether it's periodically or constant--and that is called Second Traumatic Stress Disorder: the loss of hope in humanity. Colleen talked about the importance of practicing self-care and not over exposing ourselves to the horrors that animals endure. We have to make it a point and priority to actively seek positive things. Focus on the hope, because without it, it'll be hard to continue the fight without being burnt out. She said that whatever your form of fun and decompression is, do it and don't feel guilty if you're not always devoting your time to activism.
Another point Colleen made, which I'm guilty of, is to not blindside people with graphic videos. Get their consent or warn people about the content. Also, balance negative stories and news with positive stuff. Show people how they can help: what they can do and what could be--not just what is. It's important to empower people and give them something to do to help the cause. Don't just show them the horrors of animal abuse and mistreatment and walk away.
They also suggested that we check out Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA), which is a program of Beyond Carnism, which Melanie Joy founded. CEVA works to empower vegan advocates and organizations through things like training, consultation and grants in order to increase the impact of vegan advocacy around the world.
In regards to effective communication, they directed us to the book, Messages: The Communication Skills Book. This and many other recommended books can be found in the Books section of VeganAdvocacy.org (CEVA's website). This particular book covers the principles of non-violent communication with friends, family, coworkers and partners in order to help us become better listeners and communicators in any situation.
Another question that was raised was how to approach former vegans and vegetarians. They suggested we start by asking them why they became vegan/vegetarian in the first place. By doing so, we help them reconnect to what once really mattered to them, and creates openness and encouragement.
Someone had also asked what to do when your family isn't always supportive of your vegan lifestyle, and the issues that arise, like them eating meat around you or making insensitive jokes about animals. They suggested having a heart to heart with your family, and to help them see the world through your eyes. Tell them to respect your boundaries, and let them know how it feels when they eat meat in your presence. Their love for you will help them be more sensitive and understanding about your beliefs.
Ending on a High Note
We're winning. That's the parting message they wanted us to leave with, which was sorely needed after being exposed all weekend to the vile ways animals are used and abused throughout the world. Animal rights activists needed to know that their efforts weren't in vain. Despite society's firm grip on its blindfolds, and the prevalent belief that we're superior to animals, there is progress within the animal rights movement.
They reminded us that the fight for animal rights is a social justice movement--just like the fight for the end of slavery, for woman's rights, for equal rights and marriage equality. Change isn't going to happen overnight, but it's happening--it just takes time.
Colleen of VegNews showed us the top 10 headlines that showed we are winning, among them being legendary Stevie Wonder urging his fans to go vegan, Ben & Jerry's announcement of their dairy-free ice cream, and Bailey's launch of a vegan Irish Cream liquor.
After instilling us with hope, they reminded us once again of why we do what we do. They showed us a video montage of animals being mercilessly abused and mistreated--everything we already knew but still feel like our hearts are ripped out each time we see it. The tears were flowing throughout the room, and I fought back my tears so hard that my throat hurt. I knew that once I let one tear fall, it would be over--I'd be a weeping mess.
I thought it was a very effective way to end the conference. They struck the right balance of hope and reality: leaving us with the sobering reminder of why we must continue on with our fight for animal rights and liberation. There are far too many animals who are suffering and are at our mercy, and if we don't speak up for them, no one else will.
Ever since I left that conference, I am even more impassioned and determined to raise my voice "until their voices are heard".
You can experience the conference yourself by purchasing the complete package of audio recordings here.
†Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/animal-rights-group-convicted-in-nj/