I recently attended the Compassion in Action Conference presented by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, or as some may know her best, 'The Joyful Vegan'. If there's anyone who can excel at living a vegan life full of hope and optimism; captivate a room with eloquence, warmth, humility and humor; and effectively advocate for animals by communicating truthfully, respectfully and compassionately, it's Colleen.
Every vegan activist—newbie or veteran—could benefit from hearing her speak. Her insights are always so refreshing and spot on, and her genuine ability to remain hopeful is an essential light in a movement that exposes us to the horrifying violence and cruelty inflicted on animals. As animal lovers and activists, we're especially vulnerable because our compassion and empathy leave our hearts wide open.
It's why I couldn't have been more excited to attend her conference, which was held in a beautifully quaint Victorian setting in Preservation Park, located in the heart of downtown Oakland, California. The tagline for the conference was "Putting your values to work to change the world for animals." The conference comprised of four main sessions based on the ideas of how to "Frame your values. Communicate your values. Act on your values"—and to do so socially, politically and personally.
Framing Our Vegan Values for Effective Advocacy
The focus of this session was to help us determine our values as vegans so that we can effectively communicate and advocate for animals based on them. But first, what is a frame? Colleen defined it as "the way language shapes our brain". Think of frames as word-picture associations. Since our goal is to change people's minds about animals, we should use words that trigger the thoughts or perceptions we want others to have when they think about animals. She cited George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which is really a handbook on how to change the political dialogue but has very valuable advice and strategies that could be applied to animal advocacy.
Colleen also recommended resources like Frame Works Institute whose mission is "To advance the nonprofit sector's communications capacity by identifying, translating, and modeling relevant scholarly research to frame the public discourse on social problems", as well as Common Cause Foundation, which works to strengthen our common values in order to "create responses to a wide range of social and environmental challenges". By drawing from these strategies, we can frame our vegan message to motivate people's behavior to help animals.
Here are the 10 ways to frame our values:
#1 Be Clear About Your Message. First, you must know what it is. If you don't, you have to work on crafting it, which can take some time. Colleen likened it to a company's mission statement, and some companies actually hire companies that specialize in developing that message because it's so important. Colleen used her mission as an example, which I tried to write down as quickly as I could but was only able to get a part of it (it's not verbatim): Animals are not here for us. They have value completely separate from humans. To use violence against animals is to perpetuate violence against ourselves.
#2 Repeat Your Message. Repetition strengthens those frames.
#3 Use the Language of Values. Not facts or statistics. Facts don't matter; they don't change minds, values do. According to George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant!, people act more on identity and values, not self-interest. Colleen used the example of food and health. Many people know what foods they shouldn't eat, but they forgo their self-interest (i.e., health) for identity and values.
She also mentioned Faunalytics, an organization that does research for animal advocacy. They found that people reject the facts, not the frames.
a. Know your values. Vegan isn't a value; it's a manifestation of our values. Examples of values:
- Protection [of innocents] - This tends to be very masculine; men tend to be attracted to this
Adhering to an ideology (e.g., veganism) is not a moral goal to people. Being a good person is.
b. Say what you idealistically believe and emphasize your world view. Don't be afraid to be too emotional. Express your values because they're universal—it helps people relate to you. Frame the facts into a story in order for them to be effective. For example, instead of just saying "10 billion land animals die for food each year", say "10 billion land animals die for food each year. Violence begets violence."
#4 Provide Context and Keep it Simple. Don't assume people know what you're talking about (just because we as animal advocates hear it all the time, doesn't mean others do).
For example, it's better to say "American taxpayers are paying the meat industry to destroy the environment, kill animals, etc." instead of saying "Government subsidizes the meat industry." The latter means nothing to people whey they hear it. You don't want to make people feel stupid, and you come off as arrogant when you do.
Another very interesting point Colleen made is that vegan advocacy materials are 3-4 grade levels above what people can comprehend. We want people to feel smarter and more informed after talking to us. She said to look at some of the advocacy materials around; see if there is no context, if it's too complicated or hard to understand, and if they don't provide solution. We need to give people concrete images of what the solution looks like.
#5 Own the Frame. Instead of answering the question based on opponents' frames, reframe it. For example, if someone says vegan butter is "fake butter", say "it's real butter made from plants". Don't say "no, it's not fake". Don't let the dominant frame remain dominant (don't repeat the dominant frame because the only thing people will hear is the dominant frame).
"Fake news" - Say "Reporting truth", NOT #notfakenews
"Is soy bad for you?" - Say "Is soy good for you?"
"Is soy dangerous?" - Say "Is soy healthy?"
#6 Unite and Cooperate with Other Advocates. By this, Colleen means other advocates outside of animal activism such as health, environmental or human rights organizations/advocates (think intersectional issues). She used welfare ranching as an example as it's something a lot of organizations can get behind: animal, environmental and human rights.
Create coalitions with other advocates. What is a message we can all agree on?
#7 Own the Frame. Plant vivid messages and speak aspirationally. A good example is starting a sentence off with "Imagine". "Imagine someone doing something to your dog that they do to farmed animals."
Also, don't just emphasize problems; by doing that, you're just tapping into people's finite well of worry. It gets too overwhelming to care.
#8 Tone Matters. People end up responding to you with skepticism when you use an argumentative or ideological tone.
#9 Speak to a Specific Audience. Don't be too broad; it's ineffective. Think of dog lovers, people who already love animals, those already involved in social justice issues, or those who are already vegetarian. This helps hone your message and makes it more personal and relatable.
#10 Words Matter. Think about cultural and individual values. Words trigger frames. In another study, it was found that there are words that people respond better to than others:
"Meat-free" vs. "Vegetarian"
"Convenient" vs. "Organic"
Words that people resonate with: affordability, convenience, safety
As such, we should be more mindful of these frames when posting on social media, blogging, writing editorials, etc. How will you diminish their values when posting or communicating with non-vegans?
Example: "When I first learned about how animals are treated, I stopped." This helps people relate to you; it lets them know that we (vegans) were like them once. Colleen stressed that it's important to remember your story. Let people hear themselves in your story. What were the moments for you that made you start your journey to veganism?
Colleen talked about a conversation she had with a woman who said she loves animals and wants to be vegan but could never give up cheese. So Colleen asked her if she could give up meat, and the woman said yes. Eggs? Yes. Seafood? Yes. Don't let people get away with their excuses. Push back in a respectful manner. That's why Colleen often says "Do something. Anything." Start where you're at. "Don't do nothing because you can't do everything." Empower people to make a change.
Words truly matter. Don't say "deprivation" or that you "gave up" a certain food, instead say that you "let go of it".
5 Key Actions to Authentic Listening
As vegans and animal rights activists, we often find ourselves having to defend our beliefs, which can condition us to automatically be defensive. This inhibits us from being authentic listeners as we may already be thinking of our next response to non-vegans' remarks—sometimes rational and respectful, other times downright silly or offensive. This is why Colleen invited her friend, Kenda Swartz Pepper—a blogger, author and therapist—to share her tips on how to effectively practice authentic listening, especially when interacting with non-vegans and other people with contrasting views.
Here are the 5 steps to being an authentic listener:
- Breathe - Be present, confident, and have an open heart as well as an open mind
- Connect - Establish that genuine connection to the person in front of you and to yourself. Use non-verbal listening responses (like making eye contact or nodding your head) and vocal qualities ('uh huh') to let the speaker know you're listening.
- Reflect - Paraphrase what they said using your own words. She used examples of 'reflect openers' such as: "It sounds like you're..." or "Let me make sure I understand what you're saying...you think..."
- Clarify - If you're unclear about what the other person is saying, ask them to clarify by saying something like, "I'm not completely clear. I think you're saying..." or you can ask them open-ended questions that start with what, how, tell me, describe, etc.
- Direct/Next Steps - This helps you take control of the dialogue and steering it into a direction you want, which could include problem solving, conflict resolution or moving off topic. Some examples she provided: "I have some thoughts on this..." or "Would you be willing to hear my suggestions about this?"
So how do we know if we're not being authentic listeners? Here's a list of common impulses we have that prevent us from doing so:
- Agreement (constantly agreeing and not really listening)
- Defending (this is probably the more common one among us vegans and animal rights activists
- Pre-existing condition (having a bias/preconception)
- Winning/needing to be right
- Unsolicited problem solving or advice
How to Become Politically Engaged
Although I was excited about this session, I had a hard time understanding some of the speakers, mainly because there were a lot of terms with which I wasn't familiar. Plus, I feel like my listening comprehension skills have gotten worse as I've gotten older! Here are the notes I did manage to write:
Promoting Compassionate Policies - Tim Anderson
There are many ways that we can help improve the world for animals:
- Enact protective/preventative policies (e.g., elephant bullhook ban in California)
- Promote well-being (e.g., helping with municipal animal shelter funding so that they can take in more animals)
- Incentivize positive behavior (e.g., promoting the positive impact of plant-based diet on climate policy)
How Policy Gets Made:
- Formal process
- Engaging with elected officials (quiet conversations behind the scenes). There's also a super helpful Political Action Guide for Animal Issues that Colleen posted on her blog with all the tips and resources on how to know who your elected officials are on the federal, state and local levels, and how to engage with them.
- Being an engaged citizen (be persistent and consistent)
- Be informed about the process; be prepared to be educational
- Learn how to pronounce the politician's name!
- Leverage others through coalition building (there's strength in numbers)
- Support the efforts of those with outsized influence (help with policy; direct campaign support)
Building Influence through Campaigns:
- Give money and time
- Get political capital; get in at the ground floor
- Organize experience
Other tips on how to become more politically engaged:
- Go to town hall meetings
- Tweet an elected official (you can make it an open letter by using ".@" before the Twitter handle
- Networking/building personal relationships (there's a lot of value in who we know and who they know)
- Look for connections or think about who does
- Go to the district office near your house, or a townhall meeting, and ask about an animal rights issue (this puts the issue on their minds, because if you don't speak up and ask, they won't know that people are actually interested or concerned about animal rights issues)
- Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne was a book that was recommended as it lists all the different forms of animal activism, big and small.
Finding the Right Form of Advocacy for You
One of the key things that drew me to this conference was the session on finding the form of activism that works best for me. Some people are great at direction action that involves more aggressive tactics like public speakouts and disruptions at local restaurants and grocery stores like Whole Foods Markets. It's something that I'm still not quite comfortable doing as an introvert, but I'm working on it. I recently participated in The Official Animal Rights March in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, chanting along with hundreds of other animal rights activists. I think it's good to participate in various forms of activism. That's why I was interested in learning about other ways to advocate for animals.
Here are some tips that Colleen shared on how to do that:
- Form relationships with neighbors; join the community listserve (then you can post about animal issues and can even be the expert voice on it if someone in the community has a question about an animal-related issue)
- Write letters to the editor (you can also call public radio) - Letters are edited for brevity and cut from the bottom, so make your point early in the letter. Also, don't underestimate how many people will write a letter and don't assume that someone already wrote a letter about a topic.
- Be biased when it comes to letters to the editor; that's the time to make your opinion known
- Be prepared. You can have bullet points you already wrote before about an issue that frequently comes up like horse racing. With the Kentucky Derby happening once a year along with the common cases that occur with it (e.g., horses getting injured and having to be euthanized), you can already have key points you want to make that are readily available, particularly if your letter to the editor wasn't accepted previously, you can reuse and repurpose the key points you've used in the past.
- Listen to public radio. Sometimes they invite comments on Twitter.
- If you send letters to the editor and don't hear back, follow up
- Support food innovation (like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek)
As with my first experience at the Animal Rights National Conference, I left this one feeling empowered, inspired and hopeful. I met such warm, down-to-earth, compassionate people who were all simply looking for ways to use their talents and passion to help animals.
And just as Colleen ended the conference with her inspiring Prayer for Humans on Behalf of Animals, I'll leave you with that prayer as well as a Howard Zinn quote that she also shared with us at the conference: