Last Friday kicked off the 1st Annual Students for Critical Animal Studies Conference, hosted at my very favorite college (Vassar) by one of my very favorite groups of people (Vassar Animal Rights Coalition). Through the conference, VARC…
…aims to raise consciousness and prompt conversation among current students about the oppression of non-human animals. This will be achieved through examination of intersections between the domination of other animals and the domination of certain social groups. The conference will emphasize direct action strategies for both animal liberation and other social change movements, incorporating academic theory and praxis. Finally, this conference will launch “Students for Critical Animal Studies” — a new group with the goal of organizing student activists committed to animal rights into a larger community with formal ties — therefore aiming to strengthen bonds between student activists through social events and facilitated collaboration.
During the weekend, about 50 Vassar students, prominent animal rights activists, individuals heavily involved in an array of social justive movements, and a couple Canadian activists currently impacting consciousness at McGill University united for a variety of panels and workshops. Among the intriguing and provocative discussion topics included “Towards a Multispecies, Feminist and Decolonial Scientific Practice”; “Whose Category Is It Anyway? Farm Sanctuaries and the Future of Farm Animals”; and “Toward a Culture of Positive Peace: Why Animal Rights must be a Focus of the Modern Nonviolent Social Movement.” Though absolutely ecstatic that thought-provoking conversations like these would take place on my very own campus, I deeply regret not having even a smidgen of free time on either Saturday or Sunday to sit in on any workshops or panels. However, I eagerly attended the first night (Friday) of the conference, not to mention spent all day cooking dinner for the 40-60 people who came to the commencement of this exciting event. Perhaps I can look to a launching a vegan catering company in the future?
For the dinner, myself and two fellow VARC members whipped up enormous batches of Dreena Burton’s Kale Slaw with Curried Almond Dressing; a tangy brown rice salad loosely based off of Bon Appetit’s Basmati Rice and Summer Vegetable Salad; a bathtub-sized pot of Laura’s French Lentil Soup with Tomatoes, Tarragon, and Garlic; and 125 of Leanne’s Candy Apple Macaroons.
After filling our bellies with enough tasty vegan noms to feed an army, I and the rest of the conference-goers settled in for the first talk of the conference, delivered by Breeze Harper, author of the Sistah Vegan anthology, via Skype. Her talk, entitled “‘Never Be Silent’ and Trayvon Martin: PETA, Neoliberal Whiteness, and Vegan Consumer Activism,” urged vegans to question the products they consume and whether or not they actually deserve the label of “cruelty-free,” such as tomatoes and chocolate—products that don’t contain the flesh and secretions of non-human animals, but that more often than not depend upon human slavery for their manufacture. While I agree vehemently that the compassion of our consumer choices should not end with purchasing animal-product-free goods, I don’t believe that we should simply stop consuming altogether, as Breeze seemed to argue later in her talk. If vegans remove their conscious consumerism from the economy, how else can we demonstrate a demand for truly ethical products? Personally, I would find it difficult to continue my activism if I didn’t believe that what I do or do not choose to consume would affect society on a level greater than that of the individual. Rather than attempt to remove ourselves completely from our capitalist system, we should fight within it to achieve our goals in a more realistic fashion.
After we bade Breeze goodbye and ended our Skype chat, Anthony Nocella of Hamline University took the stage to deliver a presentation entitled “From Ableism to Racism in the Animal Liberation Movement: Promoting Eco-ability and Prison Abolition/Transformative Justice.” As I pondered Anthony’s words, which advocated for an incorporation of the rights of the disabled (or rather, individuals deemed disabled by society, as Anthony phrased it), I began to feel a bit overwhelmed—not only should I advocate on behalf of non-human animals, but my activism should now encompass workers rights, civil rights, a more meaningful fair trade label, the fall of capitalism, and the rights of the disabled? While all of these movements share commendable goals of ending discrimination and creating a more just society, I wondered if veganism should, or even functionally could, include such a broad spectrum of advocacy in addition to its primary intention of animal liberation. I find it quite exemplary that a great many individuals who live a vegan lifestyle extend their compassion beyond that of non-human animals, but worry that this all-encompassing view of veganism may perpetuate the lifestyle as intimidating and unachievable for non-vegans, thus preventing them from taking even the first step toward eliminating animal flesh and secretions from their diet. We should absolutely continue to fight in a variety of social justice movements, but do we really need to lump them all together under the label of veganism, thereby potentially blurring our movement’s main goal?
Even though my hectic schedule permitted me to attend only two talks of the conference, they both left me with much to contemplate. I look forward to continuing these compelling conversations with my fellow VARC-ers, as well as hosting the second-annual conference next year. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the musings I’ve posed in regards to the conference talks.
Until next time, Ali.