The 2013 National Animal Rights Conference

Last Thursday, June 27 marked the onset of the four-day animal advocacy extravaganza known as the Animal Rights National Conference. Organized annually by Farm Animal Rights Movement, the 32-year-old AR Conference unites passionate vegans, activists, and leaders of the animal rights movement for an extended weekend of educational workshops, discussion sections, networking opportunities, and eye-opening glimpses into the inner workings of the AR movement. As an intern for Compassion Over Killing, a sponsor of the event, I had the immense privilege of attending the 2013 AR Conference for the infinitesimal (and quite enjoyable) price of staffing the COK table for a couple of hours. I found it profoundly rejuvenating to reunite with some of the truly wonderful individuals whom I’ve already met since plunging headfirst into the AR movement, as well as to become newly acquainted with a whole host of others, including those whom I’ve long deeply admired—Colleen Holland of VegNews, pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary, and Melanie Joy of the Carnism Action and Awareness Network (CAAN), for example.

Manning the COK table.

Staffing the COK table.

COK sold t-shirts, Sticky Fingers baked goods, & the Vegg at the conference.

COK sold t-shirts, Sticky Fingers baked goods, & the Vegg at the conference.

However, I also noticed some quite troubling aspects of the conference that speak to a lack of awareness about intersectionality in the larger AR movement: 1.) The fact that prominent members of the AR community couldn’t attend the conference because of the high financial cost (privileging of the wealthy). 2.) The fact that I couldn’t have spied more than two Black or Latino individuals during the entire duration of the conference (privileging of the white). 3.) The fact that the comedic interlude of Saturday night’s banquet boasted a largely unquestioned and problematically well-received marginalization of the LGBTQ community (privileging of the heterosexual). 4.) The fact that some organizations feel comfortable playing directly into gender norms with their advertising and outreach materials because of its supposed efficacy (privileging of males). 5.) The fact that the conference provided the opportunity for formal discussion of these issues with a mere 50-minute panel presentation crammed into the smallest workshop room available (privileging of the…already privileged?).

Thankfully, the hugely complex and ongoing discussion of privilege did not prove entirely absent from the conference. The aforementioned panel presentation—entitled Commonalities of Oppression and easily the most valuable, thought-provoking presentation of the entire weekend, in my opinion—featured Baruch Ben-Yahuda of Everlasting Life Café, Lisa Kemmerer of “Sister Species,” and pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary. Ben-Yahuda spoke of his mission with Everlasting Life Café to bring healthy vegan food into impoverished communities so as to combat the fast food-pharmaceutical alliances that perpetuate poverty by rendering unhealthy food easily accessible. Kemmerer insisted upon dualism’s role at the root of social inequalities (black vs. white, male vs. female, straight vs. gay, etc.), and offered the fabulous quote, “Eating meat is something you do to somebody else’s body without their consent.” Finally, jones bravely broached the uncomfortable yet urgent topic of structural racism and sexism within the animal rights movement, urging the audience to educate themselves on the intersectionalities between animal rights and other social justice movements; after all, we can most effectively combat all oppressions when we work at these intersections. Along with these three speakers, The Sparrow Project gave nod to the necessary questioning of privilege with the fabulous t-shirt pictured below, now a treasured item in my wardrobe, and the National Museum of Animals and Society featured their “Uncooped” exhibit, which in part examines the patriarchal language that draws parallels between women and chickens.

AR conference (1)

Part of the NMAS' "Uncooped" exhibit.

Part of the NMAS’ “Uncooped” exhibit.

Though I may have until now painted the conference as a spectacle of privilege and problems, I did find the event highly educational in terms of optimizing the efficacy of individual and organizational animal advocacy, as well as illuminating in terms of the valuable role that welfare campaigns play in advancing the ultimate abolitionist goal of animal liberation (perhaps more on the convoluted dichotomy between welfarist and abolitionist approaches to animal rights in a later post). Below you’ll find a summary in list form of the panel presentations I attended and the highlights from each of them.

  • Lessons from Companion Campaigns: Scoutlund Haisley of Animal Rescue Corps explained that rather than defining companion animal shelters as either “kill” or “no-kill,” we should denote them in terms of their municipal or private funding. Neither “kill” or “no-kill” shelters prove inherently more or less humane than the other; rather, the welfare of the animals primarily depends upon the vision and efficacy of the shelter, which varies considerably between municipal and private shelters.
  • Understanding the Mentality Behind Eating Animals: After touching upon the main points of her fabulous book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows,” Dr. Melanie Joy explained how animal advocates can most effectively “transform denial into awareness” by creating a non-threatening environment in which to engage in discussion with the huge number of individuals who fall victim to the hidden ideology of carnism. She extolled the virtues of sharing our own stories of discovering the truth behind our veganism, finding common ground with those whom we engage, and avoiding both reductive (“that person eats animals so they’re a bad person”) and “all-or-nothing” (“if you don’t go vegan, you’re not making a difference at all”) thinking.
  • Personal Advocacy: Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary provided the top five tips for fostering the most effective personal advocacy possible. 1.) Confront negative interactions with kindness; after all, we can catch more flies with agave than with vinegar. 2.) Don’t relegate veganism to a “personal choice” when explaining your reasons behind adopting a vegan lifestyle. 3.) Look similar to those with whom you seek to interact, since people will more likely trust you the more you look like them. 4.) Plaster your every belonging with vegan messages in the form of bumper stickers & messages tees. 5.) Channel Socrates by asking questions instead of lecturing at people.
  • Lessons Learned from Agricultural Campaigns: pattrice jones again spoke with profound insight about capitalism’s integral role in fostering the “happy meat” movement, a clever ploy by animal ag to encourage consumers to pay more for animal flesh and secretions by making them feel good about doing so.
  • What About Abolition and Welfare?: This debate between so-called “welfarist” Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary and Gary Francione of the Abolitionist Approach attempted to further examine the most effective tactical approach behind creating a just world for non-human animals. While Francione vehemently disagreed with the current trajectory of the animal rights movement, which he believes focuses on reducing rather than eliminating suffering, Friedrich argued that not supporting welfare reforms such as phasing out gestation crates proves speciesist since doing so does not adequately consider the interest of the animals currently suffering on factory farms. Friedrich also noted that the major animal advocacy organizations devote the vast majority of their time and energy to promoting veganism, not to supporting welfare reforms.
  • The Science of Animal Advocacy: Nick Cooney, author of the activist must-read “Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change,” explained the necessity of implementing conclusions from studies of behavioral science in animal advocacy. Some of Cooney’s main take-aways from his extensive research on behavioral studies include the efficacy of encouraging change that seems significant yet doable, making people think that everyone is engaging in a certain desired behavior, and focusing on educating people about how to go vegan rather than why to go vegan.

Though a whirlwind of emotions, contemplations, and never-ending schmoozing, the 2013 Animal Rights Conference proved a hugely valuable experience that I hope to have annually for years to come. Until next year’s event, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any and all of the topics I mentioned in today’s post.

Until next time, Ali.

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