Ya’ll, I am super excited to share today’s post. If you checked out my recently updated “About” page, you’ll know that my new goal for the blog since its change in name and direction is to contribute to the growth of a vibrant community of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-speciesism.
One way in which I hope to strive for this ongoing goal is to feature the work of activists whose voices are usually muffled by the mainstream vegan/animal rights movement, such as in the “Awesome Projects You Should Totally Check Out” section of my weekly # NewsandChews posts. Today, however, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to highlight such work in the form of a firsthand interview with intersectional activist Justin Van Kleeck, President of the Triangle Chance for All Microsanctuary and blogger at Striving with Systems. Justin is full of passion, vibrancy, and kindness, and I’m certain that what he has to say about reconceptualizing the sanctuary, the problems within the vegan/animal rights movement, and what a future of collective liberation can look like will incite and inspire you. Be sure to connect with Justin and Triangle Chance for All on Facebook and Twitter!
Ali Seiter (AS): Can you give an overview of your work with and goals for the Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary?
Justin Van Kleeck (JVK): Triangle Chance for All’s primary goal is to liberate farmed animals from the agricultural system and provide or secure them permanent sanctuary, whether that means by making them residents at our small microsanctuary in central North Carolina, by placing them at other vegan sanctuaries, or by helping facilitate their transport to vegan homes. This all started in late 2013 after my partner, Rosemary, and I started to notice that farmed animals were coming through shelters but had almost no hope of being “rescued”; their fate was pretty clearly dismal: either returning to an exploitative farming situation or being killed at the shelter. It was truly heartbreaking to see these refugees of animal agriculture make it out and then have no one there to help there to keep them out.
We originally planned to rescue and place as many of these animals as possible, but we quickly realized that space was limited even at large sanctuaries. Thus, we shifted gears and re-envisioned what sanctuary is and can be. Once we realized that “sanctuary” is not just about quantities—number of acres, animals, staff, or funds raised—but about an attitude of respect and non-exploitation, we started to see ourselves as a microsanctuary. We took in our first two permanent residents, the hens Clementine and Amandine, in February of 2014. Currently our residents include eight roosters, fifteen hens, one duck, and two potbelly pigs.
AS: What is a microsanctuary and how would you define the “microsanctuary movement”?
JVK: I tend to think of a microsanctuary as any space run by a vegan that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals. I am frustrated by how self-limiting we all tend to be when it comes to our views of sanctuaries. I so often hear people say that they want to start their own sanctuary one day if they win the lottery, or without any clear idea of what “sanctuary” really means to them and how to get there. I was there once, and the notion of a typical sanctuary was so daunting that I did not even know where to start to make it happen. By throwing out the ideal, I was able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers. It is a very powerful relationship and way of living, as well as a perspective on the world and our role as caregivers.
This sense of dedication to the service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end (and help ameliorate in some way) their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary.
The Microsanctuary Movement is an effort Rosemary and I started from our work with TCA to help empower others to rescue farmed animals and self-identify as being part of a sanctuary, both through information and resources and through support networks. We are working on our website right now, but in the meantime we have been trying to share helpful tidbits through The Microsanctuary Movement’s Facebook page and our Facebook group, Vegans with Chickens. Through these and future means, we hope that the movement will inspire many vegans to rescue farmed animals, whether that be a rooster and some hens, or a few goats, or whatever species they can accommodate. To me, this is truly revolutionary because relying on large sanctuaries exclusively means limited ability to rescue (or liberate) farmed animals. Large sanctuaries can usually take in a few hundred animals at most, and so much of their income goes to administrative and other non-care costs. Comparatively, a few thousand vegans each rescuing a handful of animals would open up so much more space and (this is important) resources for care.
Another component of this for me is a shift in how I see myself as a vegan. It is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that I am trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in and responsibility for the care of the very individuals for whom I went vegan. I am and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them I can has given my veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.
AS: Can you share a specific story of one or more TCA residents?
JVK: Oh, there are so many beautiful and gut-wrenching stories. One of the dearest to my heart is that of Bibi, a tiny little hen who came to us after her three flock-mates were killed by a raccoon who broke into the “chicken tractor” they all lived in in someone’s backyard. Bibi barely survived and was maimed in the attack: her top beak was partially bitten off, a hole was punched into her bottom beak, and she also lost part of a wattle. When she arrived, she was clearly suffering from PTSD; she spent several weeks just sitting in a bathroom like a lump. She started to come out of her shell when we put a mirror in with her, and then she really regained some of her spark when we brought in one of our other hens, Hypatia, to be a companion for her. Now she is a real fireball, with plenty of spunk and attitude. She has had to have surgery on her beak since then, but she really rolls with the punches.
Bibi’s story highlights so many of the problems with backyard chicken-keeping (for example, she was part of a hatching project, which resulted in eight of twelve chicks who were roosters and so were sent back to the farmer and most likely killed). We feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to give her a better life.
AS: When/why did you start advocating for other animals?
JVK: I went vegan in 1999 when I was a sophomore in college. I had never met a vegan, but I started questioning the ethics of what I was eating. I was vegetarian at the time, and I started to ask myself if I could justify even potentially causing suffering to animals. I mulled it all over for a few days, realized very clearly that I could not, and became vegan shortly before my twentieth birthday. I have never looked back.
My advocacy started much later—around a decade later in fact. I was always openly vegan, but I had a lot of personal stuff to work through before I could start to speak out more widely and vocally about veganism. I have evolved a lot even since then, going from something of an “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude to an uncompromising stance against all forms of oppression. The principles behind my advocacy are given so much more gravity, of course, by the fact that I am now fighting for family members, not just ideas and abstractions (“farmed animals” as a category comprising billions of individual beings is often a hard thing to make viscerally relevant; your beloved companion chicken is impossible not to).
AS: What changes would you like to see in today’s vegan/animal rights movement?
JVK: This is a tough one to answer, because I do not know for sure which approach is the right one for making new vegans that everyone should be using (and I feel strongly that anyone who says they found the Holy Grail of vegan outreach is delusional).
First and foremost, though, I fear that veganism/AR has largely bought in to the “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” mindset of modern Western capitalism. Too many of us are more focused on what we consume than how we are directly, positively making the world better for our fellow living beings. It is a well-known problem: a new vegan-friendly cheese, ice cream, or restaurant will always receive more attention (and financial backing—that is important to remember) than, say, protests, social justice programs, or hunger relief. I think we have gotten to a point where corporations have realized that plant-based foods are a thriving marketing niche, and (as consumers) we are rallying behind the things that we enjoy in our lives.
The shitty thing about all of this is that consumerism is a subtle soporific for ethical principles. We are surrounded by a (so-called) “liberal” narrative in which we believe that if we buy better things, we are thereby directly changing the world for the better (what Slavoj Zizek calls “cultural capitalism”). It is so easy to substitute products—stuff—for actual meaningful values and truly impactful activism that threatens the many powers and systems that maintain the status quo—a status quo of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and of course speciesism (to name a few).
There is no real sense of urgency, I fear, in the vegan/AR movement. Our activism, if you want to even call it that, is really more about fitting things into our schedules and our lifestyles, not about inconveniencing ourselves in order to hit at the foundation of oppression. Not enough of us genuinely feel in our bodies the reality that billions upon billions of other animals are being bred, raised, used, slaughtered, and consumed like just another commodity across the world. While I believe many forms and messages of outreach, advocacy, and activism are needed, I think it absolutely crucial that we see this for what it is: a matter of incomprehensible suffering that shows very little sign of slowing down. It is left to us, as the ones who see what is happening, to stop the cogs of the machine; and if they will not stop, they must be broken.
I also think it crucial that we vegans take seriously the rampant specieism and other forms of bigotry in our own movement. We have not arrived to perfection by going vegan, and so many of the prejudices of our culture get carried into our advocacy. This has to stop.
AS: What, if anything, does intersectional activism mean to you?
JVK: To me it largely centers on the idea that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and our activism should take seriously the interconnectedness of oppressions as a relevant problem for our specific issues. Intersectional activism means recognizing not only the value, but also the importance of engaging other communities who are struggling against a particular oppression in solidarity. It means speaking out and fighting against all forms of oppression honestly, not as a way to push our own specific agenda as vegans with a half-assed nod to another movement. We have to stop pretending that just getting everyone to go vegan will actually solve all the problems on our planet. Each form of oppression is unique, just as those who most suffer from it face unique situations, but I also believe that the underlying roots of oppression are intertwining and impossible to deal with separately. We all have much to gain by embracing and committing ourselves to other social justice movements…because any oppression is wrong and must not be endured.
AS: Can you tell us about your blog Striving with Systems?
JVK: Striving with Systems basically started out as a place for me to put some of my writing on veganism, animal rights, and liberationism. I am not a prolific writer by any means, but writing is an important component of my work as an advocate and activist, and it was helpful to have somewhere for all of that to go. The name comes from an epic poem by William Blake (who was the focus of my academic work, I should mention) that describes a ceaseless struggle with the many Systems that keep us from thriving—institutions, regimes, cultural mores, traditions… I started putting more energy into it when I began interviewing interesting (and badass) vegans—originally the focus was on vegans in heavy metal, but that expanded rapidly along with my commitment to intersectionality.
Recently, I reached out to some friends and fellow intersectional vegan writers to come on board as collaborators, so that Striving with Systems could become a collective effort. Charlotte Eure and Christopher Sebastian McJetters are two amazingly insightful advocates and powerful writers, and their perspectives on oppression add so much to what I had been doing on my own. I have no aspirations (or hope, honestly) to make it the next One Green Planet or anything; the focus is much more on offering unfettered responses to the vast instances of exploitation of other animals and humans that we are surrounded by. We are (and will be) covering a variety of topics, not just veganism, both through original content on the blog and by sharing resources on the Facebook page.
AS: What kind of world are you striving for?
JVK: That is a hard one to answer concretely… I so, so often find myself pondering the question, “What will the world look like after total liberation from oppression is achieved?” It is much easier to take a critical stance and focus on all the things that are wrong in this world, and then to throw myself into fighting them. I know what I want to stop, but I do not know what all of that actually looks like on the other side of liberation.
Luckily we do not need a well-wrought model to strive towards; the struggle against oppression needs us now, and ideally, collectively, we would create a better world based on principles of justice, compassion, respect, and community than what we currently have, which is such fertile ground for oppression, aggression (micro and macro), and exploitation to grow from.
In essence, though, I believe I am striving for a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason—be it species, skin color, sexual orientation, gender orientation, weight, or anything else. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.
Our victory against oppression(s) must be as much about our own individual revolutions as it is about social revolution. There is no other way.
All photos via Justin Van Kleeck at Triangle Chance for All.
In solidarity, Ali.