Brenda Sanders Joins the Striving with Systems Collaborator Crew

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All of us at Striving with Systems are overjoyed to announce that Brenda Sanders, a tireless vegan community activist in Baltimore City, Maryland, has joined us as a collaborator!

Brenda Sanders serves as Executive Director of Better Health, Better Life, a public health organization, and is Co-Director of Open the Cages Alliance, an animal advocacy organization in Baltimore, MD. Through Better Health, Better Life, Brenda runs the Eating for Life program, a series of free workshops aimed at teaching people in low-income communities how to prepare healthy vegan food. With Open the Cages Alliance, she co-organizes the Vegan Living Program, a six-week education program that teaches the basics of transitioning to the vegan lifestyle. Brenda is also co-creator of Vegan SoulFest, an annual festival that celebrates culture and the vegan lifestyle, and she’s a founding member of PEP Foods, a collective of food justice activists and business owners whose goal is to bring affordable vegan food to low-income communities in Baltimore City.

Is Veganism a Moral Baseline? Bigotry Wrapped in “New Welfarism” Accusations

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

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Recently debates in animal rights circles have raised the question as to whether or not pro-intersectional vegan activists consider veganism to be a moral baseline. That’s a valid question. But in order to explore it, let’s imagine a few different scenarios.

Say you start a vegan organization that is dedicated to feeding the homeless exclusively vegan food. You start with noble intentions. But over time, the number of homeless people begins to increase and donations of vegan food become nonexistent. Local people want to help, but most local people aren’t vegan. Hence, they donate non-vegan food. Do you give the non-vegan food to the homeless people? Or do you throw it away? Do homeless people care that donated bread was made with eggs? Do homeless people even know what veganism is or why it’s important? Do they deserve to be further disenfranchised by a system that already persecutes both vulnerable humans and exploited animals?

Or imagine you run a dog rescue. A devastating economic emergency means you suddenly lack the financial resources to feed dozens (or hundreds) of hungry dogs in your care. But you are offered charitable donations of commercial dog food. Do you let your dogs starve? Send them to a kill shelter? Feed them what people donate although it compromises your values? Any of the above?

Or imagine you are a teenager who made the decision to go vegan. But your family doesn’t support you. Furthermore, you live in a low income situation where your primary source of nutrition comes from a school lunch mostly composed of animal products. Do you continue eating what you can until your circumstances change?

Sadly, you don’t have to imagine these examples. These real world situations are not rare isolated incidents. They’re happening right now. All the time.

Perhaps they’re not happening to you or me. But fortunately, we have the privilege to make decisions for ourselves that shelter us from realities that others routinely face in a disastrously non-vegan world.

For most of us reading this, veganism is indeed a moral baseline. And we have the capacity to live vegan every single day. But creating circumstances where veganism is accessible for others should be a part of our moral baseline too. And judging people for lacking similar emotional, physical, and financial resources reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how poverty and circumstance affect outcomes for communities who have a dramatically different context due to their lived experiences.

This is inherently classist and ableist. In fact, since the poverty which informs classism disproportionately impacts communities of color, it’s also indirectly racist. And for those of us who consider ourselves allies of such communities, that’s a hard truth to consider.

Just because we say we’re allies to underserved communities, doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes commit micro-aggressions against them. White people can have a superficial understanding that racism is wrong. But they can still unintentionally perpetuate a system that advantages whiteness. Likewise, men can understand that sexism hurts women. That doesn’t mean they suddenly stop enjoying male privilege in a society that rewards and validates toxic masculinity.

This is where intersectional justice comes in! Intersectional justice isn’t some “sect” of veganism. Framing it as such is reductive and overly simplistic. Intersectionality is an analytical approach that challenges the root causes of oppression through the lens of people who live daily with multiple intersecting oppressions…people who often lack the social, sexual, economic, and academic mobility of those who needlessly antagonize and harass them.

As such, pro-intersectional vegan activism compels us to think broadly. It requires us to seek solutions that make veganism possible for potential allies and remove obstacles that clutter the path to nonhuman and human liberation. Bearing this in mind, asking if veganism is a moral baseline is perhaps the wrong question. Such a question puts veganism into a very small box when it is so much more.

Veganism is a tool to mitigate our privilege in a human-centered society. Veganism is a context to decolonize black and brown bodies. Veganism is a radical socio-political statement that rejects violence. Veganism is a gift we give to our children who deserve clean water and fresh air. Specifically, veganism is living action!

In the words of Dr. Amie Breeze Harper, continuous veganism is part of your “who you are space.”

Vegan is not a title that we grant ourselves and wear forever more. Vegan is something that defines who we are every single time we look at a menu and every time we go to a retail store. Understood from this perspective, veganism becomes a verb, not a noun.

Regrettably, this also means that we sometimes make mistakes or compromised decisions that contribute to hierarchal oppression.

Concealing those occasions instead of candidly discussing them is a meaningful omission. But admitting those occasions empowers us to do better. Frank and open admission of your who you are space doesn’t negate your veganism. It reveals a courage of conviction to put yourself on public display with all the imperfections that make you a complete person. And misrepresenting such honesty in order to use it as a weapon in an unprovoked attack against allies is disingenuous, malicious, and abusive. Furthermore, encouraging others to treat moral baselines as dogma is the casus belli that results in precisely the bigotry and bullying that veganism is supposed to be against.

When intersectional veganism observes racist and sexist behaviors, it doesn’t diminish or reject the moral relevance of veganism. It just means that racism and sexism have no place in an inclusive movement. And when marginalized people express the pain and frustration that comes with a lifetime of erasure and abuse, it doesn’t mean they’re bigots.

The bottom line is that until we promote meaningful and significant justice that crosses between communities, veganism is just another single-issue campaign.

Appropriation and Animal Rights: The Intersectional Activist

By Christopher-Sebastian McJetters

A very valid concern that arises among intersectional animal rights activists is how to be sensitive to the needs of multiple groups without dismissing or appropriating their struggles. How do we build communities by starting respectful dialogues that recognize analogous injustices? I don’t have all of the answers myself. Fortunately, I’ve spent many years being a poor ally so that you don’t have to!

Here are eight tips I learned about having discussions that draw provocative parallels:

1.) Do NOT compare two groups. Whether discussing sexism and racism or humans and animals, remember that you’re constructing similarities between LIKE SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION. Stay in the right conversation. Comparing two groups isn’t even useful, because marginalized communities have dramatically different needs. So stick to the structural issues that are similar, and let people grow their empathy based on their understanding of how they’ve been impacted by the same type of discrimination as someone else.

2.) Present the information, but don’t argue the case. Sharing information is distinctly different from pushing an agenda. If you present information that has a clear, direct message, it speaks for itself without you really having to do the heavy lifting. There’s a difference between presenting connections that link systems of oppression and appropriating one struggle to further the goals of another.

3.) Restrict your role to being the messenger. The best way to avoid appropriating a group’s struggle is to not do it at all. Really, you don’t need to; instead, amplify the voices of people from that marginalized community who are raising awareness about speciesism themselves. Preaching from a place of privilege about things you don’t understand is wrong. Instead, share what you learned from discussions started by people who have had those experiences. For example, I’m not a woman; but I frequently research the voices of vegan feminists who recognize why issues like female reproductive rights make speciesism a feminist issue.

4.) Listen to objections with an open mind. If someone from another group tells you that something hurts them, acknowledge them. If you’ve made a mistake, seek to understand why this discussion is painful for them. Listen.

5.) Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you share information. This is as much about you learning as it is about your audience learning. Get input from the communities involved. Hear them.

6.) Be authentic. It’s no secret that there are plenty of racists, homo antagonists, and sexist people in animal rights; but those agendas are obvious. For instance, many PETA campaigns clearly do not care about other marginalized communities because they employ fat shaming, sexism, and shockingly even speciesism to convey an ultimately incoherent message. Conversely, I see activists who discuss ALL oppression: police brutality against black and brown bodies, awareness of reproductive rights, eliminating homo antagonism, the need to call out racist slurs against Chinese communities. The sincere intersectional advocate is usually apparent—and if you’re an honest, authentic voice who speaks with conviction, it will be noticed.

7.)    Stay focused. Direct the discussion to concentrate on how speciesism (or whatever compared injustice) hurts the people in that community. The funny thing about oppression is that it hurts everyone. Speciesism disenfranchises people of color, women, the homeless, people with disabilities, and more! Remember, your goal isn’t to fetishize the people from that community or to objectify them. So don’t speak for them or make yourself a martyr on their behalf. Your goal is to help everyone involved–human and nonhuman. Identifying how speciesism further marginalizes both groups gives us an opportunity to elevate everyone.

8.)  Own mistakes. If you f*ck up, you f*ck up. We’ve all done it—and we’re all going to continue to do it. As much as I use my privilege to support women, I’m still a man who benefits from male privilege. As often as I speak up for people with disabilities, I still recognize that I regularly perpetuate ableism unconsciously. Just OWN it when you do. Accountability goes a long way to legitimizing your authenticity. Apologize. Learn from your mistake, and move on. You’re not perfect, and pretending to be will only get you into bigger trouble.

[Originally published on Direct Action Everywhere‘s blog, The Liberationist.]