Fertile Ground (East Coast Tour - Part 5)

Fertile Ground

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the fifth post in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

Ronnie and I are waiting at the airport to head home, after a whirlwind 18 day tour of 6 cities. We have met some of the smartest and most enthusiastic activists in the animal rights world -- and beyond. We have been challenged, at times, but we have also received incredible support. And we have spread the idea of a beautiful network for change -- create, connect, inspire -- to dozens of the most committed activists on the East Coast.

But as we return to the Bay Area, one idea is stuck in my mind: the importance of community.

Wherever the animal rights movement is strong, community forms the fertile ground upon which activists can develop and grow.

Sherrie speaking up for animals. 

Sherrie speaking up for animals. 

This was perhaps most personified by Sherrie in Providence. Sherrie is an indigenous woman who is embedded in radical environmental and feminist activist communities. She has participated in civil disobedience and has a fierceness that is obvious to anyone who spends a moment talking to her. She believes passionately -- powerfully -- in making the world a better place. And yet she has a warm and welcoming touch that is hard to believe until you see it in action. A woman 40 years older than her -- and not even vegetarian -- confides in her, tearfully, after watching our video, as if Sherrie is a decades old friend. An activist from Connecticut, Anthony, comes to stay and do activism with her, and feels as comfortable as if they were siblings. And the environmental network Sherrie has become a part of -- Fighting Against Natural Gas -- has inspired commitments from activists across the world, including the rural, front-line communities most affected by environmental devastation. The personal touch makes a world of difference. Offering to make someone food. Giving so generously that it seems that her home is yours. And listening with such engagement that she makes your words take on a power that you never knew they had. Sherrie is the sort of person, I think, upon whom great communities are built -- and through those communities, great activist networks.

There were many other people we met in Providence who inspired us to be more empathic, more gracious, and more brave. Nick, Sherrie’s partner, was featured in a recent article in the Providence paper, as an unexpected leader in a radical movement for change, and has a heart as big as Sherrie’s. And it gives me great optimism for what they can build. Providence has a unique blend of heart, and will, and mind.

Boston activists disrupt a space of violence. 

Boston activists disrupt a space of violence. 

In Boston, we met a small group of committed activists, including Laura (who leads many of the demonstrations in her city) and Robert, who were just starting to think about the importance of movement building to achieving our ultimate ends. Others, including Elizabeth and Marcia, were excited by the prospect of joining the DxE Network -- and a blooming international community. A city filled with transients -- students move in and out all the time -- is a hard one to build a sustaining community. But I can see leaders stepping forward and solidifying a city with great potential for animals.

In New York City, the folks at New York Farm Animal Save have formed a vibrant community around weekly vigils for farm animals. Robert Jensen, one of our main organizers in the region, is a computer engineer with a humble demeanor and a heart of gold. When a homeless man came to ask us for food, Robert leapt forward to help him -- and even gave him guidance and support in his struggles with substance abuse. Miriam, Tony, Tomoko, Shafali, and others -- all dedicated activists who try to help every animal rights group in the region, no matter the campaign, were equally good hearted and supportive, sharing food, advice, and sometimes just kind words of support, to ensure that everyone who came to our talk, demo, and even social gatherings felt welcomed into the local animal rights community. Finally, Dana, who was DxE’s initial organizer on the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign, came out to join us despite the incredible pressure of a new job, an imminent move across the country (to San Diego -- hello Ellen Ericksen!), and an important exam just a few days later.

New York City had a great turnout, thanks to both the NY Farm Animal Save crew, and the SALDF at NYU Law. 

New York City had a great turnout, thanks to both the NY Farm Animal Save crew, and the SALDF at NYU Law. 

Even more surprisingly, to me, some prominent names in the vegan world -- the imposing Jamison Scala (whose incredible facebook page always gets hundreds of likes per post) and the fiery Eddie Lama (hero of the documentary, The Witness) -- came to both our talk and the demo the next day. And a brilliant young law student at NYU, Jay Shooster -- who sponsored our talk -- joined a DxE demo for the first time, showing that there are supporters of nonviolent direct action for animals even in the halls of power and prestige. In total, we had over two dozen people perform an in-store disruption. Their words were so moving and powerful and unified that my voice broke, and I was brought to tears. I know that the momentum they are building will only grow.

Philly was perhaps the most surprising city. I had been told, prior to arriving, that the city of brotherly love did not have the most vibrant of vegan/AR communities. But we were met immediately by my old friends Rachel and Tim. Rachel is a math professor at the prestigious Swarthmore College, where they’ve made a beautiful home for themselves in a forested suburban community just 25 minutes from Philly. She (and Tim by extension) was key to my development as an activist -- and person -- since I really did not have a close friendship circle before meeting Rachel in Chicago and starting a small local vegan board game circle that ended up spiraling in all sorts of unexpected directions  -- from karaoke to cooking competitions to ultimate frisbee. And yet while the Philly community was small, there were still passionate voices that joined us for our talk and demo.

George, a veteran Earth Firster, drove all the way from Redding, PA to see our talk and join our demo. An animal liberationist in the 1990s, he had since dropped out of the movement due to its failures in developing leaders in the grassroots. Too often, George said, animal rights activists were both rudderless and directionless. Activists were not given the opportunities they need to grow. And the movement’s vitality was sapped as a result.

George is someone that animal rights movement needs to learn from. In addition to decades of experience as an environmental activist, and a rural background so different from many young activists today, he has an appreciation for the importance of new ideas and people that makes him unusual among veteran activists. Too often, those of us who have been at this for a long time become wedded to particular ideas, strategies, and even people. We close ourselves off to new paths, and the movement loses as a result. But notwithstanding George’s extensive received wisdom, he came out to a talk by a new group that he had never heard of. And he took a lead role in our resulting action -- speaking strongly for animals, in a movement that he had so long ago moved away from, as ineffective and obsolete.

DC, I previously blogged about -- in particular, our wonderful stay with Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich. But just as important as Bruce, Dawn Moncrief, and the other big names we had the honor to speak to while in town, there were also some new faces who inspired us. In particular, Katherine, the sister of one of our most dedicated and intelligent activists in the Bay Area (Lisa), came out to her first demonstration, ever… and spoke out at an in-store disruption. While the grassroots community in DC does not seem strong, we hope we can continue to provide Kat and others the support they need from afar. As I emphasized to Kat, it is often the small acts of dissent, by brave people who do NOT have as much support as they should, who rouse the public into action on an issue that has long been forgotten.

And finally, there is Baltimore. There is so much more that should be written and said about our stay in Baltimore than can be done in a single blog post. Suffice it to say, we had conversations that truly blew our minds. I learned about the struggles of an inspiring leader fighting for animals in urban communities, the struggles of a convicted felon making the connections between human and non-human captivity, and the insights of a veteran feminist and LGBTQ rights activist on the perils of corporatization, and the vital importance of calling out human abuse of animals for what it is -- not just a minor cruelty, not just institutional discrimination, but a violent and domineering form of human supremacy -- that shook my thinking to its core. But on these last few subjects, I will have to say more later. For now, we have to board a plane.

But even as we leave, our connections -- and the international community we are building -- will remain. Thank you to all the activists we met. Thank you for your generosity, your open-mindedness, your passion, and your integrity.

Next stop? Chicago. The city that made me the activist I am today.