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Zach Groff

Theories of Change

Theories of Change

DxE's Theories of Change

By Zach Groff

DxE’s first principle is that we believe in, and fight for, total animal liberation. With this goal in mind, we have built communities, exposed horrific violence, and taken direct action wherever animals are harmed. Many people ask us, and we ask ourselves, how what we do will achieve animal liberation. We’ve set out on the challenge of trying to check that we are achieving what we hope to achieve.

To figure out how we are doing at our goals, we are going to develop metrics - simple things that could range from the number of people at our actions to the engagement in our network. In order to refine our measurement, we are first specifying what’s called a “Theory of Change” (ToC) - the concrete way in which what we are doing will achieve animal liberation. In order to refine our Theory of Change, we wanted to present the main ways that nonviolence may bring about the sort of change we want to see. There is clear evidence that nonviolence works - the question is how, and we want your comments.

A Theory of Change is a specific description of a social change initiative that forms the basis for strategic planning, on-going decision-making and evaluation. A Theory of Change should be specific and should tell us how what we are doing will help to produce the outcome we want: a Species Equality Act or other major act of government enacting equality for all animals.

We’d also like to note is that as important as the Theory of Change is, it’s important to consider the ways different strategies might backfire. Undermining other activists, leading to public stasis, and creating a reaction stronger than our movement are all risks any activist must beware. We’ve made changes in the past on the basis of important criticisms, such as our decision to begin including animal imagery after avoiding it in our early protests and our revisions to blog posts after discussions with others in the movement. We welcome all theories and criticisms.

Here are a few theories worth considering. Feel free to suggest others!

Theories of Change:

1. Motivating activists to influence those around them.

In an influential study on the Tea Party, researchers suggested that Tea Party protests had a dramatic impact on public opinion not through their direct effect but because participants went home and spoke to their family and friends in a way that moved them in support of Tea Party policies. The first way DxE actions work is that activists go home and talk to people in their own lives in a way that moves them in the direction of robust support for animal liberation. This could include awareness, sympathy, or simply acceptance of the idea of animal liberation among activists’ friends and family.

2. Building a movement that can change the future.

One of the key things past social movements have had is a strong network -- such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or ACT UP -- and a underlying community - from the Black church to gay and lesbian community centers. Our movement lacks both a grassroots network and a supporting community, and one of DxE’s aims is to work with other groups to build networks and communities, as well as the other elements of a social movement, so we can effect change in the future by persuading, compelling, and leading the public and public officials to adopt liberationist policies.

A key question we are interested with this aim is what a network or community capable of producing change would look like, so we can know that we are building the right sort of institutions.

3. Creating a movement that can take advantage of political opportunities.

Aberrant events - from the fall of the Soviet Union to the Great Depression - powerfully change the course of history. Successful movements can take advantage of these events to powerful effect. Amid the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, gay rights activists got a seat at the public policy table that allowed major gains in the coming decades while #BlackLivesMatter turned the killing of Trayvon Martin into a national crisis that has changed police policies around the country. DxE could aim to create a movement, as with our previous theory of change, but one with the key attribute of being able to seize on unexpected opportunities.

4. Creating a fierce backlash that moves public opinion in support of animal liberation.

Past movements’ success has ridden in large part on the back of ugly reactions by their enemies. Despite their realistically slim numbers, the abolitionists scared the South into seceding, a doomed effort that ultimately freed the slaves. Civil Rights era protests sparked a violent reaction, famously symbolized by Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs. One way the DxE model could work is by sparking such an angry reaction that the rest of the country moves in the direction of supporting animal liberation. This could operate by changing each person’s opinion of animals, but it could also create pockets of sympathy with animal liberation that become useful in pushing policies.

5. Directly changing people who witness protests.

This perhaps the most obvious theory. People who witness DxE protests are forced to confront the issue and leave more aware and perhaps more sympathetic to animal rights. It’s important to note that there could be benefits to alienating people who witness DxE protests - an ugly reaction can generate sympathy - and that immediate reactions to protests are often unreliable indicators of their effectiveness. Nonetheless, this is an important theory to consider.

6. Directly changing people who encounter DxE actions in the media.

This theory is very similar to the previous theory. People who encounter DxE via press gain a heightened awareness and sympathy with animal rights. It has the same drawbacks, too, at least in the present term. An ugly reaction can be good, and the effects of press can vary widely depending on the tone of the story, the size of the crowd, and the particular media outlet.

Ultimately, it’s likely there are several ways our activism works, and multiple risks our activism should avoid. For that reason, we’d like to hear refinements to the above theory and the thoughts, concerns and suggestions of those inside and outside of DxE on how we can achieve animal liberation.

The Evidence Bros


By Zach Groff

All opinions expressed in this piece are my own, and are not intended to represent my employer.

The animal liberation movement has an evidence problem. No, I don't mean the lack of evidence - though that's a problem, too, and any academic researcher willing to take on the task of studying effective activism could do our movement a tremendous favor. I mean a bro culture that treats as settled science what is very much not, and dismisses any argument to the contrary.

The most recent example of this was a post by the "Vegan Bros" advising DxE activists to lie down in a busy street. This is part of their schtick, and I agree that humor is vital for both satire and comic relief. But this unfunny joke reveals, I believe, an insidious dynamic in the modern animal liberation movement.

Activists, frequently men, use “logic” and “science” to quash counterarguments even when these are actually shakily masking common wisdom. For readers of Paul Krugman's blog, this is akin to the Very Serious People: those who present themselves as bold contrarians and demand austerity in the wake of an economic crisis as being what logic demands when in fact there is substantial evidence pointing in the other direction. These Very Serious People portray themselves as evidence-based contrarians when in fact they are the opposite: followers of public opinion that defies much of the evidence. In the animal liberation movement, supporters of "evidence" repeat the words "evidence" and "science" endlessly in response to disruptive or confrontational tactics with the assumption being that serious, evidence-minded people can resist the emotional pull of these protests.

I should note that I am myself a very evidence-minded person. I work at one of the leading research institutions on solutions to global poverty, one that is frequently cited by GiveWell in its charity recommendations. I identify as an Effective Altruist, I have donated substantially to GiveWell top-rated charities, and I believe that evidence should be the primary determinant of what strategies we pursue. I would add that there is a debate to be had over confrontation, but an evidence-based debate would look very different from the discourse of the modern animal liberation movement.

Having an appreciation for evidence means having an appreciation for the uncertainties, weaknesses, and qualifications of specific pieces of evidence. In the case of the animal liberation movement, this means being very careful when we specify precisely how many animals a particular action will save. It also means being open to multiple forms of evidence, provided we account for their underlying assumptions, and being aware of our tendency toward measurability bias: overweighting short-term, direct effects that are concrete and measurable and underweighting longer-term and more diffuse effects.

The case for collective action depends on these longer-term and more diffuse effects. In the immediate term, political scientists have found, voters broadly agree in their hatred of protesters. But conflict inspires activists to join in, attracts readers and attention, and then once a movement builds, 100,000 loud, obnoxious people are not to be mocked and dismissed— they are to be reckoned with and pacified by acceding to their demands. This is not to mention the subtle shifts in opinion that occur when a position begins to be portrayed as a common or significant one by a powerful movement rather than a fringe group.

Political scientists recognize this, as do sociologists and economists. But focus narrowly on the near-term, and all you will see are immediate, negative reactions. Look only at survey data to figure out what appeals to people, and you will miss out on the powerful social norms and emotional context that frame survey responses. Use studies with bias built in to the design, and you can easily find a life-saving impact of leafleting whether or not it exists.

The use of evidence by the "Vegan Bros" and others often commits the oversights mentioned above. At the Animal Rights National Conference, speakers cited debunked studies on leafleting and assumed causality in a downward trend in animals slaughtered that, according to the HSUS's own statistics, has at least stagnated. Yet despite the weakness of this evidence, the effectiveness of strictly accommodationist tactics— tactics that defy historical precedent— retains a stranglehold on the movement, while confrontation, despite a fair amount of research touting its potential (nicely summarized in this blog post), is regarded as freakish.

It is no coincidence that one of the most aggressive promoters of this "evidence" is the Vegan Bros and the bulk of the “evidence” crowd is largely cisgender and heterosexual men. This knee-jerk invocation of "evidence" to guard the prevailing wisdom conforms to narrative that has a long cultural history. From the Book of Genesis to Virgil's Aeneid, Western culture often portrays masculine reason as contrasted with feminine emotion and praises those who dispassionately do what logic demands despite the pull of their heartstrings.

Unsurprisingly, scientific and mathematical fields have a well-documented problem with gender balance. This is problematic in its own right, and as a movement, we stand a risk of alienating women, LGBTQ people and the broader, feminist left. Controversy over this problem is rife, and there's cause for concern about its effects: a peer-reviewed literature review suggests that men have a more autocratic approach to leadership, suggesting that male leadership on the movement's assessment of evidence puts us at risk of discounting alternative views— as seen, for instance, in our movement's all too common disregard of tactics viewed as emotional.

People are motivated not just by facts, but by emotion, and the most effective tactics must take this into account. The emotional content of an action is not a roadmap to its ineffectiveness. Instead, in the context of nonviolence, emotion is part of what makes the action work. Those who dismiss the effectiveness of provocation despite its emotional appeal make a fatal error, for that emotional appeal gives nonviolence its potential, and there is evidence behind this.

The irony is this: people often avoid nonviolent direct action because of their emotions— a desire for popularity, a discomfort with conflict, an inclination to conform. So it is perhaps the bros who are the most emotional of all, despite their attempts to hide this in the guise of reason. This is troubling for a bro, because undertaking nonviolence requires admitting the possibility that evidence and emotion are on the same side, and that those of us who care about the former should get comfortable with the latter.

Empowering Youth

Empowering Youth

By Zach Groff


Cynthia at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Cynthia at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Animal activists often think of activism as something that involves two parties: the activists and our audience. We do the outreach, and the audience, ideally, receives and internalizes our message. A better model for activism, though, is one that involves a limitless number of people, in which the activists generate controversy and discussion among the audience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of this than compelling conversations between parents and children.

During Connecticut's first day of action in September, we entered a T.G.I. Friday's, chosen specifically because, as a family restaurant, it sells an image of violence as wholesome and kid-friendly. As I delivered the "Disrupt Speciesism" speak out, one that intentionally avoids gore and makes clear that we are targeting the system people have bought into rather than shaming customers, a mother stood up with her daughter in her arms and said to us, "You should be respectful of children."

This is a criticism I've heard repeatedly since then, one I hear from people I know as well. If we care about children, then animals on farms, who are often killed as babies, need us to speak out for them more than anything, but there's more to respecting children than that. As our movement grows, I suggest there is a way to take this message to heart, though in a very different way from what the mother in the restaurant envisioned. We need to demonstrate our respect for children by recognizing their vital importance in the future of our society and the future of our relationship with animals.

A favorite attack on the gay rights movement for several decades has been the accusation that activists were feeding children homosexual propaganda. In 1977, Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign targeted teachers in the fear that gay teachers would recruit children. Gay rights advocates, in turn, vigorously denied the claim that gay teachers would recruit children. The ironic truth, though, is that children did, in some sense, receive homosexual propaganda. Millennials grew up seeing openly gay figures on TV, and progressive schools organized programming around the notion that "Love Makes a Family." This, in turn, led to a generation that is overwhelmingly supportive of rights that had previously been denied to gay men and lesbians.

Hilli  at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Hilli at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Perhaps more importantly, this generation generated debate around dinner tables across the country. As a result, support for gay rights is increasing even among members of older generations. Reaching children with a liberationist message does not only change the minds of those children, but also forces their families to reconcile themselves with the views encountered by their children.

We in the animal rights movement have to mimic this strategy. Paolo Freire, a pioneering theorist of critical pedagogy, showed that not just the content but also the form of education is deeply connected with systems of oppression. The traditional view of education is a "banking model" in which children are passive recipients of knowledge. As the mother who confronted us in TGIF would have it, the traditional model of education avoids provocation and simply gives children the knowledge they need to uphold the status quo. A liberationist model of education instead works to develop critical consciousness, avoiding the "culture of silence" in which students passively listen to instructors and replacing it with one in which students are a part of their education, just as the oppressed must be a part of their own liberation.

Nolan and others  at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Nolan and others at DxE Vancouver's "Free Range Fraud" demonstration, January 2015.

Creating questions and upending preconceived notions is not disrespectful of children - instead, it is a key part of an education and a campaign that empowers children. As Steven Pinker documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature, for most of their history, the animal rights movement and the children's rights movements have been deeply interconnected. This interconnectedness was no coincidence - those who have historically recognized animals' independence and personhood have naturally recognized those of children as well. It has often been noted that children enter this world with a natural sympathy for animals that their grown guardians choose to silence.

Julia Carpenter  of DxE MA/CT.

Julia Carpenter of DxE MA/CT.

Many of the boldest leaders in the DxE network are under 18 - from Zoe in San Luis Obispo to Sophia in the Bay Area - going into places of horrific violence and exposing the truth that their elders seek to ignore. In my local chapter, Julia Carpenter has started organizing a network of teen animal rights advocates, creating an empowered community at local schools of activists who are willing to take nonviolent direct action for social change.

Animal liberationists must empower children to ask these questions. We must generate controversy by enabling nonhuman animals to tell their stories and have their stories heard.  Respecting children is not indoctrinating them in the ways of a violent society; it is enabling them to think critically and ask why the world denies animals the lives they deserve. To respect children is to make them vital participants in a public debate that will lead to the day when every animal is free.

How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

By Zach Groff

A year or two ago, I was a lonely, wavering vegan. I held my few vegan acquaintances at arm's length and jokingly called myself a "demi-flexi-freegan" because of my constant willingness, indeed compunction, to adapt to any situation and avoid making demands of others. When the subject of animal rights came up in conversation, it was because someone else brought it up and forced it upon me. The only form of activism I would engage in was leafleting, and only after I was repeatedly prodded.

Given all of this, you might be surprised to learn that I fully believed in animal liberation. As a child, I thought it was weird that we killed animals for food. In high school, when we read an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, I adamantly defended Costello's question about why it was wrong for the Nazis to send Jews like sheep to the slaughter but okay to send actual sheep to the slaughter. I figured there had to be some reason it was okay to kill animals that I just didn't know. When I got to college and realized there was no such reason - that everyone thinking seriously about it had concluded that animal agriculture was problematic - I quickly went vegetarian, and vegan a year later, after reading Animal Liberation.

The lesson I absorbed from the general culture was that I should be subtle and minimally demanding in my advocacy for animals. I should not go out and preach, but if someone asked why I was eating chickpeas, I should answer honestly. I should avoid associating with the one angry vegan in my residential college. I should hang out mostly with non-vegans, where I had the chance to change others for the better.

Despite how meek and timid I was, I got my fair share of grief. Though we hear a lot about angry vegans in our culture, we rarely hear about the all-too-common angry meat eater who, enraged by my answer to his own question about eating chickpeas, proceeds to fire argument after argument my way and take offense at my responses. I put up with it, adjusted, and occasionally leafleted.

Through a variety of experiences, I started to feel this dispersed, one-on-one conversational approach was lacking. I looked around and saw activists who, focused on maximizing their effectiveness, looked at a limited subset of the evidence on persuasion and touted the so-called concrete impact of leafleting, but ignored the more diffuse effects that come from acting as a group. When people come together to protest, one rarely knows the impact the protest had, and one certainly cannot tease out individual impact (though there is rigorous evidence that protests have a sizeable overall impact). Yet by participating in a protest, an individual can expect to make that protest more powerful, and I suspected activists were overlooking this to the detriment of our cause.

In August of 2014, one of my Facebook friends shared Priya's #DisruptSpeciesism video. I saw it, and I knew this was what our movement needed. I knew our arguments were strong, even irrefutable, and Priya walked right into a store and made her demands confidently. I shyly commented on her video "Anyone in New Haven want to organize an action?" She immediately responded, linked me to animal rights groups in the area, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting at a table talking people into disrupting a T.G.I. Friday's.

Walking into that T.G.I. Friday's, my whole body trembled. As the leader of this ragtag group, I had to project an air of calm and confidence, but on the inside I was terrified. We gathered in the parking lot. People were running late, and I needed money for our bullhorn, so I ran to the supermarket. When I came back, the whole group was there. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach and wanted to put it off, but I knew that putting it off would do nothing.

In we walked. Gulp.

We walked past the manager, not asking for a table or responding to his questions, and I remember thinking, "I wonder what he thinks." I went to the center of the store, told people to spread out, held up my sign, and began. The whole restaurant's eyes were on me as I began to do what I had always feared: say what I felt in the face of violence.

DxE gets a lot of attention for our disruptions, and there's no denying they're controversial. What is clear to me, though, is this: there is no more empowering experience for an activist than to speak the truth where the truth is hidden. There is no experience more uniting for a community.

Amid emails from Wayne, Priya, and Brian, I hardly even noticed when we seamlessly eased into planning our second action, a funeral action. January came, and in order to launch the Whole Foods campaign, we had an action each week (rather than one for the month). We formed an organizing team, started holding open meetings, and geared up for social events and sanctuary work. Amid all of this, I hardly even noticed that something radical had happened: I had ceased to be a lonely vegan. I started spending much of my time - virtually or in person - with others who rejected speciesism.

Cut to this past Monday. I received a notification from a fellow activist that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, would be speaking at Yale the next morning at 10:00 a.m.; would I be interested in attending? I had met Vilsack a few years earlier. When I met him, I already knew that the USDA was in bed with animal agriculture, but the possibility of bringing this up - even politely - did not even cross my mind. I remembered him as almost suspiciously charming and, it seemed, quite comfortable with his fairly hidden but powerful position.

This time, I knew I had to disrupt that comfort. I had to greet Vilsack, respectfully, with the truth. The notion that animals matter - that animal agriculture is not about producing things but about exploiting innocents - never even appears on the USDA's radar. If there is debate over animal agriculture, it is over food safety, the environment, and health - not over the farmed animals who outnumber the American population by a factor of more than 30. Here was the man most responsible for animal agriculture in the U.S. today, and he would be there the next morning.

I quickly pulled together my organizers. Matt DeLucia and his wife, Lorin LeBlanc, took off work to come down. Jared Hunter, Allan Brison, Lauri MacLean, Minh Nguyen, and Hanh Nguyen, all delayed their commitments so they could make it. I consulted with Brian and devised a plan to ask a question and unfurl a banner with the simple message: "Stop subsidizing violence."

The morning of our disruption was easily one of the most terrifying of my entire life. I came into work early to get work done before I stepped out for the talk. My arms and legs were shaking. My stomach churned incessantly. I wondered if I'd made a mistake.

Ten minutes before the talk, I arrived to find a distraught Lorin and Matt. No bags allowed, and the banner was too big to get in otherwise. We huddled outside for far longer that we should have to avoid suspicion and decided to call it off. The others, who had come all this way, would listen anyway. On my way back to work, I got a text. There would be a Q&A. I turned back around and raced in late, knowing I would be able to make my point and we could follow up with a chant to hammer it in. 



Politicians are known for filling speeches with populist half-truths, but it's perhaps most difficult to hear such a speech when the half-truths completely ignore outrageous violence against innocents. I had a quote rehearsed, but I threw it out as soon as I heard the word "efficiency," a euphemism in animal agriculture for the most brutal forms of abuse. I knew I had to tell the story of Paprika, a hen who I'd met that week at Pepper's Place, an animal sanctuary in Massachusetts.

Vilsack's speech ended. Every inch of my body trembled. I've rarely ever asked a question before of a public figure, and when I do, I always wait to be the very last question. This time was different. I was nervous, but I knew that I was here for something more than myself. I was not even here for something - I was here for billions of someones victimized by the industry the USDA supports. I knew I had support in the room and friends around the world watching the livestream.

So I got up, first to the microphone, and I started. It's hard to describe what happened next, but it felt like years of hiding the truth - years of being silent in the face of a system I knew to be violent - came to an end. Here I was, with perhaps the most powerful man in the country if not the world on farmed animal issues, and I could deliver the plain truth straight to him. I took my time, made my point, and finished by asking,  "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?"

Unlike when I was a lonely vegan years ago, when his response to my question ended, we rose as a community, not an individual. Together, we chanted, "It's Not Food, It's Violence!" The eyes of the room and those watching the livestream around the country were on us. Most importantly, the man responsible for the supervision and support of animal agriculture was forced to confront the perspective of the beautiful individuals farmed for food, perhaps for the first time in his tenure.

As I left, I felt triumphant, but this will not be a triumph unless it is one of many.  This confrontation must be the beginning of a new normal, in which we constantly challenge public figures and those around us with the truth. If everywhere they went, public figures had to face the simple question, "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?" mass violence against animals could no longer be ignored. Public officials tend to perceive the most vocal opinions as the most representative. To get our issue on the table, we must speak the unadulterated truth wherever and to whomever we can force to listen.