I will start out by saying that in our world full of soundbites and choppy, quick copy, this piece is on the longer side, though I hope it’s not longwinded. It needs to be said and it’s a complex, thorny subject that bucks against the constraints of succinctness.
I wrote this because I believe that retaining and keeping activists, educators and altruistic people engaged is essential to the future of our planet, so we need to identify those factors that lead to burn out and disengagement so often. Today, I am writing about just one of those factors.
First, a little background…
When I was a new vegan activist in the 1990s, there was a phenomenon that I came to expect with clockwork-like regularity: Activists would work for weeks or even months on upcoming protests or actions and the day of it, a large, deep-pocketed, well-recognized national non-profit from out of town would swoop in to take over with their logos and their talking points and their bells-and-whistles and without as much as a perfunctory acknowledgement of those who had done essentially all the labor until they arrived unbidden. They would take credit for virtually everything and dash out of town again. I saw this painfully exploitative dynamic play itself out again and again to the point where I became resigned to its inevitability.
With their big budgets, these groups had an endless stack of sleek and professional signs and banners. With their PR teams, they got more media there than we could have done on our own. (More on that later.) With their notoriety, spokespeople from this large, affluent organization would be quoted in the media, not the people who’d been working on this issue for weeks, who knew the specifics intimately and had a local presence. With their seemingly endless resources, they would be flying all over the country, dropping staff like paratroopers out of a plane and notifying those on their mailing list at the first whiff that there was an event they were planning that needed them. The original local organizers would be shut out of their own event.
This happened at rodeos. This happened at circuses. This happened at fur protests. This happened even with more rapidly developing, quickly assembled actions because they had the resources. Needless to say (I hope), it was crushing and dispiriting every time because we had been working so hard only to have our labor virtually erased.
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The sad thing is I know what some people are thinking because I have heard it in person a million times. Let me guess: “But they’re getting media attention on the issue.” “It’s not about the ego, it’s about the animals.” “It just sounds like sour grapes.” “As long as the animals are helped, who cares?”
Here is why it matters: It is morally, objectively wrong for large, deep-pocketed organizations to exploit the hard work of local advocates. (It is wrong for anyone to exploit another’s work.) If they want to help, they should be there in a supportive, not usurping, role, dipping into their resources. If it is about the animals and it’s not about the ego as they and their defenders claim, it should be easy enough to understand how disempowering grassroots activists is counterproductive to the larger goal of creating lasting, positive change. When these groups gobble up and redirect, they point people to large national organizations with very substantial budgets but little-to-no local connection, folding people into their giant pool of donors and dropping them into the sticky batter of a cookie cutter campaign.
Grassroots activists, in my experience and opinion, are deeply resourceful and dedicated, and our groups have to stretch every penny we work hard to receive like putty. The last thing local activists need is a large organization that is focused on self-promotion for their own reasons — because it is good for their bottom line and in end-of-year pitches, essentially — dive-bombing to appropriate. Grassroots activists need people in the community to help do the local work in a big picture way, not a large organization taking over, redirecting attention and donations, getting their pithy quotes in the press and flying out of town.
What’s more, the animals desperately need for our activism to be thoughtful and effective.
. . .
This kind of appropriation is gross. It is capitalistic. It is exploitative. It is wrongheaded, even if what you care about is efficacy because what national organizations tend to do is not invest in local change. The media they wrest from grassroots organizations is pursued largely to convince their donors to keep the large and small donations flowing in to their accounts. The real work of changing hearts and minds is an afterthought, if that.
Media is for their own self-interests and if they trample on the dedicated hard work of local activists to get it, so be it. Even victories themselves can be a problem for these organizations because an ongoing campaign is often a fruitful pipeline to continuously fundraise around. When rare victories occur, new campaigns must be sussed out and this takes a lot more work. This is all part of why it is to their benefit to let small groups do the heavy lifting of organizing, getting activists on board, educating, researching municipal laws, reaching out to community members and politicians alike and raising awareness.
I have been doing this for a long time, so, yes, I have a lot of thoughts. I could say much, much more, too, all from personal experience of seeing this very scenario play out again and again and again, but I think the picture is pretty clear. Don’t trust me immediately? That’s good, you shouldn’t. Talk to anyone running an independent, small, grassroots organization. While I can’t speak for everyone, this has been my experience.
The cost of this kind of appropriation is deep and cutting in ways that are not immediately obvious but I will try to explain and I will give you a good example of a current instance that illustrates this greedy, what’s-yours-is-mine attitude.
When grassroots activists and groups get tired of being on the receiving end of being taken advantage of and they drop out, it comes at a huge cost. When local organizations fold and these monolithic national organizations, which often have no real community connection but mainly have the vitality of their donation arteries in mind, become the main local fixture at protests, they tend to show up efficiently but generically. A local connection, so important to deepening and retaining engagement, is discarded in favor of folding people into a branded, beige campaign.
Animal activists are already so prone to burn out due to grief as well as from continually swimming upstream against public sentiment and then to be treated like objects to be chewed up and spit out? This can be the breaking point that leads to dropping out entirely. From my point of view, this rapacious approach of the large organizations depletes and starves thoughtful activism — which, at its best, is creative, resourceful, memorable, life-changing, full of human connection — and turns what they can grab into a calculated fundraising or PR opportunity with no real lifeblood or humanity. The circus protest becomes just another annual thing to show up to, do your time, hold the branded sign that was handed to you like an automaton, and go home for another year or until the next designated demonstration instead of working on the local level to outlaw circuses.
Are our brains and values so scrambled by the dehumanizing effects of capitalism that we are confused by the fact that exploiting and bleeding good, well-intentioned people dry is simply wrong? The ends don’t justify the means and, in any case, the ends aren’t what they’re purported to be, either. Self-perpetuating, vacuous clickbait, names printed in the media along with their slogans or further enshrining one group as the group is not what the animals need on their behalf, either.
They need dynamic, smart outreach, advocacy and activism.
. . .
Here is one recent example.
There is a youth-led nonprofit called The Raven Corps. Full disclosure: They are close to my heart. I am on their advisory committee. I care very much for their co-founder, Claire Howe, who I know has worked so hard to make this dream of a grassroots, youth-led network of engaged activists, called the Ravens, a reality. And she did it! They did it. She doesn’t demand or even want the spotlight for herself, though: The work is done by the Ravens. They and their campaigns are the focus. Empowering teens and young adults to take smart, strategic action for a better world should be something we give our full-throated support to, not just lip service about how "the youth are the future."
The Raven Corps (TRC) started working in January of 2022 on a campaign called Operation: Mind Over Milk (MOM), coming to a crescendo in October in a big day of action with their Scary Dairy Action, which was tied thematically to Halloween. It is a thoughtful, inclusive, creative campaign, and not an end into itself (meaning a one-way self-promotion model) but instead designed to educate people on the myriad problems with dairy milk from compassionate, health and environmental standpoints — including the dietary racism of the obligatory carton of milk put on the trays of populations of BIPOC students who cannot digest it — as well as expose other students to better milks, the ones made from plants, and let them try them out. More than a hundred Ravens across the country participated and set up tables in their school cafeterias. It was, by their metrics of participation, engagement and strategy, a resounding success. TRC was absolutely thrilled with how it unfolded.
After the day of action, things went sour, though, no pun intended. I am making the editorial decision to not name the organization that took advantage of their hard work for their personal gains (read: one-way publicity) for a few reasons: One, I don’t personally have anything against this organization other than their tokenizing, exploitative treatment of TRC, their activists and hard work, but also I don’t want to give them more ink. The Raven Corps deserves the spotlight. Last, I did not talk to anyone from this organization so I only have one side of it, but it is a side I understand quite well having been on the receiving end of this dynamic of being treated like a modular part who is in the way. Claire and TRC have the paper trail.
What happened essentially was a large, well-funded organization with a very big following decided they wanted to file a lawsuit against the USDA, the school district and the school’s principal in conjunction with their day of action but utterly cutting out TRC and their nine months of hard work to make it happen in the first place. A student working through TRC on their Scary Dairy action day would be denied the right to distribute vegan milk without also giving equal time to animal-based milk, it would be turned into a First Amendment violation, and this group would have their lawsuit.
Whether this worked well for TRC and, for that matter, the many other student activists who will want to do vegan advocacy at their schools going forward, was a non-factor. Claire, an attorney who also sought counsel when first asked by the large group to offer one of the Ravens for the legal action, became increasingly concerned that this lawsuit not only didn’t serve her organization’s purposes, she and TRC members were being tokenized and considered little more than moveable pieces for the ends of the large national organization. Her objections didn’t matter, though. They went around her, bypassing her, because the lawsuit worked well for the purposes of the large organization.
My belief is it worked well for them to get a bunch of media hits. It worked well for them to be quoted. It worked well for them to get their name in the news. It will work well in their year-end fundraising efforts. What is advantageous for the multimillion dollar nonprofit with endless resources at their disposal is all that seems to have factored into their decision-making.
Being GenX, as I learned more, the scenario immediately called to mind the “Adios, Johnny Bravo” episode of The Brady Bunch — because I’m high-brow like that — where Greg got aggressively courted by music industry agents and producers who saw dollar signs in their eyes. They nearly convinced Greg he was going to be the Next Big Thing until it was revealed that it was all because the predetermined suit fit him. The marketing professionals had the suit in their possession before they had Greg. Ironically, the suit fits again, this time the lawsuit, even if they had to force their way into it.
I have read more articles about this lawsuit than I’d like to admit and the only one that mentioned TRC, the organization the anti-dairy teen activist was advocating under the umbrella of, is this one by Grist. The. Only. One.
To reiterate: The Raven Corps were the ones who conceived and hatched the idea. They were the ones who enlisted volunteers. They were the ones who developed relationships with companies like Oatly to get supplies to their more than 100 ambassadors, no small feat, not to mention paid for the buttons and other support materials at their tables, no small expense. They were the ones who put nine months of hard work into a successful, memorable, smart, inclusive and empowering campaign. And ultimately they were the ones pushed out of the story when their part of the story — which was conveniently everything — became an obstacle to an unfettered publicity opportunity.
Media deserves to be held accountable for this glaring omission as well. Where was the curiosity about the whole story except for the one from Grist? You would think from the retelling, the student filing the lawsuit just emailed her school principal out of thin air, not as part of a robust, well-organized campaign effort many months in the making. TRC was ignored by legacy media like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times; not even vegan media companies gave a cursory mention to TRC in their reporting. (I definitely could have missed some, but I did look.) If they didn’t know about the essential TRC connection to the story, why not? Where was their journalistic curiosity and commitment to telling a whole story?
Claire reached out to the various media outlets covering the story to seek corrections and not only were none issued, she never got a response from any of them.
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Ultimately, why does any of this matter? Again, isn’t it about the big picture?
This is the big picture, though.
It matters because work deserves to be valued, not erased when it’s become inconvenient, and certainly not stolen. It matters because grassroots activism should be encouraged, not mined for self-serving opportunities. It matters because if we really do care about fostering youth-led activism, we do not tokenize, we do not steal, we do not disempower the boots-on-the-ground activists. It matters because vegans should not be replicating paradigms of exploitation.
Our future depends on robust activism being nurtured and encouraged. It is short-sighted and foolish to sacrifice the whole, big picture of what is needed for the animals and the planet in favor of fleeting personal gains that are shiny trinkets for large organizations but don’t amount to much beyond that.
. . .
This group will likely walk away from the experience with just another little media blip that will quickly fade from memory but the grassroots, small group they wrested it from may be left questioning why they even bothered. I don’t blame them if this is the case. I have seen wonderful, dynamic small groups collapse permanently because of less glaring mistreatment by the big groups that look at their hard word as spoils for the leveraging and taking. When these small groups dissolve, when activists become disenfranchised or burned out, there is a very steep cost to that, maybe not something that is visible on a ledger but at a deep price to our future.
Please consider donating to and supporting the work of The Raven Corps. They also sell fabulous vegan treats you should definitely try.
You should consider doing this because:
You care about youth-led activism.
You care about individuals.
You care about crediting those who do the hard work.
You know this is not just lip service.
Last but not least, if you see this story being reported with The Raven Corps being omitted, please speak up and give credit where credit is due.
No one should be erased. Vegans of all people should understand this.
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