Vegan activism: Confronting connections between human and animal oppression

pattrice jones, lauren Ornelas, and A. Breeze Harper. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Last Friday, I attended a talk entitled “Last Night a Pigeon Changed My Life: Considering the Inescapable Connections Among Violence Against Women, Ableism, and Speciesism”. The panel consisted of three influential vegan speakers: pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary, lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project, and A. Breeze Harper of the Sistah Vegan Project.

I was well-acquainted with all three activists, having followed their work for years and presented alongside them at the Intersectional Justice Conference in Washington State two years ago. So I knew that they did not focus narrowly on human health benefits or exclusively on the rights of our fellow animals as some vegans do, but instead recognized and discussed the intersections of oppression that promote violence against animals and marginalized humans alike.

Importantly, this talk was sponsored not by a vegan or animal rights group, but by San Francisco Women Against Rape. SFWAR Executive Director Janelle White invited pattrice jones to talk about the relationship of violence against women and girls to speciesism — the belief that humans are superior to all other animals — and ableism — the favoring of able-bodied people over the disabled. pattrice asked that lauren Ornelas and Breeze Harper, both local to the SF Bay Area, be invited to speak as well. This free event took place at the Betti Ono Gallery in downtown Oakland, with delicious vegan food catered by Souley Vegan.

Having a non-vegan social justice group invite speakers to discuss speciesism is a great step toward bridging the movements for human and animal rights. Vegans who are resistant to addressing the oppression of marginalized humans sometimes make the excuse that they should not be obligated to do so unless human rights groups also talk about the oppression of animals. The problem with this reasoning is that to most humans at this point in time, farmed animals are basically objects to be owned and used at will.

We vegans need to help non-vegans in social justice movements see these animals as thinking, feeling individuals who want to live just as much as we do. Only then can their needs be taken seriously and respectfully discussed alongside the needs of women/of color, the LGBTQ community, and other humans who are oppressed.

pattrice jones.

At Friday’s talk, pattrice spoke at length about individual animal residents at her LGBTQ-run sanctuary. She invoked fellow vegan feminist author Carol Adams, who has described farmed animals as “absent referents”, reduced and renamed as “meat” products to be consumed. pattrice told the stories of Domino, the neuro-atypical alpaca, and Jean-Paul and Jean-Claude, the bonded pair of queer ducks.

Breeze Harper, with Janelle White.

Breeze began her talk by singing a beautiful song, as she always does, and discussed her work in anti-racist veganism. Breeze has been a great ally to trans folks, and is raising her four children to be aware of gender diversity and as free as possible of gender stereotypes.

lauren Ornelas and Breeze Harper.

lauren talked about her long history of activism, in food justice and farm workers’ rights in addition to animal rights. lauren has also been a great ally to the trans community. I asked a question about allyship during the Q/A period, which prompted lauren to relate a story about labeling restrooms as gender-neutral for the Food Empowerment Project 10th anniversary celebration last year, despite pushback from the host venue for doing so.

The audience was responsive to the talk, with one young woman particularly moved, asking if she could come to visit Domino the alpaca. I saw her later holding Panda the (very patient) pigeon, who was brought to the talk by the director of Palomacy Pigeon and Dove Adoptions. Spending time with living animals helps us to see them as people rather than property.

For more by these speakers on the connections between human and animal oppression, I recommend reading The Oxen at the Intersection by pattrice jones; Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, edited by A. Breeze Harper (with an introduction by pattrice); and the Food Empowerment Project blog, Appetite for Justice.

My full set of photos from the talk is available on Flickr. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!

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