10 Questions: Everyday Vegan Changemakers with Linda Rapp Nelson

Linda Rapp Nelson is a pretty fabulous Everyday Vegan Changemaker and I am so excited to feature her Q&A as the kick-off for Vegan Street’s new series. Now I will let Linda, based in North Carolina and a tireless, incredibly enthusiastic voice for compassionate living, take it away.

1. To start, we’d love to know how long you’ve been vegan.

I actually don’t know how long I’ve been vegan though it is close to 16 years. Perhaps it is odd that I didn’t fix on a Veganversary, but I think I didn’t really want to focus on a time when I wasn’t vegan; I just wanted to be there.

2. We’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I am a dairy farmers’ granddaughter and niece so I spent time on small dairy farms as a child. I have plenty of ugly pictures in my head especially of tiny calves tied by short, dirty pieces of rope to a wall in a dank, dark room off the main part of the barn. As a little girl, I spent time petting these tiny babies, but it was only later that I learned the fate of these little boys when my mom said she couldn’t eat veal. I know those babies were in my mind when my husband, Alan and I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975. We became vegetarian immediately after reading it though against the frantic admonishments of my mother who was a nurse and doctors who said we couldn’t be healthy. Despite their fears, we were healthy and happy in living without killing animals so in 1981 when our son was born, we determined to raise him as a vegetarian, too. His pediatrician and my mother, stated that he would “fail to thrive”. He didn’t. It is then that I wish I had delved deeper and acknowledged that I didn’t need the dairy my husband, son, and I continued to eat (we didn’t eat eggs).

It took meeting a vegan for the first time for me/us to make the final change. I was chatting with a group of people when I proudly proclaimed my vegetarianism as part of a conversation on eating. A woman I knew only slightly at the time said, “I’m vegan.” She was the first vegan I had ever met. I remember it hit me hard at the time. There was someone doing more for animals than I was, and I really felt uncomfortable with that. I went home and told my husband “I’m vegan now.” He and my son followed soon after, and we’re committed for as long as we live. I am not the same vegan I was when first I made the change. I have learned to see it as much more than the way I eat, but rather as the set intention to do all I can to make the world more just and peaceful.

3. What was the catalyst (or were the catalysts) that made you go vegan? Was it a film? An experience? Someone else’s influence? A book? Was it overnight or did it take a while?

I really think the catalyst for me was just that one woman with her very simple claim. When she said, “I’m vegan,” I wanted so much to be able to say that I was, too. I think I had let the fears of others infect me for far too long, but that unembellished statement gave me confidence that I could make my life better and more just. I had formerly been proud to be a vegetarian, and I could no longer feel pride so I was compelled to change.

4. What were your biggest challenges or obstacles to going vegan and how did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle to my becoming vegan was myself. I had been raised to be a “good girl”, and the reaction from friends and family to my becoming vegetarian was difficult for me. I wasn’t complying, and this caused a great deal of psychological and emotional stress. I think living at a distance from family and beginning to choose vegetarian friends helped me to become more of my own person along with becoming more political and more staunchly feminist. I was more than ready when I met that first vegan.

5. What is the world like as a vegan today compared to when you first went vegan?

The world has changed so much for the better in so many ways. The most important thing is that the movement for the rights of animals can’t be discounted as ridiculous, and there are more and more of us ready to speak out to demand change. The cognition and emotionality of other animals is something that can no longer be denied, and farmed animal sanctuaries are sprouting up in many places. Of less importance though still welcome are the hundreds of new vegan products on store shelves, and the explosion of vegan cookbooks and vegan or vegan friendly restaurants makes it so much easier. People are becoming more and more aware of the many valid reasons to become vegan though I am dismayed that relatively few are willing to make the effort. Still, I know lots and lots of vegans now, and those I know are kind and steadfastly committed. I am hoping that more and more are realizing that the rights of non human animals and those of human animals are inextricably bound together, but I’m not sure this is yet true.

6. Please tell us your “why vegan” elevator pitch.

I like to keep this simple. “Why Vegan”? because it is the single most positive individual effort I can make to work against injustice towards non-human and human animals, to mitigate climate disruption and environmental degradation, and to lessen violence in the world. I’m happy to go into more detail, if time allows, and I give my email out to many, if they are interested in talking more.

7. What is your favorite thing about being vegan?

Absolutely everything! It is my best chance to live with real purpose in a world full of suffering.

8. If you could tell someone some simple advice for shifting away from eating animals, what would it be?

My simple advice would be to try to forget what your mom, your favorite teacher, your cousin, and your colleague might have to say about your choice, and just allow yourself to feel what it would be like to be the pig or the chicken, or the cow next in line at the slaughterhouse about to become the meal you’ll gulp down in three minutes. Visualize the face of your would-be victim, and consider that you have the power to stop that line. Of course, I know that isn’t exactly how it works. We can’t stop all the killing, but we shouldn’t throw what control we do have away because we can’t control it all. We can be part of a healing whole. This is often how conversations go when I’m leafletting, and a really earnest person stops to talk. I can’t help but to well up with tears, but I think this may give someone the license and space to feel that will keep them moving forward.

9. Can you tell us about a time that you think you had a positive influence on someone considering your vegan or compassionate living message? What do you think made it effective?

I think I have made a positive difference to a number of people as they moved to veganism, but there are some I am surer of because they’ve made it very clear that I was helpful. My friend, Deb is one such person. We had mutual friends, and I had done some volunteering and baking for the dog/cat rescue she was involved in so I knew of her though we had never met. I heard she had signed up for the Peace Advocacy Vegan Pledge for which I had been a speaker and a mentor a number of times, and I was placed as her mentor. I am a big believer that there are no “vegan makers”. Each person who becomes vegan makes her/his/their self, but I do think it is possible to make transitions easier by helping people confront their individual fears and obstacles.

Deb felt ready to make the change as she realized that cows, chickens, and pigs were just as sensitive and sentient as the hundreds of cats she had helped over many years, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it. I let her know that I was available to her beyond the meetings of the Pledge for lunch, for questions, for commiseration over those who would see her commitment as challenging, and for a ready supply of vegan mac and cheese and cookies! Deb doesn’t enjoy cooking or baking, but I do so tins of cookies and homemade BBQ helped her see that food could and would still be fun. We discussed everything from how best to donate to reactions of non vegan friends to how to replace those wool and leather items in her closet. I wanted her to feel as though she had a steady source of support with brownies and chickpea soup thrown in.

“Lean on me” was the message I hoped to convey until she could see for herself just how expansive a life veganism can give us. We met for lunch and “check ins” often at first and less frequently as she got steadier on her vegan feet. She attended the frequent vegan brunches to benefit sanctuaries my husband and I host at our home, and she met and became friends with other vegans. I think I helped her to feel part of the vegan community in our area which helped to make up for the negative reactions coming some from longtime rescue friends. Deb has been comfortably vegan for several years now, and we agreed at our last lunch together that there is real joy in living according to our deepest hopes for justice and peace.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”

To me, being vegan is mandatory, if I am to have any self respect or joy in life.

Extra credit: Please let us know your favorite vegan organization.

I can’t just pick one! I love The Pig Preserve, Cows Come Home Farm Sanctuary, Cotton Branch Farm Animal Sanctuary, and Blind Spot Animal Sanctuary. I also love A Well- Fed World and The Pollination Project.

Thank you, Linda!

If you have someone you’d like to nominate as a future Everyday Vegan Changemaker (maybe even yourself!), please let me know in the comments.

Marla Rose is a journalist, co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com and Vegan Street Media, and she wants you to check out this handy-dandy free guide for new (or aspiring!) vegans. If you like the work Vegan Street is doing, please consider joining our Patreon community for as little as $1.00 a week.