When you work in the animal rights movement, you begin to understand that some people are stealth rockstars — famous to everyone in the know, yet humble about their own influence. One such stealth rockstar is Aryenish Birdie, the founder and Executive Director of Encompass, a 501(c)3 that works to increase effectiveness in the animal protection movement by fostering greater racial diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Encompass does this by working to empower animal advocates of the global majority (aka people of color) and supporting animal protection organizations in building more equitable work cultures.
It’s no small task, but once you meet Aryenish, you feel assured that this urgent work couldn’t be in more capable hands. Prior to founding her own nonprofit, Aryenish spent seven years promoting alternatives to animal tests, working as a federal lobbyist who was part of a four-woman team instrumental in reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act to ensure that animal protection language was integrated into the law. That was the first time she rubbed elbows with President Obama, but you get the sense it won’t be the last.
I got to know Aryenish through her partner Kenny Torrella, my former boss at Mercy For Animals, and the other half of my favorite vegan power couple. Aryenish and I connected immediately over our mutual struggles with insomnia and not being taken seriously because we’re so petite (until we open our mouths, that is).
It was my pleasure to have the excuse to ask some even more invasive questions of this impressive woman.
1. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Aryenish Birdie: Obedience — progress never happened when people were well-behaved.
2. What made you go vegan?
Several things happened simultaneously. The first was when I was in the 7th grade. I was presented with the frog dissection project and my mom (a Montessori teacher) was horrified, “what could children possibly learn cutting up animals?” Curious about her objection, I learned about how animals are abused and killed in laboratories across the world (for cosmetics, drugs, chemicals, etc.). I couldn’t stay quiet once I learned about this injustice so I started to engage my peers, but the people who wanted to maintain the status quo (there’s that obedience again!) challenged me. They said, “are you even vegan?” I wasn’t. I knew I was being hypocritical so I reformed my actions to align with my ethics.
Also, around this time my childhood dogs (two gorgeous black lab/mastiff mixes) taught me about true compassion, love, and how all animals feel pain and joy. I knew I couldn’t love one species and eat others.
3. How did you know you were ready to start your own nonprofit?
I did not know. I had a feeling. I took a huge risk leaving a comfortable job with a great boss to do something I’d never done before. But I listened to the thing inside me that kept nagging at me to try and address this issue that I’d seen and felt for over 20 years. I also had amazing friends and a life-partner who were a huge support through that transition.
4. We both suffer from insomnia sometimes. What keeps you up at night?
The insomnia is real! I was suffering from it just last night. I often think about how we treat each other interpersonally and societally…How someone is treating me, how I’m reacting to it, what will I do about it, how is Trump treating [insert marginalized community], did I do or say something unintentionally to make someone think X of me?
5. What’s the best thing about being one half of a vegan power couple?
Being in a vegan power couple.
6. How did you guys meet?
Kenny met my sister, Parendi, in 2010 (three years before we met). They were both working on an Ohio ballot measure to end the confinement of battery cages, veal, and gestation crates. My sister told me I should meet him some day but that was the end of that. Fast forward to December 2013, Kenny organized an event on Capitol Hill with Dr. Michael Gregor I was attending.
Well, it was a snow day, so attendance was very low and there was a ton of food leftovers so he told folks they could take the extras. I always carry extra bags and containers to minimize my environmental impact and I was taking a lot of food (you will never see me skip out on anything free, especially food). He introduced himself as I was taking my 7th or 8th sandwich. As soon as he said his name I remembered my sister telling me about Kenny. We went on a hike five days later and the rest is history.
7. Is there a moment you knew it would stick?
Very early on. There isn’t really a moment, but I had never felt the way I did with him. It threw me for a pretty big loop because I wasn’t envisioning myself with a cis-man, but I listened to my gut (as I always do) and it hasn’t let me down. He’s my favorite human.
8. What’s the biggest challenge about both being so successful in the AR movement? Like, do you ever feel competitive?
I can definitely be competitive but I am just now realizing as I answer this question that I have never felt competitive with Kenny. We have such different skill sets, he’s much more creative and works in a different part of the movement than me so I feel like our worlds rarely collide and when they do it’s fun. He helps me brainstorm and I never need to explain the context for a problem I’m facing because he gets everything.
The biggest challenge for me is when I have a day off and he’s working. I usually feel bad, or like I should be working since we both work from home. He never judges me but I judge myself if I take a self-care day, or even a half-day! I am committed to working on this though.
9. What’s the most racist thing you’ve heard a well-meaning vegan say? Or the most racist thing period someone has said and done?
I’ve been called a sand n***er. It was harsh, unexpected, and meant to cut me, but in some ways I could deal with it because I could see their ignorance. However, on a much more regular basis I get asked by random people on the street “What are you?” or “Where are you from? Like where are you really from?” In many ways, the latter hurts me more.
10. What are the top five ways vegan orgs could increase diversity and inclusion right now?
I hesitate to answer questions like this because there are no quick fixes. Doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work takes time, resources (time and money), and a paradigm shift in thinking. This is what Encompass is trying to help the animal movement understand.
11. Good point. What about some ways individual white vegans could educate themselves right now/to begin to do something to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion?
- Start noticing the spaces you’re in and how homogenous they are. Take an inventory of your friend group, your grocery store, your workplace, your bookshelf, etc.
- Follow prominent vegans of color on social media and really digest what they have to say. There are many out there with different views — they will rock your world-view, most likely
- Support efforts that are run by people of color — financially and with time (seek them out if they aren’t on your radar)
- Take time to read and listen about these issues (side note, Encompass will be publishing a resource guide on this soon). Remember: race issues aren’t a problem only people of color face, we all suffer when there’s inequity and white folks aren’t devoid of race
- Be comfortable with being challenged. Listen with an open mind and heart even if it makes you uncomfortable, grapple with the content. Notice your inner fragility.
12. We’re both petite women — how do you think it affects how people perceive you as a person in power (if at all?)
I think about this a lot. My race, gender, and age often compound on one another (sometimes my sexuality). On rare occasions I can use it to my advantage but mostly I think people view me as having less power so they treat me like it. But it’s the worst when I internalize those beliefs — I’m working hard on this one!
One of my advisors is a fundraising guru and he told me that studies have shown that donors respond to fundraisers more favorably if they look older so it’s something I struggle with. Last week I was working on my front porch and a solicitor asked me if my parents were home. What?!
13. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
The Real Housewives franchises…I know, I know.
14. What is your greatest extravagance?
Giving the best life to my senior pup, Rihana. I spare no expense for her health, food, and overall joy.
15. What is your biggest pet peeve as a vegan in a non-vegan world?
The gummy bear game is extremely sub-par.
16. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To care less about money.
17. What is your biggest pet peeve about vegans and/or the vegan movement?
When vegans don’t read their audience and are more interested in winning a morality argument rather than impacting the person in front of them.
18. What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
That I’m smart. As a young high-schooler, I cared more about this than how I looked. I still feel this way. If you want to butter me up, talk about my brain.
19. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
When humans take pleasure in the physical act of torturing nonhuman animals.
20. How do you unplug or disconnect when you start to feel overwhelmed by all the problems we have to solve? Any tips that work for you on reducing this particular guilt/anxiety?
When I get really overwhelmed I literally can’t move forward. I can get stuck and usually have to calm my brain before I can even look at the tasks in front of me. So I’ll go outside for a walk, just sit outside if my energy is low, take a shower, play Tetris, take care of my houseplants/general puttering around the house (puttering around the house and making minor tweaks is one of my favorite activities). Basically I need to distract myself so I can get out of my anxiety loop and then I can go back to thinking about things with a slightly different frame of mind. I struggle with anxiety so all of this is a work in progress.
21. What gives you the most hope?
Seeing and hearing progressive youth own their place in this world.