Mercy For Animals’ (newish) President Leah Garcés oozes a very particular flavor of cool. Though I reluctantly left my job at MFA to write my book a few months ago, my former boss has made more than a few odd cameos in my dreams since. I’m not sure exactly what she represents in my subconscious — I just know that I feel validated when she wants to even imaginary hang out with me.
Intimidating only in how competent and self-possessed she seems, Garcés has a kind of natural authority that doesn’t need to be flaunted — it just is. A little bit Elizabeth Warren, a little bit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she’s got fire and determination, alongside an almost cutting sensibleness. And yes, this woman has a plan — please, Mother Earth, finally — a plan.
Back in 2014, Garcés received national attention when she collaborated with Craig Watts, a contract chicken farmer for Perdue Farms who’d become fed up with the exploitative nature of his work. Many chicken farmers who contract for companies like Perdue are living near the edge of bankruptcy — 71 percent of chicken farmers live at or below the poverty level — and many consider industrial chicken farming a form of “modern-day serfdom.” Garcés and Watts worked together to create a powerful exposé that was featured in the New York Times and which resulted in significant changes at Perdue Farms. Garcés has taken a similar approach at Mercy For Animals, further pursuing how the organization can work with corporations and brands to create better conditions for the most abused animals and to bring more plant-based products to market.
She’s as committed as anyone to fully ending the exploitation of animals, but she’s also pragmatic in her belief that playing an aggressive, corporate long-game is the best hope we have to change our food system.
Her new book, Grilled: Turning Adversaries Into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, was just released on this very topic — so I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask my former boss a series of semi-invasive questions. A veganized twist on the Proust Questionnaire, this is the first in a new series for Tenderly, spotlighting notable vegans with something important to say.
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Patience! It’s not a virtue!
2. What is your biggest pet peeve about vegans or the vegan movement?
Letting perfect be the enemy of better.
3. What do you think the vegan movement’s greatest weakness is?
Being too narrow in who we collaborate with and who we talk to. We tend to only talk to those who already agree with us and scare off those who are just putting a toe in the water.
4. What is your biggest pet peeve as a vegan in a non-vegan world?
When people say “I gave up red meat” (but not chicken and fish!)
5. What gives you the most hope?
Kentucky Fried Beyond Chicken being tested in my hometown of Atlanta. The lines were insane! You’d have thought they were giving out Beyoncé tickets. It was a wild success, and something I just couldn’t have imagined five years ago. It makes me think, what else can’t I imagine? What else will happen in the next five years that will delight me?
6. What are the most underrated and overrated things about motherhood?
Underrated: The small moments — funny, happy, sweet ones. I keep a diary to help me remember them because otherwise they slip like sand through your fingers.
Overrated: School events. God help me if I ever have to go to another “talent” show.
7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Why must hair get grey? Just, why?
8. What is your greatest extravagance?
Ridiculously expensive dark chocolate.
9. If you were to die and come back as an animal, which kind of animal would you be?
A manatee. What a life. Eat all day, chill in the Florida waterways, passing the time as slow as you like.
10. How do you think the vegan movement should work to align itself with other social justice movements more directly?
Workers’ rights, especially in slaughterhouses, especially Latinx communities. I was so appalled to see ICE raid the slaughterhouses in Mississippi and arrest 700 workers, majority Latinx. It makes me so mad that the companies aren’t the ones punished and that scared Latinx immigrant workers are targeted and abused. Working in a slaughterhouse is one of the worst and most dangerous places in the world to be — I’ve seen people with missing limbs and fingers and with repetitive stress injuries. I’ve talked to Latina women who have been sexually harassed. It’s just such an insult to injury to also then arrest these people. The companies should be held accountable. And we in the movement should work on this too. The line speeds need to be slowed down and the conditions need to be vastly improved both for the animals and the workers.
11. What’s the hardest thing about being a boss?
Being in charge and being the ultimate decision-maker. That’s a huge, heavy burden.
12. How do you think people see you differently because you’re a woman in power?
Men have over my career taken credit for my work. People, especially men in power, also sometimes assume that because I’m not a man, I’m not good at measuring impact, finances and numbers, that sort of thing. But I went further in math in college than the majority of the population, and aced it. I love math and numbers. I come from a family of engineers. I sometimes overcompensate for this, and downplay the power of storytelling a little too much.
13. What about how they see you as a mom in power?
Men have told me they didn’t think I had the bandwidth to do something ambitious — because I have three kids mostly. You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked, “who’s watching the kids?” My husband says he’s never once in his whole career been asked this question. A lot of times this fueled me to prove them wrong. I try to keep the Michelle Obama motto in my mind at times like this — when they go low, we go high — but sometimes, I really regret not calling them out on it, because they of course keep doing it to other women.
It’s a balancing act men never have to deal with.
14. If you had to have one other job, what would it be?
Working to protect Latinx labor forces in our country, both non-citizen immigrants and citizens. Also increasing voter turnout from Latinx voter populations.
15. Who are your favorite writers?
Poet Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country. He was the first Latinx, openly-gay inaugural poet, for President Obama. His poems, especially “Mother Country,” make me cry.
Frans De Waal really reshaped my thinking around the evolution of morals, politics, compassion, and emotions. He’s written so many books, in such a readable format.
Yuval Noah Harari blew my mind up with his books. I can’t think of humans, where we have come from and where we are going, the same.
Shondra Rhimes’ Year of Yes is a really fantastic and readable book that helped me with thinking about what stops me from saying yes and what happens when we do just say yes.
Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft is half memoir and half a how-to on writing. It was incredibly helpful in my writing!
16. Who are your heroes in real life?
My mom and dad. As I became an adult, and a parent, I started to really shift how I saw them and what they did for me. Also my grandmother, who left Colombia because of the growing violence there, with five kids on her own, to start a new life in Miami. She went to college, became an accountant, and raised those kids successfully on her own. She taught me to love to travel and to not be sorry to go for the things you want for yourself.
17. What is it that you most dislike?
Slimy okra. I truly hate it.
18. What is your comfort food?
Mashed potatoes and gravy. I like to make a little volcano out of the mash and pour in the gravy until it flows over like lava.
19. What are your top 3 vegan food products?
Nutritional Yeast Flakes — they are basically in everything I eat.
Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy PB & Cookies Ice Cream. I can eat a whole pint in a sitting.
20. But how do you get your protein?
Taking nibbles out of my children.
21. But what if you were stuck on a deserted island with a pig?
We’d write a musical together for sure.