Megan Watkins, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue to recognize Heroes of Compassion, people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

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Today, we honor Megan Watkins. Megan joined the Farm Sanctuary Board of Directors in 2009 and has served as Chair, as well as on the Development and Executive committees.  Megan is the National Practice Executive for Foundations & Grantmaking at U.S. Trust.  She leads the practice area dedicated to helping individuals and families, as well as boards of directors and trustees, to maximize their impact in the charitable sector.  This includes educating and advising her clients on a number of topics related to philanthropic giving, including how to select the most appropriate charitable giving vehicle, identifying and articulating a philanthropic vision and mission, engaging family and/or board members in philanthropy, and the many nuances involved in starting and operating a strategic giving program.  Prior to joining U.S. Trust, Megan served as Philanthropic Advisor and Program Officer in the Philanthropic Services Group at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, where she facilitated giving in the areas of animal rights and welfare, affordable housing, human services, workforce development and youth development.  Megan’s additional nonprofit and policy activities include roles with ACCION New York, World Neighbors Nepal, and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Megan holds a Master of International Affairs degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from Barnard College.

Here is my conversation with Megan.

What does the phrase “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

To me, living compassionately means living in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to those around you.  It means listening, being thoughtful, and showing care and concern in the decisions you make and the actions you take.  I would say that I started down this path fairly early in life, having been raised by a mother who was incredibly community- and service-oriented, even given limited time and income.  She was the first to teach my sisters and me that everyone’s voice mattered and that everyone should be heard.  She also showed us that it was important to keep our door open, to the people and the animals who needed our help.

It wasn’t until later in my life when I began to fully grasp the plight of farm animals and the conflict that existed between my values and my diet.  I absolutely attribute this awakening to the animals residing at Farm Sanctuary.  I had taken a trip up to Watkins Glen with my husband and a group of close friends.  Unsure of what to expect when stepping onto the property, I suddenly found myself sitting on the ground, looking into the eyes of the animals, and knowing that I was about to make a change that would impact the rest of my life.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

My sister, my husband and I all transitioned to a vegan diet on the same day several years ago.  This was incredibly helpful to all of us, as we made our way through cleaning out kitchen cabinets, restocking ingredients and comparing recipes.  While I would say that we were all on a learning curve for the first year, we kept moving forward and soon found ourselves planning trips based on nearby vegan restaurants, or on Facetime “SOS” calls when our recipes were a flop.  If I had one tip, it would be to find a community.  Whether that is just a friend to join you, or an established group like Farm Sanctuary, every transition is easier when not alone (and you are definitely not alone on this one!).

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

img_6177Speaking very personally, when I first became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I felt a bit like an outsider breaking into a very tight community.  I was newly vegan and, while familiar with the issues facing farm animals, hadn’t participated in the animal rights movement at such depths.  My experiences and motivations may have been questioned at times, which initially left me feeling somehow not vegan enough, or maybe not activist enough.  Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, I now find myself on the other side of this, struggling to be patient with those who haven’t made similar transitions in their own lives.  And then I remember, as Gene wisely points out, that we are most successful when we are able to meet people where they are.  Just like he met me where I was, once upon a time.

What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?              

Before I became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I actually used to lie awake, unable to shake images of animal cruelty.  I would have tears in my eyes, and would just stare at the ceiling.  I felt helpless, like the issue was too big and I was too small.  When I began spending time taking action on behalf of farm animals, when I sat with them in their own environment, I was finally able to breathe.  So my advice to anyone feeling helpless – activate.  Get even closer to the issue.  Become part of a community that cares and that is taking action on behalf of these incredible souls.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Many years ago, I attended an animal welfare philanthropy conference where Gene participated on a panel.  He spoke early, maybe first, in a soft tone, telling stories of individual animals and allowing us to picture the beauty of what happens when farm animals find sanctuary.  He was followed by two or three other speakers, I honestly don’t remember, as I needed to leave the room.  When the next speaker began, and the horrifying images started to hit the screen, it was too much for me to process.  I waited outside in the hallway, listening, but not watching.  That was probably the first time that I thought seriously about needing to engage in some level of work on behalf of farm animals.  And while I absolutely acknowledge the impact that those other speakers and images had on me, it was Gene’s focus on the animals as individuals and ambassadors that truly spoke to me.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

That’s easy – Snickers [lead photo of interview].  Snickers steer was the first resident of Farm Sanctuary to welcome me to the farm.  I treasure my picture with this amazing ambassador, he was an incredibly gentle soul and will forever be my reminder of my awakening to the plight of farm animals.

Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?

I can honestly say that I love every one of the Farm residents, even the bull who MAY have chased Susie and me over a fence one blazing hot afternoon.

image1If I were to pick … I really love goats.  I would live among the goats, with the full understanding that my pockets would be picked and my coat sleeves chewed until eternity.

What is your cookbook or recipe?

I am a huge fan of Terry Walters and the Clean Food cookbook.  Her lentil soup recipe is amazing!  My sister and I had the pleasure of joining her for a clean food cooking/yoga weekend and everything was plant-based, gluten free and pure awesome.

 

 

What is Real Courage?

Meat eaters love to change the subject and complain about vegans’ sense of smug superiority. But I can say it is very likely that I truly am superior to most everyone reading this: I have made more mistakes.

I stopped eating animals back in the 1980s. In the years after that, I made an absurd number of mistakes. Probably the main reason I wanted to publish The Animal Activist’s Handbook is to try to help others avoid at least some of the mistakes I made.

One of my biggest mistakes was lacking courage, but perhaps not in the way you think.

Over the years, people advised me to say I was vegan for my health. “That way,” I was told, “people won’t be threatened by you. Everyone cares about their health, so they won’t feel judged.”

Of course, I didn’t go along with that. I protested, “But I’m vegan for so many reasons! The Animals! The Earth! Human health!” Back then, our attitude was to “win an argument with a meat eater” (the title of a famous poster of the time). The approach was to try to overwhelm a meat eater with an endless list of what we believed were “facts,” which simplified to: all ills in the world, from impotence to hunger to ozone depletion to serial killings, were all because of meat.

Do you see the problem? It was all about me: Why I was vegan, how I was so right, how I needed to win an argument, because meat eaters were so very wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now, in sympathy with Young Matt and the rest of us back then, there really was no other example. We all spouted endless claims of water usage and declining fertility. No matter how absurd a claim, if something sounded even vaguely anti-meat or pro-vegetables, we parroted it like the indoctrinated missionaries we were.

On a basic human level, this is understandable. We were a tiny minority, surrounded by meat eaters – meat eaters who often mocked us. You can see why we were so eager, so desperate to justify ourselves, to strike back, to try to belittle those who belittled us, to win.

Of course, looking at it rationally today, each of us knows that any discomfort we experience is nothing compared to what farmed animals endure. But to be able to take the animals’ perspective would have required me to think beyond myself and my self-interest.

I regret my lack of courage, my inability to get past my need to justify myself, praise veganism, and blame meat eaters for every ill.

Of course, if you had pointed this out to me back then, I would have been outraged: “I am courageous! Do you know how hard it is to be vegan in the world? Look at this sheet of ‘facts’: meat eating is terrible!”

My interactions with meat eaters consisted of preaching an endless stream of horrors, pontificating: “You are causing all this! You need to be Just . . . Like . . . Me!” It was so important to chant, to insist, to promote and pursue purity – much more important than working constructively to bring about actual change.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that being vegan isn’t good or important. But however important our personal, day-to-day choices are, choosing effective advocacy for the animals is far, far more important. However much good we accomplish by being vegan every day of the rest of our entire lives . . . well, we can do more good than that in just an hour of honest, psychologically-sound activism – or in just a minute, by donating to effective advocacy.

To really accomplish good in the world, we can’t be like Young Matt. We can’t focus on what sounds good to us. We can’t just rattle off facts that we find compelling, repeat anything that seems to justify our veganism, latch on to the latest “study” that “proves” what we want to believe.

And we can’t just “do something, do anything.” Instead, we have to look at the overall, real-world impact of our advocacy, and compare those consequences to other alternatives we could pursue with our limited time and resources.

This isn’t easy, in part because it is just so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “People are selfish, I’ll appeal to self-interest!” Or taking anecdotes as data: “Marcie went vegan for reason X, so everyone must promote X!” Effective advocates look beyond what we think or what motivates us and those around us. We need to put aside what makes veganism sound good to us and focus on what will move non-vegetarians to take steps that actually end suffering.

For example, we can’t focus on something that seems non-controversial, something that seems to appeal to everyone, if doing so might encourage someone to stop eating big animals and instead eat more birds and fishes; anyone who just gives up red meat causes much, much more suffering.

In other words, we must consider all the actual consequences of our advocacy.

I don’t mean to preach. I wasted so many opportunities; turned off so many people. It took me years – and the help of truly courageous people – before I could set aside my insecurities and ego and personal needs, and focus instead on practical, realistic advocacy that actually helps animals.

Yet I don’t know what I could have said to Young Matt. Three decades ago, I was so angry, so filled with the odd combination of insecurity masked by self-righteousness.

It was an intoxicating siren song. It still is.

But let me leave you with a few decades of data: Since I came to the first March for the Animals in 1990, I have met hundreds of vegans who burned with an absolutist flame. Many of them loudly attacked other vegans as pathetic sell-outs, gutless compromisers, collaborating capitalists, and welfarists.

MattChicago2016Few of them are around today. There are, of course, new adherents, new screamers and chanters, new Young Matts. But if you look, you’ll actually see a number of truly courageous people, people who have put aside their ego and are focused on helping the animals as much as possible, every day.

I hope you have more courage than I did, and will join with those who go beyond self-interest. Instead, we can do the real, concrete work: day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is actually helping animals, literally changing the world.

-Matt Ball

Originally published in The Accidental Activist

Find Plant-Powered Options at Your National Park!

As the National Park system celebrates its Centennial, more people are making plans to visit. If you are heading to either your local park or another on your bucket list, you can consult this guide to the plant-powered options in and around each park. From a tofu taco at Glacier National Park to vegan pizza just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are plenty of options.

Yosemite Valley. Photo by Ellen Green.

Yosemite Valley. Photo by Ellen Green.

 

For these trips and any others, be sure to check out the V-lish guide to travel for more hints and options found at popular chains.

 

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30, Looking Back at 25’s Just Eats Tour

As most of you know, this is Farm Sanctuary’s 30th Anniversary. To celebrate as part of the Gala this month in Los Angeles, Gene’s old VW van has come out of retirement. Attendees can step right up and order a veggie dog celebrating this blast from the past.

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Gene previously had the van out for a tour following our 25th Anniversary. Here, we bring you his excerpts from his notes from that “Just Eats” cross-country tour five years ago:

Starting at Farm Sanctuary’s 25th Anniversary Gala, I’ve been on the Just Eats Tour, driving the original 1977 VW van that launched Farm Sanctuary in 1986 across the U.S. to celebrate our 25th anniversary and to explore vegan America.

Ib7f9uo6cqaan1bdn this van, we rescued our first animal, Hilda, a downed sheep who had been left on a pile of dead animals behind Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania. In the early days of Farm Sanctuary, we also raised funds to support our work by selling veggie hot dogs out of this van at Grateful Dead concerts. Getting the old VW on the road again has been a blast, and we’re meeting so many amazing people along the way. We’ve found vegan food and vegan advocates in every corner of the country, in both rural and urban settings.

The factory farming industry is deeply entrenched in our food culture and economic system, but change is afoot. More and more consumers are seeking to reconnect with the sources of their food and to eat well, impulses that inevitably lead to a rejection of factory farming. An entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing in this burgeoning food movement, and new, socially responsible enterprises are sprouting up in agricultural areas.

After three weeks on the road, the van pulled into Orland, CA, in time for our Hoe Down. It was a beautiful event and the perfect conclusion to our cross -country exploration.

6a010536e26195970b01538f695bb2970b-800wiBesides the dependability of our old VW van, we were taken by the remarkable passion and diversity of America’s vegan food movement. We found vegans in urban and rural areas, representing all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and lifestyles. We met entrepreneurs, authors, academics, and spiritual and business leaders. We spoke with people who have been vegan for decades and others who just recently decided to forego animal products. And we also met second and third generations of vegans. The vegan movement is bringing people of different ages and various backgrounds together around common interests.

Restaurants are catching on, experimenting with vegan dishes and reporting strong demand. They have been impressed by how enthusiastic and appreciative vegan customers are to see plant-based options. The vegan community is helping these businesses to make plant foods more widely available, providing menu suggestions, product recommendations, and even recipes and food preparation tips. And with more vegan options available, omnivores are increasingly choosing them. Everywhere we went across the U.S., we saw that the vegan movement is vibrant and growing!