We are thrilled to have Michelle Cehn as our latest Hero of Compassion.
Michelle is a filmmaker on a mission to make vegan living easy, accessible, and fun through online media and visual storytelling. She is the founder of World of Vegan, co-author of The Friendly Vegan Cookbook, co-creator of The Dairy Detox, and a YouTube personality who has reached millions through her creative, relatable, and engaging vegan videos.
What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you?
In my eyes, living compassionately means being conscious of how my actions affect others, and using this awareness to make kind choices that are aligned with my values.
What inspired you to start down this path?
I have always had a strong sense of compassion for animals, which led me to where I’m at today.
When I was just 8 years old, I stopped eating meat because I realized animals had to die to produce it. Soon after, I learned about factory farming and became an activist. I founded animal rights groups at my high school and college, gave speeches about our treatment of animals, distributed literature, raised money for nonprofits, and more. And when I serendipitously stumbled upon the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer while I was in college, I learned about the horrors of the dairy and egg industries and became vegan. That was 10 years ago.
What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?
I’ve always been committed to upholding my ethics, so when I learned that, even as a vegetarian, my food choices were harming animals, I committed to going vegan.
I assumed this would mean massive sacrifice, limited (and bland) food choices, and even more eye rolls from my family and friends. But after a brief adjustment period, I discovered that vegan food was both abundant and delicious. My palate began to expand, and I found myself enjoying a more varied (and healthy) diet than ever before. And as a longtime vegetarian, I was used to the eye rolls and snide comments at the dinner table, so those bounced right off me.
The biggest obstacle to going vegan for me was my own mind. I assumed it would be hard. I assumed it would be unhealthy. I assumed it would be a sacrifice. As it turned out, none of that was true! All of these thoughts were holding me back from living in alignment with my values.
My advice to others interested in going vegan is to just do it! Let go of any expectations of perfection, because we live in an imperfect world. Approach it with a sense of exploration. Try new foods, visit new grocery stores, read books and blogs, invest in vegan cookbooks, watch videos and documentaries, connect with other vegans online, attend events and VegFests, and visit farm animal sanctuaries like Farm Sanctuary. Attitude is everything, so approach it with enthusiasm and enjoy the journey!
What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?
The most challenging part of living a compassionate life is being aware of the needless cruelty going on in our world. As I opened my eyes and my heart to the atrocities carried out by our species, little pieces of my heart began to break. Luckily, each one of us has the power to make an impact, prevent suffering, and better our world.
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?
It’s not easy, but do your best to focus on the positive. Focus on what you can do (leaflet at your local college, bring vegan cupcakes to work, donate to Farm Sanctuary) rather than what you can’t do. Think about the incredible waves of change we’re seeing in our society, and remember that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.“ And when you’re feeling particularly down, plan a trip to Farm Sanctuary, where you can heal your heart by spending time with the individuals who you helped save.
What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?
When I first became an activist, I followed traditional paths of animal advocacy such as attending protests and demonstrations. But this wasn’t making the best use of my personal skills and talents. Today, my advocacy looks much different and more in line with my passions — filmmaking, photography, and social media.
Take what you already love to do and think about how you can apply those interests and professions to your advocacy. Whether you’re an artist, teacher, lawyer, scientist, or anything else, I’m sure your specific skill set is needed in the animal advocacy world. Plus, you’ll be much less likely to suffer from “activist burnout” if you’re choosing forms of activism that you love.
And finally, don’t underestimate your power and influence. With small everyday actions, we each have the power to save thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of lives.
How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?
Soon after becoming vegan in college, my friend and activism mentor Jen Kaden told me about Farm Sanctuary and encouraged me to attend the 2008 Farm Sanctuary Hoe Down event. It was the first vegan event I ever attended and I had the most amazing time. It was also my first time coming face-to-face with a cow — now my favorite of all animals! Since that weekend, I’ve been a die-hard fan of Farm Sanctuary.
Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries?
There will always be a special place in my heart for Emma, a baby cow who was hit by a car and left to die. Farm Sanctuary came to her rescue and brought her to a veterinary clinic, where she had to have her broken and infected leg amputated. She was at the vet for five long months before she was able to come home to Farm Sanctuary.
Farm Sanctuary invited me to come film Emma’s journey home, and watching her take her first steps out of the van and victoriously hop toward the cows and human friends waiting for her, remains one of my fondest memories. You can see that video here.
How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?
I am incredibly optimistic about the future, and here’s why. I believe a much kinder world is coming, and how soon we get there is all up to us.
What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? Dessert?
My go-to recipe for a filling, delicious vegan meal is this homemade Pad Thai. I’ve always loved ordering Pad Thai at restaurants, but I assumed it would be too complex to make at home. This recipe makes it easy! And for dessert, I love making these simple no-bake cookies.
Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? / Do you have a favorite website you would like to share?
If you’re not yet vegan, I hope you’ll watch this video. And if you are vegan I hope you’ll share it!