Below is the full interview with Matt Ball, Farm Sanctuary’s Director of Engagment and Outreach, for Every Day is Animal Advocacy Day
1. What brought you to Farm Sanctuary? When did you start?
Gosh, I’ve been a fan of Farm Sanctuary almost since it started. As soon as there were cabins, Anne and I took our belated honeymoon there (1993).
I didn’t become friends with Gene until April 1997, when he and I were at a Nalith-sponsored conference in the Finger Lakes region. I’ll never forget it. My project at the time was to distribute as many pro-veg booklets as possible. At one point, Gene held up a copy of the booklet and said, “We can all agree that we need to get more of these out there.” It really showed his generosity. Ever since, Gene has been one of the warmest, most supportive people I’ve known in the animal advocacy movement.
2. How long have you been vegan, and what inspired you to make that switch?
Freshman year of college (1986), my roommate was an older transfer student. He was also a vegetarian, and he made me his personal project. I would love to say I went vegan as soon as I learned about what happens on factory farms, but as I write about in one of my books, this wasn’t the case at all. Rather, I went vegetarian and then vegan in fits and starts. It is for this and other reasons that I’m very sympathetic to people who are (initially) resistant to the message; who make incremental change while rationalizing other actions. So although all psychological research supports it as well, Farm Sanctuary’s approach of meeting people where they are has a personal resonance with me.
It is nice to be able to say I first stopped eating animals the year Farm Sanctuary was founded!
3. Describe a typical day.
My day-to-day responsibilities include the Compassionate Communities Campaign and Farm Sanctuary’s online outreach. The former requires keeping up with news for the CCC Facebook page, the CCC blog, and alerts to our members, in order to make sure our activist members are engaged and able to make a difference day to day. As part of this, I represent Farm Sanctuary in a variety of coalitions, so I’m often on conference calls or reviewing email alerts. I also have been developing materials for the CCC.
Online outreach is a fun, multivariate problem. I can create multiple ads and choose different target audiences, and then monitor which perform best. I’m always iterating on this, to make sure we are “spending thousands to reach millions.” I also monitor the comment threads to try to make sure things don’t get out of hand, and to give encouragement, too.
One of the best parts of my job is to watch what Manager of Engagement Strategy Wendy Matthews comes up with for her various projects, like V-lish. I can always expect innovative, creative, and fresh ideas from her. Sometimes, I’m even able to contribute a useful bit of feedback here or there. Mostly, though, I just want to make sure I’m not hindering her.
My wife Anne (who works for Our Hen House, headed by former Farm Sanctuary National Advocacy Organizer Jasmin Singer) and I both work from home here in Tucson, and we’re very much early birds. A typical day starts around 6 with all the emails that came in overnight. I’ll try to exercise most days (although I’m no Marathon Man like Gene), in part because I can get in some of my best thinking while running. For example, a few weekends ago, I received an email about a Facebook post on welfare reforms. That led to a longer conversation, and then, over my next two runs, the idea for a blog post on the topic took shape.
4. Describe a day that was less typical and memorable.
I have Farm Sanctuary Media Relations Specialist Meredith Turner-Smith to thank for my most memorable days. She has arranged my various interviews, including a one hour radio interview with a station in rural Alabama. Such a fun time! She also got me all my television appearances last fall – an amazing job. She made sure the stations had all the information (I was promoting a Walk for Farm Animals each appearance) and B-roll (so the audience was able to look at cute animals instead of having to watch me).
The best week was probably last October at the Seattle Walk for Farm Animals. Walk Coordinator Christina Cuenca organized an absolutely incredible event! (And Meredith had, of course, previously had me on the radio to promote the Walk.) People were so fired up – I’ve never been interrupted by cheers and applause so often. Not ever! I was able to spend time with different activists in Seattle, too, separate from the Walk. Then I met with other members in Portland and gave a talk there. Next was up to Vancouver, where I had another hour on the radio (this one was in studio) leading up to the great Walk (which was the only time I saw the sun there!).
Of course, compared to Gene, I’m an absolute amateur when it comes to travelling and speaking. I truly have no idea how he does it. I spent at least 20 hours researching, writing, getting feedback on, and practicing just my “Understanding the Numbers” talk for AR2015. I don’t know how Gene could possibly do it, day in and day out.
But for me, the Seattle / Portland / Vancouver trip was an amazing week.
5. Was there a time when you reached someone whom you never expected to be receptive to your message?
I know I don’t have anywhere near the number of stories Gene has (I love listening to his stories), but I do have loads of experiences like this (including at the national Future Farmers of America conference).
One of my first unexpected encounters like this was speaking at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A young man in the audience was clearly agitated and just itching to get up and say something. As soon as I opened it up for questions, he jumped up and gave a dissertation on the “values” of hunting.
It was obvious that debating hunting wouldn’t be a winning strategy. More importantly, I knew arguing with him wouldn’t do anything to change anyone else’s mind or choices. I was, of course, tempted to make the full, consistent “animal rights” case, but I decided it was more important to try to get some of the people to actually make constructive change that made a difference for farm animals.
So I said, “Well, I can tell you this: I would rather live my life free and be shot dead as an adult, than be crammed into a bathroom with a bunch of others such that I can hardly move, living in our own waste.” As soon as I said that, the young man visibly calmed, and sat down to listen. I then went on to reiterate how bad farm animals have it on factory farms. At this point, the whole audience was more attentive than they had been during my main talk. I concluded my “answer” to him by repeating that I didn’t think anyone in the room would condone the way these animals are treated, and that each of us can choose compassion every time we eat.
Not only did the rest of the Q & A go great, but after everything was done, the young man thanked me. He said he always thought factory farms were bad, but hadn’t known just how bad. He also hadn’t known how rough it was for chickens (which I had focused on in the main talk), and concluded that not eating meat from factory farms was the right thing to do.
To me, this shows the power of Gene’s idea of meeting people where they are. I have always found it to be much more constructive and impactful to focus on the first step, rather than presenting a fixed dogma.
6. What do you enjoy doing outside of Farm Sanctuary life (hobbies, interests, etc.)?
[Farm Sanctuary CEO ] Hank Lynch made the comment, “Matt, most people don’t have the opportunity we have, to be able to work for animals.” This is really insightful: we are really incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, and I want to make the most of it. Since we work at home, Anne and I are able to work every day. But we do try to go for a hike together once every week or two (where, of course, we talk more about work). I try to log off of work by 8pm, so I can do a little reading and wind down some.
I try to cook a good dinner 3-4 times per week (making enough for leftovers).
Our (lifelong vegan) daughter is away at college, so I look forward to opportunities to chat with her on Google Hangouts whenever she has a few spare minutes (usually in lab, between experiments). When she’s home, I try to keep up with her on her daily runs!
7. You’ve raised Ellen vegan; what advice do you have for vegan parents?
Oh, the world is so incredibly different now than it was 22 years ago, especially in this respect!
Reannon Branchesi, who previously organized all our Walk for Farm Animals events, is one of the founders of Generation Veggie – an amazing website and community for anyone who is vegan in a family (raising vegan kids, kids who have chosen to go vegan in a non-veg family, etc.). If you have questions or concerns, GenVeg has an article or someone who can help. It is a great resource!
And chill out if your son or daughter doesn’t like veggies!
8. Gene mentioned mixing soy powder to make soymilk back in the day… how has vegan food changed for you? What can Ellen enjoy that you couldn’t when you were in college?
HA! Comparing my attempts to just eat vegetarian (dairy-a-palooza) to eating vegan today is crazy! When I first stopped eating animals, I lived on cheese sandwiches and Captain Crunch with cow’s milk. Now at college, Ellen has vegan options at every dining hall at every meal (that video’s star doesn’t appear until 51 seconds in). Other colleges (including in Texas!) have entirely vegetarian or even vegan dining halls! Vegan reubens, vegan pizza, vegan Tofurky feasts – not only around Thanksgiving but regularly? (Thanks, Seth!)
Of course, I know that most people think veganism is impossible from where they are now (all the more reason to focus on the first step). But I could literally write a book about how crazy-different it is today than 30 years ago.
9. Why should someone visit Farm Sanctuary?
Of course, you don’t need to visit one of our sanctuaries to make an absolutely huge difference in the world. Every time we choose what to eat, we can make a powerful statement against cruelty and for compassion. Every time someone asks us why we’re vegetarian, we have the chance to provide farm animals a voice.
But there is something truly wonderful about getting to know individuals like Valentino, Emily, and Lucie. It makes our choices and our opportunity to advocate for these animals less abstract, more concrete. For me, at least, spending time with these individuals leaves me energized and even more motivated to change the world, to build a society where individuals like Frank and Bean are no longer our job, but simply our friends.