(Photo description: two men sitting at sculpture in Reno, Nevada that spells out "Believe". In the foreground, Nnamdi, a middle-aged black man, sits on the second "E" of the sculpture with his hands held and a serious, concentrated look upon his face. Further back, on the "L" sits Mark, an older white man, with a similar look upon his face, who's holding an upside-down American flag. An upside-down flag is the maritime symbol of distress. Hung signs and messages written in chalk that support the Black Lives Matter Movement surround them. Both men are there to show their support for the movement and to engage in civil discourse with anyone wishing to speak about the cause.)
In downtown Reno, there is a simple but remarkable sculpture spelling out the word "Believe". It sits in a small park at the base of City Hall, which is a nondescript block of a building that makes you think of paperwork and bureaucracy. Currently, the Reno/Sparks area is home to one of the top ten most lethal police forces in the United States. Almost as if to make up for themselves, the city park and sculptures stand in contrast to the monolith of law and order. Placing Believe at their administrator's feet and having common ground for protest and play shows the dichotomy by which the people live.
Reading this, if you lean politically left, my opening paragraph may have made you shake your head at the dangers of authoritarianism. If you lean right, you may have instantly begun to defend the police and City Hall, knowing their jobs are difficult. Either way (with both sides being correct), the takeaway was one of division, not unity. And it's hard not to think this way. Useful would be to acknowledge that the majority of us are working-class; striving to find security in an insecure system. That, and that we are not each other's enemy. My position here is that even though we've been trained to focus on differences, our commonalities are a better place to work from and that we have tools to help us bond.
Take the above photo as an example. I took it one afternoon while enacting some non-violent civil disobedience at the Believe. I was there to support the civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter. Over the course of three weeks in June 2020, I sat at the sculpture from noon until night and engaged in open dialogue with interested parties to discuss why it is important to support Black Lives Matter. Each day I would return with food and water to distribute to anyone; no questions asked. I would also bring chalk, paper, and makers so people could write their messages of support for the cause. That type of activism is how I work to find those commonalities that will allow us to change our societal shortcomings. When I concluded my action there, over 110 signs had been created or donated and hundreds upon hundreds of messages and art had been drawn with chalk. A community had both welcomed me and been built around me, including some of the most vulnerable of our society through to the most secure. Even an organization to continue supporting the movement was formed at meetings I led. It was a simple act with large consequences.
The subjects of the photo, Nnamdi and Mark, felt similarly and joined me, almost daily. As we sat and became friends, we spoke with the public. Over the weeks, I got to know each of them personally and in-depth. They came from wildly different backgrounds but their interests were well aligned. I grew to value and care for both men and I like how the photo depicts them. Yet my real interest with the image was how much it made me critical of the sowed division cast upon us and by us. As I see it, this photo and the story behind it would probably be labeled as "Unlikely Allies" if it were to be marketed to the public.
This is partly because broadcast news in the USA is neither impartial nor without a consumer agenda. Keeping you watching and shopping is what for-profit networks require to be profitable. Fear and division work well as manipulators to ensure you keep watching (and buying).
A breakdown of a typical news show could easily be our political divide and our class divides, both often drenched in subtle racial divisiveness. Things we should worry about globally would be another portion. Some health warnings, weather reports, and sales would also be included. Then the broadcast might close with a feel-good piece that is based on its contrast to the intentional division they just sewed. For example, how two 'unlikely' allies found themselves 'fighting' for the same cause despite having 'different' stakes in the said cause. (This is a falsehood as much as it is a truth).
It is a relentless barrage of 'us/them' influences. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This narrative is constant and it leads to an ever-widening gap between groups. Groups that would be better served by celebrating their diversity while bonding over our commonalities. Examples of that would be food, dance, art, or interests like equality and civil progress. Sadly, the more we focus on the differences, the wider the gap becomes.
Americans know this well because we're all currently feeling defeated by it. Not since the Civil War have we been as divided a nation as we are today. And this isn't unique to the U.S. Across the globe, the same tactics of 'us/them' are being used to incite violence, division, and political gains.
I am in favor of balancing power and social evolution. So the question becomes, how do I/we/you change this? My proposal is for individual change to impact systemic change (i.e. personal responsibility).
We know that individuals can inspire change. I've observed two major camps that succeed at this. One has a lack of self-reflection and sympathy (see: Trump, Putin, Modi, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, the list goes on). The other has a willingness to look inward and project outward the kindness we each need to feel secure (see: Michelle Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela). The first camp inspires division, the latter, unity. (I'm using 'kindness' here to refer to the sense of security we enter this world dependant on and leave this world hoping we've left behind.)
(It's not lost on me that I'm making an 'us vs. them' potential here, just as I'm hoping that it isn't lost on you that my goal is to help you identify with the less self-serving group. Understanding where the division comes from is different than calling for division.)
Which of these two camps do you honestly embody more and is it the one you wish to emanate? Assuming it is the nicer of the two, what is a personal change one can make to effectively create and impart more kindness? After decades of asking just this, I'm certain that one tool is more impactful than all the others: veganism. I'll try to explain how, through veganism, we can break this dichotomy that we are 'us' and they are 'them'.
Few things are at the core of being human. One of those few things is the need to consume in order to survive. So a more compassionate lifestyle, such as veganism, leads us to understand what we are consuming and how it impacts others. This is because, in order for us to eat, wear clothes, have medicine, etc., land is cleared, people are employed or enslaved, the Earth is pillaged, animals are enslaved and murdered, power dynamics are created and maintained, and on and on; impacting every element of human life on this planet. So we need to examine the relationship between those things.
This multitiered analysis falls under the concept of intersectionality. In short, this means that no single social dilemma is an island unto itself. Instead, addressing one issue, say systemic racism, will have a direct relationship with ending sexism, speciesism, classism, and so much more. Correcting those issues requires us to find tools that can, directly and indirectly, take on all of these social and environmental ills. Again, we come to veganism.
Consider the following: Let's pretend that today you had some milk chocolate. This was primarily because you like it. Plus, it has some benefits beyond just your pleasure. There are some health claims that come with it and you were a little hungry. Perfect. Yummy chocolate. Then you ask yourself about where it came from. And so the journey begins...
A quick search reveals nothing about where your chocolate was sourced; only the country that made the bar and they are not the same places. This is because chocolate is a commodity crop and is sold in global markets. That means there is a good chance that your bar contains 40% of its cacao from the Ivory Coast. This is because they produce 40% of the world's cacao. Commodities like cacao and coffee get lumped in big piles and orders at global markets and sold by quality and type, not necessarily country of origin. So what of the Ivory Coast and the workers growing your beans?
It turns out that the Ivory Coast has been documented as frequenting in human trafficking and slave labor; primarily child slave labor. And this has been going on for decades with the United Nations making half-hearted attempts to end these crimes. Additionally, the workers that aren't slaves aren't paid much. How else could your bar be so cheap? And the common knowledge of the exploitation of African nations through colonialism, capitalism, globalization, and racism leaves your bar tasting a little less nice when you think your sweet snack is playing a direct role in this, rather than empowering the workers or the nations that they live in. Instead, the high odds that a company in a different nation (predictably a predominately white nation) is making millions, if not billions, in earnings off the backs of black children stolen from their families have you asking more questions.
So next you think to look at the two other key ingredients, milk and sugar. Let's glance at milk first.
Milk: the food of all mammals for their young, including you. Milk: a substance made as a result of giving birth and for no other reason. Milk: in this case, from a cow.
How do we get that milk; we take it away from the baby. How do we keep the cow making babies; we impregnate it against its will. What do we do with male calves that will never produce milk; we send them to become veal. And what do they do with the cow when she has given birth three or four times and isn't capable of giving birth again soon; we send her to become hamburger and leather.
And what of the food that the cows need? We make monoculture farms that require huge amounts of pesticides. Pesticides, when combined with the manure and urine of the animals, become the biggest polluter of fresh water in the world. And which people suffer the most from downstream pollution? The poor and disenfranchised: people of color, single mothers, laborers (even though eventually we all suffer from environmental destruction). And those farms need to keep growing to keep up with the increasing demand for more animal products so we go to places like the Amazon rainforest and clear-cut one of the most important ecosystems on the planet; contributing to the extinction of countless plants and animals.
Now, sugar. That's a plant, so it should be less cruel, right? Sadly, no. Like chocolate, sugar is such a large-scale crop that it, too, often uses indentured servitude, which is another form of forced labor. And, you guessed it, those workers are not white people. Racism and capitalism are in control once again. Oh, and to make the sugar white in color, we must return to the exploited cows. This is because there is such an excess of bones from the many, many millions of cows killed annually, that we use it to make the charcoal that is used to bleach the sugar.
And now you're depressed and we haven't even talked about the packaging (pollution and global warming), the shipping (more pollution and global warming), the energy used (even more pollution and global warming and wars over oil), or the health risks (far too many to list). But it doesn't have to stay depressing. You can find liberation by learning from this.
I spoke about a lot of -isms just now and very briefly highlighted how they are connected: through that bar and through your consumption of it. So what to do with this info? I find compassion through it. I see myself in others and want for them what I have in security and safety. I see the value in leaving the cows to be cows and not abusing them from birth until slaughter. I see that behind each example is exploitation; whether it be human, animal, or environmental. I see that each -ism is fundamentally tied to the others (racism=classism=sexism=speciesism=...). And I see that I can make choices with my most powerful external voice: how I spend my money/what I consume. And when I do that, I take a step towards a kinder and more sustainable world. Plus, I see allies in all directions.
(To make this hypothetical tangible: go vegan and buy only ethical vegan chocolate. One that documents where it comes from and who made it, how they made it, and what they are doing to reduce the harm caused by making such things. While doing this will not single-handedly fix the world, it has raised your awareness and empowered you to create the world you want to live in. While simultaneously reducing harm to countless people, animals, and ecosystems. (For help with this very real example of buying chocolate, please look up The Food Empowerment Project.))
Food is where many of our greatest disconnects from each other and the physical world begin. Hence, anything as prolific as food will have the ability to be used as a weapon or as a tool to divide people. When you move towards veganism, you are forced to review what food is and why. Compassionate and aware consumerism can undo many of those disconnects.
Yes, at first, veganism is a rabbit hole of awareness. At a glance, it may seem daunting, but I promise you that once you've adjusted, it is no more daunting than your current life. Rather, it comes with the added benefit of knowing you've begun to help in the broadest way possible. Almost immediately, you find yourself tied to the physical world and your neighbors in a way that is impossible without making this change. Those divides between you and your neighbor and the child picking the cocoa in West Africa will reduce. You may just see the news and nations differently because you will likely see yourself in each person and not the characters they ask you to be. The cop might just see the protestor as human and the protestor might just see the cop as the same.
Like any other goal, you have to an make effort to achieve it. The crest of the achievement of going vegan brings with it a lightness of being. I think this lightness of being stems from the knowledge and feeling of our connectedness. This connectedness is the inter-being I mention at other times on this site. This knowledge is the benefit of intersectionality and the illumination that comes from it. The less alone you feel in this world, the more you care about others; eliminating 'unlikely allies' and creating only 'allies'. You become invested in their well-being because you see it as your own. Toot sweet, if it is a human you show more care towards, they may show it back. If it is nature you show more care towards, it rewards you by staying plentiful. This is your kindness coming to manifest.
Our actions must match our words and intentions to reach their fullest potential. Veganism is paramount for this understanding and for taking responsibility for your life's actions. It is something you do every day, as compared to other efforts of change which, while absolutely necessary, may be more part-time. It is this full-time effort (which becomes a passive, background effort eventually) and food's interconnectedness to all aspects of human life that makes veganism the most impactful tool for human social evolution.
My activism in Reno was motivated by civil rights and expressed through my veganism; by my care for other living things. They felt it and reciprocated. There was nothing unlikely about any of this. There is nothing unlikely between Nnamdi and Mark being allies. We're all in this together. Veganism is the best teacher of this idea. When enough of us are caught in a vortex of inspirational kindness, we'll begin to make some real progress, very fast.
*If you like this blog or wish to support my work, please click here. As part of my commitment to non-violence, I abstain from taking a salary for my labors. Thank you for reading.