April 14, 2018
On April 18th, 2018, International House at the University of Chicago hosted Animal Rights Activist Jasmin Singer, a well-known author, podcast host, and Senior Editor of the award-winning VegNews magazine. In her recent memoir, titled Always Too Much and Never Enough, Singer explores her own journey to developing compassion for herself, others, and animals through veganism and being truly full. Before her talk, Global Voices-Metcalf Fellow Renee Wehrle spoke with Singer about her numerous projects, her development as an activist, and her hopes for the future of animal rights activism.
Global Voices: You’re a person who does many things very well. From running a nonprofit to co-hosting a podcast, to giving lectures and writing books, you’re involved in so many different occupations. What, for you, is the unifying force between all of the different media that you work with?
Jasmin Singer: Well, thank you. I am very passionate about changing the world for animals, so I think that everything that I do—whether it’s with VegNews or with Our Hen House, or with my personal writing or my speaking—centers around how people can embolden themselves to create change for animals. And it is all from a perspective of overlapping oppressions and recognizing that all of these issues are just a different spoke on the same wheel.
Global Voices: In terms of those overlapping oppressions, you’ve spoken a lot about intersectionality [through] working with the LGBTQ+ community as well as animal activism. What types of experiences or previous projects have you had or worked on that have contributed to your views on intersectionality?
Singer: I came to the animal rights movement by way of the LGBTQ+ movement and specifically, AIDS awareness. I was a long-time vegetarian by then, [and] I was spending my days working in inner-city schools in New York City. I was doing a play and then teaching groups of kids for a couple months at a time about safer sex, about communication, [and] about AIDS. [Then] I would go out at night, and I wasn’t yet a vegan, so I was basically the kind of a vegetarian that existed only on cheese and eggs and pizza. One day I met a vegan through [my] work, and I realized that there was something that I felt didn’t comport with my own view of feminism: [consuming] dairy and egg products even though they are based in the exploitation of female reproductive bodies. So at that point, I went vegan and incorporated animal rights activism into my other activism.
Global Voices: That’s very fascinating. Your spark, the moment when you realized that the oppression of female bodies also applies to nonhuman animals, was predominantly through your work with AIDS activism and what you were eating. What else impacted you?
Singer: Well, that was part of it. I also met a vegan, as we do, and she showed me a documentary about factory farming. I was a long-time vegetarian by then [and] was very passionate about LGBTQ issues. I started to realize that the mindset of the oppressor is very similar no matter what group you’re marginalizing, what group you’re oppressing. So I think that it all came together at that time.
Global Voices: Sure. In terms of that realization, you’ve explained in the past that over your course of developing as a vegan, and as an activist, that you learned what it means to be truly full. What does that mean for you?
Singer: I think it’s an ongoing journey of constantly committing to lifelong learning and having the humility to question assumptions without that kind of “gotcha” effect that a lot of people have toward others. Like “I’m gonna wait for you to mess up and then catch you on it.” If there’s actual humility brought into the work that we do as activists and as changemakers, then we learn to listen a little bit more effectively. So, I think that that’s something that really drives me and really keeps me in check and [that] keeps the point of what I’m doing not centered around myself, but [instead] centered around whatever marginalized community I happen to be advocating for at that moment.
Global Voices: Certainly. Relating to your advocacy, your mission statement from your nonprofit, Our Hen House, states that the reason for veganism shouldn’t be just to eat more compassionately, but also to embrace the future and look forward to another chapter in our humanity. What do you foresee as an optimistic outlook for humanity’s next chapter?
Singer: I think an optimistic outlook for the world is to have an outlook for the world, because we don’t have much of a choice. Aside from animal rights issues, the environmental ramifications of factory farming are going to certainly wreak havoc even more so than it already has if we don’t change the way we’re eating. As a social justice activist, part of changing the way I’m eating and my outlook on veganism as a whole is not just what we’re consuming in terms of food, but how we’re also bring that same mentality and worldview to how we’re treating others. So I guess my optimistic outlook goes back to [what I think] is a Samuel Adams quote: “It does not take a majority to prevail, rather an irate, tireless minority keen on setting a brushfire in people’s minds.” I think that we have that irate, tireless minority and I think that, there’s some kind of nice synergy going on between animal rights activists, who are starting to realize that compassion doesn’t begin and end with non-human animals but also other social justice warriors who are starting to make the connections to the foods that they eat.
Global Voices: That’s a very inspirational answer. You are clearly very active, and your nonprofit also offers 100 different ways that people can get involved in working with your movement. Are there any of those methods that really resonate for you, or is there a past project or moment that impacted you that you can reflect on?
Singer: Well I’m doing it. The point is that everyone needs to bring their skills and their talents and their interests to their activism, and their activism needs to be centered around their skills and their interests and their talents. I like to make media, so I wound up not only co-founding Our Hen House, but also heading up editorial at VegNews magazine. But for somebody else, [activism] might be academia, and it might be getting classrooms to cover animal rights issues or other intersectional issues. For me, it’s definitely media making, and I also strongly believe in the power of personal narrative, hence having a memoir. And I think that the animal rights movement has really underutilized memoir and personal narrative as a means to creating social change, and I hope that more and more people continue to find their voice and share their story because that, I think, is how we will move forward.
Global Voices: Definitely. On the subject of your memoir and a TED Talk you gave, you talked about the role of compassion, both for oneself and for other people, but you also brought up the idea of authentic identity being something grounding for developing compassion. Can you talk more about that?
Singer: I realized kind of the hard way that we can’t actually fully embrace our activist self unless first we’re practicing both self care and collective care. Collective care is something that is a term that I first heard [from] Patrisse Cullors, who’s one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Collective care is “How can we create safe spaces and foster safe spaces?” So that’s something that was missing for me personally for a long time when I was like working 24/7 for the animals to the point where I was neglecting my own animal rights. Once we let go of allowing ourselves to be so removed from our own bodily integrity, as we fight for the bodily integrity of others, then we can actually more effectively create change. I also think that we need to support each other so that we’re not in this by ourselves, and I guess that’s where self-compassion comes in. To me, it is the key to embracing our identity.
Global Voices: I guess the journey toward embracing our own identity is definitely a rocky one for everyone, but were there any unexpected hurdles or obstacles that you faced in that journey that you can share a little bit about, in terms of overcoming them?
Singer: I was a bullied kid when I was growing up, and I think that ultimately, even though I wish it hadn’t happened, it wound up being the most important factor of my adult activism. But I [also] wound up losing a lot of weight in my early 30s, and the world started treating me very differently at that point in time. What wound up happening is that I started to realize I had jumped the fence from being someone who the world had so arbitrarily disregarded to [being] someone that the world was accepting and even sometimes celebrating. I think that was a really difficult moment for me, and that’s a big subject in my book because it made me really question the authenticity of others. Ultimately, hearkening back to your other question, that made me realize that the opinions and perception of others [are] ultimately pretty unimportant in terms of how my perception of myself should inform the way I show up in the world.
Global Voices: If someone reading this interview has had a similar revelation about their identity, would you have any words for them, or recommendations for what they can do to realize their own identity?
Singer: Yeah, I mean that’s a gigantic, huge, enormous question. But I think that one thing that I find very empowering is to realize that in this world, where I don’t have a whole lot of control over a lot of things, I have control over what I’m consuming. I would say, for me, the process of embracing my identity ultimately started with questioning where my money was going and what I was supporting, and if it was in alignment with my ethical beliefs. Once that more or less fell into alignment, I started to question whether I was addressing boundaries with myself [and whether] I was taking care of myself. And I wasn’t. And I think a lot of activists don’t. I think a lot of students don’t. I think a lot of service providers and caregivers don’t. We cannot, absolutely cannot, access the road to our personal identity and authenticity unless we are actively and radically practicing self care. It has to start with just the very basics. It can be really easy to just not get enough sleep because we have so much to do. But it needs to start with those very basic forms of self-care; otherwise, we will not be able to be activists for anybody else.
Global Voices: Yes, I think that’s a wonderful message for anyone to take away. Is there anything else to you that you would like to communicate to our audience today?
Singer: I strongly believe in the power of creative expression, and I think that it not only helps with ultimately being better activists and allies, but I think that it is a really great way of taking care of these instinctual urges that we often have as kids and we get too busy [to act on later]. Everyone should have some kind of a creative outlet and, within the scope of the creative outlet, a safe space. A lot of people under 25 wouldn’t necessarily have a choice in the matter of where they’re living. Certainly, teenagers wouldn’t have much of a choice. I think that we still can find groundedness through creative expression and through making sure that we are seeking out those safe spaces in whatever form we can. So I guess, that’s something that I wish I had realized earlier on.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This program was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Performing Arts and Lecture Series, the University of Chicago Student Government, and the University of Chicago Animal Welfare Society.