Unny’s next steps in animal advocacy

I recorded a podcast about my next steps in animal advocacy, and below is the transcript.

Unny: Hi! My name is Unny Nambudiripad, and I’m here to talk about my next steps in animal advocacy. I am here with Julie Knopp. Julie, do you want to say a few things about yourself?

Julie: First of all, Unny, I’m really excited to be a part of this conversation. Over the past year or so, Unny and I have had a number of conversations about how our advocacy might change and develop in the coming years, and a lot of interesting ideas and thoughts have come out of that. I’m excited to continue the conversation. As for me, I am a teacher in a Spanish immersion school during the day, and outside of that I run a small nonprofit focused on building trust between the different cultural communities here in the Twin Cities. I am also an animal advocate, and I’m interested in how we can improve our advocacy for animals.

Unny: Thanks so much for talking to me today, Julie. Julie and I are very amateur podcasters, so we made some editing mistakes, and we’re going to jump into this conversation midway through a sentence.

Unny: For most of my life, I have been involved in social justice organizing – more specifically, to try to advocate for animals. That has been the emphasis of my life, whether as a volunteer or as a paid staff person.

Julie: As you’re looking toward the future – I know you’ve spent years in animal advocacy. What of that do you want to bring forward as you look to the next years of your work?

Unny: I’m really happy with a lot of the work that I’ve done. I’ve been doing strong movement building, building strong relationships, recruiting volunteers, being an outspoken advocate, building community, and I want to continue that kind of work. I like the local organizing work that I’ve been involved in. I believe strongly in nonviolence. That has been a guiding principle of my work for the last 20 years, and I expect those values to continue.

Julie: Do you see this to be something you might do full time, as a volunteer, as a grassroots effort? What’s the basic idea that you have in mind?

Unny: I don’t have clarity about that, Julie. I have always said to people that I think it’s really important to do what you believe in regardless of whether you get paid for it. For the past five years, I’ve had a full time job doing animal protection, but I want to do something different now. I don’t know that there’s funding to do what I want to do next, but I want to prioritize it.

Julie: It sounds like there might be some risk involved in this venture.

Unny: Yeah. I think it’s very risky. I need to work to make a living, and I don’t expect to get paid for this. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll likely put a lot less time into it, but it’s so important to do what really holds true to my heart. That’s what makes me go in this direction. And a lot of this, as we’ll see when we talk about this more, is that I don’t have clarity about exactly what this looks like. So it’s really risky, but I think that in order for our movement to make the big changes in society that we want, we have to take big risks. I think the chances of “failure” are high. And by “failure”, I mean that maybe in the next few years the work that I do won’t lead to huge changes in helping animals, but we have to take these risks to have the opportunity to make those big changes.

Julie: And I imagine you’ve been in that situation before in previous efforts that you’ve made to make change for animals.

Unny: Absolutely. I co-founded an organization before. When I did that, there was a lot of uncertainty about what I was doing and where it was going to go, but it felt like the right thing to do and I think that paid off. Devotion to doing what I believed in had a huge impact.

Julie: You mentioned a couple of times that there’s not a lot of clarity at this point about exactly what your work in this movement will look like. In the previous conversations that we’ve had, something that I’ve found very compelling is your focus on intersectionality. I think that’s a very unique and innovative aspect of how you might focus your energy to advocate for animals. I’m wondering if you could talk more about that and why that’s important to you.

Unny: There’s a couple things that come to mind. First of all, in my work in the last several years of building better relationships and learning to communicate more effectively, I’ve learned both to have empathy for other people – to really understand and hear where they’re at so I can effectively engage with them – and also to have empathy for myself and listen very closely to what I’m feeling and what I’m needing and what my beliefs are. Doing this intersectional work in reflecting on my own values and the way I see humans being mistreated in the world, and how we oppress other humans based on race, class, religion, and many other forms – listening to that has told me that I want my work to take that into consideration, and to see my myself as an ally if not directly an advocate for humans as well as animals. I guess I could say humans as well as non-human animals.

Julie: I’m interested in a little bit more about that. Have you heard other animal advocates who are open to that? Is there energy and interest, or do you think that is something that can be cultivated, to make more connections between groups that are marginalized or oppressed?

Unny: Yes and yes. I didn’t invent this idea. I hear other people talking about it, and I see more activity in the animal protection movement talking about racism and sexism. But there’s still a lot of room for growth, and I want to help cultivate that growth and find new ways and figure out how we can do this intersectional work.

Julie: For listeners who are new to this concept, do you have any particular stories that have brought you to care more about race, gender, sexual violence? Some personal story that might help people connect with this broader issue of humans as well as non-human animals, and making that connection?

Unny: At the beginning of 2015 a friend of mine raped his ex-girlfriend. I felt very close to that. I’d seen him a few days before. I was there when he and his ex-girlfriend had met. It was a very violent act and I felt really moved to want to speak out about that. In the aftermath of that I did some organizing against sexual violence, getting speakers to talk to groups of men about sexual violence and its origins, and how we can not be perpetrators. I organized a movie screening of “The Mask You Live In”, about toxic masculinity and the cultivation of violent attitudes in men. That moved me. I thought about the work I want to do, the way I want to show up in my life and the kind of change I want to make in the world – I want to be aware of these other things that I care about deeply.

Julie: Thank you for sharing that. When I hear you talk about the connections between the human issues that you care about and the animal issues you care about, it’s very motivational to me, and hopefully it’s interesting to the listeners too.

Unny: Do you have more to say about that Julie, about why it motivates you?

Julie: I see so many parallels between what we have done and continue to do to humans, and what we have done and continue to do to non-human animals. It’s completely unbelievable to me. The more I’ve read about that issue – books like The Dreaded Comparison, The Sexual Politics of Meat – drawing comparisons between treatment of women, treatment of People of Color, and treatment of animals, it’s been like putting on a different set of glasses for seeing the world. It has really struck me in how deep those comparisons run. It’s been motivating for me to get more involved in advocacy for animals, because it’s very upsetting to see those comparison – especially looking at the course of history, and feeling like we’re maybe further behind with our treatment and way of thinking of animals, even more than our treatment and way of thinking about women and People of Color, arguably.

Julie: One other issue, to change gears a little bit, that I want to address about your thought process at this point: we talked about intersectionality, we talked about your interest in this being focused on nonviolence. You’ve also mentioned interest in focusing on institutions rather than consumer change. I want to hear more about your thoughts on that.

Unny: In the same way about what issues we care about advocating for animals or advocating for humans, there’s also the question of: what’s the focus of power that we’re trying to influence? In my recent past, what I’ve been focusing on is asking consumers to change their diets. By changing the demand on the consumption of animal products as a way to influence how animals are treated, and have fewer animals that are raised and killed for food, and suffering greatly in the production of these animal products. But another way that we have power in the world is our participation in institutions: in governmental institutions, in food service providers, in the laws that they have and the policies they have, and in the foods that they serve. As individuals, as we support these institutions with our money, with our votes and with our voices – if we change those and organize people to use their voices and power to influence these institutions, that might be another way that we can make change in the world. I think that it’s important to say that I do think that there are many different ways that are effective and important, but I want to try something that I haven’t been doing recently, and I think there’s a lot of room for growth in our movement.

Julie: Some of what you’re talking about sounds to me a lot like some of the welfare reform work, where different groups are lobbying for policy change, for factory farming, and other areas that affect a very large number of animals. How is what you’re thinking about different than that work?

Unny: I do think that the work of reforming farming is a powerful way to reduce animal suffering. What I’m trying to look at instead, in terms of advocating for animals, is looking at ways that we’re going to challenge using animals for food: to reduce the consumption of animal products with policy change is not a common way. It is happening, and I’ve done a little bit of that work before, but it is not a very common thing, and I want that to be the focus.

And that reminds me, one of the things that I imagine is powerful here in the way I want to make change, is that I think that our values of caring about animals and not wanting to see them suffer and not wanting to kill them are almost universal. The vast majority of Americans already believe in that. And for a variety of reasons that I’ve learned a lot about over the past several years, many people are slow or reluctant to change their diets. What I’m hoping in this new kind of work is to bring along people who might be slow or reluctant in changing their diets but may be willing to advocate in a different way, and show up and make changes in different ways in their lives, as people who influence institutions like laws and corporations – by this to build more support for animals, even for people who aren’t going to become vegetarian or vegan right now. I think that can be really powerful. To make that happen, I want to step away from the dietary change, so that it’s not implied that if you really care about animals the first thing you’ll do is become vegan, and that you have to become vegan or vegetarian to do anything else. Of course I do think that changing your diet can be important and powerful, and I’m not criticizing that, but I think that we might open the door to more opportunity to get more people involved if we approach things in a different way. Does that make sense, Julie?

Julie: Yes. I agree 100%. I think dietary issues are often red tape for people to get involved in animal advocacy. They may feel like they can’t do more, or they can’t be more involved, unless they’re vegetarian or vegan. I think it damages the movement and holds it back from more change that could happen, if everyone felt like they were on equal footing as an advocate.

One thing I’m wondering if you could provide a more specific example of what institutional change might look like. I know at this point there isn’t a lot of clarity, but just for the sake of imagination, so this is a bit less abstract, what do you mean specifically when you talk about institutional changes?

Unny: It could look something like working on a meatless Monday campaign at a hospital, for example, to try to get them to do a meatless day at a hospital. This could have big impact on animals if you have a big hospital that serves a lot of meals. But this kind of work doesn’t require that anyone become vegetarian or vegan. To try to influence that hospital, what we might look at is: who are the people who make the decisions? the people in charge of the food service and people above them? And what might influence them? It might be cost savings, or it might be the health of the people in the hospital. And then, trying to provide evidence and influence from patients and staff, and trying to get them to ask the hospital to make that change.

Julie: Like you, I value the consumer change efforts. It is also so motivational for me to know that if I work successful toward a meatless Monday campaign for a hospital, I can have more impact for animals than during my whole life as a vegan, arguably. And that is something that also can be inviting to people on all parts of the spectrum involved of animal advocacy: how much impact something like this can have, regardless of what you do in your personal life as far as your dietary decision and your clothing choices.

Unny: To jump around a little bit: I bring up this Meatless Monday thing. One of the things I’ve done in the past that I want to continue is to focus on farm animals. Farm animals are by far the animals that are exploited in the greatest numbers. A lot of the ways animals are treated there is really quite terrible. I would like to continue that work, to be a farm animal advocate. I care about all animals, whether they’re used in entertainment, or whether they’re companion animals, or animals used in experimentation. But farm animals is the biggest opportunity to create change.

Julie: Could you talk a little more about what initially inspired you to work for farm animals?

Unny: We just asked ourselves, how are we going to reduce suffering the greatest amount? Many years ago, in my early years of animal advocacy, we saw that that’s the biggest impact we can have. If we can make even a small impact in the number of farm animals used, we would have a relatively speaking large impact in animal exploitation. Does that make sense?

Julie: Absolutely. To move on: this is a broad question, but I’m wondering if there have been any organizations or experiences in your life in recent years that have introduced things to you that you’d like to bring into this movement that would be part of the innovative nature of the advocacy and activism that you plan to do.

Unny: There have been a lot of different things. What I will start with is nonviolent communication. I talked about nonviolence briefly before. To quickly summarize the concept of nonviolence, what I see it as is treating everyone with respect, having humility in the work that we do, and being open and honest. Treating people with respect includes both the institutions and the people involved in abusing and exploiting animals when we’re doing outreach, and our activists. Humility, also: what that means is, we approach what we’re doing as a dialogue and not as a lecture. We want to engage with people and see opportunities to learn from each other, and to understand more about where people are coming from when we show up as advocates. So nonviolent communication is the more narrow interpersonal aspect of this. How do you communicate one on one with a person who embodies these values? I’ve been studying nonviolent communication for several years, and I want to see that philosophy and value system integrated into the work that I do. It’s something that I want to explore more.

Julie: I think there is such an important place for that. Before I was involved in any animal advocacy, I did my own research and was a vegan on my own, and I was often afraid of connecting with other people who shared my values because of this stereotype that there are a lot of angry animal advocates. I think that keeps a lot of people away, and it keeps a lot of people from doing more for animals. Whether or not that’s true, I think that idea holds people back – at least it did for me. It was not true. One of the things that was helpful for me in breaking that idea down, is meeting someone like you who approaches his activism with such an awareness of people and people’s needs, and has an ability to connect compassionately with other people around issues that relate to animals. That ends up having a big impact for animals – by creating this inviting atmosphere and connecting with people in a way that is nonviolent and a way that addresses everyone’s needs.

Unny: I do want to say here that this has been a struggle for me and I don’t want to imply that I’m coming from some perfectly enlightened standpoint, and that I have always in every way acted in accordance with these values. I see it as a goal to move toward, or a value system to align myself with. It’s a huge challenge, and the more I become aware of what it means to really embody nonviolence in my life and in my communication, the more I see how hard that is to do. But it’s been worthwhile, and it’s helped me become both more aligned with my values and a more effective advocate when I’ve done my best to use nonviolent communication.

Julie: So you’re not perfect. (laugh) One of the questions I was most interested in asking leading up to this conversation is: what needs to happen for your vision to become more of a reality? What needs to happen for this work to be successful, and what would success look like for you as you continue in your advocacy?

Unny: I’ve talked about some of the elements that I want to continue: nonviolence, local organizing – we can talk about that a little bit more, and advocating for farm animals. The ultimate measure of our work is going to be how many animals we help. When you’re starting out small – and I feel like the animal advocacy movement is small, and I don’t mean that in a bad way – it can be a difficult thing to measure. Well, it can probably be a difficult thing to measure even if it’s big! But that’s the question that we want to look at: how many animals are we really helping out? If we’re successful, it will seem as if we’ll have some sort of measure that we’re helping a lot of animals. That’s one aspect of it. To some degree, you have to live according to your values and let go of what the outcomes are going to be. What it also looks like is a powerful movement that has a strong voice that is heard and is starting a discussion, that we have a lot of activists that care about this and are advocating and are out in the world and speaking out for animals. I think those are the two things that come to mind. With that latter one, part of what we want to see in a strong movement, is we want to see activists who are speaking out, engaging with their friends, family and coworkers, they’re out in public – but they’re also growing and learning themselves and finding their own voice and power so that they can continue to grow the movement. Again, how many animals we help is one measure, but the other is movement capacity. What I want to see is activists that identify themselves as advocates, and they want to learn how to be more powerful and more effective advocates. Does that make sense?

Julie: That makes sense.

Unny: We’re hitting on something that is another thing I want to continue, which is the local organizing aspect of things. I think what makes a really powerful movement, if we look at movements in the past, is passionate advocates, volunteer leaders engaging with lots of people to make change. Not simply just a few intelligent people who have smart things to say – that’s not what creates a powerful movement. All these institutions – the only way, whether it’s through money, consumer choices, votes, however people support them – all the institutions require the acquiescence and cooperation of lots of people. If we want to make really powerful change, if we change the behavior and beliefs of a lot of people we can influence these institutions. In the past, that’s been: we thought if we can get in Minnesota 100,000 people to make significant changes in their diets, then that would have a big influence on the number of animals killed for food. Now, in the future, what I’m looking at is if we can get 100,000 people voting differently, demanding change from corporations, and otherwise being powerful voices to these institutions then we can have a big change.

Julie: I hear you saying that grassroots organizing can be very powerful. I’m wondering, what’s the recipe for creating that kind of energy on the ground, or creating that kind of community base?

Unny: Some of the elements are straightforward, and some are difficult to quantify. One aspect of it is building communities of people who know each other, and who have strong relationships with each other. These are communities of activists and advocates who help cultivate each other. It involves having organizational structures that allow people to develop leadership and lead other people, and give people an opportunity to have voices. And from that leadership, a real devotion to helping individual activists grow. There’s a lot of infrastructure that goes in place in organizations with technology, with communication, with social media, and with databases, to help facilitate that.

Julie: One thing that strikes me as particularly exciting about this discussion, as somebody who’s been involved in startups before, is the impact that even one individual or a small group can have on the development of the ideas, on how the work evolves over the next few months and years. I’m wondering if you can speak to that a little bit, in relationship to what listeners could do to get involved, or what listeners could do to have an impact on how this work develops?

Unny: Most important is that every listener out there is an advocate or a potential advocate. You can find your own voice. To the degree that you find what we’re talking about inspiring or it makes sense, then you can find your own way to be an advocate, to connect with others. But more directly in my work, there’s a lot that’s abstract. I don’t have an organization. I don’t have an institution I’m saying I’m going to influence. I don’t have anything in terms of infrastructure, so I would love to get feedback about what you think that I should be doing: what campaigns, what an organization would look like, how to participate. I’m saying this as if I’m going to start an organization, but right now everything is up in the air. There’s plenty of uncertainty. I would love in general to hear your feedback and thoughts about how you’d like to see me make change.

Julie: Am I correct in thinking that feedback could be anything from an activist resource, to an institution that might be interested, to other organizations that might want to partner on something like this? What kind of specifics might someone offer?

Unny: All of those things. Also, maybe the way I’ve talked about some of the strategy – maybe there’s things that you look at and think: that kind of makes sense, but it would make a little more sense if you took it in “this” direction. Or maybe it’s an experience you’ve had about how you’ve been able to make change, or how you’ve been frustrated in making change in the world, and that’s something that might inform me in my work. Maybe if you know me personally and there’s some things you see that I’m doing right that I should continue to emphasize that I’m unaware of, then please let me know about that. Am I answering the question?

Julie: Absolutely. What I took from that is that feedback could be as simple as a personal response.

Unny: Thanks so much Julie. We’ll wrap up this conversation. A few parting words: 19 years ago I decided I would devote my life to animal advocacy. That was a really hard thing at the time because I was relatively new to the movement, so I didn’t know where it would go. And now these 19 years have passed and I feel just great that I made that commitment. It’s been incredibly fulfilling, and I hope that you’ll join me because this has been so meaningful to me, and to anyone who has done this kind of work. I feel that I can use my time and look back without regrets. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in not being a very effective advocate sometimes, but I feel really good that I was doing my very best to live according to my values, and that’s so profound.

Julie: Thanks for sharing, Unny. For me, it’s been very exciting and inspirational to hear about your ideas today. I know that after almost 20 years in animal advocacy, there are certainly a lot of lessons you must have taken away from that. I’m eager to see how that informs the movement that you’re starting in this next phase of your life. I want to thank all the listeners for taking the time to listen to this conversation today. I want to invite everyone to give us your feedback. You can do that by commenting on the blog post, you can do that by emailing Unny at unnypn@gmail.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

Unny: Thanks!

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