I believe that everyone can be an activist. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can. In this speech from VegFest, I share my own journey to becoming a digital vegan animal activist, including my struggles and fears, and the lessons I learned along the way.
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I truly believe that everyone can be an activist. Trust me, if i can do it, anyone can! I recently had the privilege of speaking at VegFest in Orlando, Florida, on effective digital activism through the medium of video. By popular demand, I’m sharing the speech with you today in an unconventionally large vegan nugget (a little more than bite size). I’m going to post the transcript of the speech in this blog post (minus the inserted video cutaways), for those who would like to read instead of watch or follow along with the video. I hope that my story can help spark your journey towards your own form of activism:
Hi my name is Emily Moran Barwick and I’m the creator of Bite Size Vegan, a video-based educational resource for vegan information of all kinds centered around a YouTube channel and accompanying website. Today I’m going to share with you a little about the development of Bite Size Vegan and my journey to becoming a digital activist, as well as speak to the effectiveness of video in conveying a message. In this day in age, people connect the most through digital means and social media. We are a visual culture with a waning attention span and it’s important that those working to spread the message of veganism find ways to educate within this paradigm. My hope is that by sharing my experience, perhaps some of you out there will find your voice and take your own action. While I’ll be speaking specifically on vegan activism, I believe my story can speak to anyone who is trying to find their voice and speak for a cause that they are passionate about.
Believe me–if i can do it, anyone can. I am a very unlikely person to be speaking on activism, let alone digital media, which I’ll elaborate on later.
And don’t worry–it’s not going to just be an hour of me standing here and talking at you with my dazzling animated PowerPoint slides. I’ll also be showing some of the Bite Size Vegan videos, which are of me talking interspersed with…PowerPoint slides. You’ll have to forgive me I’m a little awkward up here–while I do speak to thousands of people 2-3 times a week on my YouTube channel it’s through the lens of a camera while I’m safely holed away in my closet studio. Which is literally just my closet.
Before I get into my story, I’m going to start you off with the so-called trailer for my channel. This was not my first video but it will give you a taste of what the channel is about. And just note that this was an early in my experience with technology and video quality reflect that.
So that’s goal of Bite Size Vegan in a nuggetshell–to offer vegan education in an approachable format, mingling hard-hitting facts with sarcasm and humor and condensing intense topics into videos around 5 minutes long. Despite the editing of that video, this was not a concept I just threw together. It took me years to find my voice and it’s something I’m still developing.
I’m going to tell you a bit of my personal journey and it may seem like I’m wandering a bit but I’ll wrap it up nice at the end. From a very young age, I was a bit of an activist. I was not raised vegan but my mother tells me that I started to refuse to eat meat at age 4. She said if I could tell it had been alive, I wouldn’t eat it, a policy I still stand by. I went to nature camp every summer and would come home and paper the walls of my room with pictures of endangered species. I was a member of the Dian Fossey Foundation by age seven and would go door-to-door telling my puzzled neighbors about the tragic plight of mountain gorillas. I was very passionate, very serious, and very bitter. I couldn’t understand how humanity could be so cruel and uncaring. and honesty, I wasn’t too fond of my own species. Needless to say, I was a pretty intense kid.
Really, my frustration and anger came from the fact that I wanted to make a difference but felt so overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world. I felt small and powerless to help the animals. My heart broke for them. Throughout my formative years, I continued to struggle to find my voice. Part of the problem was my perfectionism and my fear: I didn’t want to start a discussion about animal rights or veganism and then not know how to answer someone’s response. My emotions would take hold and I’d freeze or I’d yell or I’d completely back down altogether, always feeling I’d let the animals down.
So I got older, but not taller, and became consumed with school and work and family issues, basically the distractions of life. But I always felt this nagging doubt about how to speak effectively about my beliefs.
One day I saw a video by a vegan activist named Gary Yourofsky and the way he spoke floored me. He was calm, rational and grounded. He stated facts and didn’t become emotionally overcome while still being emotionally invested. He was effective and powerful and it blew my mind. At this point I was in the last year of graduate school for art and in the middle of writing my thesis and installing my show in the gallery.
But the spark of activism within me had been reignited. A couple months before graduation, I stumbled across a video of three vegan activists in Israel being branded with a cattle iron in a public square in Tel Aviv. This was the beginning of the 269 movement. These activists had encountered a calf in a factory farm with the number 269 assigned to him and were staging this event to put a face to the billion of faceless victims of the animal products industry. I was moved by this performance and decided to be a part of it. I saw it as the natural union of my artwork and my desire for activism.
I spent the next 4 months planning the event, scouting locations, reading up on branding human skin, finding people to film and participate. I came up against a lot of roadblocks, including the press getting wind of the event and the resulting public outcry getting me kicked off the property I intended to stage it on despite prior approval. Then the day came and it we had freezing rain. This was in Iowa, by the way. Freezing rain is something that happens there. Regardless of all the hiccups and crises, it finally came together. This was my first foray into video activism.
This was also my first foray into fielding rather negative responses to my activism. The one thing I heard time and again was how extreme the event was. And to me, it didn’t seem extreme at all. Before it even happened, I responded to this criticism in an editorial for the local paper and said (yes, I’m about to quote myself here),
“I find the realities I’m bringing to light to be shocking and extreme; however, my actions are rather banal in comparison. Let’s look at Sunday’s performance piece, for example.
“I will willingly, consciously, and with my full consent be branded with a cattle iron. I will be executing a carefully-planned, well-researched action during which I will experience pain, granted most likely extreme. I will receive medical aftercare for my burn. I will return home safely.
“This voluntary action of mine may seem shocking and extreme to some; however, the reality I’m hoping to shed light on is most certainly both. If we are so outraged, so upset over my voluntary choice to have myself branded, why are we OK with the involuntary enslavement, torture and murder of other animals? How is my act of momentary discomfort more offensive than the daily murder of millions?”
Now this sounded perfectly rational to me and I still stand behind this reasoning. But I wasn’t completely convinced that the branding was going to reach that many non-vegans because, despite my eloquent article, it was easily written off as extreme and brushed aside.
Still, it did bring the issue to the table. It was through this branding performance and Gary Yourofsky’s speech that I started to see the effectiveness of online activism, particularly using video. I just needed to hone my approach.
Something that Gary had said stuck with me: vegans talking to vegans about why you should be vegan wasn’t creating any change. And I wanted change. I tried to think of all of the things that limit someone from learning about veganism. One thing I personally found challenging when trying to learn about new topics was the amount of information out there compared to the time I had in my day. Most of us barely have a moment to spare these days, let alone pour over pages of research, texts, and endless Google searches. I wanted to take the complex topics surrounding veganism and somehow offer then in a condensed and engaging format. And the Bite Size Vegan nugget concept was born.
Another issue I found that potentially limited non-vegans from learning more about veganism was…vegans. I’m sorry, but some of us can be a bit off-putting at times. I know because my whole childhood, adolescents, and a good portion of my adulthood, I was (and sometimes still am) that person. Knowing the truth about what animals go through can be so infuriating and heartbreaking that you lose it a little when confronted with someone who is blind to it all. But I found that aggression, exclusion, and elitism were not effective teaching tools. I was determined to make Bite Size egan relatable and approachable and even poke fun at the vegan stereotype.
That kind of brings up another point. There is this idea that to be vegan you have to be liberal, or upper middle class, or a hippy, or any of the myriad of stereotypes out there. So another goal became to show veganism as an non-exclusive lifestyle available to everyone. Because it is. There is not official membership initiation ritual. another early video of mine addressed this issue. and once again, get ready for awesome video quality. more on that in a second.
Before I played this video, I made another disparaging remark about the video quality. And this is actually a huge part of my story–I am not a tech-savvy person. In fact, I’m tech-phobic. I basically harassed the poor gentleman who set all the tech stuff up for the speaking engagement by calling several times to make sure things were going to work and my computer would play the videos. Technology scares me and it always wins. I finally got a smartphone recently and begrudgingly started a Twitter and Instagram account for Bite Size Vegan, terrified the whole time. But here is the takeaway: to be effective in activism, I knew that I had to use whatever platform would reach the most people. And the Internet was that platform. So despite my fear and my crippling perfectionism, which still leads me to do things like preface my videos with a disclaimer about their low quality, I jumped in with both feet. I started making videos before I knew what I was doing. The important part was, I took action. And I don’t say that to show how fantastically awesome I was because honestly, I stumbled a lot and continue to this day. I say this to emphasize that you don’t have to wait to be perfect and polished before taking action.
Even with my rough start and total lack of tech skills, I started getting responses, which kept me going and trying to improve. In the early days, I was making a video a month because it took me about that long to produce a 2-5 minute video. My impact was very small, but I was hooked. I was always working on my next video and constantly working out the content in my head.
I started addressing more difficult topics like the real meaning of the humane, free-range, and cage free labels, the true environmental cost of animal products and their affect on world hunger, and the moral and philosophical foundation behind veganism. Honestly, I was rather terrified about taking on some of these topics as I could already hear the rebuttal arguments. I obsessed over how to hit every point of contention someone could possibly find.
Today I know that there will always be something that someone somewhere can find that’s wrong or missing from my video. But that’s actually a good thing because it helps me grow and change how I phrase things and how I present information. Going back to vegans talking to vegans about being vegan–if I was only speaking to people who smiled and nodded the whole time, then what was changing? So I welcome criticism and feedback because starting a dialogue is what this is all about.
One piece of feedback I received was regarding my use of graphic undercover footage in my videos. And this was something I myself had gone back and forth on. While I worried that people would simply refuse to watch the rest of the video once seeing the footage, I also felt that the animals deserved to have their story told. The atrocities that happen to the animals of our food, fashion and medical industries always happen behind closed doors. We don’t want to see where our food or other products come from. We hide that reality away. Undercover footage is a chance for those who have suffered and died in silence to have their voices heard. And for that reason I do use graphic footage. However, I have adapted my usage over time. This video is my answer to the question of whether wool is vegan. Now it does contain disturbing footage, but there is ample warning for those who want to look away. Nothing will jump out at you, I promise.
That video brings up the second arm of my activism: as Bite Size Vegan grew, I found hat a lot of my viewers were, in fact vegans. And surprisingly, they told me they were learning from my videos. This video on whether wool is vegan and especially my video on whether honey is vegan (spoiler it is not) resulted in message after message of current vegans saying they had no idea the realities of the wool and honey industries. So while vegans talking to vegans about being vegan may not get anywhere, vegans talking to vegans about the deeper aspects of veganism, just may.
Furthermore, I got feedback from current vegans that my videos were giving them the words speak their own beliefs. These messages in particular were very touching to me because suddenly I was on the receiving end of my own story–hearing from vegans with passionate beliefs but no idea how to voice them. So, while vegans talking to vegans about being vegan doesn’t really go very far, vegans talking to vegans about how to better speak about veganism to non-vegans can work wonders. That’s the last time I’ll do that, I promise. So Bite Size Vegan has a but of a dual purpose. To veganize the non-vegan and to arm current vegans with the tools they need to further veganize both themselves and others.
A large part of this journey has been finding balance. Balance with speaking to vegans and non- vegans. Balance in using graphic footage. And, the most interesting to navigate, balance with humor and hard-hitting truth. While I usually try to have a mixture of both in each video, sometimes I swing more fully to one side, like in this video. (Just a warning there is is a curse word in the title, though it’s not pronounced and there are hints to adult subject matter).
Sometimes using humor about such serious subject matter as animal rights may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found humor to be such an effective tool for education. Humor is engaging and disarming and gives everyone a bit of room to breathe while confronted with intense content. So even in my serious videos, I almost always include a little humor. But never at the expense of the message itself. I don’t pull my punches because I know I’ve never learned anything through half-truths.
This policy has brought me some controversy. One of the first videos to bring in the most heated debate was when I took on the concept of eating animals as a personal choice. this video also contains some disturbing footage but there is a warning.
With all of this suffering in the world, It’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel powerless. I often feel I’m right back to my five-year-old self, crying in my room because it all felt so hopeless. But I know that through this journey to activism, I’ve changed immensely and I’ve seen others change as well. And I have to hold onto that and remember that even the smallest change makes a difference and even one life saved is a victory.
So I’ll leave you with this: You can make a difference. The fight is long and it is hard but change is possible. As long as those of us who have a voice speak for those who do not. We don’t have to be perfect and polished and poised. We just have to open our mouths and speak our truths.
I hope you enjoyed the talk and thanks for bearing with me through my imperfections. As I said, I honestly and truly believe that you can make a difference. The more voices we have speaking for the animals, the more powerful our impact can be. Each one of us can offer something that no one else can–and the more varied our message is, the greater chance we have of reaching people from all walks of life.
To keep this message going and enliven other potential activists, please share this video around. And to support messages like this, see the support page. Through your help, I can continue to spread the vegan message through video activism.
Now go live vegan, get active, and change the world!
— Emily Moran Barwick