Kim Stallwood and Shelly

Kim Stallwood has been an activist for four decades, and his campaign experience includes working with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (which has since been renamed Cruelty Free International), Compassion in World Farming, PETA, and the RSPCA. He is also the author of Growl: Life Lessons, Hard Truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate, which is both a memoir on Kim’s work as an animal activist and his thoughts on how we can reshape animal advocacy. He has long advocated for making the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue. I find his advice to be among the soundest in the movement, and I am very pleased to share this interview, in which Kim discusses such topics as the importance of lobbying elected officials on animal issues, building community within the movement, and the activist tactics he thinks are a big waste of time.

If someone were to come to you and say, “I’ve recently become vegan, and I’d like to know how I can do more for animals,” what advice would you give them on where to begin?

In your scenario, they’ve already begun. If they have become vegan, they have begun. In fact, they’ve more than begun; they have gone quite a ways down the road. Given the high rates of recidivism amongst vegans, I think maybe the best advice to give someone who is a new vegan is to think about being vegan in the long run and be aware that it’s a journey, not a destination, and that there are times when you’re going to fuck it up, and that when you do fuck it up, you should not beat yourself up over it. I used to think that guilt was a great motivator for being vegan, and I would quite happily project my guilt onto other people in order to make them, hopefully, become vegan. But I really don’t thing that’s advisable anymore.

If they’ve just become vegan, I would say that they should be mindful that being vegan is difficult, be prepared that mistakes will happen, and just do the best you can and don’t let others criticize your efforts to be vegan.

Thereafter, I would say that people need to find what they’re best at doing and where they can make a unique difference. It’s important to not feel isolated, to feel that you’ve got people with like minds, even though you may disagree on some detail, but to generally know that you’re with a like-minded group of people who are mutually supportive and can help you.

How can you best build that community? How do you not feel isolated?

The way to build a community is through trial and error. Find the people who you’re comfortable working with, collaborate, build relationships, be supportive, socialize with them—but keep some distance; don’t be intimate.

Why not be intimate?

I think you can take it too far, where you become too dependent upon other people. We all have relationships, but in the context of activists, I think you should always be mindful of not becoming too dependent, because people let other people down. People aren’t always there, though many are, thankfully. But not everyone is.

What advice do you have for activists who would like to lobby their elected officials?

Lobbying isn’t for everyone. Yes, by all means, people should lobby their elected representatives, whether it’s national, regional, or state. They should generally identify the political parties with the greatest commitments to helping animals, identify the candidates at the time of an election with the greatest commitment to animals. They should go to public meetings and other opportunities to quiz candidates at the time of an election. They should develop a platform of issues to lobby with and talk about at the time of an election. And whoever gets elected, we should hold them to account for whatever pledges they made to help ensure they implement them during the period of time they serve as a publicly elected representative. If they fail to do it, you come back to the next election and make the point that they promised to do XYZ, and they never did it.

There’s another layer of activity on top of that, which is if someone feels predisposed toward a political party, I would encourage them to join that party and work from within to raise the topic of animals as an issue of debate in order to inform other members of the party and develop positions and policies within the party. I think the ideal that we need to strive towards is when we have a national election, the political party with the greatest commitment to animals is elected to form the government so that when that party forms the government, they come ready-made, as it were, with the best pledges and promises to act in that elected cycle. The most effective way to do that is to work from within the political party. Quietly but firmly assert animal issues and build them into your general political ideology within that party. If you just go in and talk about animals and nothing else, you won’t be taken very seriously. But if you go in and talk about animal issues in relation to broader social justice and the environment and public health and so on, then the other people in the party will be more open to taking that position onboard. It’s a long process. It’s a process that other interest groups do, but the animal movement just doesn’t do it well, if at all.

How do you feel about advocates forming political parties?

I don’t speak against people forming political parties for animals, but I don’t agree with it as a strategy. There are several problems with it, in my mind. One is that it further frames the animal issue as a fringe, separate issue, whereas what I think we need to do is frame the animal issue within the democratic or republican ideologies—or labor or conservative or whatever—so that it’s seen as an integral part of that party’s belief system.

Are there any models of activism you consider to be a waste of time?

I think that actions which don’t directly focus on animal cruelty and use people-shaming in some way or make people feel guilty in some way are not the best forms of activism. I think those sorts of things are good examples of what activists feel, psychologically, they’ve got to do because no one else will do it. “Someone’s got to tell the people what’s going on and make them feel guilty.” They think guilt might change their behavior. You can identify 10, 20, 30 years ago the same types of people doing this. Where are they now?

I think one thing that’s important to tease out here is longevity—how are you [as an activist] going to stay with this? Because most people give it up. We know from animal rights conferences that there is an endless turnover of new, fresh faces who have to go through the drama and emotion of going to their first conference and the second, and then by the third they see the pattern of it and they don’t come back. How do you—how do I—keep doing it? Well, I keep doing it because I don’t want to do anything else. It gives purpose to my life. What would I be doing otherwise? I really don’t know. Which isn’t to say I don’t have interests outside of animal rights, because I do. But I think if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing some other form of social justice.

One of the nice things about Facebook is that you reconnect to people who you knew decades ago and you’ve lost touch with them, and they’re still doing it! [Laughs] I may think, “Oh, I didn’t like them because of such-and-such or we had a disagreement over so-and-so or I don’t like the point they are making now,” but I still feel a warmth towards them because I’m just so thrilled to see they are still doing it—they are still doing stuff to help animals.

Any final thoughts on animal activism or effective strategies?

What this movement needs more than just activist bodies doing protests—however important that is—is qualified, trained professionals who can use their education and their position in society to advance animal issues. We can all be activists, but we can’t all be doctors or lawyers or people who get elected to public office. Those specialties are really what the movement needs. I would never say to someone, “If you have the capacity to become a medical doctor, that’s what you should do, because you can use your medical degree to help animals,” if they don’t care about treating people. They’ve got to want to do it anyway, but also do it realizing that they can also help animals.

For more insights from Kim Stallwood, I highly recommend his book Growl: Life Lessons, Hard truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate, published by Lantern Books.

You will find more information about lobbying for animals and other activist strategies in the new, expanded edition of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, to be published in November.

 

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