Aryenish Birdie is founder and executive director of Encompass. Prior to Encompass, Birdie was a federal lobbyist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She was part of a four-woman team instrumental in reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act to ensure that animal protection language was integrated into the law. Birdie completed her Master’s degree in Public Management from Johns Hopkins University.
ACE: Can you tell us about the thought process behind your decision to start Encompass?
Aryenish Birdie: There are two core reasons I decided to found Encompass: (1) It’s the right thing to do and (2) It’s the smart thing to do.
During my 20 years in the animal protection movement I’ve noticed that I’m often one of few people of color in the room when animal issues are discussed. And while I’m proud to be part of a movement whose victories regularly roll in, this lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion will limit our success.
People of color make up 38% of the U.S. population, but less than 11% of staff and a mere 8% of leaders at the top 20 U.S. farmed animal protection organizations, according to an informal analysis I conducted earlier this year. This has led our cause to be labeled as a primarily “white movement,” one that many people of color find difficult to join. This problem will only intensify, as the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2044 people of color will be the majority of the U.S. population. It begs the question: can we change a country if we don’t reflect the demographics of the people we are trying to influence?
I created Encompass because I want to fill a void in the professional/mainstream farmed animal protection movement aka the “vegan movement” (we are focusing exclusively on working with established organizations and advocates who work/volunteer for them). I want to strengthen our movement by making it more accessible and positioning equity and inclusion as cornerstone principles. Diverse, equitable, and inclusive groups are more creative, insightful, and productive than homogenous ones. They enjoy lower rates of burnout and stronger feelings of belonging and engagement. And diverse groups better reflect our evolving world—which means they are more adaptable, resilient, and successful.
If we fold these principles into the foundation of our movement we will grow more quickly—and in the process, expand both our leadership and our rank-and-file base. This will enable us to: (1) Reach a larger portion of the population, thereby creating more vegans, vegetarians, and meat reducers, (2) Attract top talent to work for us, (3) Recruit more volunteers, (4) Expand our donor pool, and (5) Help us more effectively conduct the work we already do by way of individual and institutional outreach, corporate campaigning, policy change, and more.
You have experience working for a large animal protection group and have now started your own organization. What are some of the most significant differences between these two experiences?
Before founding Encompass I spent over seven years at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). I promoted human-relevant alternatives to the use of animals in toxicity tests for chemicals, cosmetics, pesticides, and other products through outreach to Members of Congress and their staff, Fortune 500 companies, federal agencies, and other stakeholders.
As a lobbyist, I was part of a four-woman team instrumental in reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act to ensure that animal protection language was integrated into the law. I was honored to be invited by the White House to watch President Obama sign the bill into law, marking one of the highlights of my career.
While the nature of my work now is of course very different from what I was doing at PCRM, one of the biggest differences between these experiences is the current lack of collaboration. I am the only full-time staff member of Encompass, so I can’t rely on a big team to think through challenges. However, it’s nice to have less bureaucracy and more flexibility.
The solution to this challenge has been forming an Advisory Council. I’m so proud to have an amazing team of thought leaders who care deeply about this issue. We have representation from the clean meat/plant-based venture capital space, executive directors, grassroots directors, campaigners, media experts, academics, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and more. I’m grateful for their continued support of this mission—without them, Encompass would not be where it is today.
Another difference is that I now work to bolster the movement as a whole rather than securing individual victories for animals. Similar to ACE, I see Encompass as a meta-charity working to make the animal protection movement more effective.
What kind of definition of diversity and inclusion do you think is a productive one?
There’s a great quote from Vernā Myers on our website. She says, “[d]iversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I think that’s the perfect metaphor in one sentence. Diversity is what you have and inclusion is what you do. Inclusion is the deliberate act of welcoming and fostering diversity and creating an environment where all different types of people can participate, thrive, and succeed. I would say that’s really what I’m more interested in.
Diversity is becoming more of an antiquated term. We use it because a lot of people have an idea of what that means—but it can mean more than just racial diversity. And in the race context, it often means just having more people of color in the room but without setting an intention to value their ideas and desires. Equity in the workplace is when everyone receives fair treatment; when everyone has equal access to opportunities. So, inclusion and equity are really the terms I prefer.
Some people question the claim that we should spend time or resources promoting racial/gender equity in the animal advocacy movement. Can you lend some clarity to the question of why doing this is important?
A more diverse, equitable, and inclusive movement is a more effective and just movement.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are ideas that breed innovation and success. As senior vice dean at Columbia Business School writes in Scientific American, “Diversity makes us smarter.” This is because interacting with people who are different from us helps us to learn new perspectives and helps us prepare more effectively and perform at our highest level. It’s essential for one of the most important social movements of our time to operate at peak efficiency.
In addition, in a mostly white movement, many people of color feel they do not belong. This often compels them to do one of the following things: (1) Not join our cause, (2) Put important parts of their identities on hold when they advocate for animals, and/or (3) Leave the movement because they don’t feel heard or because they feel there are insufficient opportunities for advancement. This is unfair to those individuals and to the animals, because it means we are not allowing these advocates to realize their full potential, and it holds organizations back.
Most advocates need more than the knowledge that they are helping animals; they need to feel like they belong. An emerging body of workplace studies shows that “[t]he need to belong is often overlooked in the workplace. We don’t do enough to facilitate connection […] The impact of failing to create a sense of belonging with our employees not only affects how much they enjoy their work; it has a significant effect on their ability to be productive.”
Race is a core component of most people of color’s identities. As animal advocates—and as a movement—if we want to meet people where they are, we must acknowledge this. For example, our outreach materials need to go beyond simply showing people of color on the cover of a leaflet or on the homepage of a website—the content needs to address the unique cultural aspects of different communities of color, and it should be developed by people who have faced corresponding challenges.
How has Encompass been received by the animal advocacy movement? Have you found that animal advocates are receptive to efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the movement? If not, do you anticipate that this will change?
I’ve experienced an overwhelmingly positive response to our launch. To be honest, I was nervous before we went live because race and farmed animal advocacy are two of the most charged issues in our country. But the level of enthusiasm I’ve seen is beyond heartening.
I’ve already had initial conversations with several farmed animal advocacy organizations and many more have reached out looking for support and assistance. This work will be slow and difficult at times, but it’s necessary if we want to be inclusive, and I hope this commitment and enthusiasm persists as we get into the work of building more equitable organizations.
In working with people on inclusiveness and equity, how have your interactions been so far?
I launched less than three months ago, so I’ve had very initial conversations with three organizations and have three more lined up. Thus far they have all been very positive. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to really dig in, because we are new and I’m still developing these programs. But as I mentioned, the reception to Encompass’ launch has been really high—I am finding myself having to temper people’s expectations to make them understand that this is not going to be a thing where we work on this for one or two years and then it is solved. This is long, slow, culture-change work that will be ongoing.
Right—and everyone’s got to buy in. Do you think people are aware of the issues around things like tokenization?
The buy-in is there but I think people don’t yet know what it fully entails—that’s probably one of the bigger challenges, which makes sense. We all want to be “good” on these issues and that’s one of the reasons I founded Encompass—I heard so many movement leaders and advocates say “We want to be better about race issues, racial diversity, and racial inclusion; we just don’t know how to operationalize it.” So this is part of what I want to do. I want to create a space where we can delve into it. I myself am learning from the outside world and bringing those lessons to the professional farmed animal protection movement.
So I would say the buy-in is definitely there, but this whole concept is a little amorphous. And that’s what I’m trying to help elucidate. With respect to tokenization, I think there’s more work to be done but there are definitely people who fully understand what this means and looks like.
According to your website, fewer than 11% of advocates in the movement identify as people of color. Is that figure just for the United States? Why do you think that number is so low compared to the percentage of people of color in the general population? Do the historical conditions that have produced and facilitated this inequality influence your approach to solving this issue?
I conducted an informal analysis in January 2017 of the top 20 largest farmed animal protection groups and found that 11% of staff at these organizations in the movement are people of color. I used publicly available information and limited the scope by honing in on U.S. staff only, and I excluded larger animal protection organizations that focus on numerous animal protection issues (e.g., PETA, ASPCA, PCRM, and HSUS) except for HSUS’ farm animal protection department since they are so large. I also want to provide the caveat that I may have misidentified some advocates. If I was unclear on whether someone was white or a person of color I opted to identify them as a person of color. Finally, a few organizations do not list their staff online so I was unable to include them in this count.
I want to be clear that this number just reflects the professional/mainstream vegan movement. There are a lot of grassroots and community-based advocates who work on these issues who are of color, and they often don’t get the recognition and visibility that they deserve.
One of Encompass’ initial activities is to create a state-of-the-movement report to examine these issues and develop a more sophisticated understanding of why we are the way we are, where we are now, and future recommendations.
Encompass’ dual approach to solving the problem (working to support organizations institutionally and advocates individually) is a response to the fact that the barriers run deep and are long-standing.
What are some of the most significant barriers inhibiting people with marginalized identities from joining—or leading—the animal advocacy movement?
This is an issue we will examine in our report, but mirroring—or the “Role Model Effect“—is one key issue. The “Role Model Effect” shows that when people of color or women are in leadership positions, it inspires others who look similar to them to aspire to that same level or to join the cause. Not only will this help individual advocates, it will allow organizations to fully maximize the potential of their staff. In turn, as these effective advocates become leaders, the public will see a movement that reflects them and will be more willing to hear our message. When people of color don’t see themselves represented on our staff rosters or organizational boards—or as leaders or spokespeople—it can be difficult to feel welcomed or believe that this cause is for them.
It can also be hard to break into our movement for financial reasons. Many people get their first job in the movement after long stints of volunteering or interning (for little or no pay). While some can afford to do this, many cannot. Even when people can get a job in the movement, most organizations depend heavily on staff who are willing to take low pay (at least low starting pay).
In addition, our benefits packages are subpar—even when compared with other social justice movements and nonprofits. This lack of accessibility makes it harder for people of color to join our movement because it’s easier to get basic needs met elsewhere. And we need to remember that for many people of color, having basic needs met is a lifelong struggle. As a movement, it’s worth asking ourselves: Who are the kinds of people who can afford to work for free or for low wages? It’s typically people with privilege. This reinforces the cycle.
There’s also an issue of accessibility in what we advocate for. While it’s sometimes feasible to be low-income and eat plant-based, it can be extremely difficult, and sometimes our movement doesn’t do a very good job of acknowledging this. This lack of acknowledgement denies people their reality and can make them feel alienated from our cause, furthering the perception that veganism is a “white people thing.” Finding naturally low-cost vegan foods (such as dried legumes) can be difficult in low-income areas and requires knowledge on how to prepare these foods which is often not commonplace. It gets even harder and more expensive to find meat, dairy, and egg replacements that are as affordable as traditional foods. And we also need to remember that communities of color disproportionately live in spaces where access to healthy food is low. All of these factors (and more) can be insurmountable for many people.
One of your programs aims to support advocates of color to reduce recidivism and burnout. Do advocates of color face unique pressures and how do you go about reducing recidivism and burnout?
Advocates of color face unique pressures in our movement in part because there are so few of us and because the people we work with often do not understand the nuances of racial inequity.
As I mentioned, many advocates of color feel they have to put important parts of their identities on hold when they do activism in our movement. Advocates of color also face microaggressions both in and out of our movement. For example, see this blog post (and the contentious discussion that ensued) about a woman of color’s experiences at the recent National Animal Rights Conference.
People of color also come to this work more worn down than white folks because we bring with us the exhaustion that comes with feeling the lifelong effects of everyday racism from the rest of society. Because of this, we don’t want to face those same struggles when we do activism for animals in a justice-based movement.
Part of what Encompass plans to do is help the white people in our movement be more aware of these dynamics. We also plan to build more community for people of color so they feel the camaraderie that many white people feel, while also offering a dedicated space to cultivate their innate leadership potential.
Animal advocates are often so passionate about helping animals that they run the risk of ignoring—or participating in—other problems of social justice. What kind of connection do you see between Encompass’ goals and calls for more multi-issue advocacy?
I agree with you and have seen how some people ignore or contribute to the other human-based -isms because they are so single-issue and focused on the animals. One of my favorite quotes comes from Audre Lorde, a fierce Black writer, feminist, and civil rights activist. She says, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
We have to acknowledge that most people come to our movement with experiences and identities that shape who they are. Some of us come from different class backgrounds, some of us are differently abled, we are queer, women, transgender, we come from immigrant households, and more. All of these backgrounds and perspectives are needed if we want to take on the complex issue of animal exploitation; we need all types of people and ideas to be heard and valued if we are to succeed. We are a social justice movement, so we need to acknowledge that our struggles and our liberation are bound up with each other.
How can individual animal advocates best support efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the movement?
There are a number of ways individuals can support these efforts. In the wake of Charlottesville, I wrote a short blog post titled “8 ways white folks can support people of color.” Here are some initial ideas:
- Don’t try to be colorblind. In her excellent TED talk, Mellody Hobson speaks about why we should be “color brave,” not color blind. The problem isn’t that we see color; it’s what we do when we see that color (consciously or subconsciously).
- Support efforts that are run by people of color financially, with time, and on social media.
- Be comfortable with being challenged. Listen to people of color with an open mind even if it makes you uncomfortable.
- Start noticing and talking about race and how it impacts you, even if you think it doesn’t. We are all part of racial identity groups.
- Start noticing the spaces you’re in and how homogenous they are. Take an inventory of your friend group, communities, bookshelves, and workplaces.
- Don’t ask people of color to speak on behalf of an entire community and don’t ask them to only speak about race issues.
- Take time to read and listen to people of color.
- Speak out if you see or hear something problematic, even if people of color aren’t in the room.
How will the assistance you offer organizations differ from the existing advice and resources from other individuals or charities working to help promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within the animal advocacy movement?
There are many other people who work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within animal advocacy and I am so grateful for what they contribute.
What makes Encompass unique is that we are the only organization working solely on addressing these issues within the professional/mainstream farmed animal protection movement and we do so as a nonprofit organization. We’re working to bolster the representation of the movement itself by bringing in more people of color and getting them into leadership roles.
Rather than conduct our own direct outreach to communities of color, in the long run we’ll work with mainstream farmed animal protection groups to improve the outreach they’re already doing to communities of color to be more holistic and genuine.
We are also the only group to couple institutional work (working with farmed animal protection organizations) with an individual approach (working to support advocates of color to realize their innate leadership potential and build community). We want advocates of color to feel like this movement is a space where they can be their authentic selves and thrive—propelling the animal movement forward in the process.
Your website mentions that Encompass will be doing and/or facilitating some mentoring within the movement. Do you have an example of what this might look like? Have you had any mentoring experiences—either giving or receiving—that you felt were particularly effective?
This is the program for advocates that I’ve heard most excitement for and I am starting to develop it now. I plan to launch it in Q1 2018.
The goal is to connect younger/newer advocates of color with older/more established mentors or sponsors. I’ve personally been mentored (and am currently being mentored) and it’s been hugely beneficial in getting me to where I am today. I think most animal advocates have benefited from mentorships, whether formal or informal.
In addition to mentorship, I’m developing a sponsorship program. Mentorship offers the opportunity for individuals to find connections and get advice. Sponsorship goes a step further by acting on the individual’s behalf—setting up meetings, making calls, and helping make individuals visible to leaders.
The majority of articles discussing diversity, inclusion, and equity refer to corporate and for-profit company issues, and occasionally education. Interacting in a nonprofit space and trying to make impacts with nonprofits must be somewhat different. Are there for-profit issues that aren’t really applicable to your work? Some people will argue that “truly diverse teams are 35% more productive; when there is true equity between men and women on staff, the values they accrue—their profits—are higher.” How different is it measuring productivity with social movements?
This is something that I am really interested in and it’s definitely a work in progress. There are a lot of lessons that we can extrapolate from the business community and from other social movements who have done—and are doing—this work. With respect to the business community I think it would be foolish to ignore the work being done on diversity and inclusion. There have been a lot of studies conducted, and a lot of lessons that we can bring into our work. With regard to other social movements, one case study that I use a lot is the environmental movement. They are a little older and more established, and they’re larger in terms of organizations and person-power—but they also face similar problems in that most of the professional, mainstream groups are white dominated.
Of course environmental justice emerged as a response to that, because people of color are disproportionately disadvantaged by environmental issues—so there now is a whole submovement within that larger “environmental movement” that works to address these issues. Because of all this I think there’s a lot to be learned from the world outside the mainstream animal protection movement. I’m currently trying to sift through what is applicable to our work and what isn’t.
I am constantly walking this line, because I want to highlight that this work is important because it’s the right thing to do—but also that it’s the smart thing to do. I’m often speaking both about efficacy (which is what the business community focuses primary on: “…we need more people of color because we’ll be x-percent more productive, x-percent more creative, and x-percent better…”) and justice. We are a social justice movement, so we also need to make sure we are doing right by our people, right by our cause, and right by ourselves. I try to use both of these talking points, because they complement each other—and they bolster the argument for why Encompass should exist in the first place.
In addition to other social movements and the business community, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to position themselves as “the inclusive party.” I think a lot of this is being done in a tokenizing way, but there are lessons we can learn about what not to do, about what we should do, and about why they are framing these conversations in certain ways.
Obviously we want practical steps that we can take if we want to improve hiring practices and eliminate unconscious bias, and luckily some of these exist (Aryenish recommends this tool as a starting point). But how much introspection is required—in other words, how much do you think the internal struggle is an important part here?
You asked earlier (note: referring to a question in our email correspondence) about how much am I hearing people say, “We want to bring in more people of color but we’re just not seeing the applicants…what do we do to change that?” and my answer to both of these questions is kind of the same. Before we even start talking about making practical changes in our application and hiring processes we need to do introspective work. This step cannot be overlooked.
So, what we need to do now is understand how racism operates in society today and what it feels like for people of color. We need to learn how to trust people of color when they share those experiences, we need to know what microaggressions (and outright aggressions, at times) look like and how we might be perpetuating them. All of that work needs to happen.
It is definitely not linear, like “you do x, and then you do y, and then you do z.” But we need to have a shared language about what diversity, equity, and inclusion are. We need to have a strong collective foundation before we start talking about practical steps like where we are going to post our job listings.
So, we do need to do a lot of this slow, uncomfortable work—but it will make us stronger as individuals, it will make our organizations stronger, and it will make our movement stronger. I’m excited to dig in!