We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Aryenish Birdie, 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. We’ve featured a few highlights from the interview below. You can read the interview in its entirety here.
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 two 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.
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 am starting to develop 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.