Veganuary’s Clea Grady talks to Vegan Life about the benefits of kindness and encouragement when it comes to promoting change
When I was 12, I decided to become a vegetarian. That decision was a fairly simple one. I loved animals. I’d always lived with animals. As soon as I realised what was on my plate (and was old enough to make my voice truly heard) I decided to stop eating them.
By the time I was 16, being vegetarian was very much a part of my identity. I wore hippy skirts, I hennaed my hair, I couldn’t walk past a butcher’s shop without shouting ‘meat is murder’, and I went on protests. One particular protest from around this time sticks in my mind. It was against shark fin soup, and we ran around China Town in London chanting: “Shark fin soup, bloody barbaric.” We stormed into restaurants, shouting into people’s faces and sticking anti shark-fin stickers all over the windows.
Within an hour or so we were chucked into the back of a police van. In the back of the van with me and my friends were three older guys – probably only early to mid-twenties, but old enough for it to be noticeable. They were vegans. I don’t remember exactly what they said. It certainly wasn’t anything that made me stop and think. But I do remember how they made me feel. They ranted at us about being veggies and were massively intimidating, especially in that small space, and the fact that they were all male and we were young girls. When we were let out of the van with a warning, it was not the police we ran from, giggling in relief.
Many years later, at the age of 34, I was still veggie, still wearing leather. Despite being vegetarian for most of my life, for 22 of my 34 years, I still thought that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and I wasn’t doing anything wrong in wearing it. In fact, I probably thought that in some way it honours the animal who was killed. I don’t have children but I am very active when it comes to rescuing animals. I have five of my own, and regularly volunteer to help find homes other abused dogs, and am the ‘go-to’ person in my friendship group if someone wants to adopt an animal. I am very vocal about animal rescue, and about my love of animals in general.
And yet I was not vegan.
Facebook was about to change all that. I clicked on a post about something called ‘Veganuary’, and I signed up to go vegan for January 2014. When I told my husband, his response was ‘Why do you want to do that?’. In truth, I had three vegan friends at this point and something within me was beginning to feel a bit like a fraud. I found myself feeling embarrassed around them for being vegetarian, but I wasn’t entirely sure why. Not that any of them have ever said a negative word. In fact, they remain to this day three of the least judgemental and most kind people I know. And they have most definitely been influencers in my life.
So, January 2014, I went vegan, along with 3,000 other people in the world – participants in the first Veganuary. Before this, I did not know the truth about the egg industry, or the dairy industry. And the truth shocked me to my very core.
I had gone vegetarian for the animals, but for 22 years I had (however unwittingly) been actively contributing to the systematic torture and suffering of animals. It broke my heart.
I felt small, isolated and confused. But after that initial grief, and subsequent anger, I was engulfed by a huge sense of relief. Literally, ‘thank god!’. Finally, I was being true to the person I really was… am. But how had I got to this point in my life without knowing the truth? I wasn’t someone who thought of herself as uninformed. I was politically aware, a feminist, had studied for a degree, considered myself a conscious consumer, and was passionate about animals. How had I not known? I decided then and there I could no longer work in the world of corporate marketing, where I had been for all of my twenties and thirties so far. I tracked down the people behind Veganuary and I told them that I wanted to come and work with them to change the world.
As fate would have it, they happened to live in exactly the same city as me – not London or San Francisco as I expected, but York in north Yorkshire. And, after meeting up, I joined the team at the beginning of April 2014, only two months after going vegan because of their campaign.
Veganuary’s ethos is one of kindness, non-judgement, acceptance and applauding the small steps to encourage people to make bigger ones. I often think how different my life might have been if those guys in the back of the police van had inspired me to make a change, rather than attacked me. Now I’m not putting the responsibility of what I put in my mouth or wear on my body on anyone else. I’m big enough to take that one on the chin. But I am very passionate about us all, as individual vegans, being influencers within our social circles and outside in the wider world. And I think we all need to be very mindful of how we felt before we went vegan.
I say this because, as the person responsible for the social media output for Veganuary and an active person online, I too-frequently witness damaging behaviour by other vegans. And I think we are doing a huge injustice to the animals that we’re hoping to protect.
Vegetarians are attacked as being hypocrites when most, like me only three years ago, have no idea of what actually goes on. New vegans are hauled over the coals for not being ‘vegan enough’ rather than being congratulated for trying to change for the better. And meat eaters are condemned as nasty and evil. I really feel that this has to stop.
We’ve got to stop being the guys in the back of the van.
There’s a school of thought known as the ‘broken windows’ theory. This theory argues that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken in a building and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken and an atmosphere of ‘anything goes’ starts to spread – i.e. more broken windows equal higher rates of crime. This is an epidemic theory of crime – crime is contagious. This was put to the test in New York City in the mid-80s, when a criminologist argued that the city’s high crime rate was linked to the crime on the subway trains, and that crime was linked to the graffiti on the trains themselves. Many people thought this was crazy, especially when the decision was made to pull any train that had been graffiti’d off the tracks, and only put it back into service when the graffiti had been removed. “But people will just graffiti them again!” And they did.
Because when people realised that the graffiti was continuously getting cleaned off, they started to get bored. And gradually the graffiti stopped almost completely. This ‘Graffiti Task Force’ operated in New York until 1990, and during that time the crime rate on New York’s subways fell dramatically. So much so, the same theory was applied to the rest of the city, and guess what? Crime fell there too.
I think that social media is very like a subway train. One nasty comment, leads to another, and to another, and before you know it a comment thread has descended into outright war. One of the things that people comment on most about Veganuary is how safe they feel in our online community. And our online community is essential for us, as it’s the most cost-effective way for us to reach as many non-vegans as possible – many of whom have no community that they can rely on (or are aware of) in real life. So our online community is vital when it comes to saving animals’ lives.
But our safe community is not an accident. Far from it. Just like the subway graffiti, we have a strict zero tolerance policy on nastiness on our online pages, groups and profiles. And boy, that takes some policing. But that’s OK, because the results are starting to show. But before I tell you about those, I want to let you in on a little secret, and I’m afraid it’s a bit of a dirty one. The main people we have to police in our online communities are not the trolls, they’re not the fox-hunters, or the steak-eaters, or the children of dairy farmers.
They’re the vegans.
And I cannot tell how disappointed it makes me, when time I could be spending helping someone who currently eats animals to become vegan, is wasted on vegans who are actively being nasty.
As vegans, as activists, everything that we put online needs to be considered – in fact scrap that, everything we put online, everything we say, needs to be kind. And for people who consider themselves compassionate, I don’t think’s too much of a tall order.
I recently went undercover on a pig farm with the rest of the Veganuary team. And I’m still trying to process what I witnessed there. I thought the animals needed us before, but by god they need us more than ever. We get to go home, we get to live. All they do is suffer. We need to make sure that we work as effectively as possible, as quickly as we can, because they are stuck in eternal horror.
Animals are not saved by fighting online with other vegans. People are not changed by being attacked.
Be the vegan you wish you’d been stuck in the back of a van with before you were vegan.
What is Veganuary?
- Veganuary is a charity that encourages people to try veganism for the month of January, and then supports them (and anyone else interested in veganism) all year round. Since my vegan month in January 2014, over 40,000 people have taken part.
- As a charity, Veganuary is dedicated to changing public attitudes, while providing all the information and practical support required to make the transition to veganism as easy and enjoyable as possible. It has had an incredible degree of success in a very short time and is changing lives all over the world.
- Veganuary’s founders, Jane and Matthew, knew that month-long pledges were not unusual, but felt that it could be done differently, and perhaps more successfully, by focusing on the month of January; a time for resolutions and new beginnings.
- After last year’s Veganuary, 81 per cent of people said that they were intending to maintain the changes they’d made during the month. When we surveyed them again six months later in August, 63 per cent confirmed they now identified as vegan. And in really cool news, 79 per cent said they were planning on eating vegan in the future.. When asked if they had inspired anyone else to go vegan since becoming vegan themselves, 63 per cent of our August survey respondents confirmed that they had inspired at least one other person to go vegan. Kindness is contagious.
- For Veganuary 2017, we decided to launch one of our most exciting projects yet – running at least 2,000 posters on the tubes during December. The number of posters made this the biggest vegan campaign ever featured on the London Underground all it was all crowd-funded.
To find out more about how you can go vegan, or want to help someone who’s thinking of going vegan, head over to the Veganuary website.