At Mercy For Animals, we unite against oppression in support of Black Lives Matter’s principles and with those fighting against systemic racism and anti-Blackness. We know, however, that a statement of solidarity is not enough; we must be actively anti-racist.
Why should an animal rights organization focus on anti-racism? Anti-racism is important as oppression is a system of convergences. Note, for example, how major meat producers in North Carolina disproportionately harm Black communities through environmental racism and occupational racism while at the same time harming and ultimately killing nonhuman animals.
On a personal level, like many white and “white-passing” people,* I’ve been reflecting on my role in a society built on racial oppression. How is racism sustained? How have I benefited from it? What can I do to help dismantle systems of oppression?
Similar, complex questions apply to the animal rights movement and to Mercy For Animals:
- How does systemic racism underpin the food system and its exploitation of animals?
- Why are larger animal rights organizations like Mercy For Animals predominantly white when it comes to leadership, board members, major funders, and funder advisors?
- Why do animal rights initiatives fail to break through or impact communities of color?
- Are larger animal rights organizations supporting and partnering with smaller BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) vegan and animal rights organizations?
- Do prominent animal rights organizations work with and support BIPOC communities’ efforts against environmental and occupational racism?
- Do animal rights organizations contribute to spreading an understanding of intersecting oppression?
In grappling with these questions, I realized the animal rights movement and Mercy For Animals need to make changes to go beyond making statements of solidarity.
So where do we go from here?
Through ongoing listening and learning about anti-racism and anti-oppression, I’ve come up with the following nine practices to move Mercy For Animals forward:
First, until the entire system of racism is dismantled, white-passing and white animal rights leaders need to listen to Black, indigenous, and people of color animal rights and vegan leaders and implement their suggestions in countering oppression and building engagement and capacity. I’ll commit to partnering with and investing in existing Black and other nonwhite activists, introducing them to useful resources, such as funder and media networks, and providing opportunities for dialogue and learning.
Second, we must center anti-racist-based justice in Mercy For Animals’ programs so that they’re actually relevant to the immediate needs and realities of nonwhite communities. If we focus our work and messaging solely on nonhuman animal suffering, we fail to address how factory farming and animal products also harm communities of color, showing we are only in solidarity with animals. Poor recruitment and retention of Black people, indigenous folks, and people of color in mainstream animal rights are the result. More importantly, approaching animal rights work with a racial justice lens will make our efforts more effective because our programs will reflect our racially diverse society.
Third, beyond planning programs that are relevant to BIPOC communities, we must be conscious of framing and messaging that will engage and resonate with Black and other nonwhite people. Getting this right goes hand in hand with recruiting for diversity.
Fourth, we need more Black people, as well as members of indigenous and other historically minoritized racial groups, in leadership positions within the largest animal rights organizations—as staff, board members, and funder advisors. By increasing our efforts to recruit for diversity, we ensure that we address issues of relevance to more people, framed in ways that will engage, avoid "groupthink," and get beyond the standard white racialized consciousness.
Fifth, at Mercy For Animals, we need to acknowledge that “whiteness” is the norm within our movement and our organization, and we must dismantle this. As part of this effort, we need to examine, and resolve, what about Mercy For Animals’ current culture and even our work itself makes it difficult to attract and retain Black talent and create efforts and messaging that speak to wider, more diverse groups of people.
Sixth, we have to better educate ourselves and our supporters, donors, and the movement about how ending systemic racism ties into reforming the food system and bringing an ultimate end to animal agriculture. Mercy For Animals recently changed its mission to “construct a compassionate food system.” A compassionate and cruelty-free food system must incorporate compassion toward all living beings, including humans, especially those exploited by systems of oppression that fuel our broken food system.
Seventh, we need to use Mercy For Animals’ prominent social media channels to support Black animal rights and vegan activists and business owners, highlighting their work and giving space for their stories as we’ve done with Chef Babette, Chef Zu, Omawale Adewale, Tabitha Brown, and Aph Ko, among others. We’ll continue and expand on this work.
Eighth, the truth is that working at an animal protection charity today means lower compensation than in the for-profit job market. This means most charities’ employees likely don’t have significant debt or other financial burdens that would prevent them from taking a lower-paying job and so may have started from a place of privilege. But in addition to privilege, race plays a big role. It’s important to acknowledge that this is a barrier and will always challenge the nonprofit animal protection sector. Given these realities, we need to remove barriers such as requiring college degrees where not needed for the job and ensure that internships, which are clear entry points into the workforce, are paid, offered remotely, and/or in contexts where internship funding is available.
Finally, we must hold ourselves accountable. We are forming a working committee at Mercy For Animals to study these issues and, more importantly, to recommend concrete improvements. We’ll also be working with consultants Critical Diversity Solutions, who will be able to keep us on track and hold us accountable to the commitments we are making today.
We are eager to become an animal rights and anti-racist organization while also being realistic that this may be a difficult shift for some. We are confident, however, that these changes will prepare Mercy For Animals well for the future. In the coming weeks and months we will provide more specifics on the changes and share periodic updates.
I’m sure we will look back on these times of crisis as some of the most disturbing in our lives. That said, we must, as always, embrace discomfort and difficulty because these will lead to growth. We will grow as a society, as a movement, as organizations, and as individuals in this time and emerge better off for it. There is no quick fix here, and it will require a sustained, long-term effort. Here’s the one thing I’m most clear about: Living up to our mission to construct a compassionate food system ultimately means that in order to have mercy for animals, we must have mercy for everyone.
*As a white-passing, Latinx woman with a Black Latinx daughter, two white sons, and a white Jewish husband, I have witnessed racism directed at my family and me. Black racist narratives have been normalized in the United States. For example, my six-year-old daughter has already been called “angry” and “violent”—although research shows that the same behaviors displayed by white children are not met with such reactions. Given experiences like this, our family dinner conversations around oppression and racism are candid and complex. I discuss with my sons how they are beneficiaries of racial privilege and with my daughter about her rights and how to protect herself.