’s compassionate living philosophy is propelling plant-based eating into the mainstream and forever changing how we regard animals. We caught up with Colleen to discuss what it takes to be a joyful vegan and her new book, The 30 Day Vegan Challenge
You were a vegetarian before you became a vegan and you’ve been vegan for 16 years now. What initially led you to make that switch?
It was the same thing that compelled me to go from eating animals to vegetarian. I stopped eating land animals when I was 19 or 20, after reading Diet for New America by John Robbins. The book examined the effects of meat, dairy and eggs on our health, on the animals and on the planet and it’s been pretty influential with millions of people, I was one of them. After reading it I was just so moved and I could not believe what was happening. It was a real shock and so for me the most logical and natural thing to do was to distance myself from it. So at that time I stopped eating land animals but missed the boat on dairy and eggs, even though the book covers that as well. I still continued eating them and made the typical comments about organic and free range. This was over 20 years ago, so it’s interesting to note that even then the marketing language existed to make consuming animal products attractive.
I was doing animal advocacy around puppy mills and animals in laboratories and I just kept reading more books. Eventually I read a book called Slaughterhouse by an investigative journalist here in the United States, where she interviewed different slaughterhouse workers. It was just the most horrific thing to read and I can’t even believe I got through it, not a lot of people can. But what it highlighted to me was the culture of violence that is inherent in these industries and when we purchase meat and dairy we are paying the people who work within these industries to be desensitised to violence.
Photo credit: David Goudreau
We’re paying them to be desensitised to their own compassion and we’re paying them to be desensitised to the suffering of the animals. It wasn’t just that animals were being killed (I mean they’re hung upside down and their throats are slit, and like that’s bad enough, right?) It’s that in this culture of violence where it goes unchecked, the people become so desensitised and so sadistic and that was what was so striking to me. That was the epiphany, the awakening moment and I became vegan after reading that book.
That disconnection between us as compassionate beings and what really goes on is huge, isn’t it?
Exactly. For me being vegan is a succinct way of saying I removed the barriers to the compassion that had always been inside me. Our natural instincts are compassionate and so it’s normal that we experience revulsion to the kind of violence that is perpetrated against animals. Taking the life of someone who wants to live is a violent act and I don’t care if it’s being done on some small farm or if it’s in an industrial slaughterhouse.
Our natural revulsion and repulsion to violence gets put to sleep through constant conditioning, and that’s why for me it was so powerful becoming vegan. I think so many people experience this too because looking back, they can see that their feelings were there the whole time and that’s why we make the excuses we do in defence of eating animal products. We’re told ‘No, that’s normal, that’s natural. That animal wants to die’ but there’s always this thing inside of us screaming, “I don’t think that’s right”.
What would you say is the best part of being vegan?
That feeling of liberation that comes from not being a party to the suffering that’s happening. When those barriers are removed or when that veil is lifted…it’s liberation. There’s no more guilt and there’s no more excuses. You know, I’m not perfect, but it’s certainly the best gateway that I’ve experienced in terms of living authentically, according to my own values, like being able to really authentically manifest those values in my life.
What inspired you to start sharing the vegan message with other people?
It started very quickly after I became vegan. I wanted to act. I think that’s how a lot of us feel. It’s one of the stages that we go through where you want to be part of the solution and it’s about more than just being vegan, you want to contribute. So, I just frantically, in my newly awakened state, wanted other people to know about all of this and so I tapped into the captive audience that I had at the time, which was the Unitarian church that I belonged to here in Oakland. I started tabling the subject during coffee hour and giving away animal rights literature, answering questions that people had about veganism and animal rights. I got very involved.
Photo credit: Maria Villano
I was already involved with the teenagers in the church, so I started doing workshops with them around veganism. I started showing movies, I started doing fundraisers. Outside of the church I was doing street TV, showing videos of what happens in slaughterhouses and handing out literature. All of this was really feeding me because I found I loved it. I loved interacting with people and I just loved that people were engaged. It was really enriching.
I would bring food wherever I was going and people would say it was delicious and ask me how to do it. For a lot of people there is this gap where they are thinking, ‘I really don’t want to be part of this anymore but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do it’. And it’s so beautiful for people to be so vulnerable, and say, ‘I want to do this, I need your help…can you help me?’
I wanted to be able to start answering all the questions that people had in more formal ways. So, I started teaching cooking classes. I had no formal training in cooking and in creating recipes. I just knew enough that I probably knew more than the people coming for the classes. I wasn’t one of these people who spent hours in the kitchen. My work is about advocacy and not about a passion for cooking.
I like feeding people though. I like nurturing people and nourishing people, so it was part of that. That’s how the cooking classes started and then from there I produced a cooking DVD, I started doing the podcasts and from there I wrote my first book after the publisher reached out to me. That was The Joy of Vegan Baking. Being able to marry all of my passions and skills together – animals, advocacy, working with people, outreach, writing, food, and veganism – all of it just came together in a very organic way.
That’s a really nice lesson for people that want to make a difference and do outreach in an engaging and compassionate way…
Yes and it’s an effective way. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for every kind of outreach, I just know what suited my personality and what I found worked for me. I was on the street showing slaughter videos but it was in a way that was honouring people’s reception of this information. I didn’t judge. Some people would go by and make comments like, ‘Ooh, I wanna burger’, but I ignored them. You can still bring information to people, you can still act compassionately, it doesn’t have to be either or. I think that’s really been the message of all of my work… It’s always been about compassion.
In your book, you touch on some spiritual changes that people will notice once they become vegan. What exactly does spirituality mean to you and how does that relate to veganism?
Well, I guess, I do see myself as an integrated individual where I’m not just taking up physical space. I think that’s how I think of all of us, that we’re all connected to each other and we’re all connected to something larger. What that larger thing is, I have no idea. I don’t have a name for it, I just know there is something that’s bigger than all of us individually, and maybe that’s all of us collectively. I don’t know…that’s just how I see the world.
So, I guess spirituality for me means connection and compassion and just being kind. It’s so integrated with my veganism because my veganism is so integrated with who I am. It’s all part of the same. I cannot separate myself as a spiritual being from being a vegan. It forms how I am in the world and how I interact with everybody…it being my spirituality, it being my veganism. Spirituality is my desire to be connected and conscious in compassion, that’s all a part of who I am and in who I am as an advocate.
What have you added into the revised version of The 30 Day Vegan Challenge that wasn’t in the original addition?
Photo credit: Maria Villano
Maybe a little bit more on the social aspects. The thing that’s different from the original addition is that all the recipes are new and anything food related is new. I’ve also added a little bit more of my personal story, talking about the holidays and my experiences.
One of the things that makes my work stand out is that I’ve been very clear from the beginning that this has always been about compassion, this has always been about paradigm shifts. Veganism is not just a diet though we talk about the food. We have to talk about nutrition because we’re giving people what they need to do in a way that’s healthy and sustainable.
I wanted the book to go far beyond just diet and weight loss and also show how to engage with your fellow human beings, to speak your truth, to ask for what you want and to stand up for what you believe in. It does all this while also demonstrating a very joyful way of living. I think that really speaks to people and I’m really proud of that.
I think it’s a great tool to refer people to as well because it’s presented in such a beautiful way, which really represents veganism in the way we want it to be seen.
What can veteran vegans readers get from reading the book?
I could simply change the title and the structure of the book, call it, How to Advocate for Veganism and then it’s for vegans. Everything is covered in the book from what to say when someone asks about protein or calcium, right through to what to say when people ask questions about restaurants and eating out or travelling. So it really is a very useful tool for vegans in terms of advocating for veganism.
What’s your best advice on how to remain a joyful vegan as opposed to an angry vegan?
I’ve been talking in my podcasts about these ten stages I’ve identified of what happens when you stop eating animals. One of the stages is anger and despair. I absolutely get it. It is so painful to know what’s happening when you really let it in. And there’s nothing wrong with anger in terms of feeling it and using it as a jumping off point to then act upon. I think when it becomes problematic is when that’s everything you are, that’s how you identify in the world and that’s how you act in the world. It’s bad for us and I don’t think it’s great for the cause.
Anger can be a great motivator and you shouldn’t deny it. With everything that’s happening we should be outraged but it doesn’t mean we have to dwell on the anger or live in the anger. So using it as a tool is what I recommend, and for me, staying a joyful vegan and not dwelling on the anger has to do with hope. It takes a little bit of a perspective, you know, from a couple of hundred feet up. You have to back up a little bit, remember where we came from and that we can be involved in different forms of activism and find ways to be hopeful.
Being part of other organisations allows us to see the movement that’s taking place. That’s enough to feel hopeful that people are making the changes, by seeing what other activists are doing, and seeing the changes that are happening in the laws for animals. So, for me it’s about dwelling in the hope, not denying the anger, but not dwelling in the anger either.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked, or told by a non-vegan? And, how did you respond?
That’s a good question. What’s the strangest one I’ve gotten…You hear so many. I feel like I should have written those down…I have heard some doozies. Sometimes you’re like, ‘I don’t even know what to say to that!’ Mostly in response I use my sense of humour a lot and so I can imagine me saying in response to the most ridiculous thing, ‘I’ve never heard that before. Where did you get that?’ The thing is we’re so reluctant to seem disagreeable, and I don’t mean offensive, I just mean we’re so reluctant to just say ‘I don’t think that’s true’, because we don’t want to seem like we’re questioning someone else because that’s rude.
However, when I say things like, ‘I’ve never heard of that’, or if I just look at them without saying anything, it gives them the space to reflect on what they’ve said and they will sometimes have a moment of insight. They might go, ‘That sounds kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?’ As opposed to me immediately trying to defend a point or argue against theirs. They often kind of relax a little bit and admit once they’ve had time to think about it that what they’ve said is a little strange. As vegans we don’t always have to have the perfect answer and know everything about everything.
Veganism seems to be getting more coverage in the mainstream media now. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the coming together of many, many forces and when a pendulum swings one way, it’s bound to swing back. At the moment the pendulum is so swung over in terms of how bad things are in the way we’re eating and our health, in the preventable diseases people are dying from which we have no business dying from, the state of factory farming and people’s awareness of it, the environmental destruction. It’s really the coalescing of all of these movements and consciousness around these movements.
Now we’re in a much more sophisticated place around food and cuisine, and you have the celebrity thing too, but we’re just so much more in tune to the media being able to get this information to people so quickly. We’re able to access it so quickly because of the internet as well. So really, it’s a combination of all of these forces, which means we have so many opportunities as advocates to tap into any one of these things and be part of this movement in the right direction.
You’ve had a lot of experience coaching people on veganism. What are some of the main reasons someone becomes vegan but then goes back to their old behaviours?
Well, I think health and animals are the two biggest reasons why people become vegan. There’s also the environment, but I think it’s funny that we talk about the environment like it’s separate from health and animals. We’re all in the environment, we’re all consuming the environment, it’s not separate from us. So there is the vegan trifecta of health, animals and the environment. I think helping animals is still the biggest motivator, but what I think makes people go back the most is that they lack a support system.
Photo credit: Sara Remington
We live in this western culture of consumption and gluttony where it’s normal to eat meat, dairy and eggs, and anything that’s outside of that is still viewed as going against the status quo. That’s when you feel like an alien in your own tribe and it’s really trying for people if you don’t have the self-determination to speak up for yourself. People want to feel included and accepted. They don’t stop being vegan because the food isn’t great or they don’t feel great, it’s because veganism is not supported in general society. That’s why we need to as vegans, work with the non-vegans, work with the non-vegan restaurants, work with the non-vegan caterers, and work with the non-vegan businesses, in all ways so that people are supported.
You talk a lot about this obsession some people have with being the perfect vegan. Can you explain why this is so detrimental to our own wellbeing and the cause?
It comes from us internally and it comes from others externally. It comes from non-vegans externally when we feel they are trying to catch us out. They might point out all the ways that we aren’t perfect and that’s why I think it’s so important for us to know, really know, that we’re doing the best we can. When we communicate that to people, that we’re doing the best we can, people really embrace that and respond to that. But if we walk around trying to be all holier-than-thou and trying to obtain some level of perfection that we’re never going to have then that’s what we put out to the world.
That’s why we get this push back from a lot of non-vegans because there are unfortunately some vegans, who are coming from a place of good intentions, but interact with people in a way that comes across as arrogant and self-righteous. We have to know internally that being vegan is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whenever I’ve explained that to vegans and non-vegans, people totally get it. If being a vegan is just the end it’s really all about ‘how perfect can I be?’
But if we realise that this is the means to being as compassionate as possible, then we realise that built into veganism is imperfection, that’s just the way it is. It breaks my heart when I see vegans struggle with this, and it also breaks my heart when I see vegans criticise other vegans and non-vegans for not being this vegan of perfection. I think it’s ultimately incredibly detrimental for the movement in terms of being attractive, where people go ‘that looks good, I
want to experience that’, when there’s just this negativity and criticism. Who would be attracted to that? I do think that we have to remember that if we are the vegan someone comes to we do kind of represent all vegans at that moment. We really do, whether we like it or not.
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Barefoot Vegan was founded and is edited and designed by Emma Letessier. Emma is a blogger, life-coach and qualified PR professional and journalist, who also happens to be a passionate vegan, animal and nature lover. She lives in a small village in France with her husband, daughter and their rescue animals at the Barefoot Vegan Farm and Animal Sanctuary.
As a writer, Emma’s work has been featured in other popular well-being and spiritual websites such as Elephant Journal, IVORY magazine, and she’s part of the Huffington Post’s team of regular bloggers. Her writing was also included in the Tiny Buddha book 365 Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha, released in 2015 by HarperCollins.