There are plenty of vegetarian groups out there, but Vegan Outreach stands out because of its proactive dedication to expose and end cruelty to animals as well as it's thorough "plan of action" to end the suffering.
Their plan? The animal advocacy group spreads the word through a widespread distribution of illustrated booklets, articles, essays, and brochures on the subject. Over 10 million booklets have already been distributed since the group began in the '90s. Founders Matt Ball and Jack Norris met in Ohio as members of the Animal Rights Community of Cincinnati and spent that winter holding fur protests. Their focus has since shifted to vegetarianism and Vegan Outreach helps to make that happen.
We had the chance to talk to Matt Ball about the growth of Vegan Outreach and how far it has come.
What is the purpose of the Vegan Outreach organization and how does it differ from all the rest?
Vegan Outreach seeks to reduce as much suffering as possible per dollar donated and hour volunteered. I am not aware of any other organization with that bottom line, nor any organization that explicitly lays out their reasoning and subsequent detailed plan of action as Vegan Outreach does in A Meaningful Life.
When was Vegan Outreach founded and how far has the movement come today?
Vegan Outreach was founded in the early 1990s, growing out of my work with Jack Norris. This is discussed more in a page on our History.
The movement has come a long way, as discussed in the above and here.
Especially compared to 20 years ago, when the vast majority of advocacy in the U.S. focused on fur and vivisection. Now, farmed animal and vegetarian advocacy are a key part to most animal advocacy groups.
As part of your Principles of Advocacy, the group says to set aside personal biases. Why should a person look at the world as a whole with the issue of vegetarianism rather then doing something they personally believe in for the good of themselves?
Of course, many people in the U.S. are in a position to only care about themselves. In my experience, though, few people are so self-centered that they don’t care at all about anyone else. We are moral beings, and most of us want to live an ethical life.
If we take an objective look at human history, however, we see that humans are capable of great rationalizations, of going along with prejudices and supporting practices that, from our current perspective, are horrifyingly immoral. If we want to do what is right, to live consistently true to our stated values, we need to question assumptions, ask questions, and work from first principles.
Interestingly, “doing good” for the world is, ultimately, good for us, too. There is little to no evidence that pursuing only our selfish, short-term ends leads to happiness; indeed, the opposite is true. Evolution has left us with a nature that always wants “more,” regardless of what we have. By being a part of something larger than ourselves, we can lead a meaningful life and find real, sustainable joy. (This is discussed in more detail in the “An Activist’s Life” section of A Meaningful Life.)
Some people would argue that animals are not on the level of humans. So why go out of our way to alleviate their suffering?
This attitude has a number of levels. The first is as an excuse, trying to rationalize eating animals – and thus actively causing unnecessary suffering. But of course, claiming that chickens and pigs are “only animals” doesn’t make it ethical for us to pay people to torture and slaughter them. One does not need to believe in the equality of all sentient life to oppose and refuse to take part in the inherent cruelty of consuming the flesh of fellow animals. As Peter Singer wrote:
“[W]hen nonvegetarians say that ‘human problems come first,’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.”
The “just animals” attitude has a deeper level, though. When we free ourselves of our genetic and cultural baggage, we can recognize that suffering is fundamentally, irreducibly bad, and thus reducing suffering is the ultimate good. Although one can debate the relative capacity for suffering of different species, there is no rational way to simply dismiss the suffering of other animals.
And if, as rational, moral people, we choose to lead a meaningful life, we should make our decisions about how to spend our limited time and resources based only on what will reduce the most suffering, period. By our calculations, the best way to do this is by exposing the hidden brutality of today’s factory farms and promoting ethical eating. (This is discussed in more detail in the “Why Vegan Outreach” section of A Meaningful Life.)
What are the country’s stereotypes of animal advocates and vegans and how does Vegan Outreach hope to combat that?
Many people think of vegans as angry, fanatical, and self-righteous. I believe vegans have reason to be angry. I’ve also known some vegans who are, indeed, obsessive and arrogant. Not surprisingly, many meat-eaters focus on the extremists, in order to make the vegan stereotype the issue. This way, they can avoid recognizing the unseen cruelty behind their food choices – i.e., ridicule the messenger to ignore the message.
Because we recognize this dynamic, Vegan Outreach always works to keep the focus on cruelty to animals, while making clear that we aren’t the issue, nor is veganism. Rather, we want to reach out to everyone who wants to live an ethical life, so they can recognize one simple, undeniable truth that agribusiness hides from them: buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering.
(This is discussed in more detail in the “Countering the Stereotype” section of A Meaningful Life, as well as “Letter to a Young Matt.")
What are some of Vegan Outreach’s campaigns and or current projects?
Given our goal of maximum change per dollar spent and hour volunteered, we focus on getting detailed, documented, illustrated information about modern agribusiness and the cruelty-free alternative to as many student-age people as possible. Our main program is Adopt a College, where activists take Vegan Outreach booklets directly to students. The reasoning behind this are explained in the “Advocacy for Maximum Change” section of A Meaningful Life.
Tell me about your book, A Meaningful Life.
A Meaningful Life is an essay (published as a booklet) that grew out of a speech I gave in Portland, OR, intended to explain, from first principles, Vegan Outreach’s purpose and approach to activism.
In early 2009, Bruce Friedrich and I published The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World. Significant portions of the book draw from the reasoning originally set forth in A Meaningful Life. You can read more about the book, including reviews, at the book’s website.
Does the group promote a vegan lifestyle because of the suffering of animals or because it’s a healthy lifestyle change?
Vegan Outreach exists to reduce the amount of suffering in the world as much as possible. So people can set the best possible vegan example, we also want people to be honest about “the health argument”, as well as be well informed about vegan nutrition.
How has the animal rights movement grown and changed and how much is the vegan movement a part of it?
Much of my answer to this can be found in the links for question #2. But to add one point: 20 years ago, not only did very little animal advocacy focus on the 99% of animals who suffer and are butchered every year, but many “pro-animal” groups actually served animals at events! For example, only five years ago, HSUS served meat at its events. Now, their policy is for all functions to be 100% vegan.
What are the future goals of Vegan Outreach?
Our goal remains to reduce the amount of suffering in the world as much as possible. We will continue to do outreach to young people until it is no longer necessary.