Charting a Course: Pro-Animal Future’s 10-Year Roadmap

This post is intended to contextualize Pax Fauna and Pro-Animal Future’s current work in relation to our past work and future plans by elaborating on the 10-year plan outlined in the graphic above. I’ll start with a word about what this is ultimately meant to achieve, though I’ll save a full discussion of our theory of change for another post. 

At present, Pax Fauna is focused on supporting Pro-Animal Future, a social movement organization we incubated through our initial research phase. Pro-Animal Future is focused on systematically developing grassroots ballot measure campaigns as an intervention in the farmed animal protection movement. Our goal is to perfect an impactful and inexpensive model using these campaigns to grow the movement, influence public opinion, and win ambitious laws, all to accelerate the transition towards a kinder world for animals.

If I had to pick the top three reasons we consider ballot initiatives a particularly promising tactic for animal advocacy, they would be, in no particular order:

  1. Better laws, sooner: numerous historical examples show that voters are often less attached to the status quo, and thus willing to endorse policies that their own elected officials won’t touch. Women’s suffrage, marriage equality, cannabis legalization, and minimum wage increases are all examples of issues where the voting public has far outpaced political elites’ appetite for change.
  2. Public engagement: while traditional legislative campaigns are necessarily focused on lobbying a few elected officials, ballot initiatives campaigns are all about winning over the public. That means that even if we lose, we can rest assured that our efforts moved the needle and made future victories more likely. Our research also shows that engaging the public through a civic lens is more productive than doing so through a consumer lens (as animal advocates typically do).
  3. Movement building: by providing a concrete, winnable objective, ballot initiatives can unite grassroots advocates while providing the kinds of incremental wins we need to stay motivated.

In other words, while we aim to win ambitious laws for animals, that’s not the only impact our campaigns can have. Our ballot measures compel voters to wrestle with their own inner conflicts around what happens to animals in these industries. And by offering lots of high-impact, low-risk ways to get involved, our measures can also increase the number of people who identify as pro-animal activists, increasing the power of our movement to win even greater change.

Stage 1: Research

Pax Fauna was founded in late 2020 and commenced full operations on March 1, 2021 (which we still observe as PF’s birthday). Our purpose was to identify and execute research projects for the purpose of overcoming flaws in the grassroots animal movement’s strategy. All of us (Eva and Aidan, plus John who played a smaller but important role) had spent years organizing with Direct Action Everywhere, a social movement org known for confrontational protests but that I still insist is better characterized by a primary focus on community organizing. Through our time in DxE, we had seen many highs and lows, ultimately culminating in a frustrating plateau in the size of the organization and, as we saw it, the wider movement.

The two overarching questions we set out to address were:

  1. How can grassroots animal freedom organizations shift their strategy to engage 10x or 100x the number of (nonpaid) activists?
  2. If we cannot significantly increase the number of activists at this time, how can we create more tangible progress with the number we have?

While we carried out several research projects, by far the largest share of our time was put into an extended study on framing and public opinion, eventually published as the Evolve Together study in a series of lengthy reports and a more concise interactive website. This research went far beyond messaging and is central to Pro-Animal Future’s current strategy. The next largest piece of research was on recruitment and retention of highly engaged activists and organizers, which we refer to as the Organizer Study.

At the end of 2022, as we were preparing to publish all of this and deciding what to do next, we learned that Brent Johannes, the initiator of the successful Boulder fur ban in 2021, was planning to carry out a ballot initiative in Denver in 2024. At this time, we had identified ballot initiatives as the central strategy of the social movement organization we were planning to incubate, but had not yet taken any concrete steps to shift into campaigning, and were by no means committed to doing so in time for the 2024 election. The rapid decision to hire Brent and adopt his Denver ballot initiative as our pilot campaign pulled us out of our comfortable ivory tower and compelled us to pivot toward campaigning on a much faster timeline than we may have otherwise.

Stage 2: Pilot Campaign

The last months of 2022 and the first of 2023 were spent frantically clearing a series of hurdles necessary to circulate a petition in the summer of 2023, including:

At a team retreat in March of 2023, we agreed that the top priorities for the pilot campaign had to do with launching a new style of civic-focused animal advocacy, rather than in the immediate impact of passing one law. This logic partly contributed to the measures we chose to pursue– we opted for policies that we felt would inspire the movement and give us a strong shot of initial momentum for a new strategy, as opposed to prioritizing the short-term instrumental impact of passing one policy vs. another. Thus the core goals of the pilot campaign were:

We hosted a kickoff event in April 2023 which decisively marked the beginning of the Pilot Campaign stage. We received approval to start circulating the petition in early May. Through the end of October, our twin foci were gathering signatures and experimenting with our organizing model. While there were brief periods of anxiety, in the end, we comfortably cleared the required signature threshold, and refined a shift-based organizing model that we believe helped contribute to that success.

2024 marks the second phase of the pilot campaign: persuading and turning out as many voters as we can to support our measures at the ballot box. The campaign itself has two wings:

By the end of the pilot campaign, we hope to have nearly optimized our organizing, voter outreach, and digital communications strategies, enabling us to be more effective from day one of our next round of campaigns. 

We also have some projects that are more purely focused on these future campaigns, including:

Stage 3: Gain a Foothold

For the 2025-26 election cycle, we hope to launch as many as 10 PAF chapters each pursuing their own ballot measures (usually in pairs) in different cities across the country. How many we can actually launch will depend on a few factors:

Whatever the exact number of campaigns, starting in Stage 3, PAF will transition to a hub-and-spokes organizational model. A central hub will provide certain strategic capacities for all campaigns: social media, websites, design, software management, policy development, legal, etc. As a result, each additional chapter will only require one or two additional full-time organizers to focus on building the activist organization in each city.

Even as of Spring 2024, I think of PAF as primarily building not a Denver campaign organization, but a national network of grassroots campaigning organizations with the capacity to run (eventually) dozens of municipal campaigns or several statewide campaigns simultaneously. We should prioritize experimentation, and be willing to spend extra resources on testing and learning now whenever we feel confident that the results/lessons will be applicable to future campaigns. For example, we may choose to face rather than avoid an unknown risk in order to learn as much as we can.

Stage 4: Storm the Nation

This strategic vision culminates in placing statewide measures to ban factory farming on the ballot in every state that allows citizen initiatives and may be reasonably receptive to such a measure. (We may also work to develop a parallel model that can be pursued in jurisdictions that don’t support citizen initiatives.) The rough plan at this point is that in each state, we would start with a single municipal campaign in a strategically chosen city, then scale to multiple cities across the state, building up our grassroots infrastructure and support from the wider public over multiple election cycles until we are prepared to run an effective statewide campaign. (While “effective” here does not necessarily mean winning the campaign on the first try, it does mean generating sufficiently positive impacts on public opinion and movement power to justify the cost and make an eventual victory more likely.)

Statewide ballot initiatives are a massive undertaking. Merely qualifying a statewide measure through paid signature gatherers (the typical method) might cost $600,000 in CO and $3M in CA, while paid media budgets for large, contentious statewide campaigns often reach into the tens of millions. We aim to build a different model that more effectively incorporates people power and earned media, our movement’s relative strengths, while making the most efficient use possible of a smaller (but still substantial) ad budget.

An organization capable of running 10 effective statewide ballot initiative campaigns simultaneously will necessarily be one of the largest in the animal advocacy movement (in terms of budget and impact, not to mention activists). That’s what we’re here to build.

Beyond the Horizon

Predicting the future is, to understate the case, difficult. With the rise of artificial intelligence and other profoundly disruptive technologies, our society is almost certainly in for a wild ride over the coming decades, and that’s before we try to account for the climate crisis, nuclear-charged geopolitical conflict, and countless other sources of instability. Many institutions that we take for granted today may not exist in 40 years, at least not in their current forms. The world that emerges could be brighter, darker, or both.

What are animal advocates to do in the face of this volatility? At Pax Fauna, we believe the most reliable strategy is to try to shift cultural values. Efforts to change institutional policies (whether private or public) in ways that sidestep public attitudes are at risk of being completely washed away. But there seems to be a good chance that the fundamental values underpinning the human-animal relationship won’t be erased so easily. As the world continues to reinvent itself, opportunities will likely appear to affect change at a speed and scale that we can scarcely imagine now. Building new values around animals in as many clusters as possible gives us the greatest hope of seizing those opportunities.

Statewide measures to ban factory farming are meant to provoke a sort of identity crisis for the voting public. We believe this is one of the best methods available right now to bring these values to the surface and force a re-examination. Social movement legend George Lakey likens this process to a forge, where heating up metal makes it malleable enough to reshape. The question is, will our movement be powerful enough and smart enough to shape things in the right direction? This 10-year plan is meant to put us in the best position possible.

Given Pro-Animal Future’s ongoing dual-ballot measure campaign in the city and county of Denver, we sought to poll Denver residents to better understand their baseline level of support for these two measures, which would 1) ban slaughterhouse operations and 2) ban the sale of fur in the city and county of Denver. Additionally, we sought to gain insight into their general attitudes towards the animals in our food system. Moreover, we tested various messages in support of and opposing both measures to observe the effect, if any, they had on their support or opposition of these measures. 

We discovered higher-than-expected support for the slaughterhouse ban, and even higher support for the fur ban. 50.5% of the roughly 1500 Denver residents polled stated that they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes on the slaughterhouse ban, while 58.0% revealed that they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes on the fur ban.

In line with past surveys, we found that the vast majority of those polled– over 90% – agreed with the statement “animals deserve to be treated humanely.” Slightly fewer participants (82.7%) additionally agreed that animals under human care should not be subjected to violence or harm. However, this contrasts with strong support for statements such as “Humans have the right to breed animals for slaughter and consumption” and “Farming animals should continue to play a major role in food production because they provide affordable, nutritious protein to all consumers.” Again, these findings align with the results of numerous studies underscoring the cognitive dissonance, and perhaps lack of information, present in the way consumers think about the way farmed animals are raised and treated.

These results reveal a promising base of supporters for pro-animal policies among Denverites. However, it also reveals a very tight race ahead for campaigners of both measures. Our results also reveal the counterintuitive ways in which consumers think about animals in general. While they believe that animals should be treated humanely and should not be subjected to violence or harm, they also strongly believe that humans have the right to slaughter and eat them. This framework of thinking lends itself to the promise the researchers find in stepping back from the consumer frame that the animal rights movement has embraced since its inception, while embracing a “civic” frame– one that seeks change for animals through collective action, like voting, rather than individual actions, like diet change–  has for the animal movement.

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

Part Six: when enemies appear

Part Seven: the movement needs a repair kit

The Gist:

Before I got involved in activism, I worked in healthcare. Fresh out of college, I held my idea of professionalism tightly and revealed little about myself to colleagues, keeping my exchanges sunny and brief. It was easy to do because my role involved driving by myself to patients’ homes for visits, so I seldom had moments for small talk with colleagues. 

One day, after I had been working there for about six months, my team got together for lunch to celebrate an intern’s graduation. It was at a Mediterranean place, so I easily found something to eat. After we sat down with our food, the most veteran team member, Tom, asked what I was eating, and after I told him, asked if I was vegan. I confirmed. 

He replied, “Hey, how do you know if someone is vegan? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you!”

I don’t remember what I said next. I probably just laughed, but inside I was seething. If I had had any vegan friends at the time, I would have immediately excused myself to the bathroom to text them. He asked! How does he get to make that joke when he was the one who brought it up! 

Here are some things I know about the interaction that day. 

  1. I received a cue of nonbelonging: a message that there was something about me that did not fit in with the group. 
  2. Tom did not mean to express hostility to me or tell me I didn’t belong, at least not in a consciously malicious way. He probably had no clue how he made me feel and quickly forgot all about it.
  3. This was not the first, or even the tenth, time I had experienced the same joke in my life. 

I imagine many readers can relate to this, and especially can understand the impact of that final point above. What made the joke even worse was that I had received many similar cues of nonbelonging before. I’m thinking of times when, given limited options, I put together a strange combination of foods and someone said it looked gross. I’m remembering times someone told me, “I could never be vegan, I just love…” and described the experience of eating an animal’s body in graphic detail. Or a high-school friend who made a habit of telling me, “I like the kind of vegan you are because you don’t make a big deal about it.” 

This is something that Tom had no idea about: he wasn’t there for any of those moments. Even so, his intention was completely unrelated to the impact his words had.

Years later 

In January 2020 I attended a Nonviolent Communication retreat with my colleague Aidan. After a session on microaggressions by renowned trainer Roxy Manning, Aidan said to me, “Vegans can definitely experience microaggressions.”

I cringed, feeling a million retorts compete to come out of my mouth. “Are you equating being vegan with…” “That’s super problematic.” “We choose veganism; nobody chooses their race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.” “Gosh, I hope you never bring this up again.”

But in the magical, open, listen-first air of the retreat, I saved my retorts. I found space to listen to what he meant before I responded.

As it turned out, Roxy taught this definition of microaggressions:

Things we say or do, or structures we create, that intentionally or unintentionally send a message to a particular group that they do not belong or are less than.

While not explicit above, the explanation Roxy gives in her book, The Anti-Racist Heart, requires an element of systemic power. 

“Because microaggressions are rooted in beliefs that some groups are less than others, a critical understanding of microaggressions include that they target groups that have been historically marginalized and given less structural power in society.”

So, microaggression wouldn’t usually refer to a joke at the expense of the only white person in the room or a comment disparaging Christmas in the US. Rather, it refers to a black person being called articulate or women in pain being denied medication, as brief examples. The concept was coined to describe subtle acts of racism and has expanded to refer to things that reinforce other differences in societal privilege, like gender, ability, class, religion, and nationality. 

Roxy describes receivers of microaggressions, who directly experience the cues of nonbelonging based on their own social identity, and also bystanders, who can be impacted greatly despite not being the direct object of the microaggression. 

It’s true that veganism is a choice in a way that many social identities are not. It’s also true that when we open ourselves up to feeling empathy for animals, we feel that pain very deeply as bystanders. And, while animals themselves are victims of systemic violence, their advocates are penalized for bringing attention to this, even with the subtlety of what we eat. 

But that realization—that microaggressions are experienced by animal advocates—isn’t about giving us a free pass. It’s about recognizing the way microaggressions can isolate and harm, even while being completely invisible to the person creating them. I offer this in hopes that we can feel more committed to avoiding them, to repairing any harm that we inadvertently cause, and to communicating in ways that help each member of our communities feel that they do belong. 

We Are Tom, Too

I really liked my colleague, Tom, as did everyone else. He’s a goofy, sensitive guy with a carefree attitude I worked to emulate. (Did I tell you we were working in hospice?) Tom being one of the only men in our company, it’s likely that over the years working together, I sent him some cues that he didn’t belong there as a man. In fact, as someone who belongs to a lot of dominant cultural groups (I’m a white, cis, so-far able-bodied, straight-passing person in the US) it’s likely I’ve inadvertently sent a lot of cues of nonbelonging to a lot of people. 

What Does Repair Look Like?

If we have a story in our heads that says that microaggressions are inflicted by racist (etc.) people, then it can be impossible to hear someone when they say that we’ve inflicted one. It conflicts with our self-image too much. Our only option might be to deny that we’ve done it. If we can understand that microaggressions happen in a context in which both the actor and receiver are only a tiny part, it’s easier to respond supportively when we find out that we’ve messed up. 

When Tom made the joke about preachy vegans, I never told him how it landed. This is the case with a lot—and probably the vast majority—of microaggressions we will commit in our lives. But let’s imagine a world where Tom had the opportunity to hear me out and try to repair the disconnect he had caused. 

I’ll go through a repair process as a dialogue, with notes in between about what is happening. I’ll include directions for both the actor and receiver (who, in this case, can also be called bystander) and imagine that both are “wearing giraffe ears.” (Marshall Rosenberg, NVC’s founder, would sometimes use giraffe puppets to role-play characters speaking nonviolently to each other.) But please keep in mind that neither person depends on the other following my directions. That is, in real life, we’re usually talking to people without training in this particular communication modality. Even so, this model can work for people on either side of a microaggression. 

Let’s imagine a private conversation after our team lunch has concluded. 

In this scenario, the receiver brings up the harm, as the actor was completely unaware of it. In other cases, it could also be appropriate for the actor to start the conversation with a gentle invitation to check in about anything bothering the other person or specifically about how a particular interaction landed for them. 

Eva: Hey Tom, there was something you said earlier that landed pretty hard for me. Are you open to talking about it?

Tom is quickly doing silent self-empathy in this moment, checking in with his body sensations and trying to determine if he’s ready to have this conversation. He’s taking a deeper breath to self-regulate. 

Tom: Sure, what’s up?

Eva’s going to try her best to use observation language, while still identifying multiple layers of the observation to help Tom understand why this is a big deal to her. She’ll refer to the joke generally to avoid disagreement about exact wording. She’ll name the feelings that came up for her and the needs that were unmet. 

Eva: When you made the joke about vegans telling you that they’re vegan, I felt pretty alienated. I’ve been vegan for a long time for reasons that are really important to me, and it’s almost always the case that I’m the only vegan in the group, so it can already be something that leads to me not feeling the belonging that I’d like. When I hear stuff like that, it stings because it builds on a whole bunch of similar experiences. 

Now, she’ll pass the conversation back to him. As an attempt to slow it down and give herself a chance to be heard before he defends himself, she’ll ask for a reflection. 

Eva: That might be a lot to hear—would you mind telling me what you got from that? It would really help me to know that you’re understanding it. 

Even if Eva didn’t make the direct request, Tom could offer a reflection to make sure he’s understanding it. He is so tempted to explain that he didn’t mean anything by the joke, but he refrains, and focuses on letting her know he hears her. 

Tom: Okay, I think I’m getting it. It sounds like veganism, while important to you, can be pretty isolating. And comments like mine are hard to hear because they cue that you don’t belong here, either. Is that it?

She might have more to say, to which Tom will continue to reflect. Once she’s been heard out, they can move on. 

Eva: Yeah, and I also know that experiences like this are one of the reasons that people decide to keep eating animals, or they start again after they stop, even when they care deeply about animals like I do. So when I feel that, it’s compounded because I know it’s the experience that means I have less camaraderie in this than I wish I did. 

Now Tom really feels like too much is being put on him. He didn’t create all of animal agriculture! He didn’t even come up with the joke himself! This is true; what Eva wants Tom to understand is not about him. Again, he refrains from defending himself, and reflects what he heard. 

Tom: I see, so it’s even bigger than your own history, and it feels so big because it’s the kind of thing that affects many others and stops them from joining you in veganism? Am I getting it?

Eva: Yeah, that’s it. 

Now Tom will try to repair the relationship, first by sharing how it impacts him to hear her. He’ll start by asking if his share is welcome. 

Tom: I’m glad you let me know about this. Would you be open to hearing what’s coming up for me?

Eva: Sure.

He’ll be careful not to self-flagellate with overly emotional language, which can sometimes feel like a demand for comfort or reassurance. He’ll once again avoid the urge to defend himself, and instead keep a focus on his impact on her. The question of whether he did something wrong has not come up. He mourns the impact without taking blame. 

Tom: I’m sad to hear that it had that impact, and I think I get why it did. I want you to have a sense of belonging here and I definitely don’t want to be the reason that anyone feels unwelcome. How is that to hear?

Eva might need more empathy at this point, or she might not. 

Eva: Thanks for hearing that, it helps to know that it matters to you.

At this point, we can talk about solutions. Tom will name the obvious– not repeating the microaggression in the future– and probe for need for further repair. 

Tom: Of course I’ll do my best not to make a joke like that again after hearing the effect it has, but is there anything else I can do now to help?

Observations Have Layers 

I’ll draw attention also to the different aspects of her experience that this fictional Eva described. 

In classical NVC, observations were sometimes taught as “something that can be observed with a video camera.” Roxy Manning notes how video cameras, and the attention of the people viewing videos, can pick up a million different observations depending on where they’re pointed. 

Roxy calls observations on this level, external. In this case, this is Tom saying “How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Instead of stating the observation, Eva referred to it generally, saying “When you made the joke about vegans telling you they’re vegan.” This might sometimes be smoother to share than the observation itself because we can remember exact words or events differently. 

Roxy also teaches internal observations. These are memories, internal reactions, or personal context that help all parties understand the impact of the external observation. In this case, Eva shares information about her personal history with veganism and similar jokes. 

Finally, we discuss systemic observations. The impact on Eva mostly lives at this level. It’s not just that Tom made a joke at her expense, or even that it was one that she’s heard a bunch of times in her life. If he were making fun of her for being from California or even for being young, it wouldn’t have landed so hard, even if she’d heard a similar number of jokes about these in her life. The reason it sucked so much to hear that joke was that it relates to something really big- animal exploitation and Eva’s alienation in her understanding of it. 

In this case, Eva knew that Tom wouldn’t be able to hear it if she talked about animals directly in relation to this microaggression. Even fictional giraffe-eared meat-eaters can shut down given too much horror. Instead, she spoke generally about animals- that there are important reasons for being vegan, and that she cares about animals—and shared a systemic observation about vegans—that their recidivism is related to their alienation. This allowed Tom to hear her and begin to understand. It also allowed Eva to practice self-respect and integrity with her own values. 

We Can Be Better Allies 

By relaying a repair that you can imagine from the receiver or bystander side, I hope to invite you to imagine yourself, also, on the actor side of this exchange. You may find yourself inadvertently causing harm to someone by delivering a cue of nonbelonging because of their race, sexuality, gender, ability, age, or for one of many other factors. The experience of delivering a microaggression is often that of experiencing someone else “overreacting” to something we’ve said or done, because we aren’t immediately aware of the layers of experience that are present. In these cases, your task of repair is not in defending yourself or explaining what you’ve meant—it’s in deeply understanding the other person to the extent that they want to share, and in sharing your commitment to repair and to learn for the future. 

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

Part Six: when enemies appear

The Gist:

In navigating the complex and often strained landscape of movement relationships, empathy is essential. The process outlined in this blog serves not only as a framework for mending the rifts caused by unintended harm but also as a reflection of our own shared values. By taking the time to truly comprehend the impact of our actions, express genuine sorrow, and actively work towards a solution, we foster a movement culture of responsibility, introspection, and constant improvement. In embracing our fallibility without discarding our integrity, we honor not just the relationships we seek to repair but also the very essence of our interdependence.

In the most basic sense, Nonviolent Communication gives us two options in every moment: we can give empathy to someone else’s experience or we can express our own, and we can do either of these silently or out loud. 

Certain exercises can guide us in how we make these choices in certain moments. 

This exercise is for moments when we’ve made an impact on someone else that we don’t enjoy. This process doesn’t require that we believe that we were in the wrong or that we would necessarily make another choice in the future, but is for situations where we care about the impact we’ve made and want to repair the relationship. 

This process can be emotionally difficult because it asks you to focus completely on the needs of the receiver (the person who experienced harm). A self-empathy process, such as described in the last piece in this series, may be helpful in preparing yourself. 

In making a repair, imagine answering three questions that the other person has: 

Do you get why I was hurt?

Does it matter to you that I was hurt?

Where do we go from here? 

In addition to apologizing to and seeking forgiveness from another person, an alternate use for this exercise could be as a role-play when someone else’s actions harmed you. Even role-playing this conversation with someone playing the part of the other person can help us to resolve our hurt. 

  1. Understanding the Impact

This stage comes first. In it, offer empathy. Hear out the other person completely, reflecting back the content of what they’re saying, their feelings, and their needs, and checking for understanding. Questions that might help you in this process include:

Do you get it? Once it feels like you do—and once the other person reports feeling understood—you’re ready for the next step.

  1. Expressing Mourning

Mourning means expressing your own feelings in relation to the impact of your actions. As you pay remember from the piece on empathy, this involves keeping a metaphorical spotlight on the other person, even while discussing our own feelings and needs in relation to theirs. 

To offer this step, ask something like, “Would you like to hear what it’s like for me to hear you?” 

Consider three types of mourning. Let’s imagine a scenario where I was late to a high-stakes meeting, causing my colleague embarrassment and stress.  

Type 1: When I see your pain, I feel pain. 

When I hear how much stress you’re experiencing, it brings up sadness for me because I want this work to be sustainable for you and I really value your contributions to the work. 

Type 2: When I see the impacts of my actions, I feel pain. 

When I hear how much of an impact my being late to the meeting had, I feel a lot of regret.

Type 3: When I see that my impact didn’t align with my values, I feel pain. 

I want to be someone who others can depend on. When I see that I didn’t live up to that and it had such a negative impact, I feel heartbroken. 

It’s important to note that this stage is not about self-flagellation. We can mourn the impacts of our actions without discarding or disrespecting ourselves. It might be delicate to express mourning without that landing as self-punishment. If the receiver jumps in to defend you, such as by saying, “It’s not that big of a deal, everyone makes mistakes,” you might try something to clarify like, “Of course, I can accept that I make mistakes. I still want you to know that it matters to me that my mistake hurt you.”

To move on from this step, ask something like, “How does it feel for you to hear this?” If the receiver expresses more pain, return to giving them empathy. 

Does it matter? Once you’ve fully mourned with them, the receiver will know that the negative impact matters to you, and that they matter to you.

Offering an Explanation

An optional step to this process is to offer an explanation for your behavior. Someone who experienced an impact from your actions might be asking, “Why did you do it?” This might be a request for empathy, for you to reflect a sense of shock or disgust that the person has with your actions. So keep listening and offering empathy for the receiver’s perspective as much as possible, before in any way explaining your own perspective.

If this kind of question comes again, after some empathy has already landed, it might be a request for information. At that point, you can offer to share what needs you were trying to meet when you did what you did. Offer with something like, “Would it help to hear a bit about what I was thinking in that moment?” 

  1. Where We Go From Here

Finally, consider any requests or offers you can make going forward. These will be extremely specific to the situation, but might be solutions to prevent the same thing from happening in the future, to literally repair the harm done, or to act out the care you’ve spoken by contributing to the other person in some other way. 

For example, I might express a plan to set an alarm or turn on calendar notifications to stop myself from being late in the future. I might offer to share information with some third party so that my colleague is saved from embarrassment. I might even offer to do some piece of unglamorous work that my colleague would otherwise do in order to demonstrate care and make it up to her. 

Moving On

In the process outlined above, we can make better apologies to reach genuine forgiveness and relationship repair, strengthening not only the movement but also ourselves.

The Gist:

When piglets Lilly and Lizzie were rescued from a giant pig farm, their rescuers spoke openly about what they had done. A multi-year FBI investigation and state felony prosecution followed. At the end of their trial, supporters expected them to go to prison, potentially for years. The rescuers had gotten their affairs in order. We thought they’d be held in custody between the verdict and sentencing. We wondered how they would do in their yearly parole board hearings, given that they’d never express remorse. This was goodbye for a long time. 

I was in the courtroom when the decision was announced. It all started the way we expected. After deliberating for nearly eight hours, the jury entered the room, stone-faced. They didn’t look at us. The judge asked if the jury had come to a decision. They had. The bailiff passed the written decision between the judge, the foreperson, and the clerk. But then something strange happened. Charge by charge, we heard the words “not guilty.” 

It was a fantastic moment. We were elated. The bailiff scolded us gently, saying, “I get it, but you need to be quiet.” But how were we supposed to be quiet when the unbelievable had happened? The judge had referred to Lilly and Lizzie by name. The jurors had asked why we didn’t rescue more piglets. We had argued for rescue in a court of law, and we had won.

This moment of sweetness was particularly unexpected for me. In the years since I’d participated in Open Rescue myself, I had grown doubtful about our hopes that it would produce wins in the courtroom. After all, I served as DxE’s legal coordinator for a little over two years- hiring lawyers, setting up defendant meetings, and occasionally talking down the worried parent of an activist facing charges. In all this time, of dozens of criminal defendants, not one went to trial. Cases were dropped, activists took deals so they wouldn’t need to continue their cases, and mostly, cases were delayed long past the point when I, impatient with the glacial pace of the legal system, left DxE to start Pax Fauna. 

Now that the celebrations are over and regular work resumes, this post is an attempt to make an honest assessment of Open Rescue as a tactic to create social change for animals, in light of a victory we never expected. 

A Moment to Re-evaluate

The rescue of Lilly and Lizzie happened on March 7, 2017, and their rescuers, Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer, were acquitted over five years later, on October 8, 2022. In 2017, DxE was releasing open rescues monthly, conducting mass trainings, and hoping that open rescue would end up being a viral tactic that would touch every farm and slaughterhouse in the world. 

Since then, DxE has moved away from open rescue. At one point, Wayne had 17 pending felony charges, which seemed like plenty. Most of the cases took years to resolve (several are still plodding through pretrial hearings), and, without making it to trial, they didn’t always get the media attention we hoped for. Now that long-awaited evidence of the outcomes of Open Rescue cases are available, it is a prime moment for the movement to consider using it again. In this article, we’ll outline the lessons learned for the animal freedom movement from the Smithfield victory, and the implications for future strategy. 

A Legal Theory that Worked

But First, the Parts that Didn’t

One defense strategy batted around in the heyday of DxE’s open rescues was that we could convince a jury to simply ignore unjust laws and make a decision based on their conscience, known as jury nullification. But it seems that’s not exactly what happened here. The jury did not explicitly decide that rescue is moral and Paul and Wayne didn’t deserve to be punished- they decided that the prosecution didn’t meet its burden of proof that the particular crimes charged had been committed. (From juror interviews afterwards, it seems that a moral motivation was also present, at least for some.) It also wasn’t a case that created a binding legal precedent. That means that nothing has changed regarding the legality of open rescue. Of course, activists hope cases like this can set a cultural precedent, and they can also be used as persuasive authority, information that informs, but does not dictate, the actions of judges in the future, even outside of the state of Utah.

Another piece to the theory whose result was inconclusive was the necessity defense- a legal concept in which a criminal act is justified if it prevents immediate, greater harm. The judge in this case forbade DxE from introducing it (as usually happens for animal and environmental activists hoping to claim it), but it would sound something like this: Paul and Wayne knew that animals were suffering terribly inside Circle Four Farms, and they were justified in committing trespass, a smaller harm, in order to stop a greater harm- criminal animal cruelty. While it was explictly forbidden, this defense was both implied by the defendants in their discussion of the poor health of Lillie and Lizzie, and possibly common sense to the jurors who aquitted. My guess is that the necessity defense represents an unquantifiable moral component to this case. It can’t be expected to earn aquittals by itself, since it’s rarely included in jury instructions, but it’s necessary for winning over juries all the same. (You can hear more from the jurors at an upcoming by the Denver Animal Activist Defense Project.)

Felonies Schmelonies 

It was, however, a proof of concept of part of a legal theory that Wayne and DxE have been touting for years- that under the right circumstances, diligent open rescue investigators won’t be guilty of any crime more serious than trespass. (In Utah, prosecutors must choose between charging burglary and trespass- this isn’t true everywhere.) Because investigators enter farms with only the intent of documenting what’s happening in the facility, they aren’t guilty of burglary, which generally requires entering a building with the intent to commit a theft or felony. Because the animals they rescue are on the verge of death, they aren’t guilty of theft, which usually requires that one steal something of value. However, courts and juries do not always agree with activists in the assessment of the monetary value of sick rescued animals, or the relevance of animal’s value, such as in Wayne’s own conviction at trial after rescuing Rain, a baby goat with pneumonia. (Another upcoming test will come from my own charges of burglary and theft in association with the rescue of beagles from a breeding and testing facility in Wisconsin, each valued at $1200.) In the future, activists may be able to set themselves up for success by rescuing animals whose urgent medical needs cost more than they are worth to the farm. (Of course, specific laws and jury instructions will vary according to circumstances and jurisdictions, and I’m writing this from the perspective of an activist and not an attorney or legal expert.)  

Difficulties with OR as a Tactic

Possible downsides to Open Rescue as a strategy could be the cost, the difficulty of replicating the legal strategy, and a risk of an undesirable media narrative. None of these seem insurmountable for a savvy group of activists. 

Costs

Costs of the investigation itself can be in the realm of a few thousand dollars- lower if equipment (e.g. cameras) is used for multiple investigations. These include flights and hotels for a small team, a rental car, biosecurity supplies, and vet visits. The legal fees are where it really adds up. Lawyers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, to which we can add the price of specialized investigators or jury studies, additional tens of thousands of dollars. This price might be comparable to undercover investigations, which require a salary for an investigator for months in addition to the equipment and costs associated with preparing the story for release. However, the vast majority of Open Rescues were never prosecuted, resulting in a very low average cost overall. 

Charisma

Watching Wayne Hsiung represent himself in court, I was struck by the thought that he was the most qualified person in the world for this particular task- a lawyer and practiced public speaker who had been preparing for this moment for years. This might lead one to conclude that others can’t replicate his strategy, but I disagree. While Wayne’s decision to represent himself made for some exciting theater, I don’t believe it was necessary for the verdict. As touching as it was to hear him say to the jury, “I don't actually want you to acquit us on a legal technicality, I want you to acquit us as a matter of conscience” it seems that they probably were acquitted on a legal technicality as discussed above- the piglets didn’t have any monetary value, and perhaps that they didn’t have the intent to rescue when they entered the farm. 

I believe that with competent counsel and no particular gift for public speaking, this case implies that other investigators could have a decent chance of acquittal from serious charges under similar sets of facts. (That’s not to say that any lawyer will do- competent and dedicated activist attorneys are vital and rare. Advice on their selection would easily fill a blog of the same length.) 

Narrative

A final concern with Open Rescue that I want to address is the narrative put forth through the media. DxE can be considered a liberationist group. That is, they are not interested in lowering the mortality rates of piglets in factory farms or winning slightly bigger cages for egg-laying hens- they mean to advocate for animals as individuals who deserve rights. However, this insistence on liberation over welfare doesn’t always get through to the media. 

Of the Smithfield Investigation, the most widely consumed coverage came from the New York Times, the subtitle of which read, “The Utah trial highlighted what the defendants argued is a lack of transparency for the treatment of animals at large corporate farms.” It also included a discussion of corporate transparency, gestation crates, and a quote from Wayne Hsuing saying “Instead of trying to put us in prison… the better thing to do is just take care of your animals.” Facing a trial and serious criminal consequences, it can be tempting for a defendant or organization to adapt their message to one that may be perceived as more palatable and more likely to win the case and woo the media. 

However, unlike many of DxE’s other Open Rescues that focused on dispelling the Humane Myth, the Smithfield Investigation’s narrative was more focused on corporate lies around welfare. (The company had previously vowed to phase out gestation crates, while its largest facility still used them.) I don’t believe that Open Rescue itself implies a welfare angle if the advocates behind it don’t want one. 

Upsides

Storytelling

In contrast with undercover operations, Open Rescue allows for a quality of storytelling that allows the audience to identify a single victim to feel empathy for. Discussion of particularly cruel practices or deceptive marketing can be accompanied by the story of an individual who survived, transforming a dark story about corporate wrongdoing into one containing a vision for change. These stories are also strengthened by the honesty of the activists, their willingness to break unjust laws in the open and demand their day in court.

Additionally, Open Rescue allows for the telling of many different stories- ones that may resonate on social media, traditional media, with lawmakers, and for juries, all of whom have different interests. While the media may not pick up every case of open rescue, if we try enough different ways, eventually some of them will blow up. 

Activist Transformation

Open Rescue allows activists to be transformed by what they see. Now, when we speak about animals, we have firsthand knowledge of their lives and deaths. The risk we take in conducting Open Rescue functions as a signal of our commitment, to ourselves and to others. DxE’s mass open rescues and a similar tactic used by Meat the Victims transformed hundreds of activists into people with firsthand experience.

Importantly, this experience is of bearing witness and also of helping. By rescuing animals, or at least stopping the functioning of the facility for some time, activists’ witnessing of violence is accompanied by intervening, leading to more empowerment and less burnout than bearing witness on its own. 

Open Rescue transforms not only the activists’ internal sense of motivation but also their credibility as messengers to the public: from here on, they can attest as eyewitnesses to the barbarity of animal farming. 

Untapped Potential

To date, Open Rescue has done important work at transforming activists, challenging the humane myth, uncovering previously unknown atrocities, and earning a voice in the media, not to mention saving real lives. In the future, Open Rescue could be used in even more creative ways than we’ve previously seen. For just one example, in the context of an animal rights ballot measure, donors to the opposition could be identified and their farms could be investigated by groups unaffiliated with the ballot measure, with investigations published just before election day. This would provide both important publicity for the issue and accountability to those who would financially support an anti-animal position. 

Until Every Cage is Empty

The full potential of Open Rescue as a tactic has yet to be fully realized. While it’s understandable that, in the period of time where many charges were pending and few were resolved, activists moved away from it, the time is now right to reinvest energy in openly investigating violent facilities and rescuing the animals we find there. We hope to see open rescue happen by greater numbers of activists, at greater frequency, and to save more lives than has been possible before. 

This piece contains the processed data informing the findings we present in Where the Animal Movement will be Reborn. We recommend reading that piece first if you haven't already, then coming back here if you want to see the data.

Methods

Data was drawn from Meta’s Social Connectedness Index. We used Python to draw out data for each of the counties in which we were interested, adding data on the census population of each county. I examined the data for each county and noted more counties that showed up between the different counties’ data sets. Data for each of these is included except for Arlington, VA, which appears to be highly connected to many counties, we suspect because of its proximity to Washington D.C. While it shows up as a top connector for many of our interesting counties, these counties are not also a high connector for it. That is, if you live in Boulder County, you’re more likely to have a Facebook friend in Arlington County, VA than many other counties across the country, but someone in Arlington is not particularly likely to have a Facebook friend in Boulder or the other counties in which we’re interested. Hennepin, MN (Minneapolis) and Davidson, TN (Nashville) behaved similarly, showing up as top connectors for the interesting cities but without a mutual connection in most cases. 

I first examined data for Boulder CO, Alameda (Berkeley CA), Multnomah (Portland OR), and Buncombe (Asheville NC). After examining these data, I examined the data for other counties, which frequently appeared as connectors to the initial counties. Counties with less than 200,000 people were filtered out in all cases, because small populations have less potential for connections in general, and because small numbers are easier to skew, such as by one family moving from one county to another. 

Counties in the same state and in neighboring states were filtered out as well because geography is already a well-established predictor of connectedness. However, because California and Texas are large states with interesting areas near their geographical centers, neighboring states were not excluded from their data. 

For each county, after filtering the data, I recorded a list of the counties that appeared, in order. When several or more counties outside the targets appeared before one of the target counties, I recorded the target counties with a number, which indicates that counties rank in connectedness out of 3192, the total number of counties included in the dataset. Note that this does not account for filtering, so in general, there wasn’t a huge difference in the rank of the last county listed in order and the first one listed with a rank number. 

Top 10 connectedness indicates that after filtering, a county appeared as one of the first 10 listed. Top 10% connectedness indicates that the county’s rank is 319 or less. Top 10% connectedness is usually only slightly broader than Top 10. 

Hypothesis Counties

Boulder, CO

Boulder seems to be very well connected to the other counties we examined, appearing in the top 10 connectedness with all of them, and having all of the target counties in the top 10% of its connectedness. While Arlington VA, which is next to Washington DC, was highly connected with all of the counties we looked at, these counties didn’t appear as its most connected counties. In fact, with the exclusion of Arlington, each of the counties that appear as high out-of-area matches with Boulder is also highly connected with each other. Jefferson county, near Boulder and Denver, also often appears highly connected to the relevant counties. 

  1. Marin County CA 
  2. San Fransico CA
  3. Buncombe NC
  4. Santa Cruz CA
  5. Multnomah OR
  6. Arlington VA 
  7. Travis TX 
  8. Dane WI 
  9. Washtenaw MI
  10. Hawaii HI
  11. Hennepin MN 217
  12. Davidson TN 253

Alameda, CA (Berkeley)

The Bay Area is highly connected to the counties we looked at. San Francisco, like Arlington, is a highly connected area in general, but Alameda county’s data displays a unique and mutual connection with the other areas- Boulder, Portland, Ann Arbor, and Austin. Its connection with Nashville and Minneapolis is also in the top 10% of connectedness. 

  1. Washoe NV 
  2. Multnomah OR 
  3. King WA 
  4. Boulder CO
  5. Hawaii HI
  6. Clark NV
  7. Honolulu HI
  8. Deschutes OR 
  9. Jackson OR
  10. Suffolk MA 
  11. Denver CO
  12. Arlington VA
  13. Travis TX 
  14. Middlesex MA 
  15. Kitsap WA
  16. Washtenaw MI 
  17. Davidson TN 165
  18. Hennepin MN 190

Multnomah, OR (Portland)

Washington and Idaho were filtered out as neighboring states. Californian states were initially not filtered out in order to examine the connectedness with the target Bay Area counties. As hypothesized, they ranked high in connectedness with Multnomah, in addition to Santa Cruz, which was later added to the list of target areas.  When CA counties were filtered out, the further counties appeared as highly connected. 

  1. San Fransisco CA
  2. Hawaii HI
  3. Marin CA 
  4. Santa Cruz CA
  5. Boulder CO
  6. Denver CO
  7. Sonoma CA
  8. Alameda CA
  9. (Others in CA)
  10. Travis TX
  11. Buncombe NC
  12. Jefferson CO (near Boulder and Denver)
  13. Hennepin MN 
  14. Arlington VA
  15. Clark NV
  16. Utah UT
  17. Maricopa AZ 
  18. Dane WI 
  19. Washtenaw MI 297
  20. Davidson TN 300

Buncombe, NC (Asheville)

While Buncombe, NC was highly connected to the other areas we examined, its highest connections were in the broader geographical area. Only when bordering states (SC, TN, VA, GA)  and also nearby states (FL, KY) were excluded did our target cities show up as its top connections. Given the size of North Carolina and its neighboring states when compared with the larger Western states, this probably does not indicate a lower level of connectivity than the other areas have. Low connectedness with Dane, WI, and Washtenaw, MI is noted. 

  1. Boulder CO (even has a higher score than many NC counties)
  2. Denver CO
  3. Arlington VA
  4. Marin CA
  5. Cumberland ME 
  6. Jefferson CO
  7. Larimer CO
  8. Multnomah OR
  9. Henrico VA
  10. Hawaii HI
  11. Jefferson AL
  12. San Francisco CA
  13. Travis TX
  14. Deschutes OR
  15. Baldwin AL
  16. Santa Cruz CA
  17. Chesterfield VA
  18. Jackson OR
  19. Washtenaw MI 637
  20. Dane WI 789
  21. Hennepin MN 1030

Travis, TX (Austin)

Travis seems slightly less connected than the others, but all of the target areas are still relatively high, though Santa Cruz and Hawaii fall outside the top 10%.   

  1. Denver CO
  2. San Francisco CA
  3. Boulder CO
  4. Arlington VA
  5. Davidson TN
  6. Jefferson CO 287
  7. Marin CA 295
  8. Multnomah OR 311
  9. Buncombe NC 352
  10. Washtenaw MI 358
  11. Alameda CA 372
  12. Dane WI 391
  13. Santa Cruz CA 409
  14. Hawaii HI 489

Dane, WI (Madison)

I filtered out Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan as neighboring states. Buncombe, Alameda, Santa Cruz, and Hawaii fall outside the top 10%. Multnomah and Travis are the nextmost connected counties after Hamilton, IN, afterwhich only target counties are listed. 

  1. Boulder CO
  2. Denver CO
  3. Lake IN
  4. Larimer CO
  5. Jefferson CO
  6. SF CA
  7. Arlington VA
  8. Davidson TN
  9. Douglas CO
  10. Hamilton IN
  11. Multnomah OR 276
  12. Travis TX 290
  13. Buncombe NC 413
  14. Alameda CA 552
  15. Santa Cruz CA 712
  16. Hawaii HI 759

Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz is geographically close to the Bay Area counties but not directly next to them, and with the exception of Dane, all of the interesting counties are in the top 10%. Santa Cruz is about two hours from Berkeley by car, or about three hours via public transit.

  1. Deschutes OR
  2. Jackson OR
  3. Hawaii HI
  4. Washoe NV
  5. Multnomah OR
  6. Boulder CO
  7. Lane OR
  8. Whatcom WA
  9. Clackamas OR
  10. King WA 135
  11. Denver CO 138
  12. Buncombe NC 148
  13. Travis TX 172
  14. Jefferson CO 182
  15. Davidson TN 291
  16. Dane WI 351
  17. Hennepin MN 372

Washtenaw, MI (Ann Arbor)

I filtered out Ohio, IL, and IN as neighboring states. WI didn’t show up in the data very frequently, even though Michigan’s upper peninsula borders Wisconsin, perhaps explained by Ann Arbor being in the Southeast corner of Michigan, furthest from Wisconsin. These data are presented without excluding Wisconsin. 

  1. SF CA
  2. Boulder CO
  3. Dane WI
  4. Arlington VA
  5. Suffolk MA
  6. Denver CO
  7. Durham NC
  8. Davidson TN
  9. Travis TX 163
  10. Hennepin MN 168
  11. Alameda CA 175
  12. Multnomah 188
  13. Buncombe 212
  14. Santa Cruz 358
  15. Hawaii 566

Hawaii, HI 

Our Bay Area counties show up as the most connected, and Portland is still in the top 10, as are Boulder and Buncombe. If we exclude CA and OR as neighboring states, then Boulder is #3. Travis and Dane fall outside of the top 10%.

  1. Santa Cruz CA
  2. Deschutes OR
  3. Clark NV
  4. Utah UT
  5. Jackson OR
  6. Multnomah OR
  7. Boulder CO 118
  8. Denver 235
  9. Buncombe 247
  10. Travis TX 396
  11. Hennepin 463
  12. Dane WI 706
  13. Davidson 594

Denver, CO 

None of our target counties are in Denver’s Top 10, but the majority are in the top 10%. Hawaii and Santa Cruz fall just outside the top 10% connectedness, while Alameda is around the 15th percentile. Denver and Boulder are about an hour apart by both car and public transit- close enough that activists living in one could access the other for events without staying overnight.

  1. Travis TX 118
  2. Hennepin MN 141
  3. Davidson TN 147
  4. Dane WI 166
  5. Multnomah OR 174
  6. Buncombe NC 203
  7. Hawaii HI 330
  8. Santa Cruz 391
  9. Alameda CA 468

Examined Counties with Low Connectedness

Hennepin, MN (Minnepolis) 

Iowa and Wisconsin were filtered out. While Hennepin shows up as a high connector for many of the interesting cities, only Boulder is a top connector for it, though Multnomah falls just outside of the top 10%. 

  1. Denver CO
  2. Cook IL
  3. Douglas NE
  4. Boulder CO
  5. Jefferson CO
  6. Larimer CO
  7. Lancaster NE
  8. Champaign IL
  9. San Francisco CA
  10.  Multnomah OR 395
  11. Washtenaw MI 423
  12. Davidson TN 434
  13. Travis TX 480
  14. Hawaii HI 581
  15. Buncombe NC 650
  16. Alameda CA 671
  17. Santa Cruz CA 780

Davidson, TN (Nashville)

Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi were filtered out to reveal Buncombe NC as the top connection, which is in a bordering state, and Denver as the third highest. With the exception of Buncombe and Travis, all of the interesting counties fell outside of the top 10%. 

  1. Buncombe NC
  2. Arlington VA
  3. Denver CO
  4. Travis TX 329
  5. Boulder CO 418
  6. Washtenaw MI 440
  7. Dane WI 655
  8. Multnomah OR 817
  9. Alameda CA 1441
  10. Santa Cruz CA 1519

Any questions about our methodology? Comment below!

The Gist:

Concentrate!

Back when I was an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere, trying to figure out how to build a mass movement for animals, there were a few strategic puzzles that just kept coming up, year after year. One of the most persistent was the debate between concentration and distribution. 

One possible strategy was to concentrate all of our energy in one place. We could carefully select a city where we had the best chance of establishing a historic precedent for animals, then encourage dedicated activists to move there, in the same way that the gay community concentrated in San Francisco, creating new norms of LGBT acceptance that slowly spread across the country.

But we could also imagine benefits of a more distributed strategy. By investing in chapters all over the country, we could reach more people and engage more activists. Even if vegans are willing to uproot their lives and move to a new place, it might not be very strategic to remove people from the social networks where they can have the most influence. Being widely distributed would also enable us to seize opportunities wherever they might pop up: it’s impossible to guess where the next dramatic escape of an animal from a slaughterhouse will happen (a fantastic opportunity for a protest to seize the narrative) or where an unexpectedly sympathetic city council might take shape. This was the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom strategy of SNCC, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights strategists in the 20th century, all of whom built deep networks of community organizing all across the American south.

(This problem is specific to social movements in the United States and other countries with a large population spread out more-or-less evenly across a massive area. For this reason, I was always jealous of movements like in the UK, where a whopping 14% of the population live in the London metro area and 87% within a four-hour train ride, allowing nearly everyone in the country to get to a major protest in London and still be home in time for dinner.)

Well, I recently stumbled onto an answer to this old predicament: A solution that promises the best advantages of both concentration and distribution. It happened in a funny way.

The Vortex

At Pax Fauna (where, sure enough, I’m still trying to build a mass movement for animals) we work remotely, which has allowed me to move out of my house in Boulder and spend several months traveling, doing stints of house-sitting and couch-surfing in various cities across the country. Well, actually, I’ve been drawn to certain cities in particular: Boulder, Berkeley, Portland, Madison, Asheville, and Austin. When people ask me, I’ve struggled to name exactly why I feel drawn to spend time in each one, what it is that these cities seem to have in common besides being the sorts of places angry counter-protesters tell animal rights activists to “go back to.” I certainly have personal connections in each, but somehow it feels deeper. I’ll sometimes say something like, “There’s kind of a vortex between all these cities, right?”

Right, it turns out. 

I was recently introduced to an amazing data set published by Facebook, which measures the connectedness between every county in the United States. The Social Connectedness Index essentially measures the density of Facebook friendship connections between any two counties. We learned about it in Change, a book by social network researcher Damon Centola, who advises that it is a pretty good way of measuring real social connectedness at this point in time. 

So I decided to use this data to test my theory about the “inter-city vortex.” I grabbed the data for each of the counties I was interested in. It’s basically a spreadsheet listing every possible pair of counties, with a score for their relative connectedness. (With 3192 counties in the country, the file has over 10 million lines of data. It crashed Aidan’s computer. We had to call our friend Steven Rouk for help. Thanks, Steven!)

As one would expect, each county is most connected to itself, followed by neighboring counties, other counties in the same state, and often a few counties in neighboring states. This much isn’t new, of course. We know people who live near us.

But for many counties, when we look past those initial close geographical connections, we find county pairings start to pop up that aren’t geographically close at all. As I looked at the places I was most interested in, even though they’re literally spread all across the country, some of the same counties kept popping up.

Some groups of counties are indeed highly connected to each other, forming different socio-cultural networks geographically dispersed throughout the US. And sure enough, one such network was that progressive clique I’d been trying to put my finger on. It included all of the places I’d originally hypothesized, as well as a few I wasn’t expecting.

Snowball Fight

But don’t worry, this piece is about more than just providing scientific validation for my travel plans, though that’s a nice plus. This network of cities is our answer to the problem of concentration vs. distribution. 

Change is a book about how new norms spread through social networks. Or, more accurately, why some norms spread and others don’t. In it, Centola works out that the answer has much less to do with the norm itself (i.e. is it “viral” enough) and much more to do with the layout of the social network it is spreading through. In the simplest terms, while information spreads through social networks like a virus, jumping quickly from person to person across networks, behavior change spreads very differently. These complex contagions (such as believing in animal rights or participating in a social movement) spread through tightly knit social clusters on the periphery of a network, building momentum at first by reaching critical mass in small, relatively isolated clusters. Centola calls this the Snowball Strategy (read all about it here).

So far, the Snowball Strategy would seem to be an argument in favor of social movements concentrating their efforts in one place. But there’s one more crucial step. A new norm starts by building momentum in social clusters on the periphery. But how does it break out of that cluster and into the mainstream?

Wide Bridges

The answer, according to Centola, is wide bridges. Behavior change doesn’t spread easily. It has to overcome a lot of resistance. The reason these changes start in social clusters on the periphery is that these clusters are made up of strong ties- important personal connections involving a lot of trust and social influence. Weak ties, like acquaintances we meet at conferences or the dentist we see twice a year, aren’t powerful enough to spread new social norms. You’re probably not going to change fundamental beliefs or behavior just because your dentist tells you to, right? (Be honest: how often have you been flossing lately?)

Well, it turns out this principle doesn’t just apply on the individual level. For a new norm to make the jump from one social cluster to another, the two clusters need to have a strong connection. And the way that social groups are strongly connected is through wide bridges. Basically, two groups that have lots of connections between them share a wide bridge. At this level, the strength of the ties is less important than the number.

Which finally brings us back, as you guessed, to our network of cities. The Social Connectedness Index shows that the following cities all share wide bridges with each other:

(We show our work here.)

Building an Animal Freedom Avalanche

Simply put, what happens in Portland or Asheville matters more in Boulder than what happens in, say, Cleveland or Las Vegas, because of the wide social bridges between these cities. But why are we talking about this network of cities in particular? They share more than just wide bridges. These are all very liberal cities, and several are college towns with younger-than-average populations. Besides gender, the two strongest demographic variables predicting greater support for animal rights are liberal politics and youth.

All of this points to a potential strategy for the animal rights movement: to invest our resources neither in one central location nor in complete dispersion, but instead in a carefully chosen network of cities throughout the country. The essential hypothesis is that efforts and changing norms in each of these cities would be mutually reinforcing. If a vegan in Boulder decides to join a protest, her influence makes it more likely that her friends in Berkeley and Asheville will decide to join a similar protest organized in their area. If the politics of animal freedom catch on among young people in Portland, they’ll spread it to their friends in Austin and Madison, reinforcing activists' message in those cities. (In Change, Centola documents several modern trends that spread in precisely this way, from the hashtag #blacklivesmatter to the original adoption of Twitter as a tool.)

By focusing on just this handful of cities, we can effectively concentrate our resources while building a genuinely nationwide movement. If we can get animal rights to catch on in this peripheral network of hip, liberal cities, we’ll have anchors down in half a dozen states (including some solidly red states, Texas and North Carolina). From there, our snowball can build into an avalanche.

What Now?

We’re calling on any organization that runs local or area-based programs to join a conversation: what would it look like for many movement organizations to combine our efforts in a carefully chosen network of cities like this? Imagine what would be possible. Imagine the kind of flourishing movement we could create by giving it everything we’ve got in just the right places. University campaigns, vegan restaurant pop-ups, raucous anti-fur protests, ambitious ballot measures, and everything else you can think of all within a few square miles of each other. Surely, that’s what it looks like for animal freedom to become normalized.

We’re not married to only these cities; for one thing, they’re whiter than the nation as a whole, and weighted towards blue states, which carries a risk of locking us in as a partisan issue. We just want to get the conversation started. If your org is involved in any strategies like this at the city level, comment here or reach out!

For years, mass social movements have been organized around a crucial belief: that in a functioning democracy, if you can persuade 51% of the population to support a cause, you can affect needed policy change through the democratic process. (This is related to what is called the popular theory of power: that power in a society is ultimately held by the people through their consent to be governed, which can be withheld.)

This famous cartoon demonstrates the popular theory of power. I can't figure out who drew it, so let me know if you can.

We could say that belief is true by definition, with the key phrase being functioning democracy. In 2014, however, skeptics who had argued this phrase should not be applied to the United States were vindicated. That year, Princeton University published an analysis of 20 years of data comparing public opinion on different proposed laws to the likelihood those laws would pass. The findings were bleak: the data appears to show that the opinions of the less-wealthy 90% of Americans have virtually no impact on whether or not a bill would become law. Only the economic elites in the top 10% of society (read: the donor class) have any influence over the political process. In other words, the United States is no democracy; it is an oligarchy.

While the claims of this study have been debated academically, it would be a mistake to dismiss them out of hand. At best, it may simply be the case that the U.S. political system has become so dysfunctional that no segment of the public has any influence over it, that almost no law can be passed regardless of popular support. Either way, the strategy of convincing 51% of the population to support a policy may not be sufficient on its own.

A central idea in Pax Fauna’s theory of change is distinguishing between cultural and institutional change strategies. I have written elsewhere about the difference between these and further argued that while they compliment each other at the level of movement ecology, they are generally incompatible within a single organization. However, there is one pathway to concrete policy changes which largely collapses this distinction: direct ballot initiatives. 

24 states plus Washington, D.C. allow ordinary citizens to draft statutes and/or state constitutional amendments and collect signatures to have them placed before voters in a general election. A further 39 states make provision for initiatives at the municipal and county levels. Blue-leaning states with statewide initiatives include California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Michigan. 

Appeal

Ballot measures ought to be highly appealing to momentum-driven social movements. First, direct democracy is harmonious with the popular theory of power and the focus on winning over the hearts and minds of the public. Second, using state and local campaigns as stepping stones to build power and gain visibility is ideally suited to the cycle of momentum. Ballot campaigns even have an escalation built in, with an initial phase collecting a small number of signatures and a larger phase winning votes from a majority of the public. Third, state-level victories have been key to recent social movement victories, with both Freedom to Marry and the NRA successfully pursuing a state-by-state strategy to create a sense of inevitability around their issue. (Both movements eventually won nationally in the Supreme Court, further bypassing partisan gridlock in Congress.) Fourth, ballot initiatives bypass the House of Cards-style personal and partisan politics of institutional campaigns that rely on influencing individual decision makers, replacing it with a simple numbers game of mass popular appeal in which the cultural and policy objectives are nearly identical. For this reason, a ballot campaign which ends in defeat would still obviously be a productive use of the movement’s time, because the main efforts would be about outreaching to and persuading the public. Contrast this with a failed institutional campaign, in which the individuals or institutions you try to influence are unlikely to do anything at all for your movement the moment your attention has moved away from them. In other words, there is no sunk cost in a ballot initiative campaign. These campaigns also have the potential to bypass the oligarchic dynamics of the normal legislative process.

Fifth, state and local ballot issues have proven to be a much more promising pathway for progressive policies than electoral politics. Notably, in 2020, ambitious progressive policies succeeded in states that voted for Trump over Biden and saw Democrats shed congressional seats. Florida passed a $15 minimum wage by nearly 22 points while going for Trump by more than 3 points (following up their enfranchisement of felons in 2018, two years after voting for Trump the first time). Meanwhile Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting, while Montana and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. Even in blue states, voters behaved much more progressively on ballot initiatives than congressional elections. Oregon voters decriminalized possession of all drugs in small quantities, by 20 points, while Coloradans created a paid family leave insurance program through the state and joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Why did voters support these policies while electing politicians who oppose them? The most obvious explanation centers on the fact that the vast majority of voters are minimally aware of politics. Most voters don’t think of policies in terms of “progressive,” “liberal,” or “conservative.” Indeed, even highly partisan voters often know relatively little about their party’s platform beyond a few key issues most important to them. One of the idiosyncrasies of American politics is that while far more voters consider themselves “conservative” than “liberal” or “progressive,” progressives enjoy far more widespread support for their actual policies, from Medicare for All (70% support) and similar economic issues like raising the minimum wage, cancelling student debt, and mandating family leave, even to more cultural issues such as drug enforcement and, yes, abortion. The disconnect can be attributed in part to a far more effective messaging strategy on the part of Republicans than their Democratic counterparts, and more generally to the ability of tribalism to override rational thinking. Psychologist Drew Westen, among others, has demonstrated the powerful effect of tribal affiliation in political decision making, showing that the rational brains of partisan voters in fMRI machines largely shut off the moment a signal of tribal affiliation is introduced into the equation. The success of progressive policies at the ballot box suggests that while Republicans have succeeded in painting Democrats as a party of out-of-touch corporatist elites (which is an entirely accurate portrayal), they have not succeeded in generating opposition to the policy agenda of the populist left, and that when filling out a ballot, voters who loyally elect candidates based on party might take a more discerning approach to deciding how they will vote on ballot measures. 

In summary, ballot initiatives provide an opportunity for social movement to appeal directly to voters for change, bypassing not only the byzantine political gamesmanship of electoral politics, but also the ideological tribalism which has ground national policy making to a halt, or more accurately, driven it out of congress and into the hands of the executive and the courts. By focusing on ballot initiatives, a social movement could legitimize its struggle with a real institutional demand, and even win real institutional demands, without being caught up in dysfunctional partisan politics (and likely being co-opted by the centrist oligarchy which controls both major parties anyway).

State-by-State Petition Requirements

For campaigners using the momentum theory of change, the most important immediate goal is not winning incremental policy changes, but increasing the active and passive popular support for the movement. That means winning more members of the public over to agree with the cause, and getting a smaller subset of them to actually join the movement, increasing its capacity and thus its ability to reach the public. Concrete policy changes are a tertiary goal in the immediate term. That said, winning concrete demands can be crucial to sustaining momentum, and a well-designed policy goal will also have a real, immediate positive impact on people’s lives (animals lives in this case).

Winning a ballot initiative campaign requires two subsequent victories: collecting enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and winning a majority (or sometimes a supermajority) at the polls. Clearly, both of these objectives are totally compatible with the larger goal of social and cultural change; both are examples of passive popular support. Thus anything which exists in the arsenal of momentum campaigning to influence public opinion is a useful and appropriate strategy for advancing a ballot campaign. Of course, these campaigns also demand particular attention be given to canvassing in order to collect signatures. 

Some Intimidating Numbers

Collecting enough signatures to get an issue on the ballot can be enormously challenging. Indeed, this may be the more difficult step. In California, for instance, 623,212 signatures are currently required to get a statute on the ballot (an amendment requires 997,139). Campaigns have a limited window of time to collect signatures; California’s 180-day window is typical. If you got every single person in Oakland to sign the petition, you’d be less than 70% of the way there. If every volunteer canvasser collected 100 signatures on average, you’d need well over six thousand volunteers. Most campaigns hire a petition company instead. In 2018, the average cost per signature in 2018 was $6.07; the average cost just to get an issue on the ballot was thus over $2.5 million. Of the eight propositions placed on the ballot this way, five were defeated and three passed.

California requires the largest number of any state, befitting its status as the most populous state. Most states set that threshold as a percentage (typically 5% or 6% for statutes) of the total votes cast for governor or secretary of state in the previous election. In many states, the threshold for putting forward a constitutional amendment is higher than a statute. It may require more signatures or a supermajority of votes. In Colorado, signatures for amendments must be distributed across the state’s 35 senate districts, with 2% of each district signing. This is considered a tremendous hurdle, but it does not apply to statutes, only amendments. Florida, Mississippi, and Illinois only allow amendments. The rules about what laws can be proposed as amendments vs. as statues tend to be vague, and it falls to state regulators and courts to determine whether the proposal is viable.

Most Promising States

Here you can view a table laying out the 24 states which allow voter initiatives. It tracks the number of signatures required and the percentage that number represents of registered voters, along with the window of time each state allows for collecting signatures. I’ve also included different facts about the state which may suggest states more likely to be favorable to our messaging. Animal agriculture is not currently seen as a partisan issue, so in addition to partisan tilt I’ve included measures like urban vs. rural population which may make states more or less hospitable.

The ideal state for a ballot initiative campaign would meet the following criteria:

Oregon and Colorado stand out as states with moderate signature requirements (112,020; 124,632) and favorable politics. Both have a habit of passing major, nation-leading reforms through ballot measures, especially on non-partisan issues like drug legalization. Both states have Democratic trifectas. Each state’s current signature requirement comprises just under 5% of registered voters (the average is 6.1%). Both states have prominent urban areas; Portland in particular has a strong existing activist scene which could be befriended, and which tends to be more friendly towards animal freedom than other progressive scenes. One difference stands out: Colorado hosts a large presence of two of the world’s largest slaughter corporations (Smithfield and JBS), while Oregon’s ag sector is dominated by smaller beef and dairy operations. Having a more consolidated slaughter industry as the opponent presents pros and cons. Mainly, Smithfield and JBS are less sympathetic enemies, but they have far more money for an opposition campaign. It’s likely, however, that major slaughter corporations would invest in opposition in any state regardless of whether they operate there.

Municipal Initiatives

The administration of municipal ballot initiatives is more heterogeneous. Each county and city publishes its own guidelines on how many signatures and votes are required. For a rough sense of the scale of municipal ballot campaigns in 2020, Portland required 37,638 signatures; Denver County required 9,788, 2% of registered voters; 2% in Boulder county was 4,908. Clearly, these numbers are much more achievable. For a different route, conservative, agrarian Weld County, CO, home of a massive JBS slaughterhouse, requires just over 4,000; Yuma County, home of a major Smithfield operation, had a total of 6,008 registered voters in 2020. 

Otherwise, the process of registering a voter initiative is essentially the same at the local level as at the state level. Rather than conduct a comprehensive review of these jurisdictions now, Pax Fauna can prepare to efficiently conduct that research when mobilization reaches a significant enough level in specific geographies.

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