Meet Our Team: Aidan

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This essay is part of a series where the partners of Pax Fauna introduce themselves to the world! Each partner will share about their journey in the animal movement, their philosophy, and why they are creating Pax Fauna.

As I see it, the roots of Pax Fauna date back to 2015, the year our three current members (Eva, John, and myself) each joined Direct Action Everywhere as organizers in the Chicago and Colorado chapters. DxE at that time was a quintessential grassroots movement network: a decentralized hotbed of innovation, a place where anybody could come in and enact their ideas if they were willing to do the work. A “do-ocracy.” My memory of that time is of building a local organization from the ground up with no guidance except from peers who were in the same position in other cities. In our first two years with DxE, all of us built our chapters into something we couldn’t have imagined when we started, involving hundreds of people in the movement for the first time and starting to break into the public’s attention in a meaningful way. Then, just as it was becoming impossible to deny that our growth had plateaued, all three of us were centrally involved in an explosive conflict in 2017 which saw half of DxE’s chapters evaporate nearly overnight, including the one in Chicago where John and Eva organized. I believe that through DxE, we’ve experienced the best and worst of what grassroots organizing can look like. 

I’ve seen the same extremes elsewhere. It seems they are a central feature of mass movements. On the one hand, any mass movement is a transformative experience where participants and observers inevitably catch a glimpse of a different possible world. Yet somehow, the exact vibrancy of this experience tends to bring out the authoritarian in all of us. Perhaps when it feels that a different world is within our grasp, we want to cling tightly even to the finest details of our vision of that world, and the smallest disagreements become intolerable. I remember feeling this contrast in particularly sharp relief during my time at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps in Standing Rock. Everywhere I looked, I saw people contributing to each other and to the collective without a second thought; everything was shared liberally with little concern for personal property. Yet even more stunning was the speed with which people turned on each, depicting even semantic disagreements as moral failures just hours after they had stood side-by-side facing police water hoses. 

It could be because I was fresh out of my certification program as a Kingian Nonviolence trainer, but it seemed to me that the disagreements at Standing Rock boiled down to a clash over the meaning of Nonviolence which has popped up in countless movements over the last century. In this recurring pattern, one faction is agitating for more radical action that often includes property destruction or aggressive tactics, while another faction urges “peacefulness” and moderation. Followers of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on Nonviolence believe that this is a false choice, that there is a way to be fierce in our resistance without compromising our commitment to peace and compassion. This approach requires a profound level of spiritual discipline. Without a doubt, there were leaders in the Standing Rock movement who possessed that discipline and spiritual commitment, but their voices were drowned out (with the help of extensive infiltration from law enforcement). Six months later, I watched the same process tear apart my own community in DxE. (In that case, infiltration wasn’t necessary; we ate each other alive just fine by ourselves.)

In mid 2018, once we’d managed to get back on our feet, John, Eva and I started looking for opportunities to reassemble the shattered pieces of DxE’s international network into something more powerful than the previous version. Even before the conflict, DxE’s growth had ground to a halt. We had run into the limitations of the different methods we were experimenting with, and it had become clear to us that the structural foundations of DxE’s organizing model needed to be revisited if the network were to have any hope of accomplishing its stated goals. We held an intense, month-long workshop and came up with an ambitious plan to reinvent DxE’s structure. 

Quickly, we encountered a problem: DxE’s leadership was not interested in our proposal. In hindsight, I understand why. It was massive, and we resisted any suggestion to break it into discrete pieces that could be tested out separately. To implement our plan in one fell swoop as we desired, DxE would have had to put many of its operations on hold for months without any guarantee that things would improve. (Looking back, I feel a bit embarrassed about how we approached this, which is always a good sign that we’ve learned something!) At the time, we chose to try to develop our ideas separately from DxE’s structure, with the goal of getting the DxE network to adopt them. Over the first half of 2019, we experimented with community organizing models on the margins of DxE’s Berkeley headquarters, and experimented with software for our vision of an online organizing platform.

At the same time, we were keeping a close eye on a new climate-focused mass movement organization (MMO) emerging in the UK. Based on what we’d heard from our friends there, it seemed like they were taking a very similar approach to mass organizing to the one we had been envisioning, down to some remarkably fine details. It became clear they were drawing on many of the same sources for inspiration. In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion put any doubts to rest with their first mass action, 6000 Brits coming seemingly out of nowhere and occupying key London intersections for more than a week. During a lull in our experiments in Berkeley, I decided to drop everything and head to London for three months, to embed in XR UK and learn how it happened. During my extraordinary time with XR, I realized that DxE was not the place to bring this kind of movement to life. A fresh start was necessary, and besides, DxE was going in its own direction, discovering its own separate purpose. 

In 2020, we expanded the scope of our research to cover everything we’d need to build a brand new mass movement. Many teachers, frameworks, and mental models have guided us; one is the Ayni Institute, a profound mass movement think tank. Ayni suggests that there are four elements of “movement DNA” which must be frontloaded prior to the launch of a decentralized mass movement so that it can replicate itself and scale: story, strategy, structure, and culture. Story is the message a movement is telling to the public; strategy is how it leverages its power to make that story reach; structure is how the movement builds power internally; and culture is how people treat each other inside the movement. Before XR, our energy had been focused almost entirely on structure, but over time we’ve become more aware of the way that weaknesses in story, strategy, and culture were tied into our difficulties with structure in DxE. This year, we’ve received extensive training in Nonviolent Communication and begun to develop frameworks for MMO culture and conflict management based on it; extensively researched the cutting edge of progressive political messaging and outlined a plan for a prolonged public opinion research project on animal freedom; and completed the broad strokes of a grand strategy for the MMO. 

Also in 2020, we’ve completed a necessary transition by making ourselves an organization. Over the previous years, all this work was being conducted ad hoc and in between other ongoing responsibilities. To take us over the finish line in launching an MMO, we need to enter a much more concentrated, structured phase. Pax Fauna is not the organization which will become the MMO; it exists to incubate the MMO then continue to provide infrastructural support behind the scenes. In 2020, Pax Fauna incorporated and gained 501(c)(3) status so that we can accept donations, some of which we will use to put a few people on research grants to dedicate their full attention to this work beginning in 2021.

I’m hugely excited for this next phase of Pax Fauna’s evolution. I feel electrified when I think about everything our team has learned over years in the animal movement, and having the opportunity to apply those lessons to a fresh canvas. That’s not to say that I think everything will be perfect, but I do believe we are exceptionally well prepared to usher in the next chapter of grassroots animal freedom organizing.