Stages of Activist Development: A Study of US Animal Rights Organizers

Eva Hamer | April 3, 2023
This study follows in the footsteps of a 2020 survey experiment by Faunalytics, which surveyed 167 paid and unpaid animal advocates on many factors affecting retention.

My Lonely Vegan Journey

I went vegan when I was 13 and rarely met another vegan for the following decade. After high school, I moved from Northern California to Western Michigan to study music. I didn’t have a lot of success connecting with others for the first couple of years. As a vegan, and not to mention a leftist and strident atheist, it was hard to find my people between rehearsals, five hours alone in a practice room daily, and occasional mortifying events put on by the Evangelical Christian student org that I mistook for casual social invitations. I was hopeful during a short stint volunteering with Food Not Bombs, but after they shut down for the first winter, they didn’t start back up again. When I think of my first couple of years of undergrad, the most striking memory is of deafening loneliness. 

Once, on a rare occasion when I had reason to leave the music building, I was offered a leaflet. Imagine my delight when I saw that it was about veganism! I declined, not wanting this precious sermon to be wasted on the choir, and let him know I was already vegan. He reached into his bag and offered me a second leaflet. This one, I guess, was more focused on recipes. 

“Are you with a group or something? Is there something I can get involved with?” I asked, probably ready to join literally anything he offered. 

“No,” he replied. “It’s just me.” 

I don’t even think we exchanged first names. 

Fast Forward

Today, I help to run Pax Fauna, an organization existing to help the grassroots animal rights movement grow into a political force to be reckoned with and change cultural norms. I’ve worked full-time in the movement for five years and been arrested as many times. I’ve given trainings to hundreds of animal rights activists and organized dozens of demonstrations with attendance of up to a thousand. I’ve taken the Liberation Pledge, investigated a handful of factory farms, and am proudly facing felonies for my rescue work. Surely, I’m a success case for the people who recruited me, but I’m just one person- anything that worked to help me transition from lonely vegan to seasoned organizer might just be a fluke. Even still, over my years of involvement, my co-organizers and I have often depended on our own experiences in guessing what might work to recruit others. 

About this Study

Hoping for a more robust understanding of how people become dedicated organizers, my colleagues at Pax Fauna and I designed a study. In it, I interviewed 38 current and former organizers in the animal rights movement. I hoped to learn how they got involved, how they were recruited and by whom, and how they have stayed motivated despite the enormity of the cultural forces we’re up against. I was also curious about the factors influencing their decision or temptation to quit the movement. In this report, I share what I learned about what it’s like to be an animal rights organizer as well as advice on how organizers and groups can better recruit and retain activists. 

This study follows in the footsteps of a 2020 survey experiment by Faunalytics, which surveyed 167 paid and unpaid animal advocates on many factors affecting retention. 


Study participants dedicated significant amounts of time to the movement on a volunteer basis. Only organizers who dedicated at least five hours a week over at least six months were included, but most participants spent much more time, with eight describing a period of time in which they dedicated 40 or more unpaid hours per week over several months. Their involvement, which was sometimes later paid work, lasted anywhere from nine months to over twenty years, with most having gotten involved in the early to mid 2010s and sustained their involvement for five or more years. They participated in the movement in a volunteer capacity well beyond attending events- by organizing demonstrations themselves, and in some cases community events, Veg Fests, trainings, and conferences. They had a variety of organizational affiliations, and most participants worked with multiple organizations throughout the course of their careers. 

Of 38 study participants, two did not complete a demographic survey sent after the interview. 13 identified as male, four as genderqueer or nonbinary, and 19 as woman or female. 12 participants listed a non-white racial or ethnic identity.  One participant declined to state a racial or ethnic identity. All gender/sex and race/ethnicity data is available in the Appendix.

Participants’ highest level of education completed was highschool or equivalent (1), an Associate’s Degree (1), some college (10), a Bachelor’s degree (10), a Master’s degree (12), and a PhD or higher (1). Participants were aged 22-27 (5), 28-34 (8), 35-39 (9), 40s (5), 50s (4) 60s (3) and 70s (1). 

After the first interview, I excluded people whose first organizing experience was with the group DxE SF Bay Area because of their large size and organizational capacity. The reason for this is that I assume that getting involved in DxE in the Bay Area is substantively different than in most other places in the US. While I hope that findings from this study will be applicable to DxE SF Bay, I worried that including people they recruited could give me a nearly endless supply of participants without easily producing insights applicable to organizers in areas that don’t already have a robust animal rights community and systems in place to engage newer activists. 

I also excluded people who I worked closely with during my time organizing for DxE SF Bay Area, even those who had joined the movement elsewhere. The reasoning behind this was that whether or not I took the time to interview them, what I knew of their experiences was sure to inform the study. I chose instead to prioritize including people whom I hadn't worked with previously, and only included past collaborators when our interactions had been minimal (e.g., we both played roles in an event and didn't attend regular organizing meetings together).

Finally, I limited the study to people who got involved in organizing in the United States and people who identify as vegan. Veganism was a stand-in for holding a holistic orientation to animal justice, meant to exclude people with more niche interests in animal issues, such as those who were involved in circus, fur, or animal testing campaigns without supporting animal freedom more broadly. That said, I did include the experiences of activists whose primary work was on such campaigns within the context of a holistic, vegan orientation. 

I used snowball sampling to select potential participants in the study: after assembling a list of organizers known to myself and my colleagues at Pax Fauna, I asked each participant to recommend others who would be appropriate for the study. I sent a single invitation to join the study to most of the activists who were referred. Invitations were sent via email, Signal, Whatsapp, Instagram, and Facebook. Sometimes I wrote “cold messages” over social media and occasionally I was connected by another study participant. 

Data saturation was the metric used to decide when the study was over: when the vast majority of ideas communicated in each new interview had also been discussed in previous interviews, that would signal I was nearing the end of data collection. While coding interviews, specific ideas relevant to the research question were identified through tags. Data saturation was identified when the creation of new tags slowed or stopped for several interviews in a row. At that point, I completed the interviews that were already scheduled and sent a final set of invitations to several people whose experiences were less represented by participants already included- people who had served time in prison or who represented geographies not yet included.  

Out of the 38 organizers I interviewed, 11 were initial seed participants who weren’t referred by another participant but instead were on a list built by Pax Fauna’s team and advisors. Only 9 were people whom I didn’t know personally before the study began. In contrast, 36 people were invited to participate in the study but did not schedule an interview, 23 of whom were people previously unknown to me. The difficulty in recruiting study participants outside of my personal network certainly represents a limitation of this sampling method. With that limitation in mind, my findings should be understood as descriptive of a particular piece of the grassroots movement in the US and not exhaustive of advocates’ experiences. Future research of this kind should consider offering an incentive to study participants to avoid over-relying on the researchers’ personal connections, making greater use of introductions by referring participants, and sending follow-up invitations to participants who have yet to respond. 

Even so, the study included organizers living in California, North Carolina, Illinois, Utah, Wisconsin, Arizona, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Colorado, and Michigan. Participants worked on issues related to animals used for food, testing, and entertainment, including circuses and zoos. About 13 were no longer involved in the movement at the time of their interviews. Interviews were conducted between August 2022 and January 2023. 

I promised confidentiality to participants, except to the extent that they preferred to be credited for their quotes. When direct quotes are relayed here, I sent the quote to the participant it came from and asked whether they’d like to be named in relation to the quote. If no response was received, the quote is relayed anonymously. If an anonymous participant’s primary organizational affiliation is ambiguous or they belong to a small group, they’re referred to only as “animal rights organizer.” Otherwise, their primary or self-selected organizational affiliation is named. 

I conducted each interview on Zoom and transcribed them using the software Each automatically generated transcript was reviewed for errors and corrected by a volunteer or me. It was then uploaded into the qualitative research coding software, Taguette, where I used inductive thematic analysis to identify themes.   


In this piece, I refer to “activists” as an umbrella term for anyone involved in the movement on a volunteer basis. Advocacy groups are abbreviated DxE for Direct Action Everywhere, “AV” for Anonymous for the Voiceless, “Save” for The Save Movement, “Compassionate PDX” for a chapter of the Compassionate Cities Network in Portland, Oregon, and “ARC PDX” for a local group in Portland. “Organizer” in this piece refers to anyone interested in recruiting and developing more activists. “Organization” is any group of activists who work together, but especially refers to international advocacy groups that financially support some organizers, such as DxE, Save, and AV. “Chapter” is sometimes used to specifically refer to a small group of activists who work in a particular locality, especially as a subgroup of an international organization.

Stages of Activist Development

Participants in this study made the rare decision to devote hundreds of unpaid hours to a movement with arguably little public support. They spent their own money on the work, suffered the loss or distancing of many relationships, and faced arrest and criminal charges. While I find these people extremely special, I very much want to believe that they aren’t. After all, while participants occasionally started their stories in relation to some trait they always had, such as being a planner, a peacemaker, an animal lover, a leader, or someone who stands up to injustice, I didn’t notice any trends in which traits they cited or exhibited that would help explain their dedication.

Hearing the stories of so many organizers, I started to conceive of a process by which we transition from “randos” (an affection term for the not-yet activists we’d like to recruit) into seasoned, dedicated organizers. This report offers a framework for understanding the development of an activist. Early in the process of developing this model, I realized that the process seemed to share some uncanny parallels with the Stages of Grief as conceived by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Similar to the Stages of Grief, these are not linear steps- activists experience multiple stages in the same time period, experience them in a different order than listed here, or experience the same stage multiple times. Importantly, each stage has distinct needs that more veteran organizers can help to meet- challenges that, if not overcome, could result in burnout, conflict, dropping out of the movement, or all three. 

While assembling this report, I stopped thinking of it as just a neat parallel to the Stages of Grief, and instead began to consider it a literal grief process, experienced by people who were exposed to the true horror of animal agriculture and who found a way to live in the world despite it. I’m using alternate names for the stages to better reflect the language the study participants used, but they can also be understood as manifestations of the Stages of Grief.  

After conducting dozens of interviews with animal rights organizers,  I feel a heart-wrenching wistfulness around my interaction with the leafleter when I was in college. On one hand, I wish I had been as self-motivated and confident as many of the organizers I talked to, or even the man leafleting at Western Michigan University around 2010. (Can anyone put me in touch?) On the other, I wish that I could have sooner been invited to participate in meaningful work for animals. I, like many of the study participants, feel changed by the work- empowered, more confident, and more able to animate purpose in my life. When I think of the person I was in college, I so want that for her. When I think of would-be activists who have yet to join the movement, I want that for them, too. 

The following quotes represent participants’ experiences of being changed by movement work.

“I felt like I finally had a reason to be around and I could finally express my purpose. I just started seeing myself change and grow and evolve in ways I never thought I could. Because, you know, I'm just a girl from South [city], I'm not supposed to be doing these great grand things. When I got into activism, I started seeing myself more as someone worthy, who has these abilities, and who people can respect, which is not something I ever thought I could say for myself, and so that just changed my entire being.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“I think I would have been someone who was not as fluent at being able to assess and discuss who I am and why I do the things I do without this work. I think that this has made me a stronger person.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“A little bit more of a sense of being free in the world. Like, you can go protest somewhere, you can go walk onto a property if you want to, there's some sense of freedom there. You know, being a little bit able to go outside of the bounds.” 

Cameron Mehta, DxE Organizer

“I think I'm more outgoing, and better at engaging with strangers. And new people in general, especially with petitioning, kind of being forced to constantly interact with strangers in a very abrupt way. I think I've had some carryover in my ability to do that with just any stranger outside of activism.” 

Antonio Pirozzi, IP3


Kübler-Ross Stage: Denial

What it is

In the beginning, we weren’t activists. We were skeptical that we could do anything about the problem and, at points, didn’t feel particularly obligated. We might largely put the issue out of our minds for months or years at a time. We look back on this time with regret for not getting active sooner. 

What it’s like

Some participants described a time when they wanted to get involved, but they were shy. They didn’t know what to do and didn’t know anything that was going on around them. They joined when invited, but even then it sometimes took a little bit of coaxing to get on board. Rare exceptions got involved in the movement in some other way- first attending protests for other causes where they met animal rights organizers or by attending an animal testing or circus protest before going vegan. 

“I was basically the silent, non pushy vegan. Just, I'm vegan, and that's good enough. On Facebook, I had been seeing the DxE disruption videos from the local chapter here in Seattle. And at first, I was hesitant. ‘That's not my thing. I don't even know if that's a good idea.’” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

What we need

Barriers to involvement, internal and external, need to be overcome. In this stage, would-be activists need lots of social exposure to make activism seem fun, popular, and like something someone like them would do. They need invitations to demystify activism and participate in an extremely low-pressure way, such as by watching a demonstration without being a visible part of it, or attending a community event where they can meet other activists and see that they are normal, often-introverted people just like them.  

Outreach events should take care to give opportunities to stay in touch and plug in, even when outreach is for a purpose besides recruiting activists, such as AV cubes and petitioning. Be liberal in distributing your contact information (or, better yet, collect theirs) and sending invitations to the next social event. On that note, make sure there always is a next social event on the calendar to invite them to. Savvy organizers have systems in place to remember to stay in touch with newcomers and regular participants alike. 

As written about in Harie Han’s 2014 book, How Organizations Develop Activists, it does seem that participants often got involved during transitions in their lives, including moving, finishing school, death of a loved one, a breakup, or going vegan. It’ll be no surprise to suggest that organizers try to recruit college and high school students, who live in close proximity to big transitions. 

A note on low-pressure ways to get involved: seasoned organizers might be naturally fearless, or have calibrated our nervous systems in such a way that we forget what it was like to be brand new. Sometimes the first step we think to offer is, to a would-be activist, terrifying. For example, standing in an AV cube wearing a mask and holding a TV was cited by several people as something that seemed too scary for them, at first. These activists were quickly able to move up a ladder of engagement and do things much higher pressure than standing in a Cube, but only after dipping their toe in by showing up to watch a cube or demonstration without needing to participate. Two participants described watching an action as their first involvement, and one initially decided to do so covertly, without telling anyone she was coming. 

Organizers are encouraged to invite people to shadow or watch advocacy work without pressure to get more involved before they’re ready. This will allow them to, in addition to watching, get to know the other advocates and demystify involvement. 

“Talking to the activists outside of the disruption, seeing that they're normal people, and hearing why they do it and more in detail- that experience totally changed my perspective.” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

Where we go from here 

Without opportunities to get involved, would-be activists may stay in powerlessness indefinitely or move between it and anger. I experienced powerlessness- rarely thinking about the problem, except for when I did- and anger- an overwhelming rage that alienated my family and meat-eating boyfriend- in an alternating fashion for years, but, being my normal state, it didn’t always occur to me as a problem to solve. All I really wanted from the activist who recruited me was someone to complain to about people who don’t get it. In sharing that activism had helped him transform his anger, he offered me a narrative structure for mine. Now, every time I felt angry, I’d consider that there might be something productive to do with that anger, even if it wasn’t until months later that I finally decided to attend my first protest.

Given support and manageable opportunities to engage, some activists channel their energy directly to passion. The transition into regular involvement and identifying with the movement can be transformative

“When you're starting from scratch, you don't even know this whole process of identifying a problem and coming up with a campaign, identifying stakeholders. It's all very foreign and strange. So, I was lucky to find a good community the first time I reached out.” 

Matthew Cooper, Compassionate PDX


Kübler-Ross Stage: Anger

What it is 

Again, these steps are not linear: anger might accompany, precede, or follow powerlessness. In this stage, it overwhelms us how not okay the system is, and how people we love and respect continue to participate in it. 

“I was getting really angry, and I wasn't processing it well, but I was taking screenshots of all these quotes about why we shouldn't kill animals and sending it into the Slack channel unannounced all the time. And then getting into arguments with people. I left because no one else was supportive. I was also not communicating in a way where they would have been likely to be supportive.” 

David Michelson, Animal Rights Organizer

What it’s like 

We might demonize individuals who continue to eat animals or vegans who aren’t activists. When we do find activists who first inspire but later disappoint us, that same demonizing impulse might be applied to them. Without hope, anger can be self-destructive- not to mention destructive to our relationships, communities, and others. We can even feel left out of regular channels of addressing mental health, given how few people in the helping professions- and the population, at large- share our worldview. 

“I went vegan that night. I was just mad. I went to bed angry knowing what was going on. I was so mad at myself.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“I think I was pretty angry at the beginning. I was very, like, how does no one else see this, what is going on?” 

Aviva Gersovitch, Animal Rights Organizer

“Therapy is difficult, because I have never been able to find a therapist who is vegan, so I can't really talk about that kind of stuff.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“When speaking with non-vegans, for those who ask about the environment, we're expected to be expert environmentalists, for those concerned about healthy eating, we’re supposed to be experts in nutrition and to be able to debate the nervous system of plants… the burden of proof is on us who are fighting for justice for animals.”

Dani Rukin, Animal Rights Organizer

What we need

The most important thing we need in this stage is opportunities to get involved, to “stop being an individual”, a way to channel the energy behind anger into something productive and towards systems instead of individuals. After that, activists need guidance in and exposure to strong norms around Nonviolence to allow us to channel our energy into outlets that are productive and non-harmful.

“It's unfortunate that you have to get that angry. But I try to direct that into action. And whether or not that action is even successful at some times doesn't matter. Doing anything feels better than doing nothing.” 

Sara Andrews, Madison Vegan Fest

Where we go from here

Anger can stick around for a long time, and without positive experiences of working with a group, our unsuccessful attempts to change things can lead us into defeat. Experiences of belonging in movement groups can allow us to channel the high energy of this stage into passion, while a deep practice of Nonviolence can transform our anger into wisdom. 

By adopting a nonviolent worldview, we challenge ourselves to stop using blame as a vehicle for understanding the world. Without bad people, no one can be dismissed. When we start to believe that regular, traumatized people do horrific things out of a desperate attempt to meet valid needs, we open ourselves towards understanding the complexity of the system we’re fighting. From this place, we can experience a righteous and protective anger more focused on the needs of the victims than the crimes of the perpetrators. 


Kübler-Ross Stage: Bargaining

What it is

In this stage, we’re willing to do nearly anything to get involved. This is a vulnerable and desperate state where we’ll gladly do the grunt work of an organization or even participate in a group whose theory of change we disagree with or don’t know. 

“I remember that my initial attitude was that I wanted to be a warm body. You know, I'll go, I'll hold the signs, I'll do the chants, I’ll do the marches. It seemed like it required the least amount of effort and capability, because I wasn't sure what I was capable of, and I was a little bit nervous. And I was attending those monthly ARCPDX meetings regularly. And during the meetings, they announced that there was a need for organizing.” 

Isaac Farias, Animal Rights Organizer

“It was so profound that I was like, I can't not do this. I need to keep doing this… And I was like, ‘You know, I'm retired, so I'm a body- use me… It just kind of snowballed. The community and the connections were just amazing.” 

Tony Hoppe, Save Organizer

“From then on, when things came up, I was always trying to get involved with it- different protests or actions or demonstrations. It just felt like the right thing to do, being a voice for the animals.” 

Tanaka Granberry, Former DxE Organizer 

Or, the task at hand might seem insanely simple, and we may be overly ambitious, not having yet experienced failure in the work. 

“After that, it became so simple and obvious to me, because I was so naive… ‘All I have to do is tell people, and everybody will change.’” 

Cordelia Stone, AV Organizer

“I innocently innocuously thought well, … once you all see what I've learned then you'll go vegan too- you'll be a voice for animals too… obviously, that couldn't have been further from the case. And that was heartbreaking.”

Dani Rukin, Animal Rights Organizer

A handful of participants seemed to recruit themselves to the movement- organizing their own protests from scratch or starting chapters of national or international organizations with only reluctant cooperation from those larger hubs. These highly motivated people learned about the horrors of animal agriculture and had to do something, fast. They seemed to skip the powerless stage entirely.

“I'm like, ‘I have to tell the world about this. I need everyone to know.’ So I searched around in [city]  to find activism. I couldn't find anything at the time. And then I just got a group of friends together and we protested … that was in [town] before. And then a few months later, I discovered [city] Animal Save and DxE [city] had just started. So as soon as I joined them, I was stuck with them.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“None of those groups that popped up- nobody emailed me back. So I'm just like, ‘Nobody's doing activism here. Oh my God, I should just start doing it!’ I don't know why- I think I was just angry. And I felt helpless and wanted to do something about it.” 

Nisha Kumar, Save Organizer

What it’s like

Amazing. We’re full of energy and ready to get to work. In the hands of organizers we trust, we experience a huge influx of meaning and purpose. We might lionize the organizers we become aware of, and outsiders who witness this dynamic might worry about us and see it as cult-like. We don’t really care- we’re ecstatic at finally finding a community of people who share our values. 

“My first impression was like, ‘Wow, these guys are really cool. Like, they know what they're doing. Like, I'm just showing up. I hope they don't think I'm a weirdo or a rando, because I don't know any of them.’ But it's like, ‘hey, I want to do this, too… Whatever they say, I'm gonna do.’ I just wanted to learn as much as I could from them. And I was just really impressed with the depth of their knowledge of activism”

Animal Rights Organizer

Some people found ways to work full-time without being paid- sometimes intentionally, by saving money, retiring from paid work, or by accepting the support of a partner. Sometimes they didn’t think of activism as full-time at all- putting in many hours along with working or going to school. 

These full-time hours in addition to other responsibilities were generally short-lived. While some people cited a sense of pressure from others, in general advocates seemed self-motivated in periods of high engagement. 

“Looking back at the beginning, I don't know how the hell I was doing all the stuff I was doing. Like I had unlimited energy… It caused a lot of strain on my prior relationships. But to me, it was worth it. I just wish I would have approached it a little bit differently back then.” 

Nisha Kumar, Save Organizer

“I definitely practiced my activism unsustainably at the beginning, I was just totally into doing anything. It was all awesome.” 

Matthew Cooper, Compassionate PDX

What we need

Meaningful Work

Organizers can care for new activists by giving them credible and meaningful ways to make real change in the world. Make sure they understand why their work is important. Celebrate positive outcomes, no matter how small. 

In this stage, it’s particularly important for organizers to give away work that encourages activists to grow their capacity. Don’t let people get stuck in low levels of engagement. Encourage activists to contribute in ways that stretch their capacity and force them to gain skills. 

“I was always trying to find more- anything else to achieve or something else to try. … I want to learn about the thing. It's exciting to navigate this organization.” 

Christina Liu, Former DxE Organizer

“[The organizer is] very friendly, super warm. She would identify people, and she would know what you were really good at, and she would encourage you to do that. She would be like, ‘Oh, you like drawing! You should make all of our signs next time!’ or ‘You should lead our sign making workshop…’ She was very good at seeing people with their talents and guiding them into work with the organization in some way.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“I would do a speak out or I'd lead chants and then I'd say, ‘Who hasn't done it before that just thinks you can't do it?’ like right in the middle sometimes- you gotta catch them right then because if you say to sign up to do a thing they're not going to.”

Dani Rukin, Animal Rights Organizer

Get them up to speed such that they not only understand your theory of change, but can meaningfully contribute to direction-setting. Understand that time spent developing newer activists is time growing your group’s- and the movement’s- capacity to do work in the future. 

Norms of Self-Care

Understand that while high levels of engagement can be joyful, eventually, they can lead to burnout. Encourage breaks, vacations, maintaining relationships outside the movement, and self-care. Sometimes, norms of poor self-care can exist in a community without anyone meaning to create them. Correct them when you notice their cues. 

One example of this used by a participant was when an organizer would talk about the urgency of the problem of animal agriculture as a way to motivate others. Another example of this may be an organizer regularly talking about how little sleep they get as a way to explain away poor performance. While it can be appropriate to receive emotional support from co-organizers on either of these topics, beware of making light of poor self care or citing urgency as a way to demand more or better work. These can create a culture of overworking that will lead to burnout- and burnout means less work gets done over time, not more. Instead, leaders should be role models of a healthy balance between the movement and other parts of their lives.

“There was a time where I was probably putting a little bit too much work into it, a little bit too much time spent every single day… I was starting to feel really burnt out. I also felt like there was kind of a sense within the little organizer cluster of us that we weren't doing enough. And in reality, we had ramped up our efforts quite a bit. We were doing protests at least once a week, if not twice a week, which is a lot for a spread out city to do.” 

Cameron Mehta, Animal Rights Organizer
Positive Thinking

When describing the most inspiring moments in participants’ careers, a wide range of stories came up, generally describing some kind of success or show of movement power. 

Interestingly, sometimes, one person’s most inspiring moment is another’s least. On several occasions, a most inspiring moment for one participant was described by another as a low point or as an example of leadership’s misstep, such as a particularly controversial DxE disruption

In another few instances, a participant who was asked about a high or low point of their activism used one story to relay both a high and low point. These point to the power of framing outcomes as victorious and focusing on the positive impacts of actions, even when they didn’t go according to plan. 

“One vigil…there was a lot of a low feeling, down feeling because we didn't see any trucks at all. At the end of the vigil, during the debrief, Connie [Pearson]’s like “See, look!” She turned it into a positive. She told the people attending, “that means that we're having an effect.” I forgot exactly what she said but she made it feel good. She had that kind of a quality, just good with words and making people feel good about anything.” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

While this advice on framing outcomes as victories has been written about before, I always thought of this as something I did for other activists. I thought that I was supposed to manage my feelings of defeat privately, and then report back to others that we were winning and this was why. What I heard participants do, when they ended their story about a low point in a high point, was turn the power of that victory framing on themselves. 

An example of this was Cordelia Stone, when asked about a low point in organizing, described an AV Cube event that, despite her best attempts at promotion, drew out no volunteers besides her partner. She went ahead with the two person event and described a successful event with numerous meaningful conversations. 

Another example was Amber Canavan, citing a Veg Fest she organized with low turnout, which then inspired someone to organize a more successful event in the same city. 

“I think a lot of activism stuff has one of those secret silver linings, where even if something fails, sometimes it can inspire other people to do it right or do it better.”

Amber Canavan, Animal Rights Organizer

Surely, organizers are also activists, and caring for our own motivation is a smart way to care for others. I want to be clear that these victory framings were not delusional- organizers were articulate in where their political losses lay and what they would like to have done differently. The surprising cognitive tactic was in how fully they celebrated the victories within the defeats. 

“It feels like it's all worth it, all of the stress, everything is all worth it. So I take the little achievements, the little bright spots, and I try to maximize them, and I remember them.” 

Naomi Davis, AV Organizer
Patience: Let puppies gnaw on your hands sometimes

Rather than the extreme humility described above, some new activists instead present with insufferable puppy energy. They have a million ideas and many of them are pretty bad. They might seem a little too interested in the more glamorous roles. They’re blowing up the group chat and generally coming on way too strong. 

Activists in this stage need, most of all, patience. Resist the urge to take it personally or suggest that they might be infiltrators. You might notice thoughts like, “They’re really overstepping”, “This person doesn’t seem to respect me”, “Why wasn’t I consulted first?” and “They’re trying to take over.” While frustration is understandable, do your best to assume good intentions. 

“I think she saw that I wanted to lead things. I've always had very strong ideas of what we should be doing. And I was very quick to see if something wasn't working. So I think she appreciated that. She had the mind of someone who wanted people to be able to pick apart what we were doing and make it better.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“That was my entry, and I just started ramping up more and more events. I think I was just like, ‘I want to see animal liberation.’ So I'm just gonna do as many different campaigns as I can until we achieve it.” 

Isaac Farias, Animal Rights Organizer

Celebrate their desire to contribute, and hold that celebration while you give them feedback if their behavior is making it hard to work with them, help to develop their ideas if they aren’t in line with your organizational values, and encourage them to learn more about Nonviolence and your theory of change. As discussed in more depth later on, organizations must have a conflict resolution policy. Intervene early and often to resolve tensions involving enthusiastic new activists.  Imagine the patience you’d like to extend to a new puppy who needs to learn both that humans are safe and shoes aren’t for chewing.

The biggest trend noticed when hearing descriptions of the process by which an activist went from just showing up at events to taking on an organizing role was simply that the organizers needed help, such as when a previous organizer quit. Savvy organizers should be looking for ways to build movement capacity for its own sake and moving activists up a ladder of engagement. There is no reason to wait until you feel a pressing need to ask for help; remember that your invitation to do more work may be a crucial moment in someone’s relationship with the movement. 

“We were like, ‘We'd love to help out, whatever you guys need.’ And then I learned that they were wanting to retire and step back. And that was a great opportunity. I was like, ‘I can help out with that.’” 

Naomi Davis, AV Organizer

“Sometimes I was sort of the person who stepped up when a previous organizer stepped down… and then there would be a vacuum. And I'd be like, ‘Well, I don't want this to just stop. So I guess I'll do this, even though I don't really want to.’” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“I think I was coming in during a time that some people were getting burned out. So I offered to take over as an organizer for AV at that time, and then also for the Save Movement.” 

Nisha Kumar, Save Organizer

“Dani Rukin… needed someone to bring the signs. I just helped bring materials. So I wasn't the main organizer, but I loved it. I was like, ‘Yeah, anything I can do.’ It felt good to be included in any way that I could.” 

Sasha Zemmel, DxE Organizer

“There are just so many ways to get people involved. Even if it's printing out the chant sheets and bringing the signs.”

Dani Rukin, Animal Rights Organizer

Where we go from here

Given loving mentorship, support in conflict resolution, increasingly difficult tasks that grow their capacity, and real ownership over work, activists can grow smoothly from passion to wisdom. 

“I do feel like you can do more with your time if you're part of a campaign documenting any animal abuse or health code violations that can lead to legislation. I got it instantly. I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do more than just standing here holding a sign and just feeling sick to my stomach…I want to get more involved in this movement. I want to take on more responsibility.’ And so I started taking whatever they gave me.” 

Organizer, Slaughter Free Cities

Most of us are not so lucky. Our high engagement leads to burnout or we run into a range of other pitfalls, and our passion transforms to defeat. 

“That really opened my eyes to the power of that, and what could be achieved doing activism, and I became really passionate about it. And then I also started volunteering at the Animal Save chapter here. And about a year into that I became co-organizer, and had a lot of big plans. But then the pandemic hit.” 

Kai Fenn, Former Save Organizer


Kübler-Ross Stage: Depression 

What it is

Without a sense that we are able to be a meaningful part of a solution, we disengage. This happens when a would-be activist isn’t able to find allies, after a major political loss, or after our activism is paused for any reason. Perhaps our co-organizers moved away, our chapter dissolved in conflict, or we lost access to opportunities to organize due to personal or societal reasons, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers often describe burnout at this stage, that they were working so hard- and for what? This stage can come about when we’ve matured out of passion and found ourselves disillusioned with the work, the leadership or the structure of our organizations. We might continue to participate in routine activism to meet social needs or out of feelings of obligation, or we might stop.

“And the pandemic, like, where the hell does that leave us now? There were so many people- I don't know where they are anymore. Like, do they still live here? And they're just, like, living? Did they move away?... I think, from local to national, it's like starting from scratch post-pandemic, if we are even post-pandemic at this point.” 

Amber Canavan, Animal Rights Organizer

What it’s like

The work that used to be meaningful just isn’t anymore. Activists lack a sense of purpose and don’t feel motivated to keep going. 

“That is really hard for people who are just coming in. They need to feel like they're accomplishing something. And I don't think that a lot of organizations are giving that to them right now, so they can feel like they were part of a win to keep them going to the next thing.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“I'm pausing all of my volunteer things. And I'm going to stop and think about how I can be more effective and use my time in a way that feels more rewarding.”

Aviva Gersovitch, Animal Rights Organizer

“So, after high school, that was such a negative experience in terms of what I thought of the efficacy of speaking out, that in college, I really didn't speak out or try to be very proactive.”

Animal Rights Organizer

Without feeling accompanied and supported in the work, a supply of energy that seemed endless at first can quickly run dry. 

“[There is a] lack of community outside of activism and doing things together to build relationships. And resistance within my local vegan groups here online. I would be posting stuff saying, ‘Hey, this is happening. We're doing this, we're doing this,’ and I got such little support for a long time that I just got to the point where I felt like I was just being truly ignored. And it was like, ‘Okay, I thought I could sustain that without caring.’ But eventually, I got burned out.”

Kai Fenn, Former Save Organizer

After losing community, defeat is felt deeply. We’re shaken to our very sense of purpose in the world. Burnout manifests as a felt sense of not being okay in our own bodies. The low point of participants’ activism, I suspect, was often the low point of their lives.

“I feel very disillusioned now. I think that I'm a lot less inclined after everything to go out of my way to do things for other people. I mean, not in my immediate social circle, but in the world. I'm not going out of my way to help people outside of my immediate circle anymore (people, including animals). I prioritize myself a lot more aggressively now. And I don't really have a lot of interest in getting back involved in the movement.”

Former DxE Organizer

“It's just kind of constant sheer exhaustion… I think I'm just burnt out. I think I'm just at a point now where sending out an email seems really difficult. Whereas before, I would have been excited to do it… Now I think I'm just a little bit bitter and jaded. Like, is it even going to matter?... I think before I would have just tackled it and been like, ‘Oh, okay, gotta just get over this, no problem. Big deal’ Like, let's do it.’ And now it's just like, ugh.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“So in 2020, you know, with everything locking down, I was kind of forced to face everything that I had been seeing, because I was doing investigations and seen countless investigations and I wasn't doing any self care at all. Just go go go go go. And I had really bad panic disorder, to the point where almost every day I was having a panic attack. I was dissociating. My fiance had to take me to the hospital because I was convinced I was going to die that night. I couldn't fall asleep. Whenever I would feel myself falling asleep, I had to snap back up because I was like, ‘If you close your eyes, you're not going to wake up.’ That was the lowest point. I didn't think I would get out of that. I was convinced that this was how my life was going to be for the rest of my life. But fortunately, I got out of that mindset. And it took about a solid year for me to heal myself. But I just- I didn't take the breaks that I knew I needed and that was the end result.”

Animal Rights Organizer

We wonder if our actions are actually making a difference and soberly consider that they might not be. Without regularly celebrating victories, we can’t see the point anymore. 

“It's very exhausting to just look back at four or five years of hard work, lots of weekends, giving up lots of money, time, effort spent to think like, ‘God, have we even helped a single animal?’”

Animal Rights Organizer

“The biggest impedance, I guess, was the pandemic…I just felt like looking back on that, like, what impact it really was having, I just- I felt like it wasn't making a difference, to be honest… I was just praying that someone actually capable comes up in our community and starts organizing… I would offer all the help I can, but actually being a full-on organizer, I just couldn't do it anymore.” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

“Trying to regroup after COVID has kind of sucked. Back when we were jumping around doing all the activism, none of it was targeted….’Oh, let's do a disruption at Whole Foods. Let's do a disruption at this seafood place. Let's go undercover at a pig wrestling thing. Let's do a cube here and a cube there. And let's do a vigil here…’ It's all kind of motivating because you kind of get that high of thinking that you’ll maybe accomplish something, but then nothing was really seen through. So that part is kind of deflating.” 

Nisha Kumar, Save Organizer

Some participants described this sense of defeat as always on their doorstep, and their involvement as an insurance against it. Strong community can provide a protective effect for activists with exposure to hard facts about the world. 

“I just feel it's so easy to fall into despair, I think. I would say that in some of the times where I've stopped some activism work, it's because I fell into despair. Just feeling like it's just not accomplishable or just that you had overwhelming opposition.” 

Sara Andrews, Madison Vegan Fest

“That was really hard because I got a lot of backlash and was not supported by my family. But I was so supported by fellow activists and it just made me want to do more activism. It definitely helped me get out of a negative space.” 

Sasha Zemmel, DxE Organizer

What we need

This is another reason why organizers should focus on building up more organizers. Is your organizing team ready to lose a few people to changing life circumstances? If so, the loss of some organizers might be the impetus other activists need to step up. If not, it could trigger defeat in those who stay. 

In this stage, activists need invitations to bigger and better things. We need to know that the movement is getting smarter and not just repeating the same tactics that aren’t giving us the results we want. We’ve raised our standards for how purpose-driven we need our activism to be, and we’re more critical of leadership overall. We value our time and energy more, with a renewed sense that these resources are limited.

We also might value our well-being more, and we have higher standards for the quality of life we’re willing to endure, now that we viscerally understand the consequences of burnout. In describing this stage, study participants mentioned organizations being too bureaucratic, such that it was difficult to get anything done or implement new ideas, a sense that leadership was difficult or unsafe to work with, or that working with leadership wasn’t in line with participants’ integrity. 

Organizers should be aware that activists who move up the ladder of engagement are raising their standards. Our people and our organizations must constantly be getting better if we want to retain activists while recruiting more. Organizations must have systems in place to quickly implement learning from all areas. Pax Fauna uses Scrum to make a routine of constant reflection and improvement. 

While this study only examined 38 people directly, I suspect that the pandemic pushed hundreds or thousands into this stage- activists who still have some connection to the movement, and who are willing to come back to work if we can offer them something worth coming back for.  

Paid work was sometimes talked about like a top level of involvement. Some had mixed feelings about taking paid work, worrying that money could be better spent elsewhere. Some dismissed the idea of working in the movement because of low pay available, and others didn’t believe that paid work was available for someone with their skill set. A 2020 study by Faunalytics documented the rates at which paid advocates left, or considered, leaving their roles due to low pay. 

Organizations that seek to mobilize volunteer organizers should take care to normalize and celebrate volunteer involvement. 

Where we go from here

Organizers who came back after experiencing despair cited community and the opportunity to do newly meaningful work. 

“I think community is what keeps you out of despair. It keeps a lot of people out of despair. For me, just doing anything makes me feel better. Just being able to direct my sadness, grief, and frustration into work. It helps alleviate some of that feeling.”

 Isaac Farias, Animal Rights Organizer 

“There were people asking about, ‘Hey, is there activism going on in the area?’ Then someone mentioned ‘There used to be vigils; we don't know if that happens anymore.’ And I guess… maybe I should start it up again. And then I did have time on my hands. So why not?” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

“I felt it maybe one time for a second. And then I told myself, you can't put yourself in that mindset, because you'll spiral into being like a defeatist, and then you won't do anything. So for me, you have to have hope. You have to know that you're on the right side of history, you're on the right side. And yeah, we're fighting Goliath. But there's so many of us, and things are changing, even though it's incremental. At some point, you know, that increment is going to be massive. And so I just have to kind of snap myself out of that mindset as soon as I feel it coming.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“IP3, I mentioned, is my favorite, because of the fact that we get to ask exactly for what we want. You know, it's a radical campaign. And it's the first time that I felt like we could start asking for things in a radical way. And it encouraged me to really reflect on our campaigns and ask ourselves what's working, what's not working?”

 Isaac Farias, Animal Rights Organizer


Kübler-Ross Stage: Acceptance

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

What is is 

In this stage, we hold a sober view of what the world is like and our part in changing it, however small. We’ve grieved for the way the world is- that it isn’t as easy to change as we previously hoped. We’ve grieved for the distance our movement involvement has inserted into our closest relationships. And we’ve grieved for the relationships we’ve lost due to intermovement conflict. Grief might be forever, to some extent, but at this stage it’s largely integrated. 

“I still have this warmth and this idea that maybe someday, we'll come back together, like when we're older and when feelings have calmed down, and we can put that aside. We were young and angry. Maybe we can at least just appreciate what we did build together for a minute. I have this daydream of everyone coming back together and singing Kumbaya around the campfire, like, in our 50s or something. But I won't hold my breath.” 

Former DxE Organizer

What it’s like

Peace with how the world is

Participants who were still involved in the movement could all identify self-talk they use to motivate their continued involvement. 

What can we do now, in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today? 

“Use the disappointments we encounter as opportunities to learn and grow ourselves, each other, and the movement. Our efforts are going to be a part of history… just as we're standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, newer folks will stand on ours. It doesn't matter if you're not the one or if your group wasn't the one to achieve what you set out to do…it's still in motion. You can't stop this train.” 

Dani Rukin, Animal Rights Organizer

“I think one way I deal with that is just, I think: what I can do strategically right now for the greater amount of animals over time? But then I also keep in mind that every little thing that I do to help animals, even if it's one animal, is worth it, which is a huge thing to keep in mind. Even one animal's life that's been changed for the better is worth it to me.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“So also, if I start feeling that way, then I try to reconsider, like, ‘Okay, am I doing everything in my power to be able to make change?... I almost try to flip it into a motivating factor. Like, this is such a huge problem. I need to devote as much as I possibly can, am I doing that, then?”

Animal Rights Organizer

“I cannot single-handedly stop factory farming. Maybe it'll happen 100 years after I die or whatever. But I'm confident that it will happen, because the cognitive dissonance is just too gigantic.”

Animal Rights Organizer
Acting in our own integrity regardless of the outcomes

“Let's just say it wasn't possible, and it's not going to change anything. Me sitting and crying and being depressed doesn't make me feel better. Even if it is just a selfish thing, it's an outlet. It's like therapy, I'm gonna go out there and yell or I'm gonna go to a city council meeting and at least try to change some shit. I think that's the biggest thing- people just don't think it's possible, so they don't even want to try.”

Sasha Zemmel, DxE Organizer

“Regardless of how big this problem is, and how seemingly little impact that we might have, it's about being a part of something greater than myself. It's about being a part of a movement for people who are oppressed beyond belief. We just have to do something for them. And so as long as I'm doing something, I feel pretty motivated.”

Rev. Robert Ryugen Doshin Yamada, DxE Organizer

"As individuals we can be part of the problem or we can be part of the solution. I don't have control over the bigger picture, but I can choose to participate in what makes me a better human and then feel good about that when I go to sleep at night."

Brittany Michelson, In Defense of Animals 

“I know even when I have those thoughts, that doesn't change what the right thing to do is… So I've committed to persist, regardless of that feeling that sort of intrudes now and then about the vastness of the problem. Even if it doesn't happen in my lifetime, that's okay. If it happens based on our effort, that's okay. And if it never happens, I'm still happy. I'm still happy to do this work. And it's worth doing, and we're doing it for the right reasons.” 

Isaac Farias, Animal Rights Organizer

“I feel like I'm doing something, and that helps. You almost have to do stuff. I can't not do it. Sitting around doing nothing is harder than doing something.” 

Cordelia Stone, AV Organizer

“I think the way I've dealt with that is actually a lot through Buddhism, because they often talk about the vastness of the suffering, to not be overwhelmed by that… If it's meeting my needs in the moment, then I'm just going to keep doing that. And not focusing so much on getting lost in the future at all- making plans is not getting lost in the future. But if I'm trying to fantasize about what, in what lifetime or how many years or how many decades it’s going to take to end this or what the world would be like- I don't waste my time anymore. Because I've seen through practice that doesn't help. It doesn't motivate me. And if I want to stay motivated, I just have to stay present.” 

David Michelson, Animal Rights Organizer
It’ll take some time

Longtime organizers who stay involved understand the enormity of the problem and the length of time it’ll take to address. They’ve largely made peace with it. 

“I have come to terms with the idea that I will never see the future that I'm fighting for. That has taken lots of lots of self-therapy, lots of self-healing. Me as a teenager, I was very much fighting for a future where I would be able to live, where everyone's vegan, and everyone understands the plight of animals in all directions, all the way down to plankton, and it's taken me a long time to kind of come to terms with that… But as long as it keeps improving, then that's where my satisfaction is.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“I try to remember that you're not going to see the impact that you're making right away and I try to think that the action that we take is going to be relative over time. And it might change. Hopefully, it snowballs in conjunction with other actions that other people are doing.” 

Rachel Golusinski, DxE Organizer

“Also, just recognizing that there does need to be work done. It's probably going to take a really really long time to even really register in public consciousness, but everything has to start somewhere. I feel like in some ways, things are just starting.” 

Jeff Stanek, Animal Rights Organizer
Connection to Community

Participants consciously lean on their connection to a larger community of people doing this work in order to stay motivated and supported. 

“I think knowing that there are people who devote their entire lives to doing something about this injustice, whether it's running a sanctuary, or doing rescues, or doing really hardcore organizing. There are so many people who are doing everything that they can, and I find that really motivational.” 

Jeff Stanek, Animal Rights Organizer

“It's nourishing now, just being among my people, our people. I mean, I'm sure you get it. They see the world as I do and that is a huge effing thing.”

Tony Hoppe, Save Organizer

“I think what also helps is having community, being part of community, whether online or in person or both, having friends who are vegan… All of that sustains my veganism and my being involved as an advocate.” 

Animal Rights Organizer
Drops in the bucket

Organizers express peace with their relatively small contribution to a larger cause. They know that even though their names won’t be in the history books, their lives have meaning because of the work they’re doing. 

“I may not know the impact, whether it's a social media post or an event or something, that someone may access. That may be part of what changes their mind and heart, and I just may never know it. So I think that the unknown of it, so to speak, also keeps me going.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“So try to find ways that you feel like you can contribute… just be more drops of water in the bucket. You're never going to be the bucket, yourself. You're not going to be the one who fucking figures out the puzzle and unlocks animal liberation. None of us are, we're all just one piece of a puzzle.” 

Jeremy Beckham, Animal Rights Organizer
Grieving lost relationships

Study participants understand that it takes a lot of energy to engage with their loved ones about the issue of animal agriculture. They consciously moderate the energy that they put into relationships without shared reality on the issue. They understand that time spent in a “bubble” of other vegans and activists is nourishing and comfortable, and they spend time outside that bubble, too. 

“I was trying so hard to get them to be more vegan… I was just like, I'm focusing so much on these four individuals. Where if I took that time, I could create spaces where people can come when they're ready. And so that was a really helpful shift for me. With my family, I just don't talk about it very much… My mother has never been to an event I have done, and I have done hundreds."

Animal Rights Organizer

“Being in a bubble helps. As much as I do think it can be a bad thing… it definitely does help.”

Amber Canavan, Animal Rights Organizer

“Yeah, I think that one of the big selling points for veganism often is that marketing. Like, nothing will change, you'll eat the same foods, people will totally respect your choice, whatever that means. Everything will be the same and your relationships won't change. And I think that was just not the case for me.” 

Alex Kahn, AV Portland Organizer

Many refused to identify themselves as radical, insisting that their views are reasonable and that opposing animal rights is actually extreme. Even so, participants often discussed loss of family relationships and friendships in relation to the movement. We wish that our family and friends saw the issue through our eyes or would make minor accommodations to make us comfortable. While advocates responded to these situations in a variety of ways- by participating in relationships in a perfunctory way, disengaging in them all together, or by seeking closeness that worked around their differences- some expression of this grief was made by nearly every participant.

“I became a really, you know, the term ‘angry vegan.’ So I was trying to distance myself from them, trying to prove a point, like, if you're not going to be vegan, I'm not going to eat with you, and all of these things. And I think that really damaged our relationship. But now I'm at the point where I'm like, I can't physically force you to do anything. All I can do is encourage you. And now they’re both eating more plant based. So I wish I would have done that so long ago. Live and learn.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“And it amazes me that in so many avenues of life, I can kind of detach and prioritize… but as soon as it comes to like, what restaurant do I suggest to make sure there are no animal products though, I'm getting so anxious, you know? So with family, it's tough. And I think that it can be one of the most disappointing things with a kind of lifestyle shift like this because it's the people that I know and care about. I think they would get it and then they just don't get it.”

Alex Kahn, AV Portland Organizer

That said, participants generally do maintain positive relationships with their family despite not seeing eye to eye on animal issues. They often described a kind of peace-keeping silence that they relaxed into, where a large part of the participants’ lives isn’t discussed with family. When estrangement was described, it was attributed to causes outside the movement. 

“Now that I'm at that level of processing, I've been able to engage in an amicable relationship with my mom, even though I think there's always going to be a little bit of a sadness, maybe. But initially it was more frustration.”

David Michelson, Animal Rights Organizer

“I just think it's sad that they're missing out on an opportunity to be part of my life… So I think if you can mourn the loss of the family that… you need and deserve, that is helpful. And then you kind of figure out, where can I connect with them?”

Animal Rights Organizer

Most participants- even those no longer involved in the movement- count other vegans or activists as their closest friends, but still maintain some relationships with nonvegans. Close nonvegan friends discussed by study participants were almost exclusively relationships that started prior to participants’ involvement in activism. 

In general, veganism was seen as a bigger factor alienating participants from their families and friends than activism, even for participants who had been arrested, spent time in jail, abandoned lucrative careers, or moved for activism. Some participants expressed a sense that they feel less alienated than they did before starting movement work, citing how their involvement (especially arrest or taking full-time work) led to greater respect from their families, and gratitude for feeling a sense of belonging in their activist communities. 

Liberation Pledge

I’ve written before about the Liberation Pledge. In some ways, the Pledge was, for many, a tactic meant to manage the grief of losing closeness in relationships. By drawing the line, it’s me or the meat on the table, we refused to continue living with the constant subtle rejection from our families. This resulted either in accommodation or rejection, which we could then begin to move on from. 

“Yeah, there's always events like that. I just don't go to them. If it's something big like a wedding. I try to let them know that I'd only be there for the ceremony part of it… I try to balance, right? I show them that I care, and you're important to me, but at the same time, I can't condone what you're still supporting. But mostly I just don't want to.” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

“I told them I wasn't going to attend any holidays that had animal products, and so they did a vegan Hanukkah celebration for me. And that was really nice. At one point, one of my uncles tried to bring a non-vegan cake into the house. And my mom said, ‘No, you have to put that back in the car. You're not welcome inside,’ because it was at her house, the party. And so I was very proud. She loves me very much.” 

David Michelson, Animal Rights Organizer

What we need, once we’ve been through it all 


Participants found certain kinds of activism incredibly thrilling, inspiring, or fun. They were aware that activism feeling good didn’t necessarily mean they were being effective, but spoke with awe about certain experiences- mass open rescue, disruptions, or anything involving joining together with many other vegans or activists. 

“It was really inspiring being surrounded by like-minded people. Then after that, there were some other big DxE actions… all the really big actions, like where the cameras are. Definitely really inspiring, the rescues too…I think that stuff's really inspiring not just for me, but for everyone.” 

Sasha Zemmel, DxE Organizer

“When the adrenaline starts kicking in, there's no more fear. You're just in the zone and you're not thinking about consequences of anything. You're just like, ‘Yeah, I'm in it all the way’ and I was ready to go onto the stage.” 

AJ Jivdaya, Animal Rights Organizer

“I would say the first thing that comes to mind is the open rescue that was at the 2018 Animal Liberation conference, because I had never seen anything like that in my entire life. I want to cry thinking about it… just to see all of these people from all over the world come together and literally save lives. I think about it all the time, the moment that we were on the street, and we just see these activists coming out with chickens in their arms. Like, ‘Is this real? Is this actually happening?’ So that lit such a huge fire underneath me, and I think everything that I've been doing these last few years was based on that action.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“It was a potluck, which was amazing for me, because I, at that point, had not been to a vegan potluck. We just didn't know that many vegans. And so it was just like, ‘Oh my god, I can eat anything here. This is amazing. And all these people are vegan.’ There were probably, like, 10 of us, but it just felt like it felt like a mini ALC for me. And it was a really good feeling.”

Rebekah Robinson, Dane4Dogs

Participants often described a shift in their activism from what they saw as fun to what they saw as effective. 

“I think I got a lot out of [cubes]- that sort of epiphany that people would go through, because that's what I went through. And you want to give that to other people. So, I don't always necessarily feel that just sending emails and clicking through menus. I struggle with that with the legislative activism. too. It's less direct. You don't get that dopamine hit after sending an email. It's more long term, sort of slow, but you want to do what's ultimately effective” 

Matthew Cooper, Compassionate PDX

Based on the frequency of participants’ discussion of conferences as inspirational moments, the movement can certainly justify investing more resources in getting people together, especially in regional gatherings with less of a barrier to entry to newer grassroots activists. 

“It kind of sucks that you have to be more strategic and a little bit more methodical, and maybe a little less fun. But that's kind of the shift I've been going through… I'm definitely going to ALC. I hope there's going to be a rescue or something. That'd be awesome. Just more from the big, flashy, feel good actions to the more consistent, effective sort of role.” 

Matthew Cooper, Compassionate PDX


Participants described both feeling that the movement wasn’t diverse or inclusive enough, and gratitude for the diversity and inclusivity it has. Encompass has researched and written insightfully about these issues in the animal rights movement, so I’ll generate only brief advice based on participants’ disclosures:

We all seem to feel more comfortable around people who are like us. As organizers, we should take care to override the impulse to recruit those like us to the exclusion of others. After all, people who see themselves in us will be more likely to approach, meaning that those who don’t might need more of our energy to feel welcome.

Here’s an exercise: imagine a scenario where you might be looking to recruit activists, and imagine a person you’d expect to connect with in that scenario. What is their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, ability status, education level, and class? Which of these demographics are shared with you or your co-organizers? Which of them are also dominant or majority demographics? This might help you identify some elements of diversity that you’re treating as default, and thus people who might not feel as welcome in your group. 

If you have activists or organizers who share demographics or other things in common with newcomers, it might be a welcoming move to introduce them. 

Mourning and Ritual

Working from wisdom doesn’t mean our grief work is over. Earlier I referred to their grief as largely integrated. That means that while emotions are still present, they don’t overwhelm us like they used to. In normal grief, like the death of a loved one, psychologists talk about the bereaved settling into a new relationship with the deceased at this stage. Of course, in considering what integrated grief can look like to an animal activist, a model based on normal grief seems absurd. We’re constantly exposed, not just to reminders of our loss, but to new, active, present horrors. 

On the highway, we silence our conversations as we pass a slaughter truck. Passengers turn their heads in a tiny act of bearing witness. “It’s cows.” someone will say. They’re about to die and there’s nothing we can do about it, no one has to say. 

I didn’t ask participants if they participate in this ritual, too, but I know that every time I’ve been on the road with other animal activists, it happened. In these moments, we intuitively join in an act of grief that we’re too often alone with. In Pax Fauna, we participate in a biweekly reading of a moment of reflection for this purpose. Surely there are more opportunities for animal organizers to incorporate ritual to intentionally support activists’ grief. 

Working with others provides endless opportunities for re-traumatization, and conflict by its very nature separates us. Nearly every participant spoke of conflict doing irreparable harm to their activist communities. 

“I wish our movement had more resources for mental health, I think that we would have much more longevity with people, we would have less infighting, because hurt people hurt others. The emotions sad and mad are very similar. So when people are very sad, it can turn into this anger. And it's often misdirected.”

Animal Rights Organizer

“When pillars in the community- really strong activists that you've looked up to and that you've learned from- disappear. Just poof, they're gone. And it just keeps happening. It happens over and over and over. And it's so disappointing. And it's really hard. Because you don't know what happened. You don't have the conversation with them. They just kind of disappear. And they don't want to have the conversation.”

Donya Hnath, DxE Organizer

Conflict Resolution

While this study didn’t examine conflict dynamics directly, several themes arose regarding conflict within organizations. I’ll present findings in two categories to differentiate between private and public conflicts. 

Private conflict

Private conflict refers to conflicts that aren’t published, though they’re generally known to more individuals than just those directly involved. Private conflicts often led to participants or their co-organizers leaving the work, or even to the dissolution of an entire chapter. The privacy of these conflicts led to participants feeling unsupported. When they left, they perceived a lack of fairness and accountability that the other party in the conflict got to stay. When others left, they felt abandoned and powerless to continue organizing. 

At no point in this study was there mention of a formal conflict resolution process such as mediation. This may be for several reasons. One is that I didn’t ask about it. Conflict, being a personal and often shameful part of life, may have been uncomfortable for participants to describe in enough detail to include the resolution process. Another possible reason is that conflict resolution systems didn’t exist, weren’t known to, or weren’t trusted by people experiencing conflicts. 

Public conflict

Public conflict refers to conflicts that had aspects published online in public or semi-private forums and/or take place in person in front of an audience. In them, the veil of privacy is lifted and witnesses speak more openly about what they know of the conflict dynamics. Those at the center of public conflicts describe painfully alienating experiences that send them into a grief process anew.

“It was really heartbreaking because she was our friend and she was so effective at turning people against everything we were doing. Yeah, it was heartbreaking.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

“Shit happens, people are mean, but I'm a kind person. And I want to be a good example of what a long term activist and pillar in a community can look like.”

Animal Rights Organizer

Public conflicts led participants to describe a vague sense that their group or the movement in general has “a lot of drama”. Activists described dynamics where they were expected not to participate in certain groups if they were to participate in or even socialize with others.  Finally, some participants described feeling scared of participating due to conflict. This fear was often a vague sense that one could easily misstep if they aren’t careful, as described in the quote below, but also included a worry that a participant would be found out and experiences of verbal attacks in public spaces. 

“When it's gotten really bad has been times where I’m scared to even go out or talk or do things like that. And it's hard not to stay up to date on it, and you tend to spend time on it… That's definitely demotivating.” 

Animal Rights Organizer

I talked to people on all sides of “cancellations”- public callouts of individuals believed to have caused harm. That is, I spoke to people who participated in callouts to varying degrees, those who were called out themselves, and those affected by a movement where callouts happen. Some fit in all three categories. 

Of course, callouts, when they happen, are last resorts in situations where accountability seems inaccessible via less harmful pathways. While study of Nonviolence challenges us to develop our emotional resources to be able to come up with creative solutions beyond violence or passivity, organizations, too, must develop their capacity to deal with conflict so they have more options between having the complaining party leave and participating in a call out. The last resort will come quickly if you haven’t prepared many other options. 

“But there have been times where I feel like there's a mob mentality against a group or against a person that doesn't end up helping anyone. And there hasn't been a leadership to be able to stop that mob mentality. And that's a demotivating thing, where the focus is turned off the animal rights activism.” 

Animal Rights Organizer
Systems in place

“When you have thousands of people that you're dealing with, of course. there's going to be drama… it's just gonna happen. But you have to have systems in place to be able to deal with this kind of stuff, and you have to be transparent. I think that's the biggest key right there- transparency. If you're not transparent with your organizers, your team members, your public, then it's not going to work.” 

Donya Hnath, DxE Organizer

I recommend that organizers plan ahead by creating a conflict resolution system. If possible, create this while your organization is not facing an active conflict. A conflict resolution system should answer the following questions:

  • How do you plan to instill norms around healthy conflict in your group, such as giving and receiving feedback and avoiding blame?
    • While this question is important, do not expect its answer to completely prevent the need to answer the following questions.
  • How do you expect people to behave in conflict? Is there a code of conduct you’d like people to agree to?
  • How does someone formalize a conflict? E.g., how does one initiate the conflict resolution process?
  • What happens after the conflict resolution process has been initiated? When do you know if it’s over?
  • What resources are you willing to invest in conflict resolution? Where will you turn to for mediation when necessary?
  • Under what circumstances will someone be asked to leave? Who decides?
  • What other hypothetical solutions might be available to you? Is your organization big enough to have organizers working on separate teams?
  • How will you make the conflict resolution system known and remembered throughout your organization?

“When conflict within organizations rises to a level where there's no way that not everybody is affected, it becomes like, out of the realm of individual conflict and turns into a movement conflict. It’s like, what am I doing? I could just run away and do something else or do my own thing. So those parts are like low points that are just really hard to work through. But I feel better for working through them or sticking to it, or trying to find new solutions to them.”

Rev. Robert Ryugen Doshin Yamada, DxE Organizer
Relational Space

Preparing for conflict is about more than just a plan for what to do when conflict arises, it’s also about building strong relationships that can hold conflict. 

“We have weekly meetings of just my core team. And it's not about work. It's about, like, how are you doing? How is everything going? How's your mental health? Like, what's new in your life? You know, how can we all support each other?” 

Donya Hnath, DxE Organizer

Pax Fauna’s founding principles emphasize the importance of organizational culture and relationships between people who work together. Spending time on a regular basis to engage positively in relationships between organizers can be a stitch in time that softens future conflicts. 

This is the work

If you take one thing away from this study, let it be this: as of now, animal rights organizers are in frighteningly small numbers and each one of us is irreplaceable. While conflicts between us are normal and necessary, it is absolutely worth our time to resolve those conflicts. And, it is even more worth our time to prepare systems and agreements for when conflicts happen. Of course, conflict is exhausting work. Don’t mistake your momentary exhaustion with the belief that conflict isn’t worth the energy. 

I don’t mean to say that we mustn’t rest until we’re all friends again- certainly there are moments when some separation is resolution. But in general, I wish that, during conflicts, we remembered how costly it is to alienate ourselves from another piece of a small community. For advice on where to start, check out Pax Fauna’s policy, the Joy of Conflict


I’m immensely grateful to everyone who took the time to talk to me for this study. I’m touched by their generosity and vulnerability, and I so hope that the insights I report here made good use of their time. 

A special thank you to Heather Rogers, who volunteered many hours helping me clean up interview transcripts. 

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