By Michelle Rojas-Soto | May 28, 2019

 

Can you tell the us a little about your story? How did you come to this work? How do you identify? What do you do outside of work?

I switched to a plant-based diet overnight in 2011, after watching Forks Over Knives. I had no idea how to cook this way, so I studied recipe books and websites. Once I felt like I had a handle on meals, I was very curious about the ethical implications of veganism. First I read The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Levine, followed by Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. From then on, I tried to get closer and closer to animal advocacy, eventually working with Better Eating International, an organization that runs targeted digital media campaigns to educate millions of people on the merits of vegan eating so that they may live more ethically.

The question about identity gives me pause because the act of naming different descriptors feels disingenuous – like I am prioritizing some over others, when I honestly don’t parse my truth that way. But in the interest of starting a dialogue with readers, I can say that I am a Black Latinx woman, mom to four children, wife to a loving man, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I am an entrepreneur, a lifelong student, and volunteer.

I LOVE to read, both fiction and non-fiction. I usually carry a book to read during wait times, and I am part of a bookclub in my neighborhood. From an early age, my journalist dad instilled in me the importance of being well-informed and I still read a physical copy of my local newspaper every day! I also enjoy the outdoors, from sitting outside with a cup of tea, to hiking with my family and friends.

Why did you decide to join Encompass?

Activists are special. They choose to work in service of others, at a time when most people choose to work in service of self. Encompass supports activists and activist organizations, helping them create the conditions that will allow them to focus on their work, reach their goals, and thrive.

Despite our focus on justice, racial equity has eluded the animal protection movement. Too often, achieving racial equity is deprioritized in the context of multiple goals and limited resources. Encompass is determined to make sure racial equity regains its rightful place in strategic discussions on how to evolve and expand animal protection work.

Encompass studies, shares, and creates learning with our advocacy community. We do not see ourselves as gatekeepers to knowledge, safeguarding miraculous answers to our movement’s problems. On the contrary, we are focused on doing the heavy day-to-day work of creating a culture of equity, together with all of you. Culture is what we create as a group, to help us process our history, and to shape our future. In creating a culture of equity, we choose to recognize our shortcomings, make amends to those we have harmed, and move forward consciously. When we have reached our goal, the animal protection movement will reflect the best of human nature.

This work calls on me personally. I feel compelled to do everything in my power to carry the torch passed down by my ancestors and improve life for the next generation. I am delighted and honored to join Encompass, to serve our activist community, and be a part of this equity transformation in our movement.

Do you have any personal experience with racial inequity?

Painfully, I do. Each and every one of us lives within this culture predicated on racial inequity. At times, some have presumed me to be the token Black woman in a group; my credentials, integrity, skills, and potential dismissed. Other times, I have been asked to represent all Black and Latinx women, which I can’t do, and which is disrespectful to other Black and Latinx women. I have been asked to compartmentalize and choose between parts of my identity: gender, ethnicity, age, race, etc., as if it was possible or even healthy for any of us to switch who we are on and off. At times, people try to impose their expectations of racial identity upon me. The list is longer, but I will stop here.

Every day, I actively engage in building a new paradigm, starting with my personal life. First and foremost, I love myself: I sleep when I’m tired, I eat when I’m hungry, I listen to the wisdom of my body, and work to stay present. I give and receive love and empathy within my family and my community. I pursue learning relentlessly, which gives me such joy, and which helps me put my life in historical context, something I have found to be essential for growth.

Why do you care about racial equity in the animal protection movement?

I see achieving racial equity as a prerequisite for fulfilling our goals in animal protection. We have reached a plateau for what we can accomplish for animals within a paradigm of inequity. To be successful in delivering justice for all animals, we will need to incorporate racial equity in our work, intentionally, explicitly, and consistently.

Throughout history, we have seen that single-issue advocacy does not work. At best, it leads to limited improvements that erode over time unless people shift focus and address the real-life complexities of the problems we face. For example, divisiveness delayed progress both in the women’s suffrage and in the civil rights movements. In our work as animal advocates, we must embrace high standards for justice within our movement, including social justice, including racial equity, including gender equity, and more. Only then will we realize the true potential of our work for animals.

How do you see the work of transforming culture?

As a movement, our culture mirrors the greater society in which we operate, and our society’s culture is predicated on inequity. The goal is not to tear down this culture of inequity, because that will not work. For example, if we physically remove grass in our yard, and do nothing else, weeds take over. As soon as we remove the grass, we must plant a garden with hardy, beautiful plants that support one another as well as the larger ecosystem. It is not enough to destroy that which we do not want. We have to create and nurture what we do want.

Building a culture of equity in animal protection will require work at multiple levels simultaneously. Organizations will create processes and procedures that promote and support equity at all levels. Individuals will heal from trauma and bring their best selves to work. People, groups, organizations, and coalitions will honor and respect each other, adopting new, uplifting traditions that support all participants.

What do you bring to this work?

As I write this, I feel a deep love for my fellow activists throughout the movement. I am eager to engage, work hard, create, and perform with all of you. For always, I approach my work with curiosity and interest. Working with Encompass now is no different. I commit my leadership skills in service to building a better movement patiently, collaboratively, and with high standards.

What are your hopes and aspirations for this work?

I enjoy working in animal protection so much! Our people are deeply caring, generous, thoughtful, and compassionate. In our work towards racial equity, I hope that every one of us leaves ego at the door. Let’s come together as we are: vulnerable, capable, ready to learn, ready to work, ready to stumble, and willing to try again.

 

Michelle Rojas-Soto is managing director of Encompass and also a founding member of Gender Equity in Animal Rights.

Michelle has nearly 15 years of leadership experience in nonprofit and social enterprise work. Her work is focused on the interconnectedness of issues, and she is committed to fighting prejudice, hate, and apathy on all fronts. Prior to joining Encompass, Michelle was managing director of Better Eating International, disseminating progressive vegan education on a massive scale through digital media.

In addition to her work in animal protection, Michelle has also been an advocate for disability rights, racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. She has served on the board of directors for Pearls of Africa Children’s Home in Gulu, Uganda and was co-organizer for LA Tech4Good.

Michelle has a Master’s in Biology from Caltech and a Master’s in Business Administration from USC. She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and four children.