By Aryenish Birdie and Michelle Rojas-Soto | March 27, 2020

The novel coronavirus disease which was identified in 2019 (abbreviated to “COVID-19”) is affecting all of humanity around the globe. What is the role of the farmed animal advocacy movement at this time? What does it look like to advocate for non-human animals when societies everywhere are grappling with rampant disease, fear, physical isolation, inadequate healthcare, rising unemployment, near economic stand-still, and more? How can we fulfill our mission when our resources are limited to begin with, and even more so now? How do we communicate the reality that COVID-19, as well as past—and likely future—pandemics, are the result of the exploitation of non-human animals and the Earth?

At Encompass, we believe that using a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework for processing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is not only pertinent but essential to survive this crisis and earn the trust of future constituents. We detail our ideas below, in service to our colleagues, and to the animal movement at-large. Encompass is available to consult with organizations on emergent and foundational DEI issues.

The role of a DEI framework in an organization’s culture

If we let it, this time of overwhelming change can also become a time of intense self-reflection. We can resolve to approach everything we do through a DEI framework. If things are going to change around us, why not shape the change towards creating an equitable future that we can be proud of?

  • Our true purpose is to honor the deep connections between all living beings and the Earth. Reevaluate your mission in order to create room for supporting, and working side-by-side with, other purpose-driven movements.
  • Consider your vision, organizational strategy and leadership, your internal processes, your programs, communications and partnerships, your evaluation and sustainability plans through a DEI framework. For example, the Good Food Institute demonstrated leadership in applying a DEI framework in responding to their staff’s needs by creating more flexibility around work schedules, offering mental, emotional and financial support, and providing multiple avenues for nurturing connections.
  • Lean into intra-movement collaboration. For example, 50by40 organized a briefing call with partner organizations to discuss challenges and opportunities that we individually and collectively face.
  • Insist on a DEI framework as you consider multinational operations and revise your global strategy. Model being an equitable partner in all your collaborations. Keep in mind that countries around the world are at different stages and have different experiences of this pandemic.

Remember that DEI is never an add-on activity. Instead, DEI is fundamental to achieving our goals and realizing our vision of transforming our relationship with non-human animals. As Jennifer Fearing of Fearless Advocacy says:

“To the nonprofits who are not in the direct care and services fields, who advocate for the planet, for criminal justice, for equity, civil rights, environmental justice, and the like: we see you. You’re affected by this crisis too. Deeply. You may need to re-think your methods and your outreach during these unusual times, while not letting any of us forget that the problems your organizations exist to solve persist. You can use this time to build your capacity, your solution-set, your skills, your network. You can check in on your volunteers, your donors, your supporters. You can be truly intersectional – supporting other nonprofits and leaning in to not “mission creep,” but “mission expansion.”

DEI framework in engaging with the urgent needs of communities

Many advocates at the larger farmed animal groups focus on institutional campaigns. COVID-19 has highlighted the plight of individuals and communities. While many groups are often focused on maximizing impact (reduced suffering) per dollar, we need to understand that we are currently in a fundamentally different paradigm where the typical “impact per dollar” equation is no longer relevant because we have other variables never before considered or needed. We need to fundamentally reevaluate what “impact” and “effectiveness” look like and come to terms with the fact that right now, we may need to “downsize” (i.e. localize and personalize) our advocacy. Rather than sacrificing our mission, which we’d do if we simply did nothing, we can continue to push it forward albeit in “smaller” ways.

Let’s take the opportunity to offer on-the-ground support to people and communities based on their unique needs and work collaboratively with others. For example, Mercy For Animals, in coordination with Community Solidarity, provided 2,000 vegan meals in Brooklyn and Queens, NY. This campaign helped people in need while also helping to keep struggling vegan businesses afloat.

We encourage groups to avoid creating new systems and instead support existing ones. This can include providing grants, volunteers, meals, administrative support, and pro bono services to shore up staff resources so that community-based groups can do what they do best. For example, Chillis on Wheels, led by Michelle Carerra, has been offering vegan food to communities in need in the quest to make veganism accessible to all. They also offered support to people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In addition, Thrive Baltimore and Afro-Vegan Society, led by Brenda Sanders, already have the infrastructure in place to serve meals to communities in the Baltimore-area and have been doing so through a collective of food, environmental, and social justice activists. Groups like these already have robust systems and networks in place, and have established trust with the communities they serve. They should be recognized as leaders across social movements.

Consider these additional points:

  • Lead by example and avoid criticizing those who don’t eat vegan.
  • There have been many critical moments in recent times when animal advocacy organizations decided not to comment or take a position on emergent issues. Examples include: #metoo, the recent ICE raids, and racial violence in Charlottesville. This has created friction, both internally (between staff and leadership) and externally (between supporters and organizations), and contributed to the marginalization of animal protection from other social justice work. Now is a time for our movement to express empathy, and embrace the deep connections between systems of oppression. If you are unsure about how systems of oppression operate please review our resource guide.
  • Read the Five Principles of COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus and if you are in a senior leadership position, consider having your organization sign-on. Support nonprofit sector advocacy efforts in your area, state, and country.
  • Be aware of the current mode of panic and racism specifically targeting Asians across the globe. If you see racism towards Asians in-person or on social media, interrupt it.
  • Understand that food scarcity and insecurity is pervasive now more than ever before in our lifetimes. Encouraging people to eat vegan food when some people aren’t sure where to get any food will make animal advocates insensitive and further the “veganism is elitist” trope.
  • Now is the time to genuinely express solidarity with those who are risking their lives by continuing to provide essential services, especially farm-workers (as well as the advocates and movements who support them) and those on the frontlines fighting this disease.

DEI framework in communicating non-human animal links to COVID-19, and pandemics in general

There is still not clear consensus on where the novel coronavirus precisely originated, but we know non-human animals are the source, albeit not “traditionally” or domestically eaten animals. In light of this and the other reasons outlined in this document, we need to be careful to avoid “taking advantage” of this situation to achieve our own goals (even though farmed animal advocacy is valid and legitimate). In the long-run, it may backfire if the public feels we are coat-tailing this pandemic.

Scientists have identified very clear parallels between COVID-19 and H1N1 (swine flu), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and avian flu, as well as likely future pandemics. Consider refraining from punishing or guilt-tripping people with this information.

  • Rely on public health experts, virologists, and other respected scientists, and use the best, and most conservative, citations as possible. Source all of your claims from unbiased sources such as trusted media outlets, universities, and peer-reviewed studies.
  • It is imperative to be sensitive about language during the best of times, but especially during a pandemic. Avoid using the term “infected” to describe human or non-human animals. Words like this may locate blame or reinforce negative attitudes about certain animal species and may stigmatize vulnerable humans; use more intentional language: “hospitalized for symptoms of…” or “asymptomatic carriers…” or “families affected by…” Refer to the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s, Style Guide now and for future communications, NCDJ tends to stay ahead of style changes in how to frame your discourse.
  • Avoid sending out fundraising appeals that hinge upon a weak connection between your organization’s mission and the pandemic. We understand organizations still need to raise funds during this difficult time, and the entire nonprofit sector is struggling.

DEI framework in farmed animal and vegan advocacy communications

Most people are currently facing immediate and serious threats to their way of life. As of this writing, COVID-19 is in the exponential growth phase in many countries, and the expectation is that the worst is yet to come. In the U.S., 3.3 million people have applied for unemployment benefits in the last week alone. Many of us are making day-to-day decisions focused on subsistence, influenced by stress, and by limited resources.

To promote veganism now could be perceived as elitist, opportunistic, and insensitive to human suffering. And while we know that animals continue to languish in factory farms by the billions, continue to be bred and experimented on in laboratories, and that bear bile is being touted as a potential treatment, discussing veganism right now as a moral or ethical imperative will likely not be effective in winning people to our cause. Instead:

  • Approach specific audiences meaningfully. For example, industry leaders will be receptive to advocacy messages at a different time than consumers. Be sensitive to your audiences’ needs and priorities.
  • Consider advocacy work in multiple phases. During this initial phase, offer support and solidarity to people who are sick and everyone who is working to provide support and services.
  • For now, resist the urge to appeal to people’s fear of COVID-19, because any gains could be short-lived, at best.
  • Focus your advocacy efforts on people who are ready to learn from this experience and start shaping the future. It is at that moment when leading conversations about animal agriculture’s role in human and environmental health will be relevant.
  • Craft advocacy messages with the most vulnerable and the most marginalized in mind. When we take care of those on the margins, everyone benefits.
  • Do not message in a way that could be interpreted as “Asians eat weird animals” or “we shouldn’t eat wild/non-traditional animals.”

In Conclusion

It is more challenging than ever to advocate for animals right now, to deeply understand the role of our work in the world. We need to meet this challenge and extend our compassion to other causes, to every individual, to carefully consider how we respond, and be patient. Our world is in a reckoning moment, and our work is part of the solution.

We can help humanity learn from this. The key is to understand when to communicate our message, how to communicate it, and which messages will work for different audiences.

At a time of rapid change and mass panic, this is our opportunity to build community with other social justice causes, grow our organizations’ capacity, reconfigure how we operate, learn how systems of oppression operate, and collaborate with each other in new and more impactful ways. We can do this together.


Thank you to Christopher Sebastian, Jamie Berger, and Kenny Torrella for providing feedback on this post.