By Jaya Bhumitra | December 19, 2017

I became vegetarian 27 years ago and vegan nine years ago. When I went vegan, I knew changing my diet was not enough — I wanted to be a vegan activist. I started by volunteering for various animal protection organizations and eventually, was recruited as a paid staff member. Since then I have had the privilege of working with two more large farmed animal protection organizations.

I am proud of all the work I have accomplished alongside brilliant colleagues, compassionate volunteers, and generous supporters, and I am optimistic about the kinder world we are creating together.

However, as one of a few women of color working in the big groups, and one of even fewer women of color working in the high-pressure, white-male-dominated corporate outreach space, I have struggled.

In my daily dealings with companies, colleagues, and members of the broader animal rights community, I have had to cope repeatedly with microaggressions and, at times, outright racism. Here are some examples:

  • Even after years of acquaintance, some people have never had the courtesy to learn the right way to pronounce my name.
  • I am regularly confused with other South Asian women in the movement. And further, I have had white managers laugh this off when I have lamented the problem.
  • People often ask me where I’m from or greet me with “Namaste,” despite the fact that I was born and raised in Los Angeles.
  • Often the only woman of color in meetings, I have had my ideas dismissed but then embraced by the group moments later when a white man sitting in the room repeats them as his own.
  • When I have encouraged the hiring of other qualified people of color, I have been told that my suggestion is discriminatory — against white people.
  • When I have tried to discuss the importance of avoiding imperialist international approaches, I have been met with silence, glares, and blank stares.
  • At conferences, people assume I am going to speak about India because of my heritage, even though my expertise is in corporate outreach and campaigning.
  • Some even say people of color shouldn’t engage in corporate outreach at all — “white advocates will make more headway with white corporate executives who will want to work with people like them.”
  • I have been encouraged to ignore my less-than-ideal experiences for “the sake of the animals” and compartmentalize my identities as a woman, person of color, and animal activist.
  • I have been asked not to speak publicly about my experiences as a person of color and to be careful not to sound “angry” when I discuss the aforementioned issues.

Experiencing these prejudices day after day adds an extra layer of effort to every task I undertake. After nine years, the cumulative stress has taken its toll: I am exhausted and have the recurring thought that I cannot bear so many burdens (being female, brown, and vegan) at once. As dedicated to animals as I am, when I cannot even find safe space in a social justice movement as progressive as animal rights, it makes me want to leave the movement altogether.

I am still here because of the colleagues, volunteers, and supporters who are my allies not just in the struggle for animal rights but in the struggle for all.

And I am still here because of the promise of Encompass. Had Encompass been formed nine years ago, I may not have had the experiences comprising my bullet-pointed list. If I had, I would have at least had a venue in which to discuss them.

Now that Encompass has been founded, I have renewed hope that I will have the support necessary to advocate for animals while Encompass advocates for me. And as a member of the advisory council, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to reciprocate by supporting Encompass and the other advocates of color that Encompass aims to serve.

My greatest hope for Encompass is that it helps foster the kind of dialogue and understanding that will save future advocates in the professional animal rights space from feeling as “othered” as I have. I want to see people like me lifted up, empowered, and embraced for their unique talents and opinions.

Just as animals should be respected, their advocates should be too.

Jaya Bhumitra is the International Director of Corporate Outreach for Animal Equality. She oversees teams across five countries working to effect policy changes that reduce the suffering of animals raised and killed for food.