Interview with Matt Ball by EarthSave Portland
A 2003 interview with Matt Ball, cofounder and executive director of Vegan Outreach.
What were some of your first activist experiences, and how have they influenced the activist you are today?
My first experiences were the local (Animal Rights Community (ARC) of Greater Cincinnati) campaign against P&G (run, in part, by IDA) – including getting arrested at the shareholders’ meeting. We also ran anti-fur demonstrations. Jack Norris (then Special Events Coordinator of ARC) realized that a few protests a season wasn’t going to change anyone’s behaviors, so in the winter of ’90–’91, he, Phil Murray (now of Pangea; guy with goatee), and I took a “Make This Year Fur-Free” banner and leaflets to all cultural events. We held dozens of “protests” that cold winter – nine in one weekend alone.
I think that these events tended to show Jack, Phil, and me that the “standard” activism was neither sustainable, nor going to bring about significant change. Joe Espinosa had a similar experience, as I’m sure have many others. I think that, between the three of us, Jack, Phil, and I had the right combination of anger and dedication (to keep us going in the face of relative failure) and open minds (to keep us searching for new ideas). Anne [Green, Vice President of Vegan Outreach] added a lot to the evolution of ideas from 1992 on.
Why Why Vegan? What made the 3 of you get together and say "Hey, a pamphlet!"? What made you choose to found VO on the principle of direct outreach?
We never really had an “epiphany” like that. We were – and still are – always searching, debating, trying, listening, and evolving.
The evolution is apparent in the Vegan Outreach literature. You can just look at the very first one-page booklet – Vegetarianism – that Jack did (funded mostly by Phil’s last National Merit Scholarship check) in 1990, how it changed to And Justice for All, to Vegan Outreach(which we collated, stapled, and folded by hand) to the many versions of Why Vegan?and the upcoming Try Vegetarian! [and the more recent Even If You Like Meat]. But just looking at the change in that piece of literature fails to mention the Vegan Starter Pack [now the Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating], the Vegan Advocacy booklet (and other materials we provide, such as the Christian Vegetarian Association’s What Would Jesus Eat…Today? [now Honoring God’s Creation], PETA’s Alec Baldwin version of the video Meet Your Meat, etc.), as well as Jack’s leafleting college campuses across the country for two years, and subsequent events….
Toss in with this our fur campaign, getting arrested, holding “Please Stop Eating Animals” banners on bridges and street corners, fasting in public, dressing up like pigs, etc. There was no straight progression to what we do now, and we will continue to explore new things, and adopt and/or endorse those we find efficacious.
So in short, we are where we are because 1. We are and have been dedicated to maximizing our impact on the amount of suffering, 2. We’re willing to try new things, and 3. We’re not afraid to admit failure.
Many veg groups focus on the health benefits of a veg diet, because they think it’s most effective to cater to people’s self-interest. VO has repeatedly stressed that the key focus is reducing animal suffering. Why did you choose this avenue?
As often presented by vegans, the “health argument” is exaggerated at best, but often factually incorrect. It is amazing the contortions some advocates will go through to try to vilify any and all animal products as “deadly poison,” and it’s not surprising that the public sees through this propaganda.
Given that nearly everyone wants to continue to consume animal products, any reason to ignore the vegetarian message is seized. When the veg advocate’s message is counter to everything else the public has been told (chicken and fish are healthy, low-fat dairy is a good source of calcium, etc.), or the latest diet fad (the Zone, Atkins, etc.), they aren’t going to heed the seemingly restrictive and alien pronouncements of vegans. (A mental exercise that might be useful: Try to put yourself into the mindset of a “normal” middle-class American, and then imagine how you would react to a raw food advocate, saying that all cooked food is poison, etc.)
Perhaps more importantly, the health argument has contributed to the increase in the number of chickens and fish killed and consumed in this country. Without getting into questions of relative sentience, this unfathomable rise in the number of animals killed for food can’t be seen as a good thing. Since, as you say, most groups avoid the issue of cruelty, they cannot easily reject this approach. At the very least, this increase in animals killed should lead most advocacy groups to reevaluate their approach.
Fundamentally, Vegan Outreach believes that promoting selfishness is not the best way to reduce suffering. Recognition of and concern for others is the key; a basic rejection of cruelty is what we seek. Most people know that the Standard American Diet is not our healthiest habit, but most people don’t know that the Standard American Farm is “our worst nightmare.”
You advocate a positive, non-confrontational approach to animal liberation that eschews demonstrations and other similar types of activism. In a recent interview you said "More people are realizing that we aren’t going to chant and scream animal liberation into existence." How did this philosophy of offering humble, honest information as a primary activist strategy develop for you?
Trial and error, and plenty of bashing of head against brick wall. I wish I could say that I had a brilliant insight into the human psyche from day one, but that isn’t true. For years I acted from the anger and near-misanthropy that many activists have.
This fury – understandable and justified – is certainly real, and a start for many. But fundamentally, it isn’t about my anger (or ego, or needs). It is about those suffering. It is about creating the greatest change we can.
In general, people (read: our target audience, the ones who support modern animal agriculture) don’t want to be miserable. They want to be happy. Only those who seek solace (and/or identity) in rage will react well to arrogance and loathing; we can’t limit only to the conceited.
A lot of new animal activists operate out of anger and despair. In fact, a lot of activists spend much of their lives depressed, angry and burned out. What sparked your transition to a life of joy and openness – of becoming "an example of a life that others would admire and be interested in understanding"?
Again, I wish that I could give an answer that would be inspiring to all readers, but my personal views are a result of odd bounces and lucky twists. If I had gone to Georgia Tech instead of U. Cincy, if I had ended up on the engineers’ floor of the dorm instead of with Fred as my roommate, etc. It is all the butterfly effect, although some elements – like Jack, of course, are obviously central. But for me, at least, Anne has been, far and away, the key to everything.
Two seemingly at-odds facts:
A. As mentioned, fury and/or despair are entirely understandable. I think most people deny / block out the reality of all the suffering in the world – a psychological defense mechanism. Those who don’t suppress this truth yet don’t feel anger and/or hopelessness are often psychopaths.
B. Perhaps the best way to have a significant impact on the state of the world, though, is to find a better space in life, to be an example of a desirable, meaningful life.
Getting from A to B is vital for the animals, but an incredibly difficult path. This should, I think, be a priority for everyone who cares about reducing and preventing suffering.
What has most surprised you during all your VO experiences?
That I didn’t die of stomach ulcers from worrying about upcoming leafleting and public speaking. Those activities used to make me sick with worry for days beforehand. I have Crohn’s disease, though, so….
What’s been your most difficult/challenging speaking experience?
A. One was certainly the first time I led a Students for Animal Rights (SAR) meeting at the University of Illinois. I had fought against taking over the group, but it was either that or the having the group fold. I was terrified before the first meeting, and wrote draft after draft of my speech. Read it to Phil, read it to Jack over the phone, etc. I even read it right from the paper to a classroom full of potential members. Only one was still with SAR a month later, but that person was Anne, so I guess it was ultimately a success!
B. Before AR2003 East this year, I was the featured speaker for the day at the regional 4-H camp (at right). Many (if not most) of the people, I think, were hostile towards me and had a caricatured view of Animal Rights going in – that vegans consider animals to be more important than people, “terrorism” and violence against animal industries, etc. It would have been easy to present only areas foreign to them (the health / “deadly poison” argument, religious veganism, absolute animal rights, rejection of all animal ‘exploitation’ (e.g., bees for honey, cats and dogs as pets, etc.), but not only would that have accomplished less than nothing, those concepts aren’t what is truly important.
Finding a common ground is the key, and shouldn’t be hard. Most of the people in that or any audience reject cruelty, and can identify with my underlying message: an opposition to causing suffering.
These high-school students – many of whom had grown up on small farms – also had reason to reject the corporatization of animal agriculture. Not just the cruelty involved, but that they have all seen friends and relatives put out of business.
We expect others to open their minds to our message, to reject their history and habits – everything they’ve been taught in the past. We can’t really expect this of others unless we also have an open mind, one that allows us to see the point of view of others, their motivations, etc.
Jack Norris has branched off onto his own with Making Sense of Nutrition Research. How has that affected VO’s effectiveness and direction?
As I hope is clear, Vegan Outreach has always been seeking to find the best way to reduce suffering. One thing we have found in all our time doing outreach – especially Jack’s two years of leafleting across the country, where he met tens of thousands of people – is that there are many many failed vegetarians. For some advocates, this is a foreign concept (“Veganism is the ultimate diet! It is the only path to ultimate health!”), and most advocacy organizations are dedicated to advancing the standard vegan party line (presenting animal products as “deadly poison,” any incarnation of veganism as perfect, etc.)
(Again, see the parallel with raw foodists: where any ill health is your body “purging,” and anyone who quits was just “addicted” to cooked foods and not dedicated enough.)
Few individuals or organizations are really dedicated to an honest, candid analysis of nutrition as applies to vegetarian diets (especially veganism), and the string of failed vegetarians (including many celebrities, such as Michael Stipe of REM, Tracy “Mrs. Michael J. Fox” Pollan, Madonna, Drew Barrymore, etc.) that has been the result.
If we want to prevent suffering, we have to work hard to guarantee that everyone can stay a healthy vegan. For this reason, Jack’s focus is in keeping with Vegan Outreach’s general mission. However, there is also a practical concern: being able to pay the rent and put food on the table. I’ve been in a fortunate position, with Anne teaching at Carnegie Mellon. But Jack has, for all intents and purposes, been a full time activist for more than a decade, without means to make a reasonable living. (Also see below.)
How has VO changed since its inception?
We’re always changing (as discussed above), trying to find the best ways to prevent suffering.
One thing that I think has remained the same, though, and it relatively unique to Vegan Outreach, is the amount of, shall we say, “personality” the group has. We don’t claim to have all the answers. We’re just a relative handful of folks trying to do our best, and help others to their best, with what knowledge we’ve accumulated and resources we have at the time. We disagree amongst ourselves (vehemently at times), make mistakes and enemies (e.g., “You have become a corrupt marketing arm of the meat and dairy industries”), but we keep plugging away.
Karen Dawn of DawnWatch.com recently asked how we would describe Vegan Outreach. “Fanatically anti-dogmatic” is a good start. “Enigmatic contrarians” is also apt. Being able to promote values such as humility, joy, and humor is another upside to our more personal approach.
What are the biggest challenges VO faces now?
It is hard, with all the cruelty, abuse, and suffering going on in the world right now, to donate to something as abstract as promoting veganism. Human nature responds to the known and immediate. Donors react to the picture and story of an individual animal, with a specific plea, rather than a nebulous, Help us print Try Vegetarian!, and somewhere people will stop eating animals, and down the road, some animals won’t be bred and suffer in factory farms.” (This is, of course, true for me as well; there are two cats I know that are headed to the shelter for lack of a home; Anne developed a terrible allergy since Ellen was born, or we would take them. The plight of these cats has caused me a great deal of grief, although it is nothing compared to the suffering going on in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.)
It is also very hard to get people to fund honest and balanced nutritional research and reporting as well.
To generalize, people like to back an immediate winner, someone who has the cheery, sure-sounding, inspiring, attention-grabbing message. And this doesn’t even begin to comment on the state of today’s economy, especially as relates to our standard member – a college student.
Vegan Outreach has existed for years on an annual budget less than what some groups put towards relatively minor projects. We’ve distributed millions of copies of Why Vegan? and Vegetarian Living as a tiny, relatively unknown group. Yet so much more could be done; e.g., having Why Vegan?s and Try Vegetarian!s on display in every willing health food store, library, bookstore, coffee house, restaurant, etc. – not to mention having activists regularly leafleting their local high school and college – would reach so many interested people for a relative pittance.
What do you hope VO will look like 5–10 years from now?
“Hope” is a lot different than “expect.” As the saying goes, “Wish for the best, and plan for the worst.”
But I generally don’t think about the future of Vegan Outreach, knowing how much has changed in the past. We may well discover something else that proves more effective at preventing suffering, or maybe a new source of support (and/or inspiration) may come forward.
Sidebar: Personal Questions
Tell us a little about your background; give us the Cliffs Notes version of your life until Vegan Outreach.
After graduating high school in a small, rural town in Ohio, I was going to be a rocket scientist, make a lot of money, and live the American Dream. But my roommate freshman year – Fred McClintock – was a vegetarian, which led me to meeting Jack, which led to meeting Anne…
Who’s the head chef in the family – you or Anne? What’s your specialty?
I make the bread that Anne (my wife) earns. She also does cleanup (she loves creating order from chaos!). While I am, at heart, a steak-and-potatoes guy, we prefer ethnic food – Mexican, Thai, and Indian, mostly. We use a lot of Gimme Lean (order cases at the co-op and freeze it) and Tofurky slices (ditto). I also make good seitan dishes.
Ellen (our daughter, born in 1994) would eat bread and/or mashed potatoes for every meal if we let her.
Why Engineering and Public Policy (EPP)?
As I finished up my degree in Aerospace Engineering, I wanted to do something useful, but also use my engineering background. I won a Department of Energy Global Change Fellowship, to work on global warming / climate change and related fields. I started in Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois, got booted from that program, and moved down to the Department of Forest Ecology, where I took an M.S.
After Anne got a job at Carnegie Mellon, my Fellowship transferred to EPP there. I lasted a wee bit longer at that program, so was able to take an M.S. when booted, moved to Environmental Engineering, worked at Department of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, etc. etc.
What books are you reading now?
I tend to listen to books on tape (when I’m driving, cooking, stuffing envelopes), as I don’t have time to read. Oddly enough, right now, I’m listening to That Old Ace in the Hole, by E. Annie Proulx (author of The Shipping News). Its underlying plot is corporate hog farms, and it makes a darn good case against them.
Before that, I listened to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The same reader does all five books, and is tremendous. You really feel like you know the characters – the voices he gives them, the inflections, emotions, etc.. The book is a heartbreaking study of human frailties and failures; far more moving and insightful than most other fiction I’ve encountered.
I finished listening to it driving back from AR2003 East, and almost cried. Within 10 days of its release, Anne and I had finished listening to it, and Ellen had read it. It was so intense that Ellen isn’t inclined to read it again right away. She has read all the others multiple times; the third (Prisoner of Azkaban) over 20 times (literally).
And before that, I listened to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. In it, “humanity” goes vegan, in a fashion.
None. I like to explore or stick with what I’ve done and try new ideas I have. My last favorite cookbook was Vegan Vittles.
My priority when I have time is to spend time with Anne and Ellen.
I like to cook, garden, read, and take pictures (e.g, 1, 2). I would like to really take up golf, ’cause that would force me to take time out from work and be outside. And not sit on my duff. I watch a lot of golf while stuffing envelopes (I got a “Best Dad” award, with the clarification “Even though he watches a lot of golf.”)
Eating and beer are also way up there, too.
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
Anne and Ellen do a “puppet” show (using Ellen’s Beanie Babies) called “15 Minutes with Cats.” Once, they had the Dad cat wake up and say, “Huh, uh, where’s my computer?!”
What is most important in life?
Being with Anne, which for me is key to being as happy as possible. I think that living an ethical life can provide meaning, purpose, and the possibility of accomplishment for life, which I think can be central to happiness.
Ethiopian, mostly ’cause I can’t make it myself. Specifically, Meskerem in D.C., for which I’m eternally grateful to Scott Williams, formerly of FARM. Good Thai food is right up there, and The Vegetable Garden outside of D.C. is wonderful. The lettuce wraps at P.F. Changs are right up there, and actual New Mexican in New Mexico is 3x-a-day treat. Boxes of expired but still edible donuts are always welcome!
St. Pauli Girl is currently my favorite beer.
Chocolate or vanilla?
What model was your first car?
Buick station wagon, with rusted out floor and huge, 120 MPH-capable engine. Not that I would know about the latter.
Do you eat the stems of broccoli?
They go to Sunny.
(She’s the guinea pig we adopted, not the girl with the glasses.)
Who are your role models?
Visiting the McDonald’s-funded Vegan Outreach office in New Zealand, where other people stuff envelopes and answer the phone!