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How Co-option of Grass-Roots Activism Played Out in Kansas City’s First VegFest

September 18, 2017

Source JoAnn Farb


When I heard that a new group, Voices for Animals Kansas City (VFAKC) was planning to host Kansas City’s first VegFest, I was thrilled.  Although it seemed odd that they didn’t reach out to the longest running animal right’s group in the area, Animal Outreach of Kansas, and invite them to participate, I didn’t start to have concerns until AOK’s founder, Judy Carman inquired about tabling at the Vegfest and was informed that to have a table would cost her 300.00 dollars — the same as for food vendors, even though she wasn’t selling anything, and didn’t have that kind of budget.  My concerns grew when I found out HSUS and Whole Foods (one of the largest meat retailers in the US.) were both sponsors.  

How would messaging at the vegfest be impacted by its sponsors?

Sponsors provide money expecting to get something.  Non-profits typically sponsor expecting to expand membership and increase revenue.   In the case of VFAKC’s Vegfest — HSUS wasn’t just a sponsor, but also provided one of the speakers — Paul Shapiro.

KC’s first VegFest was free and open to the public, and my family went and mingled with other attendees.  Our intent was to support and promote veganism by talking with others. When we talked with non-vegans, we shared literature that encouraged veganism.  When attendees told us that they were already vegan, we discussed the issue of co-option within the movement and provided them the flyer pictured above (front) and below (back).


Overwhelmingly the people we met expressed gratitude that we were raising awareness of this issue.   At no point were we loud or disruptive in any way.  We simply spoke respectfully one on one with individuals, and heard no objections.

But in weeks following the Vegfest we heard from a number of people that the Vegfest’s main organizer, Dave Swarts, was upset when he learned after the fact that we had been providing this literature to people and he was seeking to block us from attending next year’s Vegfest.  Dave told others (incorrectly) that we were distributing  “Humane Watch” literature. Humane Watch is a well-known front group for animal exploiting industries, that also is very critical of HSUS.  Mischaracterizing our hand-out and the website it linked to in this way, may cause those supportive of HSUS  to not even look into the substance of what we were saying.   After hearing how upset Dave was and that our actions were being misconstrued, my daughter reached out with an email to Dave asking to set up a phone call to discuss what happened, hoping that they could better understand each other’s perspective.

12 days later, Dave Swarts replied to my daughter with the following emailed statement and he copied me too:


It is ironic that Dave used the words, “conflict with our brand” in his statement.  If we are both  working to help animals, why would his biggest expressed concern be his “brand”? Perhaps this definition of co-option HERE can shed some light:


When the vegan movement began in 1944 with the coining of the word, “vegan,” it was clearly defined as the exclusion of all forms of exploitation of animals.  Keep in mind — factory farms were not yet known.  Nearly all animals were raised on family farms like those being promoted as “humane” by organizations like HSUS.  

I’ve been vegan over 25 years and have witnessed messaging from large animal advocacy groups changing in a disturbing way.  Groups, that once advocated for justice for animals, are suddenly steering the conversation away from promoting veganism to endorsing meat, dairy and eggs from farms they now refer to as, “humane,” in some cases even giving their stamp of approval as with the infamous Whole Foods Letter, or when Peta gave an award to Temple Grandin for designing a “humane” slaughterhouse.  To put that in perspective, consider what would be the public’s reaction if Amnesty International gave an award to a dictator for jailing dissidents in more comfortable jails and feeding them a great meal before killing them by lethal injection, instead of a firing squad?  Should animal advocates publicly applaud baby steps that still perpetrate violent injustice against animals?  How would you feel if Amnesty International suggested that the less terrible dictators were our allies in the struggle against the most horrific dictators?

Now juxtapose that scenario with a real conversation that occurred on a vegan Kansas City Facebook group, when a new vegan, expressed interest in holding a vigil in front of a small local slaughterhouse to raise awareness.  The new vegan asked if anyone knew where local slaughterhouses were, and Dave tried to dissuade this individual by suggesting that these slaughterhouses were, “allies” with vegans who work to raise awareness about the injustice of exploiting animals:


​What does it mean if we begin to ally with those who are profiting off of the exploitation and killing of animals?  What is left of our movement, if we are no longer clearly opposed to exploitation and killing of other beings? What does that make our movement a movement for?  

​Does messaging matter?
One of the speakers at KC’s VegFest was Paul Shapiro, a VP at HSUS.  As a segue to his endorsement of cultured meat, (Which I have raised concerns about in my post, Cultured Meat, Yellow Rice, Cage Free Eggs, Have YOU Been Duped?)   Paul told the audience a tall-tale about how whales benefitted from the transition from whale oil lamps popular in the 1800s to kerosene lamps — a tale that I have deconstructed in my post, Dangerous Myths that Threaten AnimalsPaul used that tale as a metaphor for why people who care about animals should now endorse cultured meat.Paul also made the following Orwellian statement while on stage:

“We should accept that not all animal raising is the same…In fact if all animals were raised that way [on small farms] we might go do something else with our lives…because there’d be maybe bigger problems.”
                                                                          –Paul Shapiro HSUS VP

Why is VFAKC providing a platform for sentiments contrary to real justice for animals?   I  shudder to think how this messaging (which also included suggesting that ethically, its better to eat beef than chicken) might have influenced attendees.  How many people on the verge of considering veganism — because a vegan spokesperson/leader suggested that embracing or working for “humane” meat/dairy/eggs is a morally acceptable alternative to veganism, will now become consumers of, “happy meat?” instead of embracing veganism?   Might this translate into economic benefits for sponsors like Whole Foods and HSUS?
IF you are involved with the group Voices for Animals — or for that matter, ANY group that is partnering with entities which might present a conflict of interest, I urge you to speak up and raise awareness.  Go to their events and dialogue with others who attend.  If you are not sure what constitutes a conflict of interest, Tribe of Heart Defined  it Here:


Who is VFAKC advocating for — the animals or their sponsors? 

PLEASE do all you can  to keep the conversation about industry co-option of grass-roots animal advocacy alive!   If you attend VFAKC events, make sure others there know what is taking place and share information.  Share this post on your social media, email it to friends who may not be on FB.  Print out some of the articles that I have linked to and share them with others. The animals need us to speak up!

If you’d like to know more about how conflicts-of-interest are undermining grass-roots activism and decades of work by sincere activists on behalf of other beings, read Invasion of the Movement Snatchers and When Animal Groups Promote Happy Meat, and watch the video, Happy Meatopia. I would also encourage you to read this excellent post by Gary Francione explaining how the Vegan Society of the UK — THE very first vegan society ever — founded in 1944 by Donald Watson has also been, coopted/rebranded.

​Something else just bought to my attention is this 2012 article:

Justice For Animals, Respect for Advocates — Ideas too Dangerous for Corporatized Animal Advocacy?

if they could speak
what would they say.
now all they can
do is pray…
and hope some kindness
comes their

Karen Lyons Kalmenson


3 Comments leave one →
  1. karenlyonskalmenson permalink
    September 18, 2017 12:54 pm

    if they could speak
    what would they say.
    now all they can
    do is pray…
    and hope some kindness
    comes their

    Liked by 1 person

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