Animal Advocates: It’s Time We Move from Performance to True Antiracism, by Aryenish Birdie
The protestors around me reflected the diversity of our country, all donning pandemic-mandated face masks, many holding signs made from cardboard boxes. BLACK LIVES MATTER! I CAN’T BREATHE! DEFUND THE POLICE. It was June 1, 2020, the infamous night that President Donald Trump tear-gassed protestors to clear the area for a photo op in front of a church.
I stood among them, albeit not near the White House—me, a petite woman sweating from the summer heat and donning my own homemade sign that was too wordy for someone to read quickly: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”—W.E.B. Du Bois. Beneath my face shield, my eyes were wide, and the energy of the protest fueled me the way it did eleven years ago when I was starting my fight for Black lives in Oakland in 2009, when Oscar Grant was murdered by a BART police officer on a train from San Francisco.
Though I have been working at the intersection of racial equity and animal advocacy for decades and was moved by the thousands of people who came out amidst COVID-19 to protest the horrible murder of a Black man in Minnesota, these lingering thoughts kept coming up for me:
How many of these white people marching actually mean it? Is this redirected frustration from the pandemic, or do they really care about civil rights? Will this momentum persist for more than a few days or weeks?
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing social and racial unrest, we are seeing more progress on racial justice in society—and in the animal rights movement—than ever before. The Washington, DC, football team has finally committed to removing a racial slur from its name; the Minneapolis city council has taken some steps to dismantle the police and replace it with a holistic public safety force; and people are recognizing that racism and white supremacy mean more than overt violence, such as white men in hoods and robes, lynchings, or use of the N-word.
But, as a person of the global majority—raised in Kansas by Pakistani-immigrant parents—this uprising has made me both optimistic and skeptical. While I’m thrilled with the progress, it has also brought up big questions for me about whether these efforts we’re seeing herald a new wave of progress or are being done begrudgingly (because the optics of not doing something are far worse). I feel this way because from where I stand, some public displays of outrage and Black Lives Matter solidarity come across as insincere.
As a person who has committed her career to making the animal protection movement (and the organizations that make up this movement) embrace racial equity principles, I want to be honest—with myself and others—and recognize progress when we actually make it.
And we are making progress. But in the wake of this much-needed global uprising surrounding George Floyd’s gruesome murder, it’s also fair to push for more—to push for authenticity, to push for accountability, and to push for amends.
Racial Justice Work Is More Than Something “Nice to Have”
In the three months following the murder of George Floyd, Encompass received more requests for work than we had in the entire period leading up to this moment, beginning with our founding in 2017.
The volume of email was so enormous that I had a “slow to respond” auto-reply to temper expectations about when those contacting me could expect a reply. On top of the usual work of supporting Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority (BIPGM); consulting with organizations; and fundraising, I now also had to spend time educating folks that the kind of labor they were asking of me and Encompass deserved to be compensated, a point I’ve been having to make since the inception of this organization.
During the first three years of Encompass’s existence, as we were busy building our programs, I sometimes heard white animal protection leaders express that engaging in racial equity work was “nice to have” (a phrase that was actually said to me)—that they thought our work was important, but not important enough to prioritize it in their budgets or calendars.
Some days, this kind of fundamental dismissiveness was enough to make me question Encompass’s (and, admittedly, my own) worth. In my head, the questions seemed to play on a loop: Would I actually be able to make a difference and open people’s eyes to the danger of racial inequity within animal advocacy? Were people ready for this approach? Would they actually bring us on as consultants to coach
them in transforming their organizational cultures?
Most pressingly: Can racial equity finally penetrate the animal protection movement?
My Journey to Encompass
I founded Encompass because I knew that for the animal protection movement to be effective, it needed to reflect the diversity of the society it sought to change.
We need diversity at all levels of the movement, notably in leadership roles. And animal advocates of the global majority need to have the things that they need to succeed (equity), not just the same access and tools that everyone else gets (equality). It’s important to note that people in the dominant group (whites) get to determine what’s “needed” to succeed in an organization, and that determination often marginalizes BIPGM.
I had dozens of conversations with movement leaders and animal advocates across the United States, those who are white and those who are BIPGM. I spoke with grassroots animal advocates as well as those at well-funded groups to ensure that in creating Encompass, we would serve those who needed it most. I wanted to find an opportunity to build a stronger movement and normalize the conversation about why bringing race into animal advocacy would make us all more effective at helping animals. I asked all of them: “Does the movement need Encompass?”
The answer was repeatedly and resoundingly yes—that we had so much catching up to do to create an equitable, inclusive, and diverse movement. And I also found that there was indeed an appetite to begin making the necessary changes, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’ll make us more strategic, effective, and impactful.
So I left my job—a stable one that provided fantastic health insurance, a 401K, paid vacation, and a wonderful boss—to jump into the murky waters of founding a nonprofit from scratch. Though some of my friends questioned my decision (either out of genuine care for me or skepticism about the mission), I made the choice to launch Encompass anyway, with my eyes wide open. I knew the risks—swapping out regular paychecks for endless grant proposals that had no promises of acceptance—and I moved forward carefully and with intention.
In our first two years, we focused on building the foundation and developing the strategy for Encompass. Our goal was simple but lofty: to build a thriving animal protection movement that operates at its fullest potential because it reflects the racial diversity of our country, while its organizations and advocates embrace a culture of equity, interdependence, and justice.
This past year has been all about execution. It’s when we hired our first employee, took on organizational clients, launched our Global Majority Caucus, commenced our webinar training series, and held our first training for the movement.
What was once just an idea—one I’d had as the result of working within the movement and feeling dismissed and overlooked because of my race—was now gaining traction. Encompass was here to stay, and I couldn’t be prouder.
2020: A Year of Reckoning
And then, amidst a burgeoning pandemic—when the future for small nonprofits like Encompass was precarious and we were starting to budget for contingencies—George Floyd was murdered and the #BlackLivesMatter movement started to gain momentum unlike anything we’d seen before.
And just as swiftly as neighborhoods around the country began forming protests demanding an end to race-based police brutality, organizations and individuals that hadn’t previously returned our calls or emails reached out with a sense of great urgency.
Some of these folks were looking for clues about what to say to “look good” on race (their words, not mine), but the majority were deeply moved and eager to engage in transformative racial justice work.
At last, it felt like the value of our racial equity work was no longer in question. So in the midst of my own deep grief around what our country has become—and in fact, always was—I also breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe we were getting somewhere.
Social justice organizations focused on animal advocacy were finally starting to invest in racial equity and to integrate racial justice into their operations, programs, and culture. Organizations, activists, writers, donors, and podcasters reached out, eager to learn more about what they could do to fight racism in animal protection and society at large.
BIPGM advocates were seeking advice on how to manage racism in their activism. Things were happening and I was excited; it seemed the tide was starting to turn. The work we had been doing for years to build racial equity in the white sector of the animal protection movement was, at last, being validated.
One More Black Person Down
Yet at the same time, I had a pit in my stomach, because it had taken one more Black person being murdered by the police to propel this country, and now animal advocates, into action for racial justice.
The year 2020 had indeed validated racial justice work in animal protection spaces, but at the cost of someone’s life—of too many Black folks’ lives. Like many other racial justice advocates, I found myself energized by the masses of white folks boldly protesting, while a voice in my head also asked, Where have you been? and What took you so long?
At long last, the social cost of ignoring racism for one more day was higher than the actual cost of paying for racial equity work. For some, it felt like a matter of pragmatism and prioritization, not morality.
And so I turned some of the questions inward, asking myself: Where is your line—who will and won’t you work for? Will you engage with folks even when you suspect they are being motivated by optics alone? Can you accurately identify who wants a rubber stamp from Encompass
and who is genuinely interested in this work?
When it became clear to me that some wanted to engage with Encompass simply to show they were doing the “right” thing, I knew it was because it had become politically necessary to do so. Even writing this, I worry that the transparency of my thought process will scare off some white folks, for fear that they will be perceived as posturing. The thing is, for white folks, facing white supremacy is extremely uncomfortable. But it is those times when you are most uncomfortable that you know you’re doing the difficult work of facing and fighting white supremacy.
So if you are a white person and you’re reading this, and in your heart you truly want to do racial equity work, you are welcome here. You are, in fact, needed here. It’s okay to make mistakes, but you must investigate your motivations and be able to answer for yourself: Why now? Why has it taken you so long to get to this point? I know asking and answering these questions is tough, but we can’t address white supremacy and racism if white folks in particular can’t first address these questions. This is where the work starts, and no one can shortcut this for you.
Learning to Speak My Truth
Over the past few months, I’ve had to say no to more individuals, organizations, and donors than I ever have in my thirty-plus years on this planet. As the executive director of a new nonprofit that works at the intersection of two “controversial” issues, it isn’t easy to turn down clients (or, frankly, funding). As anyone who’s been part of an early venture knows, turning away potential donors or clients who could bring in much-needed income is a privilege we don’t often have.
But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I did find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to say no to the kind of stuff that pays the bills. Not because we were short on time (though we were, and are—every day), but because when I dug deep, there were instances when it felt like some people were simply engaging Encompass because they were looking for a shortcut, a rubber stamp, or a quick solution, rather than a genuine, long-term engagement in truly transformational racial justice work. This was frustrating, because the sudden onslaught of requests for help felt akin to social media users doing the bare minimum—posting a black square with no comment or wearing a safety pin—to meekly express solidarity, rather than meaningfully engaging with this material.
In my gut, I knew I needed to focus my time on working with organizations and individuals committed to honest self-reflection and transformational action to create a more racially equitable movement. I feared that if I worked with folks that seemed to be looking for mere Band-Aid solutions, I would be enabling this kind of behavior.
And yet I’m not sure I’ve held the line effectively, and I’m not sure of the consequences of some of my decisions. In some cases, time will tell. In others, I may never know.
The Work We Do When No One’s Watching
I founded Encompass because it’s a group I myself needed after being in the animal protection movement for two decades and never feeling like I totally belonged. Since then, my work has revolved around holding space for others, and this essay is the first time I’ve been public in holding space for myself.
Over the past few months, I have absolutely seen genuine awakenings from friends and colleagues. I’ve seen white folks working extremely hard to understand white privilege and fragility, and to integrate antiracism into their lives. I’ve seen so much good and so much that gives me hope for our cause and for humanity.
Now that the protest crowds have thinned and people don’t feel socially obligated to perform on social media, the real work has begun. It’s time to look closely at the culture, policies, practices, and written and unwritten norms within our organizations and communities and grow them through an equity lens. It’s time to make amends with individuals or communities we may have harmed. It’s time to lead with authenticity, vulnerability, and accountability.
This is the work we must do when no one’s watching. The work we do because we care, not because we think we have to, or because we’d like the credit. The work we must do because we understand the problem of racism is a daily emergency, whether or not it’s on TV or in our Instagram feeds. These are the actions we must take because we owe it to animals—and those who advocate for them—to embrace this work wholeheartedly.
For those who are new to antiracism advocacy and are asking yourselves the hard question of how you’ve benefited from white supremacy and what you can now do to dismantle it, we welcome you. I ask that you look inside and see what’s motivating you now. I ask that you challenge yourself to be critical of performative actions and work from a place of authenticity and vulnerability.
This will be difficult work. You may need to make amends with individuals you have harmed. There will be no roadmap, no linear process, no easy answers. We have all grown up in an environment where challenging the status quo of racism and white supremacy culture was frowned upon—or worse, punished. White antiracist allies should bear the brunt of this uniquely because when people in the “in-group” challenge the status quo, it threatens it more deeply, and because when people in the “out-group” challenge the status quo, our safety is threatened.
I want to be clear that I’m not looking to place blame or shame, but rather to ask the necessary and challenging questions to foster racial equity transformation in the animal protection movement. Having a space to share how this work impacts me as a racial equity practitioner without being asked to provide a specific, measurable, and achievable call to action is cathartic. Every day, I ask people to be real, honest, and vulnerable; I wanted to try it on for size, too.
Aryenish Birdie (she/her) is the founder and executive director of Encompass, building a racially equitable animal protection movement.