Written by J. Brese
Thoughts on community organizing, feminism, and why it is important for women to stand up and fight (back).
by J. Brese
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“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibility.”
Truthfully, I haven’t been giving a lot of thought to the upcoming presidential election. I long ago stopped believing that we should rely on the state to clean up our country’s messes, especially considering that those messes are generally a result of something the state had done in the first place; and I also came to realize that, at least on a federal level, the type of politician who would actually represent me and my interests would never get elected. Not to mention the corruption, the racism and classism, and the myriad other problems inherent in our current political system.
But as a long-time grassroots activist, it was pretty hard to ignore the above quote by Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, given during her speech at the Republican National Convention in September. I know I am not alone in feeling outraged and insulted at the implication that the people working to rebuild their communities – again, a process usually necessitated by an action, or a failure to act, on the part of the government – have no “actual responsibility.” In my time as a social justice activist and an animal advocate, I have met some of the most hard-working, dedicated, incredible individuals striving to organize and mobilize their communities. Their work, in my opinion, is some of the most important being done today, and they deserve infinitely more than the disdain that they get from the people at the top of the totem pole.
As a woman and a feminist, I am especially invested in the growth and revitalization of our communities. In general, women and people of color are hit harder by economic hardship than men – we are less likely to have health care, access to education, or job mobility. Without community organizers advocating for equality and action, many of us would be much worse off than we are. Granted, we still have a long way to go on many issues, but without those grassroots activists of now and then, we would never have such a strong platform from which to be fighting today.
Jasmin Singer is one of these community organizers whom I admire so much. She is a whirlwind of activity in the greater New York City area, devoting herself full-time to Farm Sanctuary, an animal advocacy and rescue and rehabilitation facility based out of upstate New York. In addition, Jasmin and her colleague Marisa Miller Wolfson regularly present workshops to students and the public on topics such as veganism, effective activism, and the intersectionality of different social justice movements. I met up with Jasmin and her partner, Mariann, after a talk given at New York’s New School University on the relationship between the animal rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements.
xsisterhoodx: What organization do you work for and how did you get involved?
Jasmin Singer: I work for Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farmed animal protection organization. We rescue and rehabilitate farmed animals who would otherwise be sent to slaughter. In addition, we also advocate on their behalf, nationally and even internationally. We have several different campaigns; we try to raise awareness so the public can be more aware of farmed animal cruelty, and work to end it by changing their behavior, their life, and hopefully by upping the ante of their advocacy. There is also a shelter department where we actually rehabilitate the animals so they can live out the rest of their lives peacefully. We have two sanctuaries: one is in northern California, in Orland, in upstate New York, in Watkins Glen. It’s truly a magical experience to visit either of our sanctuaries, no matter whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, meat-eater – whatever. It’s a life-changing experience.
[I also coordinate] all of the community organizing in New York City – all of the grassroots stuff. I hold monthly activist meetings where we evaluate our current volunteer needs and all of the activity in the city. I try really hard to work with volunteers and activists to find where their skills are and where their talents are and where their interests are so they can go out and advocate for the animals in a way that is meaningful and empowering to them, whether that is leafleting, tabling, writing letters to the editor… whatever best suits their skills and talents.
xSHx: How did you become an activist? What sparked your interest in these issues?
JS: When I think back to when I was a kid… I was definitely marginalized as a kid, definitely made fun of, and really found my niche in theater and in acting. When I went to college for acting, the first job I got out of school was as an actor educator in an HIV Awareness Theater Company. So I actually became an advocate for safer sex practices, for HIV and AIDS, and with that I became enmeshed in a lot of gay rights issues.
Backtracking a little bit, when I was 18… I became a vegetarian, though I can’t really tell you why except that it didn’t seem right to me to eat animal flesh. I would actually introduce myself by saying, “I’m a vegetarian, but not the mean kind.” Little did I know! Actually, through a friend of mine in the theater company… I knew he had this vegan friend, Marisa, whom I finally met, and she prompted me to think more about animal issues. So I became an animal rights activist and a vegan, and my life really changed at that point. I didn’t think my life was so tragic anymore; things become put into perspective. I actually have the number “267” tattooed on my wrist, because that’s the number of chickens who are slaughtered in this country every second for food…. That was about six years ago. One time, I was hanging with Marisa, and she introduced me to a bunch of her friends – this is right after I had seen a film, “Peaceable Kingdom,” [about the lives of animals raised for food] – and she says, “This is Jasmin, and she’s a vegan,” and I was like, ” I’ve been outed! I’m a vegan!” And I thought, “I have to grow my armpit hair out, I have to quit my job…” I just felt like it was an entirely different identity, but it doesn’t have to be. People can be vegan, they can be an animal rights activist in all walks of life – as a corporate lawyer, as a wall street banker. Now, in my position, I see this time and time again: people put in 80 hour weeks [at their jobs] and come in the next day to the office to make phone calls or to table at events.
xSHx: So now that you have identified the connections between gay rights, women’s rights and animal rights – you’re giving workshops on these connections, you’re living these connections – can you tell me a little bit about how feminism and being a strong, female role model affects your work and your life?
JS: As a feminist, I relate to other beings who have not yet come as far as women have come in today’s culture and this day and age. It’s shocking to me to think that just a few decades ago – in my grandmother’s lifetime – women were not able to vote. So women have come so far – of course, not so far as a we should, we’re still paid lower than men, to name just one out of a billion things I could name – but we’ve come really far, and it’s because of the people who spoke up for us when we couldn’t speak up for ourselves. That being said, I feel like women and feminists should be speaking up for other groups, such as animals, who cannot speak up for themselves. It resonates with me very deeply that farm animals are so subjugated, marginalized, and oppressed every split second, every 1/100th of a second. The connection between dairy and feminism is something that deeply resonates with me. A lot of people don’t realize that the babies are ripped away from their mothers immediately upon being born, and that [animals’] maternal instincts are squelched; their reproductive capacities are taken advantage of and exploited so humans can take their milk. To think that is going on, and that people don’t realize it, is a feminist issue…. People need to think about what and whom they consume.
xSHx: You have worked as a grassroots volunteer, now you’re working as an employee for one of the largest animal protection groups in the nation – can you tell me about some of the differences between these two roles?
JS: I feel that they’re both completely vital, but to me, they’re so similar. I think that what I do with Farm Sanctuary, and also the heart of Farm Sanctuary, is in grassroots organizing. The Walk for Farm Animals, for example, is largely an arts and crafts project – you just have to find people who put all the pieces together in a way that is successful…. I feel like it all goes back to being committed activists, even when you’re dealing with small, local groups, in someone’s living room, eating hummus… but in a national organization, you have more resources at your disposal, especially as it pertains to new media, which is something I’m learning about now as a potential source of community. Like blogging, and e-mail, and connecting through different social networking sites – but the heart of it all is community organizing.
Mariann: The concept of what a community is and what a community organizer should do is changing.
Jasmin:Yeah, definitely, the sky is the limit with the internet. I have international friends on Facebook who respond to [events] and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t attend, but can you send me some literature?” I make so many connections that way.
xSHx: Do you have any advice for women who are trying to build their communities or get active in their communities?
JS: It’s important to know what you’re good at, and to take the talents that you have and challenge yourself to figure out how you can creatively advocate for those issues using your specific talents. If you’re a good writer, there are so many places where you can lend that ability. And when you have a meeting, find out what other people are interested in – through a questionnaire, for example – and put those puzzle pieces together to find out where everyone’s strengths lie and how you can be most effective. At the same time, in order to promote your particular cause, I think it’s important to stand in solidarity with some other groups who might already have the platform you need in order to get off the ground.
For more information, visit www.farmsanctuary.org and www.walkforfarmanimals.com .
Jasmin’s blog can be found here: http://zaftigvegan.blogspot.com.
Some of her published articles:
Feminists are Not Funny: http://toastermag.com/index.php?option=com_content&task;=view&id;=230&Itemid;=154
Coming Out for Animal Rights: http://www.satyamag.com/mar07/singer.html
Mother, wife, small business owner.