When I stopped eating animals at the start of 1994 I had no idea a simple New Year’s resolution was going to change my life in such a huge way. The act of deciding to stop eating meat made me a social change activist overnight. Decades on I now find myself running one of Australia’s longest existing sanctuaries devoted to the care of ‘farm animals’ – A Poultry Place. And my paid job is as a community organiser with the human rights organisation Amnesty International Australia. I guess you could say I’m a full-time activist.
“Why don’t you get a job,” the fur wearing woman spat at me as she entered the Moscow Circus performance at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. “Actually I do have a job,” I responded, “I work with you”. My harasser was indeed the social writer for the newspaper company I worked for at the time.
Such confrontations are often the case for social change activists as I have learnt over the years. The insults come regularly and can at times be amusing, sometimes confronting and even threatening. Given my dual roles I’m often asked “How do you deal with it?”. My answer is: “I had to learn how to”.
I crashed and burned as an activist more than a decade ago. I quit my job with Amnesty and began distancing myself from the animal rights movement. In the depths of trying to rediscover who I was I found an amazing book by a fellow activist, Pattrice Jones, which changed my life. Her 2007 publication Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and Their Allies has since become my bible and I believe it is a must-read for all involved in social change movements.
Of my dual roles I reckon being an animal rights activist is harder. The core issue I work on is the use and abuse of ‘farm animals’, which means I am automatically (whether intentional or not) challenging people about something they have never thought much about – what it is they put on their plates. In many cases that makes them feel uncomfortable and automatically puts them on the defensive.
Animal rights activists constantly expose themselves to witnessing acts of horror, be it personal experience because they are evidence gathering inside an animal farm or they are watching video footage of cruel acts on other beings by humans. Sometimes it becomes too much for some people and they walk away from the movement or even worse they take their own lives out of despair that the world is never going to change.
It is therefore important that animal rights activists take care of themselves and their colleagues. Here are a few simple ways I have learnt to do that.
To begin with I believe activism should be something you want to do but don’t feel obligated to do. Make sure you have a circle of support and someone you can debrief with. You should share your experiences and feelings with fellow activists, and be encouraged to do so by colleagues and encouraging of colleagues to do the same.
You also need to develop the ability to give yourself a break to recharge every now and then. Managing your activism sustainably gives you a better chance of being around for the long haul. So be reasonable about yours, and others’, abilities by not doing anything you feel uncomfortable about or expect others to do that you wouldn’t do.
Remember it’s not all about sacrifice. It is okay to take time out and try to make sure you have interests outside your activism which help you relax and feel good. Also work hard at maintaining relationships with people outside your activist circle.
Social change rarely happens overnight. Find positives in every activist experience. Keep a journal or scrapbook of your activism to record successes as this will act as positive reinforcement during the low times. I also include encouraging and congratulatory notes or comments I receive from people during the course of my activism. By all means discuss negative experiences and learn from them but don’t dwell on them.
Finally try to spend time around those you are working to help. I know I’m lucky because I live on a sanctuary where at the end of every day I can sit and connect, watch, witness and see why it is I fight the fight I fight. Seeing a former battery cage hen regrow her feathers, an oversized broiler chicken or turkey awkwardly running across a paddock to greet me, or the duck splashing about in a pond.
Bede Carmody has been a social change activist since 1994 when he made a New Year’s resolution to stop eating animals and joined Animal Liberation NSW. In 2001 he began establishing A Poultry Place animal sanctuary in southern NSW. Since 2003 he has worked as a community organiser with the human rights organisation Amnesty International. Through his own journey he has developed a special interest in the emotional wellbeing of people working for social change. Over the years Bede has spoken at many rallies, vigils and conferences including TEDx Canberra 2014.