All-One Activist: Aryenish Birdie of Encompass

Bringing Racial Diversity, Inclusivity, and Equity to the Animal Advocacy Movement

Photo courtesy of Encompass

Dr. Bronner’s “All-One Activist” series profiles influential activists who are advancing the core causes that Dr. Bronner’s supports through its philanthropy and advocacy work including animal advocacy, regenerative agriculture, drug policy reform, and community betterment.

Dr. Bronner’s is a philanthropic supporter of Encompass, an organization founded in 2017 that works to improve racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in the animal advocacy movement.

Last month, the founder of Encompass, Aryenish Birdie, visited our headquarters in Vista, CA. We had the chance to sit down with her and discuss the path that led her to founding Encompass, and why it’s important for the animal advocacy movement to be more racially diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

Can you tell us a little about you and your background?
My parents are immigrants from Pakistan, and I was born and raised in Kansas. My parents were very ethically-minded and wanted to raise my sister and me vegetarian but did not for several reasons—primarily because whenever my parents talked with other people about doing so, they were discouraged.

My parents cared a lot about animal testing. We never bought animal tested products, but I didn’t really have consciousness around it until the 90’s, when I was in the seventh grade and I was presented with a frog dissection project that my mom was very opposed to.

After I was exposed to her passion around that, I was so intrigued and curious about it. I started learning more about the different ways animals were used in laboratories. So, I contacted PETA, The Humane Society and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and started learning even more about animal testing. I knew then I would fight for animals for the rest of my life. Since then, I have been working for animals in different capacities nonstop for more than 20 years.

Your parents were so ahead of their time.
I know. I’m so lucky for that. My parents took care of stray dogs together on the streets of Pakistan. That was how they bonded and started to fall in love. Now my sister and I both work in animal protection, so it runs in the family.

“Our mission is to promote effectiveness in the animal protection movement by fostering greater racial diversity, equality, and inclusion in the farmed animal protection movement and to empower advocates of color.”

How did you become involved in the animal rights movement?
The frog dissection project was a very pivotal moment in my life. My mom and I had to fight my junior high school to allow me to have an alternative option. We were successful, but it was a battle and ever since then, I have been doing animal advocacy in different ways. When I was in junior high, I would take the leaflets that I received from these animal rights organizations and would do leafleting around the school whenever I could.

During this time, there was a small group of women, who were older than me and were doing activism in my town. I joined them, and we would show slaughterhouse footage to people on the streets, we protested circuses and much more. That group of women really helped me become the activist I am today. They helped me realize that I don’t only want to live by my convictions, but that I want to be an advocate and help expose what happens to animals to the public.

Tell us about your work prior to founding Encompass.
During college, I did a lot of grassroots advocacy. I’ve worked on racial equity, reproductive justice, and fighting police brutality. I was actually living in Oakland when Oscar Grant was killed by a white police officer and that impacted me deeply. I became active around that issue in my community.

My first real job was at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and I was there a little over seven years working on issues related to animal experimentation. This work focused primarily on fighting for animals used in regulatory tests which are toxicological tests for a range of products, from pesticides, cosmetics and chemicals. We worked hard to ensure language was placed in that bill which required the chemical industry to minimize animal testing whenever possible. Our goal was to get language in there that said, if a non-animal testing method is available, it must be used instead of an animal. We were successful in getting that language in the law, which is called the Toxic Substances Control Act. And I was actually invited by President Obama’s White House to watch him sign that bill into law, which will save many millions of animals over the course of time.

“I don’t believe that just because I was born human I have the moral authority to do with animals what I please.”

What was that experience like for you?
The whole process was quite tumultuous and difficult. Almost every day I thought we were going to fail. But I had this vision when I started, of the language we wanted included on an official document framed on my wall and I held onto that image. I really believe in visualization and manifesting what you believe. Every day even when things were tough, I literally had that picture in my head and I called back to it—and now I have that language framed on the wall in my family’s home in Kansas. It was truly one of the greatest honors and I will always be so proud to have been a part of that process.

What does animal rights mean to you?
In my heart of hearts, I am anti-speciesist which means I don’t believe that just because I was born human I have the moral authority to do with animals what I please. Being anti-speciesist is the core of my ideology.

Tell us about your journey as a vegan and how did you come to it?
During the time I was leafletting around school, the people who were opposed to me would say, “are you eating animals and fighting for animals?”—showing a hole in my argument. It was through my opponents calling me out on my hypocrisy and my realization that my two amazing black lab-mastiff mixes, who were my best friends, were no different than pigs, cows, chickens and fish. I knew I had to make that dietary switch.

Once I realized I had to make the switch, I did it slowly. I knew that I wanted to be vegan for the rest of my life but it’s hard to change habits.  So, I started by taking out animal products that I liked the least. For me, that was seafood and fish. For three or four months I was intentional about not eating that and then I went to the next animal product, which was pork. For three or four months I was very intentional about not eating pork, seafood and fish, and just kept going down the line until I became vegetarian, which I was for about a year and a half. Then I started that process again with dairy and egg products until I was completely vegan.

I tried to make it as easy as I could and that whole process took about 2 years. I was committed and that was about 17 years ago.

What is Encompass? When did you start the organization and why? What’s your mission?
Our mission is to promote effectiveness in the animal protection movement by fostering greater racial diversity, equality, and inclusion in the farmed animal protection movement and to empower advocates of color.

I founded the organization in August 2017. Our goal is to help the movement itself by building ourselves into a more sustainable, inclusive, equitable space. Right now, about 40% of our country is comprised by people of color. By contrast, our movement is made up of only 9-10% of people of color. Just on demographics alone, we’re not keeping pace with the direction of our country and it affects our messaging. But this is only one part of the issue, we also need a culture change in our movement to foster greater equity and inclusion.

I’ve learned a lot from the business community, from the environmental movement, even from the political sector about how important it is to have multiple voices in the room bringing different perspectives as the real way to enhance the bottom line. For companies, they want to have the greatest profit, in politics they want to have the most votes, and we’re applying that logic to the animal rights movement. If we want to help the most number of animals, we must do better. We cannot be a 90% white majority movement. I’m particularly referring to the larger farm animal advocate groups that have the most resources and typically tend to be more homogenous.

Walk us through a month in the life of your work—what are some of the programs and activities that Encompass take on?
No two days or weeks are similar. I am currently the only full-time staffer, so I wear a lot of hats. We’ve got an amazing Advisory Council and board who I am extremely grateful for and rely on a lot, but I’m the only one who’s doing this work day in and day out.

I’ve been working with several experts and coaches, meeting people all over the country who do diversity, equity and inclusion work and they are helping me build the foundation of Encompass. I feel strongly about putting the ethos of racial equity firmly forward. That looks like us working with white-run organizations and helping them understand how these concepts affect their bottom line and why it’s the right thing to do. We are also working with advocates of color to find community, further develop their innate leadership potential, strengthen their personal resilience and we also offer mentorship opportunities.

What is diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Diversity speaks to who’s in the room and inclusion speaks to how those people feel. But equity, in my mind, is the most important. And it’s giving people who are in the room the things they need to succeed.

There’s a common metaphor that’s used which says equality gives a pair of shoes. But equity gives everyone a pair of shoes that fit their needs and style. If everyone gets a size eight shoe (equality), it’s not going to really do much. For example, I wear a size 7, I don’t like to wear heels, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing men’s shoes, all these things matter (equity). We want to ensure everyone is getting what they need to succeed. This a harder concept because most institutions/organizations/companies were set up by small groups of people who had similar types of needs and experiences. Pushing people to expand their horizon and think of their organizations with different cultures in mind, now that’s a challenge. It will be a slow process, but ultimately, it will make us stronger and better, more nuanced and effective.

“Helping all living beings must be part of an ‘All-One!’ vision, and I’m so grateful Dr. Bronner’s recognizes this.”

How does racial equity and justice connect to efforts for gender equity? Has this #metoo moment in society at large impacted the way you approach your work?
I believe that systems of oppression share common roots. And that means sexism and racism—as well as many other isms—share similar roots of oppression. I’m glad the #metoo movement has happened. I think it makes our movement stronger, makes our society stronger, and says loudly and proudly what kind of behavior we will and won’t tolerate, but it’s not something that Encompass is taking on since our focus is racial equity.

When race and gender get compounded together, I find the conversation typically gets steered towards supporting white women. In fact, the #metoo term was coined by a black woman, Tarana Burke, in 2006. But it didn’t gain popularity until white actresses started giving it life. And I think that’s just another example of how the race conversation tends to get muddled when gender and race are discussed simultaneously.

There is absolutely room for the #metoo movement to exist and thrive while also talking about racism, ableism, gender identity, and more, and there are people doing this work very successfully, but Encompass is focused on racial equity at the moment.

Generally, why is the work you do needed in the animal rights movement? What’s important for our readers to know about Encompass and your intended impact?
Just looking at the demographics alone you can see that this work is needed, but it’s also the right thing to do. I believe that the animal advocacy movement and any movement is only as strong as the people who are in it. If we don’t build our organizations with racial inclusivity and equity in mind, I don’t know how we can call ourselves a social movement.

This conversation is happening more and more throughout society and that’s a great thing. It’s important for our movement to know that it actually hurts the animals when we waste so much time and resources when people burnout or cycle out of advocacy positions because they don’t feel welcome, like they belong, when they don’t see themselves in leadership positions, or as spokespeople. Do we want to be a homogeneous group fighting for animal rights while alienating other groups? I think we all agree the answer is no—but what happens when this is what’s happening and we just don’t fully realize it? I don’t think anyone is ill-intentioned but there are a lot of structural and institutional factors at play when looking at the race issue in the U.S. and we need to acknowledge it, name it, so that we can move past it.

Do you think it’s important that Dr. Bronner’s supports the animal rights movement?
Absolutely! Dr. Bronner’s “All-One!” vision can’t exclude the majority of living beings on earth—nonhuman animals. Helping all living beings must be part of an “All-One!” vision, and I’m so grateful Dr. Bronner’s recognizes this. Also, Dr. Bronner’s products are especially special to me because they avoid animal testing and ingredients. These decisions directly impact animals. Because of these reasons and more, I think it makes sense for Dr. Bronner’s to support other issues related to animal advocacy as well.

What is your favorite Dr. Bronner’s scent?
Almond and Lavender – I love them both.

Author Profile

Arti Upadhyay

Arti Upadhyay is Dr. Bronner’s Website and Digital Marketing Specialist, with a passion for all aspects of digital marketing. A lifelong vegetarian, she spends much of her free time advocating for animals and enjoys promoting a healthy, cruelty-free lifestyle.

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