Create a compassion workshop for middle school girls at a farm animal sanctuary. The workshop empowers middle school aged girls to be bold leaders and advocates for themselves, each other, and our planet.
To put an end to bullying and factory farming, by connecting a lack of compassion on a large scale (like factory farming) with a lack of compassion on the small scale (like bullying).
I'm passionate about this because compassion is a learned skill and our world badly needs as much as we can get!
Middle school is a particularly challenging time for many kids, especially for girls. I remember feeling very much between two worlds when I was that age- wanting to be independent, while also feeling very alone. All of the sudden, the social hierarchies at school seemed like the most important thing in the world. Everyone paid attention to who had what and a pecking order was established based on looks, socioeconomic status, and the ability to find a clique to join. I saw the values of kindness and compassion that were so championed by adults in early childhood suddenly fall by the wayside and girls started being very cruel to one another.
I chose to focus on middle school because for me it represents the beginning of the end of childhood. It’s an age where adults start to be more truthful with children about the realities of the world. Kindness and compassion are really encouraged in early childhood, but I often see adults dismiss its importance later on, encouraging kids to “be realistic” and “grow up”. A perfect example, children’s books often feature animals, depicting them as thinking, feeling beings worthy of consideration and friendship. The lessons often focus on compassion and goodness. By middle school, the stories are replaced by stories about human relationships and social hierarchies. Suddenly most animals disappear from our consideration.
I’ll be honest, what REALLY initially inspired me to create this project was realizing while that most people say that they care about animals, 99% of animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs in the U.S. spend their lives on gruesome factory farms with incredibly inhumane conditions that damage our planet, animals lives’, and human health.
Often there’s a gap between the values we say we have and the actions we take. I wanted to create a generation that would change that -- to empower young girls to examine where in their life there’s a gap between their values and their actions. While learning about important social justice issues, they naturally develop their interpersonal skills and put compassion into practice.
What’s been accomplished?
Prior to this project, I had no connection to the sanctuary where the workshop took place. I had been vegan for 9 years, but had never been very active in my advocacy for animals. In the last 6 months I became a tour guide at the sanctuary, became knowledgeable about animal behavior and factory farming, and started educating others through my workshops about compassion and factory farming.
I had known about the sanctuary for years, but I finally just went and volunteered, made the time, made the commitment. I wanted to be a part of it but had been playing really small in my life previously.
I really undervalued my potential impact on others and on the world. I honestly thought a year ago that I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to make a difference. And that’s really because I wasn’t looking for them. There is no much around us, in our lives, that we don’t pay attention to. Start to listen for where you could volunteer your time. Something or someone will show up.
On the day of the compassion workshop at the sanctuary, I witnessed a beautiful moment between two girls from very different backgrounds.
One girl had spent the day distracted, listening to headphones off and on, shyly not participating until encouraged to do so. We kept kindly asking her to participate and she would light up with a big smile on her face each time. At the end of the day, the girls were all sharing their experiences with cruelty, and the shy girl quietly shared that she had been severely bullied at school. Girls had told her that she should kill herself because she was fat and ugly. They verbally and physically attacked her, but the school had had a tepid response. Upon hearing this story, another girl in the group touched the girl’s arm and said “You’re beautiful” in a kind, private, generous way. It melted my heart to see both of their reactions to this experience. Their faces immediately relaxed. It was a teaching moment for all the girls because it showed the true impact of compassion. Many of the girls shared that meeting the animals was one of their favorite parts of the day. Several said that they wanted to go vegan or talk to their friends and families about factory farming.
I taught a class on factory farming in a middle school and received 160 thank you notes.
They made me cry, they were so moving. It goes to show that every conversation matters. I had been thinking, “Why am I doing this? No one cares!” Then I got the thank you cards in the mail.
We have the opportunity to make a shift everyday, person to person. What really struck me about the kids is that they are not defensive when they learn about what’s going on with farm animals. The kids just didn’t know that this has been happening. At the beginning of the conversation, they were really comfortable eating animals, associating animals like chickens and cows with KFC and milk. By the end after learning how the animals are treated, this is what a farm really looks like, they had a lot more compassion for the animals. Those automatic associations of animals as products for humans started to be questioned.
Out of this creation, what happened what was un-expected?
First of all, that I actually followed through with it! I’ve often viewed myself as someone who gets very excited about big ideas, then gets discouraged along the way and doesn’t follow through. My experience of myself has really changed.
Also! While I was working on this project my best friend and my mother in law went vegan. Neither of those were a direct result of my project, though I think my passion and commitment to my project and to being vegan for ten years definitely shows those around me what’s possible.
Since I created this project and got into educating people on factory farming, I’ve learned a lot about animal rights, read more books and became aware of speciesism, which is our attitude that we as humans are superior to other species and therefore have more of a right to live.
What has been your biggest challenge in accomplishing your mission?
Follow through has been a huge accomplishment. As an adult outside the framework of an institution, it’s hard setting specific goals and consistently taking action towards those goals. I see my actions as evidence that I’m incapable. Since working on this project, I don’t see myself as incapable. Lately when I’ve felt stopped, I noticed that the real problem is that I’m scared. Now that I’ve realized that my fears are something that I’ve created and can control, I’ve learned how to just snap out of it and be in action. Now I know I’m fully capable of picking up the phone and calling 25 middle schools. Or chatting with a stranger, finding out she’s a middle school teacher and offering to come to her school. Or asking friends and family to donate money when it felt uncomfortable.
Who would you like to acknowledge for stepping up and being a leader with you?
My friend from high school, Kati Vaughn, was invaluable in creating my project. She’s an expert educator and very creative when it comes to creating educational experiences. She works for Teach for America developing their teachers skills and programs and she is incredibly knowledgable. She and I had several hours-long phone calls while we developed the compassion workshop and talked about how to get kids engaged in social issues.
Another person who made my project possible was my friend Alena Bernardi. She’s a middle school music teacher and a passionate advocate for veganism and animals. She co-led the compassion workshop day with me and made a huge impact by connecting with the girls and speaking to them like they’re adults.
I have so many ideas for where to go next!
I’d like to partner with schools to help develop programs where their students are practicing compassion for one another and encouraging compassion at a larger institutional level. I’d like to create a series of free field trips for girls, focusing on animals, the environment, social welfare, and full self-expression. Applying compassion in each of these areas will teach girls all the ways in which they can practice compassion everywhere they go. It’ll always come back to exploring the gap between values and actions and coming up with actionable solutions.