Activist James Helenski ’15 draws inspiration from animal rights leader Matt Ball.
“My ideal career would be a studio artist, but really activism is what I’m interested in,” says James Helenski ’15. “I am fed up with taking. I want to contribute something.” This explains the choice of a fine arts major with a minor in philosophy for the Philadelphia native, who came to Suffolk for “the opportunity to experience a whole new city and the independence fostered at this school.”
Helenski stopped eating meat more than a year ago based on his realization that “not being vegetarian led to inconsistencies in my philosophical outlook on life.” His latest painting series “deals with breaking down the speciesist idea of elevating human life above all else.” After Helenski decided to go vegan and volunteer at the Humane League of Boston, a friend lent him The Animal Activist’s Handbook co-authored by Matt Ball, co-founder and executive director of Vegan Outreach. Activists with the organization’s Adopt a College program have reached over 13 million young people.
“What makes Matt a role model to me is that, in his book, he not only admits to making mistakes in the past, but he analyzes them…to save as many animals as possible.”
SAM invited Helenski to ask three questions of the man he credits with helping to make him “a more effective activist.”
In the past year, since I have decided to go vegetarian and, most recently, vegan, I have met with all of the typical responses from those who do not understand why someone would choose such a thing. Could you explain why many people are choosing to no longer consume animals?
Recently, there was a viral video showing a young child right at the moment he realizes animals are killed to be eaten. His reaction—incredulous, appalled, horrified—is one of the saddest and yet most deeply human things I’ve ever seen. As adults, we think we’re wiser and more realistic than children. But when it comes to our empathy—our fundamental humanity—are we really superior? When I was 18 and found out about the hidden, horrible brutality animals experience in today’s factory farms and slaughterhouses, I, like most adults, created elaborate rationalizations so as to continue to eat animals. But as our daughter said when she was a child and [was] asked why she didn’t eat meat: “I know I don’t want to suffer; I don’t want to make anyone else suffer, either.” It really is that simple.
I have had the pleasure of reading your book The Animal Activist’s Handbook. I wholeheartedly agree [with your] point that it is easy to let your emotions drive the advocacy and end up feeling angry at the world for not jumping at the chance to stop something terrible from happening. In order to be a more effective activist, what is the most important thing for animal rights advocates to keep in mind?
I’m glad you found the book useful. It took me years to realize this, but if we really want to make the world a better place, we should look at history. Many people have been angry at past injustices—and rightly so. But the individuals who actually brought about meaningful, lasting change aren’t those who simply expressed their outrage. Rather, those who really changed the world worked from an understanding of human nature and how societies change. They pursued realistic, methodical campaigns. These types of actions are rarely high-profile or
emotionally cathartic. But if we truly want to help those suffering, we can’t simply be angry. We also have to be ruthlessly rational in how we use our limited time and resources.
With many companies and universities refusing to buy eggs from battery cage farms, and most recently with Johnsonville Sausage committing to phase out gestation crates, do these baby steps make you feel hopeful for the future? And what changes do you think will be in store somewhere down the line?
Am I hopeful? Yes! I’ve been a vegetarian for more than a quarter-century now, and I am absolutely amazed at the progress of the past seven years! When Jack [Norris], Anne [Green], and I started Vegan Outreach, concern for animals was pretty much limited to companion animals and highprofile mammals. The number of animals killed every year in the U.S. was growing by leaps and bounds. Now, huge corporations are making decisions based on the welfare of animals raised for food; billionaires like Bill Gates, Biz Stone, and Peter Thiel say the future of food is vegan; vegan options are increasing in quantity, expanding in availability, and decreasing in cost. More importantly, the number of animals killed in the U.S. has actually gone down since 2006—the first year Vegan Outreach distributed more than a million booklets. We can see the new world on the horizon: more people boycotting brutal factory farms until they are no longer accepted; more people choosing meatfree meals until eating ethically is cheap, easy, and tasty for everyone. Every day, with every choice we make and every person we meet, we’re bringing this new world closer!