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Interview Series #17: Zoe Weil

Posted Sep 30 2010 2:06pm
I am so proud to say that today, I'm sharing with you all an interview I had with someone who has been inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame. That's right - you heard me!

First of all, I didn't even know there was an Animal Rights Hall of Fame. Second of all, now that I know it exists, I'm an even more excited animal advocate!

Nathan Runkle, last year's inductee (L), and Alex Herschaft (R) with Zoe.
After finding the Animal Rights Hall of Fame page , I've learned that so far, Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary has been the only KMIV interviewee to be awarded this amazing honor. Today, I can happily add Zoe Weil to my list. 

A true pioneer in the Humane Education movement, Zoe has been educating people about animal and human protection issues since 1987, when she discovered her life's calling. Since that day, she has taught and spoke at numerous institutions, written many books for adults and children on the subject of kindness towards our fellow beings, led workshops focusing on building awareness and compassion, and even created the first M.Ed. and certificate program in Humane Education in the United States. Bottom line - Zoe Weil is one hardworking, passionate, and dedicated human being.
The first part of Zoe's inspiring speech at the Animal Rights Hall of Fame
The great late Randy Pausch (Carnegie Mellon professor and author of The Last Lecture ) once said:
It's not about how to achieve your dreams, it's about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself and the dreams will come to you.

It seems that Zoe's life of living compassionately led her to the fateful decision to be a humane educator, and it's something I want you guys and gals to think about. How many times throughout your life have you really followed your own path? And when I say your path, I do not mean the limited views of what steps you think you should be taking in your life. No, when I say your path, I'm referring to the deep desires in your heart to be better and do better in this world. For me, the act of blogging about veganism and working two jobs right now to help animals in need feels more right than any way of living prior. Little did I know at the time that going vegan two years ago would be the impetus for everything I'm full of joy about today, and I would have never found these new passions had I kept my blinders on. For the first time in a long while, I really feel like I'm following my true path. Zoe opened her heart and mind up to discovering what her life's purpose was, and I know that within each of us activists, we have the ability to do the same.  And that's a wonderful thing - something that we should celebrate each and every day.

Kiss Me, I'm Vegan: Alright Zoe! Here we go: what was the turning point in your life that led you to veganism? Was it one huge moment, or a collective group of small moments that changed you?
Zoe: I stopped eating mammals and birds in 1981 because I loved animals, and much as I also loved how they tasted, I didn’t want to keep harming them through my diet. I wasn’t willing to give up sea animals for another seven years. It took being asked to help catch the fish we were eating on a whale research vessel, maiming a “trash” fish that I caught, and watching other fish suffocating in a bucket on the deck, to realize that I didn’t want to contribute to this suffering any more. A year later I was at a conference and attended a talk that included a discussion of dairy and eggs, and I knew that I was going to forego these too. I went out the next morning to my favorite bagel shop to eat my last bagel and cream cheese. I didn’t know then that I would have lots of non-dairy cream cheeses to choose from in the future!
KMIV: What have been the greatest rewards of your vegan lifestyle? What  have been the greatest challenges? 

Zoe: By far the greatest reward is simply living with integrity. I don’t want to cause suffering and death to other sentient beings or contribute unnecessarily and unduly to environmental degradation if I can help it, so choosing a vegan diet is my way of embodying my values (literally and figuratively) many times each day. Of course, I also appreciate the health benefits, but they weren’t my primarily motivations.

The greatest challenges have come from being vegan in a society that makes it difficult, whether in an airport, or being invited to someone’s house for dinner and having to inform them of my food choices (possibly making their life more difficult), or holding my tongue in situations where commenting on food choices would bring about conflict and hostility rather than illumination.
KMIV: I think we have all had moments like that in our own journeys. Okay, tell me a little bit about The Institute for Humane Education. What inspired you to start it?
Zoe: In 1987 I was looking for a summer job, and I offered to teach several week long courses to middle school students in a summer school program. I taught one on environmental issues and one on animal issues and I watched in amazement as the kids were transformed into conscious and conscientious choicemakers and changemakers. In one case, a boy became an activist overnight. I’d taught about product testing on animals that day, and he went home and designed his own leaflets. The next day he asked if he could hand them out, and so while the rest of us were having our lunch, he was standing on a Philadelphia street corner leafleting. A couple of the kids in that course went on to form a Philadelphia area wide student group and one won awards for his activism. I realized I found my life’s work and that I was a humane educator. I created a humane education program to bring presentations and courses to schools and I was reaching about 10,000 kids a year, but this didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to reach so many more! I wanted all teachers to be humane educators who incorporated relevant issues of our time into their curricula in order to provide all students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be solutionaries for a better world. So I began training other people to be humane educators and co-founded the Institute for Humane Education to do this. We created a humane education certificate program, the first M.Ed. in humane education in the U.S., and we offer teachers, activists, and concerned citizens the opportunity to take workshops, online courses, and summer institutes in order to bring humane education issues into their own lives and all whom they reach. People can also simply download the free activities at our website: www.HumaneEducation.org and avail themselves of the resources we provide.
KMIV: You were recently inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame. What was the experience of that like for you, after all of your years of work in this field?
Zoe: It was incredible to have humane education honored in this way, which is how I perceived it. I realize that I was given the honor personally, but I accepted it on behalf of all comprehensive humane educators and the movement itself. I have been trying to convince my colleagues for the last twenty years that humane education may well be the most powerful approach to creating a humane and sustainable world, so it was wonderful to have humane education validated in such a public way.
KMIV: Some of our readers are veggie mommies or mommies to be (there may even be veggie daddies out there too!). Can you tell me a little bit more about one of your books, Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times? What do you hope parents will take away from reading it?
Zoe: In Above All, Be Kind, I offer parents the tools of a humane educator for their parenting. It’s very challenging raising humane kids because our culture works against us at every turn. The book offers very practical tips for parents. We are also offering a month-long online course, “Raising a Humane Child,” based on the concepts in the book. The course begins on Oct. 4th and parents will find a wonderful community with whom to explore these issues and create homes that foster the development of truly humane children. (Readers - check out the website for more info.)
KMIV: As it says at the top of the blog, Kiss Me, I'm Vegan! is a blog "for the happy vegan in all of us.". What are the most positive aspects of the animal advocacy movement for you, and what do you feel are the biggest reason to smile when doing this work?

Zoe: I love that this is a positive blog! In my book Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, I offer seven keys to MOGO (which is short for "most good"). One of them is to pursue joy through service. So many activists – myself included – often feel despair and rage. Of course we do! We’re exposing ourselves to terrible atrocities in the world and we’re desperately trying to solve problems that are entrenched and seemingly intractable. Yet, angry, despairing activists turn people away instead of draw them into a movement based on compassion and peace. It’s crucial for activists to experience and cultivate joy, and the best way to do this is to find those ways to serve that make your heart sing and your soul soar and your mind tick. When I teach, I come alive, so that is how I serve. For some people, cooking vegan food for others makes them happy as can be, and so their contribution is infused with pleasure and positivity. For others, meeting with their representatives and supporting legslative change is thrilling. Each one of us needs to find the right ways to be of service. When we do so, we will be filled with infectious joy and energy and enthusiasm.
KMIV: I love that last sentence so much - what a beautiful way to live! Okay - here's a silly one. You're stuck on a deserted island with three vegan food items -  what are they?

Zoe: Well, if I were thinking practically, I’d say brown rice, tofu and kale because I might be able to survive long term on these, but if I’m thinking about my favorite foods, I’d say avocados, mangoes, and strawberries. They’d look pretty together too!
Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education and author of several books including Nautilus Silver Medal Winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; So, You Love Animals: An Action-Packed, Fun-Filled Book to Help Kids Help Animals; Moonbeam, Gold Medal winner for juvenile fiction; and Claude and Medea, which follows the exploits of two seventh graders who become clandestine activists in New York City. Zoe created the first M.Ed. and certificate programs in humane education in the U.S. and is considered a pioneer in the comprehensive humane education movement. 
Many thanks to Zoe Weil for this beautiful interview. To learn more, visit www.zoeweil.com .
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