Welcome to my first guest from the United States! John Oberg is an animal advocate from Michigan, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He’s devoted his entire career to campaigning for animals: after several years working for The Humane League and Vegan Outreach, he found that social media transformed the way he works, and launched his own independent, patron-funded programme in 2019. He now offers training in the effective use of social media for advocacy, working with groups and individuals around the world. He is, of course, a regular presence on Twitter, posting photographs, videos and information to encourage compassion and empathy for animals.
You can find out much more – tips, articles and links - from his website. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnOberg
Linda: Were you brought up to be vegetarian? If not, when or why did you make the connection between loving animals and eating them, and decide to stop?
John: I was not brought up vegetarian! My mom loved animals and instilled a real, deep sense of compassion and empathy for them from a very young age, but despite this, both of us didn’t make the connection between our love for animals and what (and who!) we chose to eat. Later in life, we did make the connection. I went vegetarian at age 21 and vegan at 22. Within a year or two, just as I had followed her lead for many years, she followed my lead and stopped eating animals as well. Our compassionate way of eating was a beautiful experience to share until her passing in late 2015.
Linda: It was while you were at university in Phoenix, Arizona, that you started networking, which led to your first job with Vegan Outreach. What were you studying, and what had been your career ambition before you set off on this path?
John: I grew up in and near Detroit, Michigan, but it was a program offered at Arizona State University, a bachelor degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management, that really sparked my interest in moving across the country. I knew that I wanted a career that made a difference in the world, I just didn’t know what that would entail exactly. After moving to Arizona, I became vegan and immediately got involved with local animal advocacy, which was largely comprised of handing out Vegan Outreach pamphlets at events organized by my good friend, Jeff Boghosian. As I continued volunteering and finishing up my bachelor degree, I was offered a position with Vegan Outreach to travel around North America handing out pro-animal pamphlets to college students. I began that in mid-2012. It was my dream job offer.
Linda: In my own case, I became vegetarian and then vegan because of animal suffering – but now, environmental reasons for avoiding meat and dairy produce are equally powerful. Is this a part of your approach?
John: While there are many compelling reasons to give up eating animals, I find the most authentic approach for my own advocacy to be rooted in compassion for animals. Everybody loves animals and almost no one wants to willingly support animal cruelty, so it’s an easy sell.
Linda: Where do you feel you’ve been most successful so far? Are there particular campaigns you’ve been involved with that have seen changes in legislation, or in public awareness?
John: I’ve had the most success in getting hard-hitting content in front of the eyes of many. Posts of mine on my personal Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts have been seen hundreds of millions of times over the past three years since becoming an independent animal advocate funded by the graciousness of fellow animal lovers via my Patreon account. Through this increase in awareness, many have changed their ways and decided to eat and advocate in more compassionate ways.
Linda: How do you try to get through the ‘blind spots’ of meat-eaters who maintain that it’s their right to eat whatever they choose / that slaughter can be humane / that it’s impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet? You have vast experience with this. What works best?
John: As a vegan advocate for twelve years and interacting with hundreds of thousands of people in person (and tens of millions online), I’ve heard everything. Funnily enough, it’s usually the same 10-15 arguments I hear on a regular basis. I’ve found the best way to get through to meat-eaters is through being reasonable, rational, and relatable. By meeting people where they are rather than where I want them to be. By being encouraging and compassionate and as non-over-bearing as possible.
Linda: The Veganuary movement is growing exponentially in the UK and I imagine that more and more people are becoming vegan in the States, too. How would you encourage people who are reluctant to commit themselves? (I feel the same as you – my only regret is that I didn’t make the change sooner!)
John: The best way to encourage people is to let them know that it’s okay to go at a pace that works for them. They don’t need to go vegan overnight. It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’d rather have someone ease into veganism over a year or two and remain vegan forever than for them to go vegan overnight and give it up in two months or two years. I also try not to overwhelm them with resources. I give them one or two websites and maybe a few recipes to try along with some words of encouragement. I also encourage folks to try to find community (online or in person) as that will help them maintain their veganism.
Linda: For all campaigners, and for anyone who follows animal matters on social media, there’s a risk of being overwhelmed and utterly sickened by the scale of cruelty and abuse, and that society in general seems to accept it – yet we have to keep going. How do you cope with this?
John: You have to remember that you aren’t going to personally make the world vegan overnight. There will always be suffering, but it’s about doing what you can to reduce as much of it as possible. To make the world a better place than if you had not engaged in advocacy. You also have to remember that the impact you see will only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact you actually make. For every person who tells you that you made them stop eating animals, there are likely dozens of others out there who you’ll never personally hear that from but who you undoubtedly made a massive impact on.
Linda: What advice would you offer to any young person who wants to campaign for animals?
John: Engage in a variety of forms of advocacy and see what speaks to you. Make sure to ask yourself if that advocacy seems effective for animals and isn’t just something that makes you personally feel good. Engage in this advocacy in a sustainable ways. It’s better to be a part-time activist for the next 20-50 years than an activist who is engaging in advocacy 24/7 but doesn’t take care of themselves and then burns out in a year or two. And if social media advocacy seems like something you love to do, consider enrolling in either or both of my online courses with Advocacy Collaborative, Mastering Instagram to Change the World, and Mastering Twitter to Change the World.
Linda: Finally - what’s your favourite dinner?
John: My favorite dinner is vegan mac and cheese, which you can learn how to make yourself here! I love seeing non-vegans' reactions when eating this since it's just as good (or better) than the mac cheese they're used to!
(The link takes you to a film of John making it in his kitchen. I'm going to try that ... )
Linda: Thanks so much, John, for taking the time to answer my questions, and best of luck in all you do to make the world a better place for animals!
John is the third guest in this series, following
Gill Lewis, author and campaigner
Cleve West, top garden designer and animal advocate