Becoming a Vegan Treehugger

“I decided I had to speak up for myself and other students.”

I come from a very “special” family. By “special,” I mean dysfunctional because of intergenerational trauma. My grandparents on both sides didn’t have the happiest of marriages. These are some of the only explanations I have for my parents’ repetitive, bewildering “I-hate-you-don’t-leave-me” and “that-never-happened” messages, and their ugly divorce that dragged on for years. My parents and grandparents didn’t talk about their trauma and I’m not supposed to talk about it either. But I’m telling you a bit about my own wild ride because I hope speaking about it can help heal people and maybe even our planet.

Photo by Sam Murphy.
Photo by Sam Murphy.

I could write a book about my childhood, but the G-rated, short version is that now when I read my diary — which my mom started editing and inserting her own commentary into when I was five years old — I see that I was like any kid living in chaos: I needed to feel I had control over at least some aspects of my life. So, when I was 12 I began fighting to control how little meat I could eat. I also did it because I learned at the Nature Store at the mall that the Amazon forest was being cut down to raise cows for meat.

Now I eat vegan for the animals — because I saw the Dairy Is Scary video (it’s X-rated!) and it’s the top thing I can do to reduce my environmental impact. I haven’t come out as vegan to my dad though. (I’m sorry-not-sorry, Dad! I know you didn’t come to the USA to raise a feminist, vegan, treehugger.)

As a kid and a teenager, I used to be very shy. I never joined clubs or volunteered to speak in class. I now see it was because I was unpredictably punished at home, whether I spoke or not, and was wary of drawing attention to myself. But in college when I discovered the bus in my neighborhood stopped service at 5 p.m., which made it hard to take night classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I decided I had to speak up for myself and other students. And once I started speaking up, there was no stopping.

As the only student on a UCSC transportation committee full of administrators, I researched for months about how to have a bigger voice. Then I found the University of Colorado Boulder had what seemed to be the only campus sustainability office with permanent funding for student-led projects in the entire United States. So I had this wild idea to start another one. We brought students, faculty, and administrators together to create a sustainability plan for the University that would do more than improve public transit options. A year later, I received a Brower Youth Award from Earth Island for that work.

It wasn’t until I received that award at age 20 that I learned to not have my whole body shake whenever I spoke up for myself, for others, for animals, and for our environment. But the more I spoke at events and attempted to program people to spend every waking moment trying my fun and draconian tricks for a happy, equitable, green world, the more I found that most people didn’t like to be told what to do.

According to the classes I took in behavior change, negotiation, and user experience, telling people why and how to change does not significantly change behavior. So before I invite someone to try something new, I now always try to make it safe for them to tell me one-on-one what their first barrier is.

Now that I’ve found my voice — and figured out some effective strategies to communicate my ideas — you can’t shut me up. And, you know what? People, and even some big corporations, have started listening!

Yes, I’m that person who mailed her Thinx menstrual leakproof underwear to a professor for testing. He found toxic chemicals like PFAS (which is linked to cancer, never degrades, and is not easily filtered from drinking water). Barely two weeks after my article was published, companies making period underwear called for stricter laws to regulate them.

I hope my story gives you the confidence to speak up for what you care about. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that each of one us has a bigger voice and more power than we might think.

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