By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Black vegans have been in the spotlight a lot recently and local activist Miko Brown said it’s more of a movement than a moment. Brown is director of social justice initiatives for Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s first farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization.
The OBSERVER recently sat down with Brown, who has dedicated her life to exploring animal exploitation in relation to social change and food justice and raising awareness of the cause.
Q: When and why did you become a vegan?
A: I became vegan in 2013 after someone who I had met through AmeriCorps told me about how animals are treated and harmed in our food system. I spent the weekend after that conversation watching documentaries about the realities of our food system and reading up on as much as I could. One of the books that was particularly impactful for me was a book by Dr. A. Breeze Harper titled, “Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society.”
“Sistah Vegan” is a compilation of contributions from Black vegans detailing their own journeys and sharing reflections about their experience with and understanding of veganism.
At the time, especially, coming off of my experience with AmeriCorps, doing service in different communities and gaining deeper insight into the various injustices that exist in our world, I was feeling a sense of helplessness around how all of these issues seemed to be so enormous and pervasive. Reading about the experiences of contributors to “Sistah Vegan” and learning more about veganism in general and the issues of our food system, I began to see veganism as something tangible I could do that was at the intersection of many of the issues that were important to me and that I cared about.
I had this realization that I can’t wave a magic wand and fix all of this but here is something meaningful I can do every day. I felt really powerful to be able to embody and practice my values of care, justice and compassion, and to do it holistically in a way that reflected an awareness of a deep sense of interconnection with all life. I had no idea at the time that it would become so central to my life and work, but I’m really glad that it has.
Q: What impact has making the change had on you?
A: It has really supported me in being more deliberate in relationship to my body and what I consume and put in it. It has helped me to think more critically about the ripple effects of the choices I make when I have the freedom to be more intentional about those choices and choose in alignment with my well-being and values. It has also helped me to tune into and be aware of a larger world that exists outside of human experience that includes plants and animals, and to live from a place of deep reverence and respect for all life. I’ve also been fortunate to be able to have powerful experiences connecting and building community with fellow vegans of color around how we find really beautiful ways to honor and carry on our cultures and family traditions through vegan recipes. I’ve really appreciated seeing and hearing about the positive health benefits family members have experienced after incorporating more vegan meals into their diet as well.
Q: How do you see veganism viewed/accepted in the Black community?
A: Veganism has long been alive in our communities and a part of African and African diasporic cultures. There is a 2021 article from Yes! Magazine that talks about the “The Unsung Caribbean Roots of the Vegan Food Movement” and Rastafarian spiritual practices and traditions around “ital” eating that incorporate veganism as a way to deepen our spirituality and connection with the earth. There have also been a number of articles in recent years stating that Black folks in the U.S. are more likely to be vegan or vegetarian than people of other races.
Personally, I’ve encountered a lot of Black vegans who are vegan for health or spirituality and have been vegan for a long time. Tracye McQuirter, author of “Ageless Vegan” and “By Any Greens Necessary” and creator of the 10 Million Black Vegan Women initiative, has been vegan for 35 years and is thriving. There’s Naijha Wright-Brown and Brenda Sanders, who have been vegan for a long time and are co-founders of Vegan SoulFest in Baltimore, which draws thousands of people. Omowale Adewale and the team organizing Black VegFest in New York are drawing and growing a beautiful community of Black vegans there. We also have Black veganic growers Eugene Cooke and JoVonna Johnson-Cooke in Atlanta. Not to mention all of the incredible Black-owned vegan restaurants around the country. Whenever I go home to Texas, it feels like there’s another vegan restaurant opening that’s Black-owned. I also loved seeing that Chef Tamearra Dyson of Souley Vegan was the first vegan chef to win against Bobby Flay on the TV show “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Q: How has your own veganism been perceived/accepted?
A: Within my own family, there was skepticism around me being vegan at first, especially because my mom’s family immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago and food is one of the main ways that we are able to experience and carry forward our culture. But once they figured out that we could veganize our recipes and still share and enjoy food together as a family, it’s been really special to see all of the incredible vegan food that we make together and that they make for me when I go home and visit. I think veganism is also becoming a lot more common as people see it as a way to better their health and are experiencing the benefits of that for themselves and their families.
Among Black vegans we also have scholars such as Aph and Syl Ko, co-authors of “Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters” and Christopher Sebastian McJetters who are articulating powerful theoretical frameworks for thinking about veganism, anti-Blackness, racial justice, and possibilities for holistically dismantling systems of oppression.
Q: Tabitha Brown recently visited Farm Sanctuary. How did that go and how has she helped increase visibility of Black vegans?
A: Tabitha Brown spent Mother’s Day with us this year, choosing to visit the Farm Sanctuary shelter in Acton to meet some of the animals there, show them some love and get to know their stories. While visiting the sanctuary, Tabitha said, “This is the definition of freedom right here: minding their business, living life.”
Tabitha has been so incredibly influential as far as visibility for Black vegans because Tabitha has been so open about Tabitha’s own journey and experience in a way that has helped to normalize being Black and vegan and has helped more people to become aware of veganism. Tabitha is also an incredible chef who puts together phenomenal recipes that have helped many to feel more comfortable transitioning to veganism, or at least incorporating more vegan meals into their life. Tabitha Brown is co-owner of a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles called Kale My Name, is a #1 New York Times bestseller for the book “Feeding the Soul,” which shares about Tabitha’s vegan journey, and is releasing a vegan cookbook for the first time in the fall that will be titled “Cooking from the Spirit.” Tabitha is on a roll and we love to see it. There are so many Black vegans opening restaurants, releasing cookbooks and trailblazing in the movement. It’s really wonderful to see someone as positive and inspirational as Tabitha among them.
Q: How can individuals “do their part?”
A: There are many meaningful ways that we can all contribute to a more just, sustainable, and compassionate food system. Through community supported agriculture, or CSAs, local farmers offer “shares” to the public. The share translates to a box of fresh produce delivered to you each week through farming season. This is an excellent way to support local farmers and know that your produce is coming from farmworkers who are being paid and treated fairly.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a program called the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program is a groundbreaking partnership among farmworkers, farmers, and major food brands that leverages the brands’ purchasing power to end decades-old human rights abuses in the fields, from sexual harassment to forced labor. You can help expand the program’s life-changing protections by visiting their website https://fairfoodprogram.org/ and following @fairfoodprogram on social media.
Food Empowerment Project has a chocolate list app that shows which vegan chocolate brands they recommend and which brands to avoid so that your chocolate isn’t being sourced from child labor or forced labor. Some stores feature the Chavez the Bunny sticker on FEP approved chocolate. You can also follow the Food Empowerment Project on social media @foodempowermentproject.
It’s important to recognize that our food choices, when we have the freedom to make them, matter. But not everyone has the freedom to make food choices that align with their well-being and values and so that’s why it’s essential that we work toward systems change to promote just and equitable access to food choice, including vegan food choices. Advocating for policy change at the local, state, and federal level is another excellent way to influence change. We have an action center on Farm Sanctuary’s website farmsanctuary.org where you can sign petitions on our current advocacy campaigns and learn about relevant legislation.