Alex Bez is an animal rights activist and founder of Amazing Vegan Outreach, an organization that teaches vegan activists how to inspire others to take action through workshops, webinars and one-on-one coaching.
THE “OK, WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP?” MOMENT
What was your “OK, what’s the next step?” moment? I assume you had two: the first when you became vegan and the second one when you became an advocate for animal rights. How was your life before these moments?
Before becoming an activist, my lifestyle was pretty good. I had a good high-paying job. I was a corporate sales director. I had a nice downtown condo and a fancy car. Money was not an issue, so life was very comfortable. But then, at the age of thirty, I met a vegan colleague. She recommended I watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives”, which I watched, but it didn’t make me go vegan. But I was still curious. That’s when I came across the documentary “Earthlings” – which, for most people, is really shocking to watch because it shows the reality behind how animals are used for food, clothing, testing, entertainment and pets. As the documentary was ending, I decided I would never participate in the suffering and death of an animal again.
When did activism come into your life?
I was never active for any cause before in my life – no social justice, political, or environmental causes. I was very much focused on myself and advancing my career. But two and a half years after going vegan, I ran into a friend who introduced me to The Save Movement, and he invited me to go to a vigil in Toronto where people go to slaughterhouses and wait for trucks to arrive. They call it bearing witness – they look at the animals, take photos and videos to post online, and give these animals a tiny little bit of love and respect before they go into the slaughterhouse.
Hurting and eating animals is not really instinctual. If there is an animal hit by a car on the side of the road, nobody goes and jumps on the animal and starts eating their flesh.
In general, we avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering. Most of us actually have vegan values, we just need help aligning our actions with these values.
So, when you become hyper-aware of reality, it’s difficult not to do anything. That vigil really made me realize that these individuals need help.
With this, my professional work started to seem irrelevant, in a way. I felt that my pursuit of financial security was not as important as animals’ pursuit of freedom and avoidance of pain, suffering and death. You know, when I put those two on a scale, what is more important? At the time, I was in a financially advantageous position, so I left my job.
I traveled through South and Central America, as well as Europe, to open new Save Movement chapters and attend animal rights conferences. I managed to do a few slaughterhouse investigations and actually record what was happening inside of slaughterhouses. Having personally seen what was happening to animals just really solidified my decision to focus on helping non-human animals. That’s how I ended up where I am today.
From there, you decided to facilitate workshops and train activists by reusing the methods you learned as a sales director. Can you tell me more about that resolution?
I was lying in bed one day thinking about what I could do to contribute more to the animal rights movement. I had been doing a lot of photography and videography work; capturing the animals and their stories. At first, I felt that was what I should continue to do. But then I thought that a lot of people were doing this already, and many of them were better than I was.
So, then I asked myself “Well, what am I good at? What makes me unique from most individuals?”.
And of course, one of the things that I knew I did well was what I did in my career for twenty years: sales and communication. But how could I tie that into the vegan movement?
What I ended up landing on was teaching vegan activists the skills that I was teaching people for the last decade in the corporate sales world. I knew a lot of us struggled with how to inspire our friends and family, or how to do street outreach. So, I decided to start an organization called “Amazing Vegan Outreach” (AVO), and teach activists how to connect with others, how to build rapport and inspire people to take action.
And how did the workshops grow?
While I was traveling with The Save Movement, we would organize talks, and in the end, I would ask people if they wanted to stay for a short outreach/communication training. Later, the website and the Facebook page really helped AVO quickly grow. I started doing videos that people valued and so they would share them. Now there are free tutorials online that anyone can watch on the AVO website.
In total, I think it has been 53 workshops since that first one. Nearly 2,000 activists around the world have gone through the training and a few thousand more online.
ABOUT AMAZING VEGAN OUTREACH
What’s the core message of AVO?
The whole idea is to go back to understanding what our goals are when talking to other people about animal rights. So, I think everybody needs to ask themselves: “Why am I spending time initiating conversations with strangers, friends, family, and co-workers? What is the end-goal of this interaction?”.
What happens a lot is that when we disagree with someone else, we tend to default to a debate-style conversation. When we debate others – even if it’s in a nice way – we’re trying to prove to someone else that what we’re saying is right, and we use facts, data and logical arguments to prove it.
But when we’re proving that we’re right, we’re also proving that they’re wrong. And people don’t like to be wrong, especially about something so intimate like the food they put in their mouths three times a day.
There are actually studies that have shown that when two people enter a debate, each party leaves more convinced of their original position because they were forced to defend theirs.
So, what I know from my experience is that the most effective way to inspire change in others is through coaching. As opposed to debating, or preaching, or educating, this approach is less threatening for people. A coaching framework allows for a conversation that essentially encourages people to think for themselves. I teach people how to stop debating and start inspiring. We can communicate with people in a softer way and guide them to come to their own understanding and conclusions.
You have chosen to run AVO through donations, based on the gift economy. How does this work in real life?
I went through training with a group from California called the East Point Peace Academy. They do fantastic work based on Kingian Nonviolence and they run their entire organization under the gift economy.
The main premise of the gift economy is that people donate what they’re able to – there’s no price or fee for any of the goods or services that are offered.
If people find value, and more importantly, if they want other people to have access to those goods or services, they can make a voluntary donation to support the provider.
So, I decided to run AVO under the same format. There are three main services that AVO provides for vegans and activists: in-person workshops, online webinars and one-on-one coaching. Every workshop has significant expenses related to them, including travel expenses, accommodation, food, facilitator costs, etc. I want these learning and development opportunities to be available to anyone who needs them without having to worry about the cost. Everyone is welcome to benefit from them.
I also try to minimize the costs as much as possible – I stay in other people’s houses and I try to build itineraries that are the most efficient to reduce travel costs. I very openly communicate what the costs are for the workshop, and I encourage people – if they’re able – to help cover those costs. So far, it’s worked really well.
Have you ever thought about pricing your services?
I thought about it at the beginning. In the corporate world, these workshops would easily be worth a couple of hundred dollars per person.
But as soon as you put a price on something, regardless of how small it is, there may be someone who can’t afford that.
I’ve had messages from people saying that AVO has changed their whole approach to activism. And I think that as long as you’re providing value, they want to support the work that you’re doing – and this doesn’t apply just to the animal rights movement.
I really don’t think the gift economy is that different from the market economy. If you have a bad product or service in the market economy, you won’t do well. In the gift economy, people won’t support you. You know, the difference is charging someone upfront, or allowing them to choose how much they would like to contribute. I know some restaurants that run on the gift economy, and they’re are quite successful.
Do you ever get stressed thinking about your financial situation?
I probably should be more stressed about it. If I’m being honest, I may be neglecting that part a little bit right now. But I’m fortunate that I had good jobs and a good career before diving into full-time animal rights work.
At this moment, because I don’t have children or strong financial commitments, I feel like I need to do this. Many people have great skills but aren’t able to leave their careers and dedicate their time to helping others. And worst-case scenario, if I realize that I’m not able to build AVO to a point where it’s sustainable in the long term, I can always shut it down and go back to the corporate sales world.
HOW TO BECOME AN ACTIVIST
If someone asked you “How can I become an animal rights activist?”, what would you answer?
The most important thing is to act – going to vigils, doing street outreach, connecting with other like-minded individuals. If you are an artist or a singer, you can do things based on those skills to bring awareness. This works even with animal rights tattoos! I have a tattoo of a cow on my arm, and random people ask me about it all the time. It’s an easy way to start a chat about animal rights. The liberation pledge is also another great example of activism. Little things that allow you to communicate this message are great.
And challenge yourself, push yourself to be uncomfortable. It was really uncomfortable for me to go to a slaughterhouse and talk to people on the streets about animal rights. But I promise that every time you do it, it gets easier and easier. And in the meantime, you’ll also find a community that will support you.
And where should people start if they want to do activism full-time through the gift economy?
Well, first of all, we don’t need every single person to be full-time activists. It’s not realistic for most people who have rent to pay, for example. What people should do is balance out their personal and professional lives with activism and being careful not to overextend themselves because that’s where people can burn out.
My suggestion for anyone looking to engage in the gift economy is to make sure you’re providing a lot of value to others. Use your professional or life skills to empower and build other people up. If you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience in life, it may be challenging to add a lot of value at the beginning. I suppose the reason why I can do what I do is that I spent twenty years becoming an expert in sales and communication.
And, if you aren’t able to be a full-time activist today, then a really important thing you can do is support the movement financially. The reason why many activists can do activism full-time is that people who have jobs decided to make donations which facilitate their activism. All animal rights organizations run off of much-needed donations.
But that is also why I wanted to interview you. Obviously, it’s not easy and not everyone can quit their jobs at the snap of a finger. But I think that many people get stuck because they think everything needs to be planned around a 9 to 5 job. But you’re the living proof that that doesn’t have to necessarily happen.
I think we should always think outside the box and not limit ourselves to what we’re taught our lives have to be like. In order to do that, you have to push through obstacles, through people telling you that what you’re doing isn’t going to work. I was told that I couldn’t run an organization and survive without charging people for things, that people were going to take advantage of me. It was a risk I was willing to take.
The key is to think outside the box. When our starting point is what we’re currently doing or what other people are doing in the movement, we might miss what already exists in our lives.
The Vegan Hacktivists are a great example of this. They used their technology and coding skills in the animal rights movement, and they came up with a website called “5 minutes 5 vegans”. It’s a great way to do online activism, and people will support them for that because they’ve used their unique talents to further this movement.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of providing value. Once you figure that out, you might need to work for a year or two to save up enough money to start. Be really disciplined in executing the plan – go, do it and push through.
That was great, Alex, thank you so much. I’m done with all my questions!
Cool! I have a question for you, if that’s okay.
Well, my question for you is: what is it that holds you back from not consuming products that harm animals?
(and this was the beginning of an unplanned second-part interview about lunch at the office, my need for a cappuccino in the morning and my severe chocolate addition, but I’ll leave the outcome of it for another time…)
ALEX’S TOP DOCUMENTARY LIST:
If you’re vegan and want to dive into vegan activism, check AVO’s Learning Path.
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