"It's going to be really interesting to see what people make of us," Mark Westcombe, one of the co-organizers of the new Animal Think Tank, which launched to the public at VegFest Brighton last weekend, said before the event.
As previewed on Plant Based News in February, the new collective of grassroots pro-animal campaigners in the UK aims to provide the support needed to build a powerful anti-speciesist movement. Having worked across the animal rights movement in the UK, and studied its history here and abroad, Westcombe knows there's plenty of work to do.
"Our main motivation is to inspire people with a vision of social change that works for animals," he explains. "But it hasn't always been the case that animal activists or liberation organizations have known about or used theories of social change to guide their actions. We really want to help activists become more effective in what they do."?
Growing a network
The plan is to do that by helping grow an organic network of more strategically-informed and theoretically-aware activists in the existing field of animal rights groups, as well as to allow for new organizations and collectives to emerge.
"Our aim is to complement what already exists in the animal protection and liberation movements," says Westcombe. "There's no need for vegan and animal organizations to compete against each other. We want to build on what exists and offer what doesn't, especially around actions based on robust theories of social change, when it comes to movement building across organisations and grassroots movements."
Westcombe, who also co-organizes the animal liberation stream at the Earth First! gatherings each year in February and August, and which brings critical awareness of animal issues to the broader environmental and anti-capitalist movements, is keen for activists to see Animal Think Tank as inclusive.
"The more we can build strong intersectional activities across various forms of social justice movement building, the better it will be for all those groups, and especially for animals," he adds.
Beyond public education
Animal Think Tank's arrival comes on the back of the growth in veganism over the last five to 10 years. They plan to build on that awareness and help foster a true anti-speciesist movement.
"The public education activities of existing groups over the last decade has been amazing," says Westcombe. But he echoes the argument laid out in long-time animal activist and scholar Kim Stallwood's book Growl, that such public education is only the first stage of change.
In Growl, Stallwood provides a blueprint for social change for animals. He argues that there is a staged approach to impactful social change for animals that moves past Public Education (Stage 1) into Public Policy Development (Stage 2) and then onto Legislation (Stage 3), Enforcement (Stage 4), and Public Acceptance (Stage 5).
For Stallwood, much of the movement remains focused on Stage 1. There are exceptions to this, but in general grassroots and animal rights organizations haven't been as effective as they could have, considering the increase in public awareness of veganism. Westcombe agrees.
"We need now to move beyond public education and into real, lasting change at policy and legislative levels," he says. "And we're only going to do that if we appreciate the theories of social change that work for these specific outcomes."
"We'd work with those groups to help build their capacity to think in terms of social change theory, and so increase their effectiveness, rather than write policy ourselves," he explains. For the Animal Think Tank, there is still so much to do in building capacity.
For example, Westcombe talks of the difference between veganism as a practice and anti-speciesism as a powerful theory of change, and likens their differences to those between anti-sexism and feminism.
"In a way, vegan practice is akin to anti-sexism," he says. "We can all get behind the idea that we want to act in anti-sexist ways and treat people with respect, while still not grasping the full influence of feminist theory and its potential. It's the same for the differences between veganism and anti-speciesism. It is great that so many people are choosing vegan practices such as refusing to eat any animal products or pay to see animals used for entertainment. But practising or even advocating for veganism itself does not necessarily mean we fully grasp the potential of anti-speciesism for social change."
What is speciesism?
The term was first used by psychologist, philosopher and animal rights advocate Richard D. Ryder in an anti-vivisection pamphlet distributed in Oxford in 1970.
"The word refers to the widely held belief that the human species is inherently superior to other species and so has rights or privileges that are denied to other sentient animals," explains Ryder.
"Speciesism can also be used to describe the oppressive behaviour, cruelty, prejudice and discrimination that are associated with such a belief. In a more restricted sense, speciesism can refer to such beliefs and behaviours if they are based upon the species-difference alone, as if such a difference is, in itself, a justification."
"What we need is a much more widespread understanding of anti-speciesism as a powerful positive tool to change society for the benefit of animals and humans," Westcombe continues.
Who is Animal Think Tank?
Although they do not like to center themselves, Animal Think Tank is the labor of love of three key animal liberation activists, Laila Kassam, Mark Westcombe, and Dan Kidby.
Westcombe is a social change expert and is a trainer in Systems Thinking and Group Facilitation for his professional body, The Operational Research Society. In 2015, Kassam co-founded the Veterinary Vegan Network with her partner, a vegan veterinary surgeon. She is a co-founder of Ethical Globe, a platform and community that seeks to support vegans to live their values, launching in Spring 2019.
Kidby has been actively involved in grassroots movement building since 2015 when he participated in a six-week occupation of London School of Economics as part of a campaign for free education. In 2016 he volunteered full-time for Sea Shepherd Australia as the donations officer for the (recently retired) Steve Irwin ship. His commitment to animal liberation was solidified after he rescued a dying chicken from a factory farm and held her close in his arms as she struggled for her life.
Animal Think Tank has been shaped by diverse influences, from the UK's involvement in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade to the Open Source software movement approach to organising. Westcombe is particularly interested in Social Movement Theory and how this can support winning campaigns for social change. The Animal Think Tank, he is keen to emphasize, is philosophically and strategically committed to active nonviolent campaigning.
"Our vision of social change has to be nonviolent," he says, "because we are asking for nonviolence to be the way we treat all other beings."
Their aim after Brighton is to design and deliver training courses and best practice guides for organizers, especially around areas such as: Momentum driven organising; democratic and decentralized organizational structures; strategic nonviolence, civil disobedience and civil resistance; and anti-speciesist theory and practice.
"We are definitely excited," says Westcombe, "and slightly terrified! But we've been working on this for a long time now. And it's time to really share this with others."