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14 March 2001 Issue
New (Veg) Kids on the Block

by Victoria Paal and Patrick Kwan

From The Animals' Agenda -- For our final installment dedicated to "2000: Year of the Humane Child," we wanted to hear directly from young people about how they became activists and the challenges they face in their daily lives. Here, two teenagers describe their dealings with parents, peers, school, and others.

Lettuce Lunches
by Victoria Paal

It was a bad day for a vegan in the school cafeteria. The lunch options included egg noodles, meatballs, or soggy peas soaking in lukewarm water. I moved to the salad bar but the dressings had cheese or honey in them. I settled for some lettuce.

At my high school I am aware of two other vegans, both in the senior class with me. I have been vegan for about three years. When I first decided to go vegetarian five years ago, I knew very little about it; something just seemed wrong about eating an animal. After all, I would never eat my dog. Two years later, after reading about veganism on web sites, I decided it was a good option for me. At that point, I was not very concerned with my health or the environment; I simply felt that it was wrong that dairy cows and hens were killed prematurely and kept on factory farms.

I will never forget the day I told my parents. "Vegan? What's that?" my mom asked. After explaining it, she rolled her eyes. My parents' worst nightmare was to have a liberal daughter. She continued, "It will be too hard. You won't get enough nutrients. It's not a good idea." My dad sat across the table, laughing, and swallowed a mouthful of steak.

Even after discussing the topic, my parents remained adamant that it would be a bad idea. My mother was panicking that I would not be getting three glasses of milk a day. I explained that there were other sources of vitamins and minerals, and my parents eventually realized that this was a decision from which I was not going to back down.

Now, more than three years later, my mom still likes to think it's a typical adolescent phase. When I say I'm not going to eat something because it has whey in it, I know to expect her to roll her eyes. My father still forgets occasionally and will offer me fish at dinner. At the same time, however, they seem to have grown used to my lifestyle. My mom gets excited when she finds a new vegan ice cream, and my father loves trying to find good vegan food at restaurants. They are even beginning to learn what vegan and non-vegan ingredients are.

I, too, have learned a lot over time. By reading such books as Diet for a New America, I better understand the implications of a meat-based society on human health and the environment. I have also become more socially active and aware. Through working with animal rights groups like Compassion Over Killing, I have been given the opportunity to participate in protests and rallies. I was also fortunate enough to find a great part-time job at a vegan store near my home.

My school is gradually becoming aware of students' lifestyle choices. When it came time for the rat dissection in biology class, students were offered the alternative of participating in a computer-based interactive virtual dissection of the human body. However, when I took up this offer I was not spared from several teachers' disapproving looks and lectures on how I would learn more by actually dissecting.

Each day is a bit of a battle for a high school vegan. While the familial arguments and occasional lettuce lunches can get aggravating, veganism is a choice that pays off in the end. I am able to feel better about myself as a person, knowing that I am doing a small part to protect the animals.

Victoria Paal, 17, is a high school senior in Bethesda, Maryland.


Growing Into It
by Patrick Kwan

When I was in fifth grade, I was sentenced to spend a week in the back of the classroom for talking too much. I was alone and bored with nothing but dozens of magazines stuffed on racks. What caught my eye were the ones from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Before I knew it, my eyes were filled with tears. Though more than nine years have passed, the picture of the "Gillette rabbit" still haunts me. I became a vegetarian shortly after, despite vehement protest from my parents (who are chefs). My first few weeks were horrible. My parents purposely prepared an all-flesh meal one day -- I simply went to bed hungry. My sisters were the only ones who were remotely supportive; after months had passed, my parents started buying into a theory proposed by a family
friend that I would "grow out of it." Four years ago I took another step to help animals by becoming vegan, but they still believe I will one day grow out of it.

I remember crying and feeling horrible after kids flung flesh in my face or made fun of me for caring about animals. I also remember calling PETA when I'd returned home from these ordeals. Everyone at PETA was extremely helpful, especially Bobbi in the education department. Someone sent me a "Meat Stinks" sticker after she heard about what kids were doing to me. I proudly brought the sticker to school and kids started shutting up. I still have the sticker.

PETA sent me lots of literature, including a copy of Animal Liberation, which molded my concerns into beliefs and first pointed out to me the commonality of the oppression of animals and other disenfranchised groups. For years, I thought all the animal rights activists in the world were in Washington, D.C., because I only knew the folks at PETA. When I was 12, my older sister got involved in organizing with the National Mobilization Against Sweat Shops. I tagged along with my sister and started becoming an activist. It wasn't until I was 14 that I found out that there were actually animal rights activists in New York. I became an organizer for the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade when I was 15, then progressed to organizing with the Animal Defense League of New York City, which I do to this day.

In the last few years, I've become extremely concerned that the animal rights movement is failing its young activists. As opposed to other movements, where there are specific organizations that concentrate on educating, supporting, and training youth, the animal rights movement does little in this area. Even when activists decide to reach out to youth, they focus exclusively on education rather than education plus mobilization. Young activists are left to seek for themselves the knowledge and skills necessary for informing their peers and community, and suffer from unnecessary bruises in their attempts to be active for the animals. A few manage to learn much from their struggles, but many simply get discouraged from participating in any level of activism or organizing. There needs to be a change of
attitude. The youth of today should not only be viewed as the leaders of tomorrow, but also as the leaders of today. It is up to the animal rights movement to realize the promise that young activists hold for the animals.

Patrick Kwan, 19, is currently majoring in Political Science and Energy & Environmental Policy Studies at Hunter College in New York. He is also a recipient of the Bill Rosenberg Award presented by the Farm Animal Reform Movement for outstanding youth activism.

“Reprinted with permission from The Animals’ Agenda, P.O. Box 25881,
Baltimore, MD 21224; (410) 675-4566; www.animalsagenda.org.”
Email: office@animalsagenda.org 

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