From Dairy Farmer to Vegan Advocate

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From Dairy Farmer to Vegan Advocate:
Pamela Ziemann’s Remarkable Transformation

From Free From Harm, November 2011

I met Pamela Ziemann recently when I found an ad on Facebook for the Vegan Milk Revolution Contest and decided to enter it. From our first phone conversation through our numerous emails, I could tell that, as creative / communications types, we seemed to have a natural affinity for each other. She made some very humble yet pointed observations about me that have helped me immensely in my effort to find my voice as a vegan / vegetarian advocate. And when I learned about her background as the daughter of a dairy farming family who has evolved into a vegan/vegetarian advocate herself, I knew she would be a perfect candidate for my interview series that highlights visionary people making a difference in the sustainable food movement. Following is our interview:

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing, family and any major events during your childhood that helped shape who you are.

Growing up on a dairy and grain farm in Minnesota, I felt alone much of the time. I did have a special kinship with the animals, though. Unlike with people, I felt like I could say anything to the cows without feeling rushed or judged. I remember these cows with their big eyes and so curious about what I had to say. It was like a safe haven where I could pour out my deepest thoughts and feelings. They never got bored and no matter what I said, it was accepted. Speaking to people was a different story though. I was known as the girl who spoke with her eyebrows since I pretty much kept my mouth shut around people. Public speaking was terrifying for me in my early years and all the way through college. After being a real estate appraiser for 13 years and then living in Indonesia for a year, I decided to face my fears head on. I spent the next 10 years taking and teaching personal development courses. Now I’m self-employed as a speaking coach and communication trainer working with clients to speak more effectively for their cause. From those early years, I realize that curiosity and acceptance will bring out people’s truth rather than what they think others want to hear. Once they feel the difference between chatter and truth in a safe environment, it’s easier to speak up no matter what environment they find themselves in.

How specifically did growing up on a dairy farm shape your experiences as a child and then later as an adult?

When I was 15, my dad announced that one of our cows broke her leg and we needed to rush her to the butcher shop before she died. (A cow has to be alive to pump the blood out of her body or the meat is no good.) I looked into her eyes as my dad chained her back leg and drug her onto a fifth-wheel trailer. That cow’s eyes said a lot. I felt helpless realizing what was to come and not being able to do anything for her. Within 15 minutes, they had her strung up by one of her back legs. That image is still deeply etched in my mind. It seemed so crude to have a chain around one leg while the other one dangled off to her side. My dad thought it’d be educational for me to see how the butchering process was done, but the real education was learning how cruel and insensitive society can be toward other sentient beings. The disassembly process was very quick. I won’t go into the details because it still makes me feel sick when I think about it. My mom fixed lasagna a few days later. When I asked if it was that cow she replied, ‘Just eat it.’ I pushed my plate away and tightened my jaw.

Witnessing the butchering made an impact, yet when I went to college, the feeling of wanting to belong was equally strong. If my friends ordered pizza, I’d rationalize that a little sausage was no big deal. I didn’t know any other vegetarians in the 70s and had no support system. I wanted my friends to know what was behind the veil of their pizza party but didn’t want to be the one to graphically explain the horror. Some people knew the story and still ate meat.

And, being the daughter of a dairy farmer in Minnesota, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll enter the Dairy Princess Contest. My dad was involved with the Mid America Dairymen’s Association and had high hopes for both my sister and me. When my older sister didn’t win the coveted crown, it was my turn to step up to the plate. I remember it very clearly. It was on my 18th birthday, the same night as an Alice Cooper concert. Everything in me wanted to see my hero perform on stage, but I begrudgingly put on my yellow chiffon prom dress and headed off to the Martin County Dairy Princess contest. I learned that when we don’t speak up for what’s true for us, it helps no one. Disrespect of ourselves naturally follows. That’s why decades later I ran the www.VeganMilkRevolution.com contest. Anyone could enter and speak their truth of why they ditched dairy. It was pretty fun.

At what point in your life did you have a transformation with food? What triggered this?

My resolve became stronger when I moved to Washington State in 1984 and heard John Robbins speak. His personal journey described in the book Diet for a New America inspired me. I felt a kinship like never before. His research had me questioning everything I’d been taught as a child. I told others about the insanity of drinking cow’s milk, but somehow rationalized that an ice cream cone was just an ice cream cone. Hey, it wasn’t an actual glass of milk. A couple decades later the final turning point came.

In 2010 I previewed the DVD Peaceable Kingdom in a theater filled with animal lovers. Isn’t it ironic that most of the people who watch these graphic films are people who care so deeply for animals? The grief in the room as we watched farm animals being confined and tortured was palpable. I knew I wasn’t alone. There’s a farm kid in that movie (Harold Brown) who shared how he had to turn his feelings on and off. That was the point I said to myself, ‘That’s me! I’ve shut myself down in order to cope with what ‘s happening to animals. I want to feel alive again. Fully alive. I want to be true to myself and true to my values.’ Although my vegetarian work-out buddy didn’t see the movie, she decided she wanted to be a vegan about the same time. Ah, the beauty of accountability! If I ever felt like eating an egg or having cheese, I thought of her. I couldn’t face her on the treadmill if I caved in to societal pressures or my own addictions. Seeing her every morning got me through the initial cravings. Within less than a month I didn’t miss animal products at all.

What are the principle you live and work by?

My top three values are connection, honesty and joy.

Do you have any personal or professional goals that you have not yet achieved?

I’d like to participate in more speaking events like the upcoming Chicago Vegan Mania where the focus is on fun, celebration and sharing new information. I’d like to help advocates from all over the world with their speaking skills via Skype coaching.

I’m excited to be enrolled in the Associate Chef and Health Educator program at the Living Light Culinary Arts School in Fort Bragg, CA this January to learn more about the benefits of raw, living foods.

As a communications professional, how do you help people become better communicators? What tools do you use?

I help people get clear on their message, speak with confidence, use humor, stories and passion to engage listeners and inspire them to action. Skype and YouTube are great tools allowing me to work with anyone no matter where they live.

Who inspires you on a personal and / or professional level and why?

I recently spoke at the Vegans in Vegas conference and helped Ryan Henn make a documentary about men becoming vegan. (www.VegansinVegas.com) These men really inspired me.

To see men speak up for compassion for all life when the world tells them it’s wimpy not to eat meat takes a lot of courage. I think that 15 minute video will help a lot of men make the switch. It’s people like you, Robert, who put themselves out there to share information they know will ultimately help others. People who are willing to challenge their beliefs, evolve and then live by example inspire me. I met a man (John Frasca) who was hit by a drunk driver. After being in a coma for 3 weeks and incurring a brain injury he now has limited ability to walk. In spite of it all, I’ve never heard him complain. In fact, he says if it weren’t for the crash he wouldn’t have gotten into being a raw vegan. His face glows. He’s inspired me to go more raw simply because of his attitude and energy. My dog/friend Ruby inspires me every day to live full out, love unconditionally and embrace the present moment.

What are the most challenging communication problems do you think vegetarian and vegan advocates face today?

The most challenging communication problem advocates face today is finding the balance between listening and speaking. People make the most progress when they find their personal balance. If you find you don’t speak up much, we work on how you can articulate your thoughts and speak from your heart. If people speak too much we work on finding the connection, listening and being present.

How can they be overcome in your opinion?

Awareness, practice and coaching.