Haile Thomas is a 20yr old international speaker, wellness & compassion activist, content creator, author of “Living Lively”, the youngest to graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach (at age 16), and the founder/CEO of the non-profit HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful, Youth). Haile founded HAPPY when she was 12 years old to redefine youth empowerment through holistic education and address the need for free/affordable plant-based nutrition and wellness education in underserved/at-risk communities.
The State of Veganism in the Black Community
What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “vegan”? For decades, plant-based living has often been perceived through the lens of white, “hippie” privilege. Yet, its most diverse and expanded reflection is demanding to be illuminated — and Veganism’s future depends on it.
When I went vegan nearly 7 years ago, it was merely for fun. A self-inflicted social and behavioral experiment, so to speak. I didn’t believe I could do away with my cheese obsession, remain connected to my culture, or feel 100% satisfied eating plants, but I committed to five months of Veganism just to see what would happen.
As I began to dig further into the lifestyle, I was increasingly surprised. Surprised by how much more comfortable I felt in my body, how much more energy I had, and the incredible diversity of plant foods—nothing too out of the ordinary. But what shocked me most was the new person emerging from the experience. A more self-aware and compassionate part of me developed as I began to bridge the gap between my idea of life as an individual and my true inextricable connection to the planet Earth collective.
Learning about the unethical and environmentally damaging effects of animal agriculture and the mistreatment of primarily BIPOC workers made me sick. Hyperaware of my impact and interconnectedness, I knew I couldn’t go back to living and consuming as mindlessly as I had before. The heart of Veganism aligned with my values and, ultimately, how I wanted to show up in the world. Suddenly, this lifestyle choice was not just for me, but for all of us. This is the magic magnetism of Veganism. It has the potential to bring us closer to ourselves as we analyze, refine, and reshape our daily actions and habits with heightened intention, simultaneously bringing us closer to the world with increased compassion. But how far within are we willing to go? Is there territory we’re not ready to disrupt?
Beaming from the first few months of this journey, my expectations for the vegan community were high. I hoped my full identity as a young Black woman, and its complexities would be welcomed. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to discover that even Veganism’s innate radical power was diluted by micro and macro societal and systemic manifestations of racism, unconscious bias, and complacency.
Conversations on the lack of plant-based food accessibility within communities of color were often dismissed or downplayed. Insensitive shock-value comparison of slavery and animal agriculture were rampant. White-washing and gatekeeping perpetuated endlessly. Needless to say, entering the vegan community, I felt alienated. A monolithic conglomerate, it lacked depth and breadth, reflecting merely fragments of humans– selective compassion and pieces of inclusivity and cultural relevance sprinkled here and there.
While Veganism has come a long way since 2014, we have yet to dive fully into its most expanded and powerful vision. What does that look like exactly? Genuine and deep harmonization of people, planet, and animals to create an environment where we can all thrive, live well, and be free from unnecessary exploitation and discrimination. As our society continues to face compounding and pressing issues in the space of public health, social justice, and climate change, we must seize the opportunity of intersection before us. Intersectional and diverse plant- based living may possess the key to unlock several levels of compassion for animals, our planet, and humans alike. Conscious plant-based living can be a powerful gateway to solving some of the world’s biggest problems, but only if we create room for it.
If there’s anything that 2020 taught us, it’s that compassion is the glue of humanity. With love and care for one another, super-powered resilience is born, and we witness the most authentic and beautiful parts of us. We must make room not only for expanded compassion but also for ourselves and others’ expansive, multi-dimensional nature. As a POC entering the vegan community, I initially felt the need to shrink myself and the more “political” issues I cared about for the sake of keeping the peace. Yet, an inability to address hard truths within a community is only a reflection of a lack of stability at its core.
Luckily, through reclamation and celebration of my own journey and history, I realized that lending ourselves and each other unconditional compassion can help us show up fully and passionately for all the things we are and all the things we care about. Veganism’s aspirations can only be achieved through humans; therefore, its growth is dependent on human accessibility to the diet and lifestyle change it requires. With systemic, racially targeted barriers that make it harder for BIPOC to access affordable plant foods, how do we ensure the growth of the plant-based movement? With Veganism’s roots in compassion and ethical treatment of sentient beings, the mission is not at all diluted by expanding the conversation. Inclusivity is an essential ingredient for radical change. Social justice and environmental justice in the vegan movement create a significant opportunity for awareness and change that births healthier, brighter futures for us all.
Where to start? First, allow yourself space and grace to disrupt limiting beliefs or rhetoric, even when challenging. Second, get educated on Dietary Racism, Food Apartheid, Environmental Racism, and White-Washing of Veganism. In our efforts to live cruelty-free, we must address how we might unconsciously perpetuate the many manifestations of cruelty and how this prevents us from getting closer to a truly compassionate world. Try investigating your current biases or perceptions and how they may be restricting your compassion to see what you discover. As we explore these topics with ourselves and in community with those we feel safe with, we can deepen our understanding of varied human experiences and become intentional allies and co- creators.
As we bring Black History Month to a close, I hope we can be continually inspired by the strength and softness of the Black community. From the ways we’ve risen to the challenge time and time again to our unwavering commitment to unlearning and dismantling internalized oppression. May we let in the discomfort that can stretch us beyond complacency and catapult us into honest action. We need each other, and in our need, we must offer nurturance to the wounds that run deeply.