In these polarized times it is especially hard to contemplate, let alone actually sit down with those we see as the enemies of our cause. But as our guest, Leah Garces, points out, it is exactly these people we need to work with to create change. Join Leah as she challenges us to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, recognize the humanity of our so-called enemies, look for the win-win solution, and ultimately make effective and lasting change.
Listen to the Episode Here!
The Book: Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry by Leah Garcés
Mercy for Animals Website
Mercy for Animals Facebook
Mercy for Animals Twitter
Mercy for Animals YouTube
Mercy for Animals Instagram
(1:56) Sitting down with an unlikely ally to make progress
(8:03) Become comfortable with being uncomfortable
(8:38) The person on the other side of the table is a human being
(9:22) Look for the win-win
(17:36) Get people to take the next step
(17:44) Scale up
(19:33) Find the root of the problem
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. As any listener of the podcast, you will know that I pretty much only work with progressive nonprofits. As progressive nonprofits, it can sometimes be a bit challenging for us to make friends in the private sector. Sometimes those who are not as progressive as we are will get upset that we’re not playing nice or that we’re challenging the status quo. So it could be easy, and honestly sometimes even feel fantastic, to tell them to go jump in a lake. Our guest today is someone who challenges that gut feeling and instead has built relationships to gain a bigger impact. As president of Mercy for Animals, Leah Garces is an expert on organizational leadership, building relationships, and, of course, chicken welfare. As a leader in the animal protection movement for over 20 years, she oversaw international campaigns in 14 countries at the World Society for the Protection of Animals and launched Compassion in World Farming in the United States. In her recently published book, Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, she highlights her history of making unlikely allies in the poultry industry that has led to huge progress for animal welfare and the rights of farmers. Hey, Leah, welcome to the podcast.
Leah Garces (01:31):
Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:34):
So I would love for us to start this conversation by hearing more about your story behind Grilled.
Leah Garces (01:41):
Well, Dolph, I first sat down to write the book because I really wanted people to care about chickens more. As I sat down to write that book and I reflected on my journey, I realized it was about more than that. It was about reaching across the table and sitting down with the unlikely ally to make progress. I thought that was a really useful story to share with people and, in the process, get people to think about the chicken that’s on their plate.
Dolph Goldenburg (02:13):
So what’s it like when you sit down with that very unlikely ally? And, who is that ally you are thinking about?
Leah Garces (02:24):
Well, the very first time I crossed enemy lines was terrifying, very terrifying. That person was a chicken factory farmer named Craig Watts; this is detailed in my book. He had been raising chickens for 22 years for a very big chicken company named Purdue. After 22 years he had become fed up. We were introduced to each other through a mutual journalist and he invited me to come to his farm to see what was going on. Now this was at a time when it was, and it still is, really difficult to get footage from inside a chicken factory farm because it’s essentially illegal to do so. It is illegal in the state he lives in, North Carolina, unless you’re invited. And you don’t get invited as an animal activist to come and film what’s going on inside a factory farm. So this was super scary for me.
Leah Garces (03:22):
Why did this farmer want me to be there? Why did I go? I literally gave the address to my husband and said, “If I don’t come back, look for me buried in the chicken litter” because I didn’t know why he invited me. But he invited me. I went into his home. I sat down with him and we poured over piles of paper. He shared his story of hardship with me about how he was living on the brink of poverty. How he was an indentured servant because he had so much debt from the farm that he had built, and the only way to get out of that debt was to continue to raise chickens that he didn’t want to raise. So he was all but an indentured servant. And as I sat there, I really changed my mind about what I thought about him. My discomfort and my fear turned into something else, which was frankly shame.
Leah Garces (04:19):
I felt very ashamed. I had never thought about the perspective of the farmer, who is in this industry, who is doing this, frankly, horrible job that nobody really wants to do. I had never once thought about his situation and considered that he could be a potential ally. And with that, my whole framework and my whole theory of change transformed.
Dolph Goldenburg (04:40):
So literally it was one conversation in one chicken farmer’s living room that transformed that framework?
Leah Garces (04:47):
Well, it wasn’t one conversation, but it was the one farmer. I spent many months with this farmer, walking the chicken houses with him, as he gained my trust and I gained his trust and he listened to me and I listened to him. What we would do over the months that we filmed inside of his chicken barns was talk about what was happening. He would point to a chicken and say, “Oh, that chicken is not healthy or happy.”
Leah Garces (05:16):
And I would agree, and we would talk about why and what could be done about it. He made it clear to me that he didn’t want to be in this industry but had very, very little choice, almost as little choice as the chickens had. It was through these months of going through the chicken houses with him, seeing him collect dead and dying birds, that we came to trust each other. It was then that we made a decision that neither one of us, I think, intended to make when we first met, which was to release the footage. We released that footage in December of 2015 and it went viral. It was featured in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, one of the most popular columnists in the country. From there it just spiraled into a much bigger conversation with the chicken industry and with other activists, and in general made us think about how we work with opposing forces.
Dolph Goldenburg (06:18):
And so it sounds like this experience really did modify your theory of change and now you actively reach out to those opposing forces, to those enemies of the cause, if you will.
Leah Garces (06:29):
Yes. And I’m not the first person to think through this theory of change. So whether it be Gandhi or Martin Luther King, their idea, and my idea, is that you hate the oppression, not the oppressor and that we are fighting a system that hurts all of us. Factory farming hurts everyone because it hurts the planet and it hurts our future food supply. So every human being on this planet is negatively impacted by factory farming. Some of us more closely than others. So if you’re a chicken, obviously you’re the most closely impacted. And if you’re a chicken farmer, you’re a pretty close second. It was through those conversations that I really adopted an existing theory of change and applied it, I think, to a new movement that it hadn’t been applied to before, that hadn’t fully embraced it. As you said in the beginning, it’s really fun to hate the oppressor. It feels good because you’re angry and I’m angry. I’m angry every day about the way animals are treated and the way our planet is being destroyed by our food system and that it is a very solvable problem. And that makes me angry. But it doesn’t help the system to just be angry. You have to really set that aside and be practical.
Dolph Goldenburg (07:48):
So what are some of the lessons you learned in how to go about crossing the line, starting conversations, and building relationships with people who you feel might be really adamantly opposed to what you’re doing?
Leah Garces (08:02):
Good question. One of the lessons is that you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable and that speaking to people who agree with us won’t help us get to the solution. After all, the opposing force often holds the power to the solution. So, in my case, chicken farmers and the chicken industry are in charge of the chickens; I’m not in charge of a single chicken. So if I want to make progress, I have to do it through them in one way or another. And so embracing getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is really critical. The second one was that you have to realize that the person you’re talking to on the opposing side of the table is a human being who very likely has more in common with you than you care to realize. I think, as activists, we like to get really into our principals, we get stuck in those principals, and we think, “There’s no way this person can have anything in common with me.”
Leah Garces (09:03):
But it turns out they do. I have a lot of examples where I was so surprised when I would sit down with the chicken industry and find out we had a lot of common values and we believed in a lot of the same things. Building from there was really important. The final lesson is we have to look for the win-win, look for solutions that help both sides. I could have gone in to meetings with these factory farmers thinking “I just want to put you out of business. I don’t want you to be farmers. I don’t care what happens to you. You’re just not allowed to raise chickens.” But instead, I started to think about how I can transform them into a different kind of farming, like mushrooms or hemp.
Leah Garces (09:48):
We’ve got a new project at Mercy for Animals that’s all about that called Transfarmation, which is about taking those chicken farmers and taking those long barns and doing something else. Because guess what? Those long barns are really good for growing other things like hemp, mushrooms hydroponic lettuce, basil, and spearmint. That’s a win-win, when you can tell the farmer “Yeah, you can still pay the bills, stay on the land, and live where your family has been for five generations. It just doesn’t have to be through factory farming.” This is something I can get behind, he can get behind, she can get behind. That’s the win-win. So the lessons are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, realizing your opposition as a human being with a lot in common with you, and to look for a win-win.
Dolph Goldenburg (10:37):
So as you’ve been doing more of this, is it primarily farmers reaching out to you like that initial farmer did? Or is it you now reaching out to farmers and initiating those conversations?
Leah Garces (10:49):
When I first started working with Craig, I had a ton of farmers come out of the woodwork who wanted to have conversations. However, most of them just wanted to talk. They just wanted to have someone listen. They weren’t willing to go on the record. They were terrified of the repercussions of speaking out against the industry. You have to remember that, in total, these chicken factory farmers owe $5.2 billion right now. That’s how serious their debt is. And to explain how that happens: A farmer, like Craig when he was in his early 20s, is looking for a way to stay on his land in rural North Carolina, with no other job prospects, in the poorest county in the state. The chicken industry comes to town and says “You can be your own man” and he thinks this is a dream come true. So at the age of 20-something, he signs the contract, he gets a quarter of a million dollar loan out from the bank, and he builds. This is all something I can’t even fathom doing with a master’s degree.
Leah Garces (11:56):
So he builds chicken warehouses. Then the chicken flocks get dropped off and then collected, and every time that happens he gets a paycheck that then goes towards his loan like a mortgage. That goes really well at first, but it’s a factory farm, after all. It’s 30,000 chickens stuffed wall-to-wall in a disease-ridden, ammonia-laden, feces-on-the-floor, darkened shed. Disease happens, death happens. And you don’t get paid for dead birds. So he starts to fall behind on those loan payments because less and less birds are making it to market. And he realizes he’s made a mistake, but he’s now an indentured servant; he can’t get out. He has to just keep raising chickens until he pays off that awful debt. Times that by thousands of farmers up to $5.2 billion worth of debt. That’s a huge burden on our rural economy, on rural communities. It’s become a big focus of how we solve this problem for me.
Dolph Goldenburg (13:05):
A lot of farmers who are reaching out to you and sharing that burden, the burden of debt and really the burden of just feeling like an indentured servant, how do they find out about you? Because farmer Craig said “Oh, you should talk to this person, I had a great conversation”? How did they find out about you?
Leah Garces (13:23):
Well the story went viral. We had over 2 million people watch the video in 24 hours. So it was extremely well seen. And it went on to John Oliver’s show. It was in the BBC.
Dolph Goldenburg (13:38):
By the way, I think that’s where I saw it, on John Oliver’s show.
Leah Garces (13:39):
Oh really? Ok, so it was very well shared. But my point about the debt is that farmers wanted to talk about this, but they were too scared of retaliation and losing their contracts, and then losing their land and going bankrupt. They wanted to talk about it, but then they were scared. I’ve met with some of these farmers; I would meet with them in person and they would tell me their stories. I remember one incident where I went to visit some other farmers in North Carolina, near Raleigh, and this one farmer had invited me. And when I got there she said, “Oh, they’re all waiting for you.”
Leah Garces (14:12):
And I went, “‘We?’ Who’s ‘they?'” And she said, “Oh, they’re all here.” And I went into her house and there were a dozen farmers; almost none of them were sitting, as though they were ready to bolt if someone came down the street. But they shared their stories of debt and hardship and difficulty. Some of them had had terrible disease in their barns and they didn’t know what to do about it. They weren’t experts in disease and the industry didn’t care. I later worked with farmers in West Virginia who worked for Pilgrim’s Pride, and again did a video that was in the New York Times. They had a terrible disease in their barn called gangrenous dermatitis, which is gangrene, a bacteria that eats the birds from the inside out.
Leah Garces (15:01):
It’s extremely contagious, and once it gets in your barns you can’t get it out. These birds are already immunosuppressed because they’re so stressed out and living in these dank, dungeon-like environments. Well, they kept suffering deaths; 400 birds would die in a day. Farmers would write to Pilgrim’s Pride, but they would not respond. So farmers decided to film in their own barns. I left them camcorders because Pilgrim’s Pride had said they would fire anybody who let someone like me film inside the houses. So we got around that by saying, “Here are some camcorders,” we left them with the farmers, and then the farmers took it upon themselves to film and show this disease and really tell the story. Which was very powerful to have a farmer exposing the disease in their own houses saying, “We can’t do anything about this. This is the chicken that ends up all over the plates of America. It’s repulsive, it’s unjust, and it’s inhumane.” There were two farmers willing to speak up. However, one of those two farmers went bankrupt. That’s the risk you take speaking up; you can lose everything and that’s not a price everybody can pay.
Dolph Goldenburg (16:10):
And so part of what I hear you saying is these farmers are reaching across the divide as much as you are. And, not to minimize what you’ve done, but they’re almost risking more because if one of the other big chicken manufacturers says, “Hey we’re not going to use you anymore as a contractor” then they go belly up; no one else is going to pay him to ranch chickens.
Leah Garces (16:35):
They’re risking everything. A lot of these farmers get into this because they want to stay on the land that’s been passed down five generations. They want to raise their kids in these rural areas because it’s a way of life that they believe in. Chicken farming allows them to do that. Then if something goes wrong, they can lose everything: their income, their home, their land. So yeah, in comparison they’re risking a million times more. All I’m risking is maybe getting sued. That’s it.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:12):
Obviously people reach out to you and, as you’ve said, a lot of people really are scared and so they say, “Hey, I just want to talk but you can’t use footage.” How do you help people get to that next stage or that next point where they are willing, essentially, to risk everything to help get the word out?
Leah Garces (17:36):
It’s a lot of listening. It’s a lot of one-on-one. It’s labor intensive. It’s building trust like I did with Craig the first time. But obviously that’s not practical at scale. We’re now trying to think about the practicalities of scaling this conversation, which is why Mercy for Animals launched this new project, Transfarmation, in which we’re trying to create a really powerful platform for farmers to engage with us and connect them to investors and businesses that want to help them get out of factory farming. This is our pilot year for the project. We have worked with one farmer to show that it’s possible, Mike Weaver of West Virginia, who was one of those two chicken farmers that did the expose with me. He transformed his two chicken houses into a hemp farm and is doing great. This shows it’s possible. And not only that, he’s claiming he can make five times more money doing it this way, have less environmental impact, and employ five times more people. It’s a huge boost for some of these rural economies. So what we want to do is create a replicable model that really can be repeated by all of these different farmers who are reaching out to us and have something to offer them to say, “Here’s your way out. Here’s your escape hatch from the indentured servitude you have found yourself in.”
Dolph Goldenburg (19:08):
I love that. So really by going across the line, by crossing that great divide and as you said, by listening to the individual and asking yourself, “What do we really have in common?” you were able to figure out what you needed to scale this. So the more people will come and go, “Yes, I want to stop doing business this way. This is not the kind of farmer I want to be.”
Leah Garces (19:33):
I think the question we had to ask ourselves is what is the root of the root of the root of why these farmers are engaging in this kind of farming in the first place? It’s not because they want to raise chickens in tortured environments. It’s not pleasant for them to be in a dust-filled, ammonia-laden, darkened warehouse as their job. That’s not fun for anyone. We had to ask why are they engaging in this in the first place? That was getting to that root reason, which was that those fifth-generation farmers want to live and raise their families in a rural place. And how can we answer that calling they have with a different solution before they even sign a contract? And when you’re solving hard problems, that’s what you have to look for: the root of why the problem evolved in the first place and how can I come with a solution before you even get to the problem.
Dolph Goldenburg (20:40):
And part of what I love is, while legislation could potentially make that better, it would be really hard for you to get legislation through that would actually make that better. But by going farmer at a time and then scaling it, you really can create genuine change.
Leah Garces (20:57):
Well, what we’re finding is there may be new pieces of legislation and subsidies related to hemp, for example, where even the most conservative governments who would never pass an end-factory-farming kind of bill are saying, “We would promote hemp because it’s bringing an economic growth to this state.” Georgia is one of those states where you can find that strange commonality between opposing forces. Who would have thought growing hemp is a common space for the animal rights activists and a conservative, pro-agriculture government? But it is, and there’s a lot of legislation going on throughout the country right now to grow the hemp economy. It turns out that hemp grows very well in chicken farms, and this is a really great opportunity for us. That’s just one example that we found so far, but I feel like there’s probably going to be a lot more.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:02):
Part of what I love is, once again, you’re really talking about crossing the line and crossing the divide because you’re probably going to predominantly Republican legislators in agricultural states and saying, “Hey, hemp can be a real boon for you. Let’s have a conversation about it.”
Leah Garces (22:17):
Exactly, and for me, creating a compassionate food system is not a progressive issue. It’s an issue that matters to everyone and it doesn’t matter what side you fall on any political spectrum. This is caring about farmed animals and farmers, and having a good food system that that we can rely on in the years to come that treats everybody with compassion; that matters to everyone. It’s not a political issue, it’s not a progressive issue, it’s just an issue that matters to everybody.
Dolph Goldenburg (22:52):
And I got a ping off you there for a minute. For several years before it was somewhat easier to get cruelty free raised meat in stores, we used to get our meat from a CSA, a consumer supported agricultural farm in Alabama. They would ship to the Atlanta area once a week. And so we put in an order and that’s how we got our meat. And I just have to say, it actually tastes better.
Leah Garces (23:12):
There’s all kinds of evidence around it being higher in omega-3s and 6s. You are what you eat, you know? 99.9% of the chicken we eat in this country is from a factory farm. You can’t pretend that you’re getting pasture raised chicken when you go to a restaurant because it almost never is, barring a very few farm to table restaurants. 9 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered in this country every year. And, for our purposes, all of them are raised on factory farms in crowded, darkened sheds and grown unnaturally fast. So fast they can’t even walk, they fall over, they have heart attacks. This is our system and we are not going to solve such a tremendously large system by just being angry and just having this angry opposition to it. We really have to look for practical solutions where we engage those that are responsible for those 9 billion individuals that are ending up on our plate.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:24):
Leah, I am so grateful you’ve come on to talk to us about working with folks that we might otherwise think of as enemies. I would encourage every listener to really think about who they think of as issue enemies of their organization and how they can reach across the aisle the same way you did. It’s inspiring and it’s important. I also have to say, given our current political climate where everything is so incredibly polarized, it’s very refreshing. Now I needed to save just a few minutes to ask you the off the map question. Now, Leah, I understand that when you are at a border crossing from one country to another, you potentially have a pocket full of passports.
Leah Garces (25:10):
That’s right. I have options. I have options, Dolph.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:13):
Yeah, so tell me the story behind this.
Leah Garces (25:16):
Okay, so I have three passports: a U.S. Passport, a British passport, and a Colombian passport. My dad is Colombian and my mom is American. I was born in Spain, very confusingly, so at one point I was also a Spanish citizen. My parents gave me American citizenship to start with. Then when I was finishing college, I decided to move to the UK where I lived and worked in animal protection for 10 years. I gained citizenship just through working and living and paying taxes there. Pre-Brexit I thought this was brilliant because I could just live and work anywhere in the EU, but that has been ruined as of recently. Then about four years ago, I decided to adopt my daughter. We decided to adopt from Columbia and in order do so, it was beneficial for me to acquire my Colombian passport. So then using my dad’s citizenship, I got my Colombian passport and adopted my now six year old daughter. And here we are with three passports.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:32):
That is really kind of cool. It also means when you’re at a border, you can ask yourself, “Okay, let’s see, I want to go to Cuba. Which passport should I use to do that?”
Leah Garces (26:41):
I do it all the time. I think strategically about the visa costs. For example, it used to be free to visit Brazil with my Colombian passport. But if I used my American, I had to pay this hefty visa fee. When I go to England, I find the short line for the EU citizen versus the American line. And when I come back into the U.S. I use the U.S. passport cause it’s a short line. So it’s more like what’s cheap and what’s the shortest line when I go through borders now.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:07):
That’s awesome. My husband and I have actually fantasized about having two or three passports, so maybe one day we will move in that direction.
Leah Garces (27:13):
Awesome. It’s really fun.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:15):
Well, thank you again for joining us. I am just incredibly grateful that you’ve been able to spend some time today and I really appreciate you being with us. Now listeners, you can learn more about Leah’s inspiring work. First of all, by getting her book Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry. We will link that so you can get it at Amazon. And also by connecting with her at mercyforanimals.org or look for Mercy for Animals on social media. From her website, social media and book, you can get more tips about building relationships as you cross the divide and you start to look for allies across the aisle. And of course you’ll also learn a little more about Leah’s work in the poultry industry. So don’t forget, check out our website. Hey, Leah, thank you so much.
Leah Garces (28:08):
Thank you. This was really a great conversation.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:11):
So, dear listener, are you standing in the grocery store right now? Maybe you’re at the Publix or the Fry’s and you’re looking at the chicken counter and you’re like, “Oh, what chicken should I get? There’s a free range chicken. There’s this other chicken, they don’t say what it is. Or should I just think about my CSA?” Well as you continue to ponder that, I suggest you pull out Google and see what you might be able to figure out and decide which is the right chicken for you. But, obviously, you’re not going to have had time to write down mercyforanimals.org, although it seems like a pretty simple URL to me. But you can always go to successfulnonprofits.com and you can get the link to her book Grilled, the link to mercyforanimals.org, again, not that hard of a URL to remember, as well as the social media for Mercy for Animals, and you can get all of that
Dolph Goldenburg (28:58):
at successfulnonprofits.com. Now, if you enjoyed today’s show and you enjoy hearing about nonprofit heroes like Leah who are doing unique and interesting work, do me a favor and hit the subscribe button. Give us a rating or even write a review on whatever podcast platform you happen to be using on your phone. It helps us grow our podcasts, reach more people, and spread the good news to leaders in the nonprofit sector. That is our show for the week, Dear Listener. I hope that you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment, right?
Dolph Goldenburg (29:42):
I’m not an accountant or attorney group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.