I Am Not Ingrid Newkirk or Gene Baur: On Race, Gender, Class, and the “Free Labor” Trope

Dr. A. Breeze Harper with her Baby Miro


In December of 2015, I was invited to give a talk at an Ivy League Law school’s animal rights/vegan  event. The law school assured me that even though they could not give me  an honorarium, 50-100 students would most likely attend my lecture and I would know that I made a big impact in spreading my knowledge.

Below is how I compassionately and assertively answered them, which was inspired from the fact that the writer of the email strategically invoked the names of Gene Baur and Ingrid Newkirk as speakers who didn’t request an honorarium, implying that I should be comfortable with doing the same. Though well-meaning, I found it deeply problematic and explained to the co-organizer of the event, why it is a reflection of assumptions around who can engage in free labor without going bankrupt.  Suffice to say, I am not Ingrid Newkirk or Gene Baur, and they needed to know this.

I have shared this letter (taking out identifiers of the law school and the person who wrote it) with quite a few non-white folk who have written me privately, frustrated that they were invited to do ‘free labor’ as if they have the same resources as white financially privileged AR/vegan icons. The letter isn’t to shame the organizer who invited me, but rather, to explain how intention vs. impact operates and creates exclusion of already marginalized or vulnerable communities.

 

Original Email Sent to Me on December 2015

Dear Dr. Harper, Many thanks for your reply!  [Law School name removed] is very excited about the possibility of having you come speak. We really want our fellow classmates to hear your perspective. Unfortunately, our [Law School Organization name removed] chapter cannot afford to offer honorariums to any of our speakers, due to our extremely tight operating budget. We hold as many events as we can, and we spend our entire budget on serving event attendees free vegan food. We have been fortunate that many distinguished speakers (including PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur, and dozens of other) have paid their own way to speak at [Organization name removed ] in part because of the opportunity to share their perspectives and build their profile within our law school community and beyond. What we can offer is the promise that your event would be well publicized at [Name of Law School remove] and that our events routinely attract audiences of 50 to 100 engaged students.  If you are interested, we can also look into the possibility of creating a video recording of the lecture which we could share on our website, and which you could use for your own purposes after the event. We hope that it will be worth your while to make the trip to [Name of City removed], and eagerly await your response. Many thanks,[Name removed]
 

Response from Dr. A. Breeze Harper, December 2015

Dear [Name removed] Thanks for responding. So, here are my thoughts….

Though I know you mean well to provide an incentive by mentioning the people who were even able to pay their own way, the comparison is not equal. I have 3 children. Leaving to give a talk in which I’ll be gone for 2-3 days means $22/hr for childcare for 10 hours times 3 days. This is $660. The Sistah Vegan Project is just me and it’s volunteer. Flying out to [Ivy league institution name removed] would cost me money I do not have, even if the flight were covered along with hotel.

I am glad that you admire my work and at the same time, I have to let you know that I am seeing a pattern in the invitations I receive to give a talk. And of course you are not aware of this pattern because you do not receive these messages meant to for me, so I’d like to share this pattern with you, in hopes that it will help with future planning of inviting speakers, policies changes, and re questioning what it means to be an ally and in solidarity with marginalized communities that don’t have the resources they need, due to legacies of colonialism, imperialism, Jim Crow, racial caste system, etc., in the USA.

The common scenario of being invited to speak:

I am invited to give a talk. I ask for an honorarium + flight + accommodations. I am told that certain people can do it for no honorarium and this logic is used to persuade me to do the same. I’m usually told something like:

1. “[type in the name of a person who makes six figures and has no small children to take care of and is pretty much in an economically powerful and privileged social location] was able to donate their time so it would be unfair if we were to give you an honorarium.” 2. “[type in the name of a person who makes six figures and has no small children to take care of and is pretty much in a economically powerful and privileged social location] was able to do it because their organization paid their way, and in return, they were able to share their knowledge and it will