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 be widely publicized.
Though this is not the intention, the impact is negative: It is a socio-economically class privileged framing of what is assumed that an invited speaker has the resources to do. Me and a significant number of people of color– mostly women identified–, have spoken about how we are asked to give a talk for ‘free’ and all of us are struggling financially in a way that Gene Baur, Ingrid Newkirk, and Howard Lyman (you don’t mention him but other groups have said he did a talk without an honorarium) do not. Again, not your intention, but the pattern I see is that those who are able to ‘foot the bill’ or volunteer easily are collectively white people who are not struggling economically and then they are used as the ‘benchmark’ of how policies and procedures are written around how speakers are accommodated how they will be remunerated (if at all).
I appreciate that you were upfront and honest that your school doesn’t pay out honorariums, but I’d like your organization to think about the impact of this as well. Once again, it’s not your intention, but myself as well as other people of color doing this work have spoken about how deeply troubling and hurtful it is to be struggling economically and be asked to give our services (knowledge) for free. We would love to participate in so many opportunities that would allow us to grow, but it would ‘bankrupt’ us (if that makes sense) if we did, under the current system of being asked to do it for free. I am not sure how your school or other organizations can change their policies, but they need to change them, or marginalized communities doing the ‘good work’ within Veganism, AR, and beyond, will never be able to participate in the opportunities so easily available to the status quo. Once again, your organization is not solely responsible for this, but it’s a reflection of how ‘the system’ has historically to the present, arranged access to resources and power through not only a racial caste system (starting with colonialism), but also via other systemic ‘isms’ (i.e., systemic classism, systemic ableism, etc).
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that it is one thing to invite a diversity of speakers to share their knowledge with your community and it’s another thing to put the policies, structures, resources, etc in place to make sure we all thrive and have equal access to the opportunities presented to us.
Thanks for inviting me and asking me to be part of your school’s event, I truly appreciate it. I am also an upfront and honest person and send this message with compassion and love. It may very well be that your organization is unaware of the impact they have when it comes to not supporting speakers they invite with a reasonable honorarium and other accommodations. I believe that it is my responsibility to draw your attention to something you simply may be unaware of.
Best, Dr. A. Breeze Harper
The organizer ended up responding positively, thankful that I took the time to write them about the impact of their actions and that they’d see what was possible. However, they weren’t able to provide what I needed and said that they have a small operating budget but hoped to start thinking about how to implement what I had suggested in the future.
Dr. Harper is the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project which has put on several ground-breaking conferences with emphasis on intersection of racialized consciousness, anti-racism, and ethical consumption (i.e., veganism, animal rights, Fair Trade). Last year she organized the highly successful conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter which can be downloaded.
Dr. Harper’s most recently published book, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014) interrogates how systems of oppression and power impact the life of the only Black teenager living in an all white and working class rural New England town. Her current 2016 lecture circuit focuses on excerpts from her latest book in progress, Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches: A Critical Race Feminist’s Journey Through ‘Post-Racial’ Ethical Foodscape which will be released in 2017, along with the second Sistah Vegan project anthology The Praxis of Justice in an Era of Black Lives Matter. In tandem with these book projects, she is well-known for her talks and workshops about “Uprooting White Fragility in the Ethical Foodscape” and “Intersectional Anti-Racism Activism.”
In the spring of 2016, Dr. Harper was nominated as the Vice Presidential nominee for the Humane Party— the only vegan political party in the USA with focus on human and non-human animals.
Also, consider subscribing to her new upcoming video series coming Fall 2018/Winter 2019 :