Mariann Sullivan and Jasmin Singer of Our Hen House. Photography by Lauren Krohn.
I recently sat down with Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan, partners in both life and in animal advocacy, to talk all about their nonprofit Our Hen House. We discussed the nature of their collaboration and their use of multimedia to bring animal rights into the mainstream.
(And be sure to mark your calendar for their official Launch Party, October 1st at NYC’s MooShoes. The celebration features free food and drink, and too many special guests and giveaways to list here–check out the full details.)
Robyn: Tell me about Our Hen House.
Jasmin: Our Hen House is a central clearinghouse for all kinds of ideas and opportunities for people to get involved in animal activism.
Mariann: It started with the idea that change for animals in any serious way isn’t going to come just from leadership organizations. The work of those organizations is hugely important, but if we are going to build a mass movement, it’s up to every single individual to do whatever they can to help change the world. So with Our Hen House, we’re just trying to come up with ways that people can make those changes and report on examples of people who are out there doing it. Not just going vegan, which is of course crucially important, but also in things they can to do encourage others to change, to change institutions…
Jasmin: One example is our series,”Art of the Animal”, which features all different kinds of artists – photographers, visual artists, painters, jewelry makers, whatever. People who are using their art to speak up for animals.
Mariann: And aside from “Art of the Animal”, we have a bunch of different categories. “Class Act” is for students and educators who want to encourage their schools to have courses in animal studies, minors in animal studies, at some point, majors in animal studies, and also includes suggestions for people in academia, like interesting calls for papers. “Money Squawks” is about ways to help animals while making some money. If we’re going to start feeding people plants instead of animals, we have to change the way the world does business. “Legal Eagles” is where we try to come up with ideas for lawyers to make change. “Oink Moo Woof” covers ways to get the word out, whether through being “Media Mavens”, or through “Grazing in the Grassroots”.
Jasmin: Also through “Reading the Animal”, where we do book reviews. The incredibly versatile Kyle Knies will be doing reviews for Our Hen House – mostly books and films, but also the occasional food item. One of our most important features is our weekly podcast, where we talk to entrepreneurs, activists, social justice pioneers, etc., all of whom are making change for animals. And I have a video page where I post videos featuring those people. To sum up, we’re a multimedia, virtual place for animal advocacy. We’re currently a New York non-profit, and we’re awaiting our 501(c)(3) status.
Robyn: So, that’s your basic mission, to be the multimedia, virtual place for animal advocacy, and inspiring people to get involved.
Jasmin: Yeah. I would say Our Hen House is a place to find a way to change the world for animals, which is our tag line and also our mission. We’re really trying to shine a light on opportunities that already exist, so that people can inspire and empower themselves.
Mariann: The real audience we hope to speak to are people who already care, people who are already on-board. We are trying to reach those who want this change to happen, who care what’s happening to animals, who are horrified and looking for some ideas.
Robyn: How did you come about this, did you have a light bulb moment where it all dawned on you or did you come to the idea more slowly?
Jasmin: Henry Spira came to me in a dream…just kidding. Mariann wanted to have a blog focused on for-profit opportunities within animal activism. And I wanted to have a podcast; I always wanted to be a pundit. And [turns to Mariann] what happened?
Mariann: We brought those ideas together and it just almost instantly became so much bigger than we originally thought. It just built itself.
Our Hen House
Jasmin: We knew nothing about tech stuff at all, and I was like “I’m going to figure this out”, and we figured it out. And we put up a website. I enjoy it, and once you get into it, it’s fun. At the time, I was the campaigns manager for Farm Sanctuary, and I was thinking about leaving to pursue my own thing. Our Hen House just started to find a life of its own and all that happened in approximately two days [laughs].
Robyn: So, it was a little bit of both, light bulb and incubating for a while…
Jasmin: Yeah, in spite of what I just said, I think it was a long time in the making in a lot of ways. We always wanted to do more with the Internet; we always wanted to do more with multimedia. There is a tremendous amount of potential for activists in virtual-land.
Robyn: [To Jasmin] And you’re doing this full-time. Can you talk a little more about that?
Jasmin: When I give workshops I always tell people they need to know what they’re good at; they need to know what their talents are. My time at Farm Sanctuary was very fulfilling, and an unbelievable experience. I learned a significant amount and got to meet tremendous people, but I was growing in the direction of an edgier voice, and I really wanted to explore that and be über-creative. And I really wanted to call the shots! I can be a bossy bitch sometimes, Mariann certainly knows that [laughs], so I just decided I wanted to do my own thing and explore how I could creatively advocate for animals.
Robyn: Talk about your collaboration.
Mariann: We complement each other well. I am not an out-front person, and Jasmin very much is. I’m nice…she’s a bitch…
Jasmin: [Gasps] Oh my God! [Laughter]
Mariann: [Smiling] You just said that you were! I’m more of a big picture person, and Jasmin is more detail-oriented. I could never have figured out all that tech stuff – I would have thrown the computer out of the window. But I’ve had some of the overall ideas of how to set it up. It’s pretty scary – it would be really easy to wreck a relationship by working together. You could be fighting all the time, but it’s actually worked pretty well.
Jasmin: And it’s probably taken both of us out of our comfort zones a little bit. Mariann has become more out-there, in ways she has never been before. For years she’s been the idea person behind so many organizations and campaigns, and now, with our podcast, we sit here in our living room and talk to each other and record it and it goes out there into the ether…and poof, all these people are listening to it. But it doesn’t feel like we’re out there that much because it’s all virtual.
Robyn: Speaking some more about getting inspired, who are your animal rights heroes or heroines?
Jasmin: I’m lucky enough to get to know so many people who are creating change in their community, change that is not easy to come by, and so I really think my heroes are the activists I get to meet on a constant basis. So I have different idols and mentors each minute. And, of course, Mariann is a huge inspiration to me in many ways. It’s really an awesome experience to be able to throw out a problem, and Mariann will magically have the solution. It’s a bitch to fight with her though. [Laughter]
Mariann: For me, I think it’s all the eccentrics, the ones who have been doing this for so long and were simply ignored, like cat ladies. So many of them really, really cared, and they were disdained by society for caring and taking care of animals. So a lot of them are my heroes.
Robyn: You’ve talked about the movement going mainstream. Could you describe what you view as the major influences bringing things mainstream?
Mariann: Yeah, I think that’s changed things in an enormous way. Ellen. She’s just so completely vegan, activist, totally on-board, and there she is, one of the most popular talk show hosts in America. All of a sudden the word vegan is just everywhere, everyone knows what it means, everyone thinks it’s kind of cool, it’s sell-able and I think a lot of that has to do with Ellen.
Jasmin: And Jonathan Safran Foer recently. He’s really done a lot over the past year.
Mariann: Yeah, Eating Animals really took us to another level. I don’t think we are mainstream, but I think we’re a lot closer. I think Food, Inc., too, even though it wasn’t really an animal rights movie. I think it really just brought so much attention to the abuses of factory farming. Of course, as Ellen said, compared to Earthlings, Food, Inc. is a Disney movie, which is true but, still, it’s a lot more horrifying than people thought. So I think those three things have had a big impact in the past year.
Jasmin: And the Internet! If you Google “vegan” or “animal rights activism”, there are millions of items in the search results. I mean look at the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale article that got on to the front webpage of CNN for days because people clicked on it and commented on it and shared it with their friends. That’s part of the power of grassroots.
Mariann: Yeah, the stars are starting to align and there are a lot more opportunities than there have been before, which is why it’s so important for people to start getting more active. And, as we know, what’s going on with animals is totally out of tune with what people think is ok, and once you get those two factors to collide, I think enormous change is possible.
Robyn: What’s your personal favorite form of activism?
Jasmin: It was always writing, because I think there’s a lot of power within the written word but more and more lately it’s…
Jasmin: [Laughs] Filmmaking, short little films. I think little videos have a lot of creative possibilities, and the potential to become viral.
Mariann: I would also have to say writing. The writing that I’ve done has been mostly very legal and it’s not of interest to everybody, but I think it helped me reach some people. And it’s really helped me focus my own thoughts and helped me develop as an activist. The only trouble is that I loathe doing it. As someone once said, “I hate writing but I love having written.”
Robyn: How do you unwind?
Jasmin: [Laugher] We unwind for maybe two hours at a time if we have tickets to a show or movie or something. But the whole rest of the day, it’s “We have to do this…We have to do that.” But that being said, and now you’re about to know our secrets, we start off every morning by watching cartoons. This morning we just finished Scooby Doo because we’ve gone through all of the SpongeBob episodes on Netflix.
Mariann: Yeah, SpongeBob is a great loss. We don’t have this down yet and there’s still a tremendous amount of start-up work to do, so I hope some of that will die down. For the moment, we don’t have nearly enough downtime.