Mad Cowboy Interview 01: Joe Connelly
(Part 03 of 03)

[Part 01] [Part 02] [Part 03]

MS: One of the things that intrigues me is that you are in a unique position to have a finger on the "pulse" of the animal rights, environmental, vegetarianism, and health movements across the country. What do you see happening? What's going on now?

JC: Well... boy... more so than you think, what happens is people call me or e-mail me every day. The stuff doesn't get into VegNews, it's probably a hecka lot more interesting than does!

The political aside... it's, it's moving... simultaneously at both a snail's pace and at such a rapid pace. Kind of the way evolution does... you don't know...

MS: Like punctuated evolution?

JC: Yeah, you don't really see it and you think it's moving slowly like a glacier, then all of a sudden: wow! There's so much positive happening... health foods stores that are no longer just these little tiny things off in a beaten part of town. Gigantic, whether you like 'em or not, Whole Foods, that are, you know, basically grocery stores, they're not even health food stores any more. Even Safeways have huge selections of soy milk and tofu, things that didn't happen.. who knew what soy milk was a couple years back?

MS: What's also intrigued me is some of the legistlation successes with Animal Rights, we're seeing "school lunches" becoming a big topic in the press.

JC: On election day, the governor of California was re-elected, Gray Davis, but in San Francisco, the Green Party candidate got more votes than the Republican Party candidate. Which is unheard of - just amazing! Granted, as my dad says, we live in the land of fruits and nuts.

MS: (laughs) ...the granola state!

JC: Right... the city of San Francisco is run by both the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, the Board is elected from eleven districts throughout the city. One of the Board of Supervisors is elected President. They elected Matt Gonzalez, who's a Green Party member, not a Democrat. So the President of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, the second most powerful position in the city, is a member of the Green Party.

The city of San Francisco just passed the Guardianship Resolution, which is a project of Elliott Katz's "In Defense of Animals." Last week, the city of Berkley enacted Farm Sanctuary "sentient beings" campaign. We all know what happened in Florida back in November when they passed the "pig gestation crate" legislation.

That's not to say we've all successes. Oregon had a ballot initiative that requires the labeling of genetically-engineered foods and somehow, it did not pass, which is shocking.

MS: Corporate money.

JC: Yeah, but still, the trend, Wayne Pacelle (of the Human Society of America) is someone who knows that the ballot initiatives and legislation seems to be going in our favor, and I see a cummulative effect, a building....

MS: ...a groundswell, maybe?

JC: Well, I wouldn't look at it that way. I would say that the consciousness is being raised is a positive thing. I think as we speak, Farm Sanctuary is working with the State of New Jersey to pass some "prohibiting veal crates" legislation as well.

So, even in the country right now, which is conservative now obviously, and probably paranoid about a lot of things, people are still seeing the value in these so-called old-fashioned liberal ways of thinking.

We're winning, as Howard would say, we certainly are turning the tide, and nobody knows exactly when that critical mass is reached, but we're certainly moving towards that day.
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MS: Let me ask you this: what would you consider to be the biggest threats to these movements and issues? Is it possible to indentify them?

JC: The biggest threat, I think, is the same threat that all social progress movements face. When it becomes obvious that we're making progress, and when it becomes obvious we're on the right track, and this is really a no-brainer, then there's going to be opposition by those who wish to hold on to the "old way" because they're reluctant to change.

The milk industry, with their Milk Mustache Ads, and James "bypass" Gardner with the beef commercials.

MS: The dairy industry's "3 A Day" campaign....

JC: Right. When it becomes so overwhelmingly obvious that your industry is dying, you fight with everything you have. It's usually a lost cause, and I believe in this case, it will be a lost cause.
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MS: This raises another question. I recently had a chance to watch the "History of Chicago" PBS series. I was struck how important the bars were for the immigrants to communicate, organize politically, and mount their own campaign to change the conditions they were faced with. In thinking about what you've done with VegNews, I'm interested in wondering what you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the electronic media, the web, and newsprint.

JC: They all have their place. I just attended a conference this past weekend here in San Francisco, Independent Press Association, it's their first ever convention. It's amazing to see the diversity (this is mostly all print publications). As you know, Mark, being a computer guy, once you get computer, and you get a printer, and you're a publisher.

That's something that was available 10 to 15 years ago, so anybody now can put out their ideas, whether it's in print form or on the Internet, which is just another extension of the same thing. The free flowing of ideas is vital to getting the message across.

The Internet and e-mail have eno
rmous power to reach large numbers of people quickly. Of course,it can backfire, as well, because the other side can do the same thing.

MS: There's a lot of disinformation on the web, and the lack of knowing who people really are is somewhat disconcerting at times. What do you think are the advantages of having a newspaper, like VegNews, on paper, rather than having it online as a publication?

JC: There's many. Not only do we have quite a few people who are not web savvy and don't enjoy reading online, they'd prefer to hold something. I've had people tell me they love VegNews because they can leave it in their bathroom!

MS: (laughs)... I know that in one of your recent issues that Ingrid Newkirk wrote a letter saying that she likes to leave a copies in her gym where she works out, so people can read it.

JC: There you go. Every time I take a bus, I leave a copy (forget to pick up my copy) when I leave the bus. You can do that with your laptop computer, if you want to....

MS: Maybe that's why you don't have one!

JC: (laughs) Exactly. One thing that was confirmed at this conference this past weekend, is that people love holding something in their hands, a piece of paper. They just love that They grew up with it And that's not going to go away quickly, although it probably will go away eventually. People who grew up reading something, newspapers and magazines, they just love the feel of the paper in their hands.

MS: I like the conversational aspects. Some of my best conversations and meeting interesting people or influencing them indirectly, is reading veg materials on the Metro. Plus, VegNews is such a professionally well-done publication, it doesn't appear to be a "rag tag" newspaper.

JC: Thank you. We try very hard. We wanted it to look like a respectible publication. I think that by most people's opinion, we've done that. That's it. We want to be able to show, not only the vegetarian community, but the non-vegetarian community that this is real. That this is something that's not going away. This community has their own newspaper, and everyone needs that. It gives what you're doing validity and also to give it credibility.
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MS: Tell us about your non-profit organization.

JC: The umbrella organization of VegNews is the Vegan News Network, that's the actual entity that exists that I started. Actually I created that out of the group that I had formed back in New York and moved it here. My vision for VNN is to be able to support projects, the first project, obviously, and the most noticeable project is VegNews. We've been doing that now as you said for nearly three years.

The second project of VNN is something called the Bay Area VegFair, which we've alluded to serveral times. That's coming up February 1st this year in Santa Clara, California, and Howard Lyman is the keynote speaker. You should come out for that. Now, it's important for us to have different projects --- we've got many, many others.

MS: I was struck that VNN sounds a lot like CNN which raises an interesting issue.

JC: Yeah, we want Howard to say 'THIS is VNN.'
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MS: You've got a three-year anniversary coming up, of VegNews. How are you and Colleen going to celebrate?

JC: (laughs)... probably work...

MS: What, is that June or July?

JC: July...

MS: You need to have a special issue... maybe a "best of?"

JC: We have something planned... a special themed issue for July (not related to the anniversary).
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MS: Now, the VegFair... how many people did you have at your first VegFair last year?

JC: We had over 4,000.... those are real numbers, we don't inflate our numbers.

MS: How many companies are involved?

JC: We had about sixty vendors last year, this year we're going to have around 75 to 80.

MS: I guess there's not charge for this?

JC: It's a free event, anyone came come. Check out: http://www.vegfair.org

MS: Are there any special events this year?

JC: Yeah, we have a three-ring circus, as I like to say. We've got the main Exhibitor Room, where people came come and sample vegetarian foods, they can pickup literature from their favorite non-profits, just about all the non-profits will be there, typical exhibitor hall-type things.

The international dining cafe is going vegan, so we've turned a mainstream convention center "vegan for the day," serving hot vegan food.

MC: That's incredible. Who's the caterer?

JC: It's 'Aramark', which is a major company that sub-contracts out concession stands to a lot of schools, cafeterias, and things like that... you know, ballparks. This is a major company and their doing it on their own, with our guidance.

The other two rings of the circus are, as I say, are... there's lectures going on all day long, and you can check out the website to see who's coming. We've got 10 different people, people such as Howard Lyman, John McDougall, Gene Bauston, Peter Burwash, Alka Chandra, Barbara Gates, Kerrie Saunders. A list of lectures, everything you can possibly want to learn, you can learn.

And then the third ring: the cooking demos. We've got four cooking demos going on during the day, everything from Raw Foods to decadent dairy-free desserts.

MS: Wow, I'm envious.

JC: Again, this is all free. We put this on. We're expecting between 5 and 7,000 people.

MS: Incredible.

JC: It is incredible. Again, it's a testament that people believe in what we're doing and they support it. We've got nearly a hundred people volunteering alone. Which is just wonderful. We do this free for the public so they can come and sample what vegetarian is all about, and we get at least 50% non-vegetarians attending this event, which is the people we really need to reach.
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MS: What do you think about the future of the movements you've talked about in this interview?

JC: I would say that our future is bright. We are starting to come together, and it's just going to get better. I hear this everywhere I go. I hear this at vegetarian conferences, at animal rights conferences, and environmental conferences. I hear this even at this Independent Media Association conference. Working together, pooling our resources, is what is going to help us to prevail.

There was this environmental conference debuted in SF called the "Green Festival," a joint production of several groups: Global Exchange, Co-op America, and Bioneers. They put on a festival that really brought together environmentalism and so much more. They had completely vegetarian food ---- they saw the connection. I think, and I firmly believe, that the future is working together more closely our sibling movements, if you will.

MS: So, even though the current political environment is somewhat depressing, are you optimistic for the species in general on a global level?

JC: For our species in general?

MS: Yes.

JC: I have no choice but to be optimistic. I'm not going to let what some people do prevent me from doing what I believe in. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I don't know what the reason are for what's happening now. But I believe it can only lead to an awakening.

Look... this past weekend you had 500,000 people in DC, we had 200,000 people out here, marching to stop what's going to happen in a few weeks in Iraq. I believe that those people are speaking loudly, and I have no choice but to remain optimistic.
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