No Matter What We Do, We Can Always Make A Difference
This blog has been on the cards for quite a long time, but, life is what it is, and it dictated to me that this would must be completed with patience; I have simply not had the time to think about blogs far less write one – I have just been catching snippets of time here and there to write a few lines at a time!
With it being on the backburner it was a strong coincidence that I had planned to publish it last week on the very day I woke up to find out Virgin Trains UK was coming to an abrupt end! Now seems like a very appropriate and perfect time to share this story; partly which is in relation to my time there.
It’s A Far Cry
During the period I first went vegan I spent my time working as a holistic therapist/nutritional advisor/stress manager & addictions counsellor. I also taught therapies at Cardonald College and to teenagers as an outreach teacher in 3 different Glasgow high schools. I ran relaxation sessions and built, organised, ran and facilitated a local sangha called “It’s Now” where we practiced mindfulness and meditation in the tradition of Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was training to be a yoga teacher, spent many weekends learning Buddha’s teachings and was away on retreats about 5-8 times per year!
That’s a far cry from how I spend much of my time these days; a massive chunk of it feels eaten up by a full-time job with Virgin Trains. I work 7 late shifts in a row, 2 days off, then 7 early shifts in a row, then a long weekend and then back to the start with the 7 lates again. By the end of the 16 day stretch it becomes pretty tedious and very tiring to be honest, especially when coping with a flare of an autoimmune/connective tissue disease I live with.
When the UK’s bad recession kicked in during 2008 I was lucky enough to keep afloat in my beloved health & wellbeing career for a few years, but by 2011 I knew that when I returned from travelling in India, I would have to find alternative work until our economy picked up.
I had been part of the original Virgin brand very many years ago…in fact my first job was with Virgin Records back when I was just a young vegetarian teenager; music was my life at that time!
Pre-India cabin crew at Virgin Atlantic was the plan, but ultimately I decided to keep my feet on the ground and opt for the more environmentally friendly option, and so I started temporary part-time work with Virgin Trains in 2012 – 7 years later I am a permanent full-time (very full-time) team leader!
Find The Time To Do More…
Although I work this very full-time job, I am still blessed enough to have the motivation and ability to squeeze in other activities too.
The NOT-FOR-PROFIT website Bohemian Hippy always requires a lot of work; blogs to write, merchandise designs to create, orders to process, adverts to work on and festivals to organise & attend. We also have 12 social media channels to run, which is pretty full on at times! Then there’s the fundraising and awareness for Lotus Heart Sanctuary, searching for land, and of course rescuing the animals from around the UK. Luckily there is a small team of us for all things Lotus & Bo Hip so we do share out a many of the tasks.
I am also an animal rights activist and vegan advocate,however recently it has been challenging trying to fit in as much activism as I’d like; but when I started working on animal rescue and the sanctuary, I knew something was going to have to give. However, it’s important for me not to just live in a sanctuary bubble and not attempt to do anything else; I still must use my voice to speak out…I am fully aware that having a handful of animals on some land is not going to make the world go vegan! When I have more time I will be back at more activism!
Last but in no means least in the list of extracurricular activities, is the young Prince and the wise little Nipper to look after. I kept that until last because that’s the most beautiful and relaxing part of my day…there is no part of caring for those 2 boys that is in any way a chore, and being in their company is without doubt a true blessing.
So although I found myself out of the health & wellbeing career I loved so much, I still managed to find ways to make a difference. Just because our jobs maybe don’t involve directly caring for others, there is without doubt always things we can do to make a difference!
Working For The Dog… (hmv)
I also knew that in my current role at Virgin Trains there were things I could try to do there within the company to make a difference in this world. I had done exactly that when I worked part-time for the best known dog in the world – Nipper – not our Nipper, but the original and famous Nipper! The little dog who sits at the gramophone listening to His Masters Voice was the original Nipper, (and that’s how our Nipper got his name; it was all about music)!
Anyway, while I worked for the dog (hmv), I had the same forward thinking mind-set there too in relation to our planet; basically wherever I am, I am always looking for ways to make the planet a better place! Every tiny little bit each one of us does adds up to make a massive difference in the world – you know the saying- “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito” , we must remind ourselves of that every time we feel we cannot make a difference!
I was lucky enough to be at the dog during a time when we had a CEO who listened to his workforce – Simon Fox. I wrote to him on many occasions with a variety of “green ideas” to which he was extremely receptive.
In the store I was referred to as a “tree hugging, whale saving, peace lovin hippie” which I actually took as a huge compliment. It was all brilliant friendly banter as they were a great crowd in there, especially in the early days, and I grew very close to many of them. One of my dearest friends (a certain Mr Hardy) wasn’t really a fan of anything environmentally friendly and he was forever telling me how he “bloody hated the biodegradable bags” we’d brought in; I think this was mainly because his beer would “degrade” the bags before we had even left the pub! He just used to funnily and lovingly moan at me “jolly you and your bloody tree-hugging”! (I actually found this term so endearing and amusing that I designed a t-shirt to sell on the website all these years later)
Back between 2005-2008 asking people if they wanted a bag was always met with a look of bewilderment and dismay – initially we would get “well of course I want a bag” and latterly “No, I’m ok thanks”- times change and so do people, but they need encouraging!
I suggested to Simon we have green officers in each shop and that we sell reusable bags… I still have the first ever hmv attempt at a reusable bag. They were made from recycled bottles and 50p was donated to CLIC Sargent from the sale of each bag; I keep this old “Official Nipper” bag for activist Nipper’s stuff.
I also suggested we sell tote bags, we use paper and biodegradable bags, we could look at sensor lights, and store recycling etc. It really was quite a lot for us to be looking at considering the timeline of 10-14 years ago as at that times it really was not taken seriously at all – again, oh how times change!
My job at hmv became like a hobby as I was working full-time as a therapist and only on a Sunday in hmv… I just didn’t want to leave. I even stayed an extra 14-16 months after I started at Virgin…it was so good going between the 3 roles of wellbeing, VT and hmv; 3 hugely different experiences…and uniforms!
Jump Aboard The Green Vegan Train
When I started at VT it didn’t take me too long before I began to look at ways I could help make a difference to people and our planet via my role there. Since starting in 2012 I have been a Green Champion, Suicide Prevention Officer and a member of the Incident Care Team.
I firstly started to think about veganism and our lack of any of anything vegan anywhere within the company! Initially I requested we stock soya milk as I felt it was poor that not only vegans couldn’t access milk for their tea & coffee, but also that lactose intolerant people couldn’t either. I was doing that while I still worked onboard the trains in 2012. After we got the milk I began to talk to them about vegan food etc too. However, it really was only after I left Glasgow, went to work for VT in Stockport and then returned to Glasgow the following year that I was able to start upping my game and making an impact.
When I returned we had a different General Manager at Glasgow from when I had left. He was more like Simon Fox at hmv – he listened to what the workforce were saying and he helped me to help our passengers and our planet. As soon as I returned in 2014 I was appointed as our Green Champion at Glasgow – so this really allowed me to make a lot of changes almost with immediate effect of being back. Our Sustainability Manager at that time was great at her job and full of passion, and there was little I tried to do that wasn’t implemented; it was great and we were on a roll.
Although I was now working in the stations and away from the food side of things, I continued to work on that vegan aspect of catering. Again the GM recognised the importance of this and he helped put me in touch with the relevant people to work with to make that happen.
It was very slow baby steps, but the good thing was we were moving instead of being stuck in the dark ages! I was able to stock little bits of vegan food here and there in our 1st class lounge, and that was noted by a hugely inspirational lifelong vegan who visited. In 2015 world record breaker distance runner and sanctuary owner Fiona Oakes visited Glasgow as a guest speaker at our first ever VegFest. On her return journey she was in the 1st Class Lounge at Glasgow and she not only spoke to the staff about the vegan options available, but she took to social media to rave about the vegan options available at Virgin Trains. The team at Glasgow explained to her they have a vegan team leader (that was me), and we had put some focus on having vegan options available.
There’s An Elephant in The Room
In 2016 I was invited to attend an important sustainability meeting with execs and managers. By this point I had been Green Champ for 2 years and I was so aware that we can recycle paper and change the lighting, but the biggest single most important thing we can do, is go vegan. I did attempt to engage people in conversation about that Elephant in the room…yes I brought up veganism! As anticipated it was met with some resistance and awkwardness; but again, it was my duty to highlight this fact!
I was doing weight training at that time as part of my activism, and it came in very handy that day. One of the males at the meeting explained that usual meat-eaters point that he could never give up meat as he goes to the gym and needs animal protein to build muscle! This was the very reason I had worked so very hard every day for the past few years at the gym and built this muscle – I wanted to dispel that very myth we hear so regularly– we do not need animal protein to build muscle! So I casually pushed back my sleeve, flexed by biceps and said, –
“look, that was built by plants”!
That definitely broke the ice and started some really interesting conversations!
In 2019 I don’t really feel the need to put my body through that any longer and for now have decided to revert back to my roots in yoga and spend fitness time in downward dog and cow pose (it’s all about the animals). There are so many other vegans out there displaying plant based muscle and proving we do not need animal protein to build muscle – who better than my friends and the original vegan body building couple – The Vegan Mr Universe Barny du Plessis and his wife Josie du Plessis! Barny & Josie were a massive inspiration to me and were a big reason I started to lift! However, when I had those muscles, I used them to prove a point, and that is the very reason I built them! I was glad of them that day in that meeting anyway!
Sadly the GM at VT was promoted and moved down south, but sometimes I would still connect with him via email if I needed his help.
I continued to chip away with the catering teams, and eventually in 2017 I was allowed to officially veganise the menu.
So I simply went through the current normal menu we had at that time, and highlighted anything at all that we had that was vegan. When I was finished I sent my completed list to catering and provided them with a vegan logo to use which would allow them to differentiate between vegetarian and vegan. The release of the next new menu saw the vegan changes for the very first time.
Although they were little baby steps that the company were making, I would always post in the vegan forums about changes in relation to vegan food. I’d then get inundated with questions and positive comments – the most common question was – “can you to do the same on the East Coast”? This was frustrating because they were 2 separate companies and I had no influence on the east coast – although I did have a vegan friend there who tried his best to do similar, but they were not as receptive as west coast.
This felt like a huge achievement, I had single-handedly put so much work in behind the scenes and tried so very hard to make this happen for our vegan passengers and for the animals! We were the first Train Operating Company in the UK to offer fully vegan options, and also it happened before veganism went mainstream – it was just amazing!
As VT began to see the great feedback they were receiving, they soon came to realise this was a great idea and they really started to investigate vegan options more and more without me pushing for it, in 2019 careering were even working with the Vegan Society!
When VT launched the onboard entertainment system on the trains, Beam, I immediately asked for educational documentaries like Cowspiracy, What The Health, A Plastic Ocean, Drowning in Plastic, and The True Cost etc, an entertainment system provides a great opportunity for any company to take with both hands to “do the right thing”.
Obviously with Virgin losing the franchise that is not going to happen now.
Another outstanding vegan success for me at VT was just amazing!
Back in 2015/2016 I was a Uniform Trialist for our new uniform. Wayne Hemmingway (Red or Dead) was our chosen designer and I was able to spend some time chatting with him on a special Green Journey from Liverpool to London. Among many other topics, I discussed veganism with him in detail and explained why I didn’t want to have to wear anything with any animal derived products in it – everything seems to have wool in it these days in relation to uniforms. He understood veganism, and it was refreshing to listen to his relatively good understanding of it. I think that’s why I was so disappointed when I finally received the trial pieces only to find most garments contained 44% wool. I immediately made contact to discuss this in detail.
I was told that when I received my personal issue I’d not be issued any leather, but that I would be issued with the standard uniform which would definitely contain wool. This was something I was not happy about at all and I was determined I must be firm in regard to changing that. It was 2017 and it was my human right to be vegan; if this was a religious or sexual orientation issue it would be totally different one. So I stuck to my vegan guns and I continued to discuss it with the relevant people within the company.
Eventually when our uniform was issued, sure enough, most of it contained 44% wool. I was so sad & disappointed and to be honest, it did make me feel anxious as it appeared there was going to be conflict surrounding this issue because I was adamant I was not wearing non-vegan clothing. Initially I was told I would have to, but I said I wouldn’t. The idea of the friction did unsettle me, especially after friction from the previous year around my veganism which ended up going to HR!
In the end I spoke to my union about the uniform and with almost immediate effect of them discussing it with VT, they changed the decision to force me to wear it and the matter was resolved. They agreed to me sourcing my own similar clothing and agreed they would pay for it. For me, this was a great result!
However, the more I thought about it the more I thought I shouldn’t be made to stand out. I then requested they obtain the pattern for the uniform from the designer and asked if I could go to a tailor and have an identical one made; they said yes. As I was trying to locate a vegan tailor in Glasgow and they were requesting the pattern for me, something truly amazing happened – the manufacturer came back to VT and said they would make a vegan uniform for me which would be completely identical to the company issued uniform – and that is exactly what happened! It was all delivered to my depot with vegan labelling on it and was even on wooden hangers instead of plastic ones (although the folded items were in plastic bags)!
Not Always A Bed Of Vegan Roses
It wasn’t always a bed of vegan roses at VT in relation to my veganism though!
When we choose to become social justice activists we know that standing up and speaking out against oppression is always likely to ruffle many feathers! If we want to be the change we wish to see in the world, we must stand up and use our voice. When we do that, we are challenging a system people are part of, and have been conditioned to believe is the right system, so naturally a big percentage of people will take it personally when that is challenged.
We do not change anything by not being the change OR by sitting on the fence observing oppression. Hoping for change isn’t enough, we must be the change and then help others to be the change too.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”
If we want oppression to end, we need people to use their voice – that’s what has happened throughout history – if people hadn’t come together and tried to make the world a better place, we would live in a very different world today. Some people literally gave their lives speaking out for others.
My Buddhist teacher has taught us to be engaged in the world, to get up off our meditation cushion and go out into the world and try to help to change it – hence the term Engaged Buddhism! He himself led by example by being an activist – he spoke out so much it got him exiled from his own country – we cannot stop to think about being disliked for doing the right thing – change is always met by resistance, but oppression needs to be changed!
Some examples of oppression –
- In history a society said that women were the property of their fathers/husbands and had no say in how they lived their own lives – they were not allowed to vote – this is oppression.
- In the past it was legal and deemed right for people of certain races to be denied many rights and opportunities – they were told where they could live, how they could travel and what jobs they were allowed to do. They were not permitted to read, learn or attend school – that’s oppression.
- Same sex relationships were deemed as wrong and were illegal – this wasn’t back in Victorian times – this was still the case until just 52 years ago in England & Wales and did not change in Scotland until 1981 – that is oppression!
- Some people were considered inferior due to their religion and could be punished and jailed for their beliefs and practices – that is oppression.
- The people who live in a society under a cruel dictator – if they speak out in disagreement they may be punished, imprisoned, tortured and/or killed – that is oppression!
- A society that controls freedom of speech – that is oppression
- The definition of oppression is this – “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority”
So to be clear –
- When a person forcibly masturbates a male to collect his semen – that’s oppression!
- When a female is forcibly impregnated against her will – that is exercise of human authority and that is oppression.
- When the female mammal then carries the baby forced into her for 9 months (just like we do) she gives birth and is naturally very maternal and wants to protect, care for and nurse her baby with the milk her body has made for her baby. However, we steal her baby away from her so we can also steal her breast milk – that is exercising a prolonged cruel and unjust treatment of authority and that is oppression!
- When we knowingly bring babies into this world with the sole purpose of abusing them, mutilating their flesh, slaughtering them for profit so people can then dine on their corpse – that is oppression.
- When we breed animals in order to profit from them in any way – that is exercising human authority over them for profit and that is oppression.
And so the list goes on and on and on…
So just like social justice movements stood up to speak out for the oppressed groups in the past, so too do we stand up and speak out for oppressed animals – but as already stated, speaking out will inevitably put you in the firing line!
Simply highlighting an inaccurate headline…
In July 2016 I did a Facebook post about a Manchester Evening Times article reporting a £1000 meat rider Beyoncé ordered for her gig in Manchester. Because she was touring the UK at the time, her army of fans who had been to see her live were in a state of euphoria about the star. It was as though they had quite bizarrely taken my post personally and they began to comment quite passionately. It was strange because they defended Beyoncé and referred to her as if she was a friend or relative. The post began to escalate a little, but to be honest as I was at work I was hugely unaware until later in the day of what was actually manifesting on my Facebook profile.
It didn’t take too long for the trolls to come out the woodwork in order to rise as the keyboard warriors they are by being rude, aggressive, offensive, discriminative and hateful towards myself and fellow vegans. Not only did my compassionate vegan lifestyle come under scrutiny and attack, but so did my Buddhism and a very old snake I had cared for since the early 90’s when I was a young naïve vegetarian. (He was a Royal Python called Byron and he died peacefully and naturally just a few months after all the negativity that surrounded him).
The trolling however crossed a line, because it spilled over into my “real” life! I had non-vegan colleagues as “friends” on Facebook who decided to get themselves involved, and it became a constant back & forth of comments…the vegans were giving the facts and the non-vegans giving the abuse!
There were a couple of people who just took that abuse to a whole new level – I had never experienced anything quite like this since the playground – you know that real nasty way that children can be? Well….yeah it went in that direction!
This post simply highlighting a misguided report from a local English newspaper about a totally untouchable pop star, had turned from an observation of an incorrect headline into a proper case of bullying!
Here is the article itself – you’ll see clearly why I posted about it; it stated Beyoncé was vegan, but she was not vegan, she occasionally ate a plant-based diet – that is extremely different to being vegan, especially when she had been in a vegan restaurant wearing a fur coat; she was definitely not vegan!
This made me realise that while being an activist who was speaking out against oppression, (and knowing my only intention was to speak out even further and become more deeply involved) I clearly could not mix that activism in any way with my workplace, or this type of behaviour would only continue, so I removed unfriended almost every colleague from my Facebook profile.
The situation did actually end up in the hands of HR who promised to revise and reissue the social media policy, but that never actually happened…however the incident made people think about how their profiles could and did impact on their professional lives. Only this week someone told me they followed my example and also removed every colleague from their friends list because they did not want their personal life impacting on their professional and/or vice versa.
(I would like to add it wasn’t only colleagues involved in this post, but it was due to them that it was carried from online to real life and negatively impacted my life deeply)
Made Me Stronger
That episode actually had a very adverse effect on me. In the end I did receive a number of apologies from people outwith work and I was able to move on and let it go. Not everyone involved did the same, as some were annoyed for being called out on their behaviour, but everyone has different ways of dealing with things in life. and some people are attached to a grudge.
However, although it was very hard for me, it did generate a lot of conversation around veganism and animal rights which otherwise would not have happened! Ultimately that’s exactly what we want as activists and I guess part of what we sign up for when we do any kind of activism is various forms of abuse. I didn’t back down and it certainly didn’t stop me in any way at all, in fact ironically it catapulted me into doing a lot more…why? Because I realised that my suffering in connection to this incident was absolutely nothing in comparison with the animals who suffer every second of every day with their bodies and their lives. I looked for the teaching in it. It taught me about the type of person I didn’t want to be, and it taught me that no matter how difficult and challenging a situation might be, if we know there’s some injustice it is our duty to speak out and we cannot ever back down and stop speaking out against abuse, violence, oppression and injustice. I am actually grateful to those people involved as it allowed me to reach some new understandings and make some important decisions, and it spurred me on to do more. That was the year things really started to take off – we set up Save Movement Scotland, we did countless Earthlings Experience street activism and Awakening Compassion street advocacy events. That was also the year I did my first farm animal rescue which was of course Prince, and I set up the crowdfunder for Lotus https://www.gofundme.com/LotusSanctuaryScotland.
It was 2016 I organised a visit from Australian friend and activist James Aspey. We held a vegan club night at the end of 2016 called Happy Moo Year to raise money to bring James over. He came over in February 2017 and that was the first ever activism tour he did in the UK; we got him on TV, on the radio and in print and he did countless talks, events and activism. Fellow activist and V in the Park organiser Lauren Kerr was instrumental in helping me with many aspects of James’s visit.
A Virgin Helping Hand
Virgin Trains were very helpful to me in relation to James’s visit as they allowed me to take 2 weeks unpaid leave for the time James was here, but not only that, they also gave me 1st class tickets for Lauren and James (I had my pass) to travel to Manchester and back as we had organised with Manchester Pig Save for James to do a talk and to do a vigil. 1st class was our favoured way to travel only because it allowed James and Lauren & myself to use the free WIFI to work while we were travelling, which of course was highly important to the work we were doing.
2016 was probably my most important year in activism – isn’t it funny how things pan out! Always look for the lesson – even if it’s to work hard to be a different kind of person to a person you’re in conflict with.
The moral of this blog is simply this – although your job might not seem like the kind of job that allows you to make a difference, the true fact is this….it doesn’t matter where you work or what you do, there is always, always, always SOMETHING you can do to at least try to make the world a better place – we just all need to keep on trying!________________________________________________
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