Looking around during the conference at all these activists, sanctuary owners, vets, and nonprofit heads working mostly in their own democratic countries, in their own languages, and with a support network they can generally count on, I feel sick with envy. They have health insurance, jobs that pay a fair wage, and a government that generally adheres to the basic standards of international human rights laws. They likely do not have to justify taking a salary from their jobs, their family and friends don’t have to listen to stories of what animal is dying that day, and they probably even have hobbies. I feel sick sometimes that I could never be that type of person who would have ever stayed home to live that life that feels almost like a birthright to someone born into a middle class American suburban home.
I struggle with the idea that I am a fraud for even representing Vietnam at this conference, a country in which as an American I have very little hope of being able to truly understand no matter how long I live there– at least not enough to spark the shift that needs to happen there and globally for animal rights. I do not subscribe to the paradigm for international development that social, political, and economic change is possible solely from the work of a foreigners. I know how limited we are as a foreign organization. I feel guilty for presenting a country report for a place I call my home, yet whose residents will always see me as an outsider, a tourist, an ATM, or an invader. Meanwhile the Vietnamese nationals who are working in animal rights cannot come to Luxembourg because it is far too difficult to get visas and the money to make this trip. It’s obvious I have created an insurmountable challenge for myself and my organization that I will never be able to solve alone, yet I lack the ability to recruit, train, and pay the top quality employees who will work through these issues with me side-by-side long term. But more than anything, I feel like in spite of all of this, I would rather be dead than give up the fight to build veterinary capacity for Vietnam (saving millions rather than hundreds of animals in rescue) and to help develop grassroots initiatives for creating the social change necessary to end animal exploitation.
Despite my delusional level of optimism that has been the root of my personal resilience in the face of the absurd challenges we are up against, more often than not in this work, I feel completely defeated to the point of near paralysis. After leaving this inspirational conference, I am experiencing that defeat to an extreme. In order for me to even appear at the conference, I put our bank account in the negative by $400 so I could sleep in hotel where I could have some desperately needed peace at night after yapping my face off at strangers all day long in hopes of making connections for our work. Two out of the four days, I was unsure if I would be able to afford to eat. Also, two out of the four days I was unable to guarantee we’d have enough money to feed the animals, and this just after being unsure if we’d be kicked out of the shelter for lack of rent funds a week ago. I never asked for funds from donors to send me here because I know the average donor thinks that all our staff should work for free and that conferences are a luxury that only organizations like the RSPCA should spend money sending their staff to. While this is an absurd opinion from people who know nothing at all about what this work truly entails from any of our staff nor the unlimited potential value of the networks gained by attending a conference in this field, I felt it best to keep it quiet until I could prove after the fact that this was indeed a valuable expenditure.
As everyone left and I looked around at the people going back to their homes where family, friends, and familiarity awaited them, I can’t even give a full guarantee that the valuable information I gained this week will ever be put to use. In all honestly, I don’t know if even if it did help develop our programs, I could maintain the progress it could bring anyway. I cannot continue to pretend to be good in this job while I cannot take care of my mental and physical well-being. Eeking out a living on a tiny salary, drowning in debt, and lacking the support of the right people around me makes this a challenge that I no longer want to kill myself over. The amount of stress this entails has taken its toll on me, and given that I will never again return to the burned out state I spent most of last year recovering from, continuing at this same exact pace with the same conditions is absurd unless a drastic change takes place. In all of this work I have done and through all the places it has taken me in Vietnam and around the world, the one thing I know better than anyone is that it is only the right people in your life that make any of your accomplishments possible. This is true both professionally and personally. It takes an army of competent and reliable people to pull all this off no matter how much money you have to spend on the work you do, and those people are needed both in the office and out of it. I haven’t seen my mom in 3 years and can’t even tell you what she looks like at this point since she doesn’t use Skype because she is deaf. I no longer even speak to my sister or dad because of the work I do and their obstinance towards it, but losing the many friends along the way because I simply can no longer relate to people who don’t do this work . I often feel I have neither personal nor professional support necessary to handle the challenges we face and the unsustainable nature of this became profoundly obvious at this conference.
I am not inspirational for doing this work.
I am insane.
But right now, I am faced with the fallout of the risk I took to even be here in Luxembourg. At the moment, I can’t even leave the city because I am waiting for the organization’s new debit card to arrive in the mail to the hotel I stayed at. I cannot even plan onward travel until I have that, so momentarily at least I am sitting in the hostel waiting for my phone to ring that the package arrived and I can get out of the one of the most expensive cities on the planet.
Since I was unable to fundraise every day on social media while busting my ass to make face-to-face connections all day long for 4 days which I will not have the opportunity to do once I return to the isolation and chaos of Hoi An, we are out of cash entirely. Aside from being stuck in Luxembourg with no room or money waiting for a card for an account that is so negative now I can’t fathom getting it back to $0, the animals that the organization cares for are in peril because I chose to network and learn rather than beg online for donations to keep us afloat. It takes an army to do this and I cannot do everything and be everywhere. While I physically no longer can do the shelter work because of my back, I have to us this big, fat American voice of mine to spread the information I have about our work as far as I can reach when given the rare opportunity to do so. For that, the animals suffer, the organization suffers staff don’t get paid for their hard work, and progress is stalled.
Doing what we have always done has gotten us nowhere. Relying on donations is a nightmare and being forced to write rubbish fundraising copy every day on social media to people who have not idea what this work really is like makes me insane. Every day I have to work to reinvent our system to build financial sustainability, but the time and money needing for this far exceeds our current resources and personally living day-to-day adds a layer of stress that I cannot explain to those who have financial support for general living expenses. I do not hide that I take a salary for this job as director because I think it is BATSHIT INSANE to think someone should do this horrible work for free. I have no respect at all for any organization that is proud of not paying their staff. None. It is a hard as fuck job that I do full time, year-round, and make $500 a month doing it. I have a 6-figure student loan for a couple of very hard won degrees and I am pretty sure getting enough money to eat is not too much to ask for the amount of work, responsibility, and unending stress this shit involves. Not once have I been paid this salary upfront either. I eat when I am hungry and buy bus and train tickets when I need to move from one free place to live to another, but never have we had the $500 I use for this at the beginning of the month. This means literally every single day I do not know if I get to eat. I sent most of the donations to the shelter, then shave off $10 or so for what I need to eat for the day. I wish I was kidding. I will not paint a pretty picture for you of what this feels like.
When I say I want to open a social enterprise, you can see why. The animals need a source of income they can rely on, and we need vets that can actually help them. As the head of the organization on whose health and sanity all this work relies, I also need to be taken care of like an educated adult working full time doing a job very few people could pull off for this long without killing themselves or others (not that I have not been very, very close to both…). Financial sustainability will never come from rescue because the entire business model is so flawed that it keeps organizations in constant financial crisis and burns out underpaid and overwhelmed employees so that they leave after such a short time. Building capacity in the field requires keeping the most experienced and valuable employees in it. Value of an employee grows with time and case experience. If we cannot keep these people in the field, we are in a constant state of starting over. Any director living through the endless training cycle of dealing with newbies with no clue or coping mechanisms for watching endless preventable suffering and death will agree with me. An organization is made up only of the humans who do the tasks to complete the mission. People are our greatest asset. When they stay for a few months because they cannot pay their own bills then run off to a profitable industry, we lose capacity to do better work. Simple as that. A social enterprise funding model is the only way to ensure employees can stay in this work because sustainable income allows funding for professional staff. Free labor is worth so little it is not even worth mentioning here.
In the end, I know the work of the organization and the animals themselves is doomed without a major change in the way we operate. No successful movement ever ran on burnouts unable to feed themselves. And since realizing most animal rights activists wear a uniform of black hoodies and vegan Doc Martins based on what I have seen in Luxembourg, I should probably do some shopping…
Right now, we need your help to get out of this mess. There is unlimited potential for the work of a non-speciesist organization funded properly and running in central Vietnam where there is a desperate need for professionally run vet programs and vegan education. Right now, I am going to try to find a way to eat for 3 Euros in the wealthiest country in Europe and hope the coffee is strong enough here to spark a way out of this. Wish me luck.