Our Hen House: An interview with the founders of the multimedia hub that helps YOU change the world for animals

by JL Fields on December 27, 2012

Last week I shared a holiday post I wrote for Our Hen House and mentioned that Our Hen House recently reluanched their website as an online magazine. Today I want to provide you more information on this relaunch – the why of it – because I believe Our Hen House is truly our public radio and news source. Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan are the founders of Our Hen House (I serve on the board of directors) and I recently interviewed them to give you an inside perspective on the incredibly important work they do on behalf of the animals.

 

Our Hen House Logo

 

JL: Since I serve on the Our Hen House board of directors, and I’m a nonprofit management nerd, I can’t help but focus my questions on the new direction of Our Hen House and its organizational vision, mission and purpose. I hope you don’t mind!

When the online magazine officially launched I simply devoured your piece: Our Online Magazine, Our Vision, and Our Hen House. Even as an Our Hen House podcast junkie, devotee and board member, there was so much I didn’t know! You said that the first three years of Our Hen House were the prologue and now it’s the story.  You are both writers – what’s the story you are hoping and dreaming for in this next phase?

Jasmin and Mariann (OHH):  First of all, we are the luckiest chicks in town to have you on the Our Hen House board of directors, not to mention writing for the Thought for Food column. You continue to inspire us and motivate us on a daily basis, so please know it’s a mutual admiration society!

It’s obvious that in many ways, people are starting to wake up to what’s going on behind closed doors to animals. That does not mean we don’t have a ridiculously long way to go, but based on what we’ve seen in our travels throughout the country, and our experiences on the frontlines of animal law and indie media, we see anxieties rising in the mainstream, and on the flip side, we see glimpses into a new world for animals. We’re grasping onto that hope, and running with it. With our new iteration – our online magazine – we want more and more to point our face outward, to people who are just now beginning to awaken to what’s happening to animals and feeling that unrelenting need to do something to change the world for them. At the same time, we want to keep our growing family of folks who have already awakened, some of whom have been part of our community for the past three years, and some of whom have just joined us, very much intact. That’s why we have created a new “flock” area, which is a bit more intimate and allows us to interact with the Our Hen House community, no holds barred.

Clearly, the first step we all need to take to change the world for animals is to go vegan, and blogs like yours, and resources you create, help people make that switch easily and deliciously! We hope that Our Hen House helps people see that not only is becoming vegan necessary and attainable, but so is taking the next step, and moving beyond just changing what we eat. “Coming out” as vegan strongly and proudly is the first step in activism, and after that, there is so much we can each do in our community in order to raise awareness and create lasting change. Our Hen House is a multimedia hub for ideas and resources to do just that, in a way we can each get excited about. With the new phase of Our Hen House, we’ll also be incorporating loads more voices, so that we can each fine tune our messaging, think about issues that are sometimes difficult to navigate ourselves, and ultimately, figure out our own place as animal rights activists. That doesn’t need to be a scary word, by the way – “activist.” At Our Hen House, we cast a wide net over what means. We see enormous change on the horizon, and we want Our Hen House to be a part of that change, and be at the vanguard of effectively mainstreaming the movement to end the exploitation of animals.

JL:  As someone who understands that nonprofits need to raise funds – and also should be open to everyone – I really applaud the revenue model you are using.  Anyone can log onto ourhenhouse.org and get great information and inspiration and immediately start working to make the world a better place for animals.  Some content, however, is available only to members of your “flock.” Can you tell us more about how you’ve structured fee-based content?  And, in general, how are charitable donations used at Our Hen House?

OHH: Our flock is clucking awesome! As we’ve noted above, flock content is specifically designed to foster our intimate community of devoted Our Hen Housers, folks who are working toward change for animals and have become part of our sphere. In that way, we do not like to look at the flock as “ours” specifically; it is really all of ours, a way to create dialogue with our readers and listeners. We started a diary-style vlog of our cross-country drive – which we’re currently on – that is only available to flock members, giving them a glimpse into some of the vegan happenings from the road (our podcast, which is of course available to everyone, also offers some of the highlights from the trip). Since we also want to use the flock area to express gratitude to our loyal readers and listeners (who really and truly are like extended family, just as I like to think we are to many of them), we offer some other little goodies, like bonus recipes, discount codes for vegan establishments, exclusive contests, and expanded interviews. It’s actually a pretty exciting time to be a part of the flock, since it’s a brand new feature for us, and we’re constantly re-evaluating it based on the needs and desires of the flock members. We hope to offer additional audio recordings, and we have a few articles in the works that are geared toward the flock specifically – offering in-depth looks not only into Our Hen House, but also into great thinkers who are letting us in on their thought-processes, as they themselves are working out ideas.

That said, the vast majority of the content we offer is still available to everyone. To date, we have something like 1500 pieces we’ve written, and we’ve created a very user-friendly way to access it all. And our podcast remains the most popular leg of Our Hen House. We’re relentless, by the way, currently in production for Episode 155. We’ve produced an episode every single week since we started. We are just as devoted to our listeners as they are to us.

You mentioned charitable donations, and how we use them. Our recent biggest expense has obviously been to build the new online magazine, which we were able to do as a result of individual donations and grants. Part of the growth into the new magazine style, in addition to upgrading our online presence since we felt we had outgrown the previous Our Hen House incarnation, was to monetize by way of the flock area. Though people have been very generous in offering pro bono services or near pro bono services, there’s still a great deal that we need to pay for, like accounting, ongoing tech services, editing, insurance, and equipment, to name some. Our fundamental goal is to focus on increasing our capacity to reach more people. That means that most days, we work an average of 12-16 hours, with the hope of growing Our Hen House so that it becomes sustainable. We have three part-time employees who work for a tiny stipend (coffee money, really), and we’d like to be able to compensate them fairly for the time they put into Our Hen House. One day, we’d also like to be able to compensate our writers, who are currently all producing amazing content for us on a voluntary basis. And yes, in order to survive long-term we need to grow to the place where Jasmin can be compensated a humble but livable wage (this past year she has begun to receive a tiny stipend). It is our dream that Our Hen House will be able to truly thrive, but we are reliant on our readers and listeners to make that happen. We live in a day and age when people expect content for free, and we understand why that is. But we hope that people will find much more at Our Hen House than just interesting content. We hope that they find the support, resources, and tools that they need to change the world for animals, and we hope that they will find those things of sufficient value to encourage them to contribute to keeping us going and spreading the word.

JL: It’s three years from now. What does Our Hen House look like? How is it structured (staffing, budget, resources, reach) and what change will we have seen in the world?

OHH: Let’s start with the second half of your question, what changes will we have seen in the world. Veganism will no longer be considered “fringe” (that is already beginning to change). There will be vegan options at restaurants far and wide – not just in big cities. Major chain restaurants and hotels will offer vegan food, and chefs will be well aware of what that means, and they’ll think beyond just green salads and veggie stir-fries.  The United States will continue to implement animal welfare reforms, providing pathetic “improvements” in the way animals are treated, and though that’s not even a glimmer of good enough, it nonetheless will result farm animal issues rising in people’s consciousness and will open the door for discussion of how we are treating animals as a society. We will see more and more farm animal sanctuaries popping up, as well as small animal rights organizations throughout the country starting community-wide campaigns to end animal exploitation. Individuals will be getting involved more than ever, starting vegan challenges in their workplaces, permanently changing menu items at their cafeterias, and teaching their much-more-open-minded co-workers about the plight of animals, the healthfulness of vegan food, the dire environmental implications of animal agriculture, and the importance of changing the world. All major cosmetic companies will be starting to use compassionate alternatives to cruel animal testing. People will see the vital importance of raising their children as vegans, and vegan school food options will be reaching the norm. Knowledge about the role of animal agriculture in greenhouse gas emissions, a topic that has been all but ignored, will spread. Humane education classes focusing on fostering compassion in young ones will start to be implemented in schools nationwide. Vegans and animal rights activists will begin to pop up in fictional settings too, both in novels and in Hollywood, and the malnourished tree-hugging stereotype will be a thing of the past. More and more athletes will go vegan and talk publicly about the plethora of health benefits and performance benefits that are a direct result of a plant-based diet. The Vegetarian Resource Group will conduct a study showing that the number of animals killed has significantly declined, and the number of vegans has steadfastly risen. Breed discrimination laws will disappear, and our darling pit bull, Rose, will unabashedly tour the country and not worry about where she’s “not allowed.” Rachael Ray will have a regular vegan cooking segment on her show. JL Fields and Ginny Messina will be bestselling authors!

As for Our Hen House, we will introduce a web-based TV show, similar to HuffPo Live’s model. We will finally be able to offer our regular writers compensation, and our staff people too. Cassandra Greenwald will be our full-time editor, Ben Braman will be our full-time tech person, and Danielle Legg will be our full-time outreach coordinator. Jasmin will continue to work tirelessly as the Executive Director, writing and editing blogs, columns, and features, as well as writing freelance articles in mainstream publications. Mariann will have had Op-eds published in mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times, and will be a sought-after guest pundit for mainstream media on animal law related issues. The Our Hen House podcast will still be going strong, with the occasional “vodcast” thrown into the mix. Our Hen House will begin to take on investigative journalism. Jasmin’s book – which is currently the draft of a proposal – will be on its way to publication. Major companies that will be incorporating a vegan line into their products will sponsor Our Hen House, allowing us – among other things – far-expanded tech capabilities. We will receive grant funding to start an artist “in residence” program, where artists who speak up for animals will be given a sabbatical to develop their creative advocacy. Mariann will transition her animal law classes, which she currently teaches at 5 law schools throughout the country, to an online model available to anyone. The Our Hen House flock area will be home to that and to hundreds of discount codes and giveaways. The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray will go from vegetarian to vegan and will sing to us on our podcast (or perhaps we just dreamt that last night). The board of directors will expand to at least 7 dedicated animal advocates who believe in the Our Hen House mission and will work hard to effectively mainstream the movement to end the exploitation of animals. Our Hen House will go from a $40,000 annual budget to a $150,000 one. Every now and then, Jasmin and Mariann will take a weekend off (though it will be difficult, and our computers will likely never be far from reach).

JL: That’s a vision I can get behind! This is one of the most generous weeks of the year; people are making their year-end charitable contributions right now. Why donate to Our Hen House?

OHH: Because you want to support its efforts to mainstream the movement to end the exploitation of animals. Because you believe in vegan indie media. Because you have read an article, listened to a podcast episode, or watched a video – and it made you smile or think, compelled you to act, to speak up, to share it, or it left you inspired. Because you are searching for a way to change the world for animals, and something on Our Hen House pointed you in the right direction. Because you enjoy our podcasts during your commutes to work, during your errands, or during your long Sunday runs. Because you believe in the vision of how the world will change in the next three years, and you want to help it get there. Because you are reading this, and something about it is resonating with you. Because you want to change the world for animals.

 

JasminandMariannToronto12Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan are the founders of Our Hen House (www.ourhenhouse.org), a multimedia hive of opportunities to change the world for animals – which was named the Indie Media Powerhouse of 2011 byVegNews Magazine. They produce a popular weekly podcast that you can find on iTunes, a daily blog with new ideas, opportunities, and stories about changing the world for animals, and a video page. Jasmin and Mariann are partners in life and in activism, and reside in New York City with their sweet pit bull, Rose. In addition to running Our Hen House, Jasmin is a writer forVegNews, a host for VegNews TV, and is the former campaigns manager for Farm Sanctuary. Mariann is an adjunct professor of animal law at NYU Law School, Brooklyn Law School, Cardozo Law School, and Columbia Law School, and she just completed a visiting professorship at Lewis & Clark Law School’s Center for Animal Law Studies. She is the former chair of the Animal Law Committee of the American Bar Association’s TIPS section, as well as of the NYC Bar Association’s Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals. Both Jasmin and Mariann have presented workshops on veganism and activism throughout the country, and their work has been published widely. Favorite pastimes include concocting yummy juices; thrifting; and going to piano bars.

Thank you Jasmin and Mariann, for sharing your vision and for empowering so many of us to be change agents in the world.  In addition to being a board member, I am also an Our Hen House donor and proud member of the flock. Readers, I hope you’ll join the flock, too!

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