The Satya Interview:
Shelton Walden—The Radio Activist Makes Waves
Shelton Walden is the Operations
Director of WBAI radio station, the Pacifica Foundation New York’s
base, which has been broadcasting ideas not generally voiced in the
mainstream since 1960. Shelton is responsible for continuity at the
station; and for six years of his 8 1/2 years at WBAI he has been the
host of his own program, Walden’s Pond, dedicated to airing the
ideas of vegetarianism, animal advocacy, and environmentalism. During
this time he has had many of the leading lights of the animal advocacy
movement on his program. He reported on the first People of Color Environmental
Summit in Washington, DC in 1991, the Earth Summit from Rio de Janeiro
in 1992, the U. N. Conference on Sustainable Development sited in Barbados
in May 1994, and has sent back reports on Cuba’s environmental
Q: When did you first become aware of vegetarianism?
A: When I was about seven years old. I was going to
this alternative school on the East side on 66th street — this
was 1969. The classes were very small and it was kind of laid back.
The teacher was a vegetarian, she had long hair, and we went to alternative
events. We went to the first Earth Day and did a lot of different things.
When I found out the teacher was vegetarian I went home to my mom and
told her I wanted to become a vegetarian. She said I couldn’t
and that it was some kind of religion and I’d get sick! At seven
years old, you do what your parents say!
Q: Did the teacher ever tell you why she was
A: I don’t remember. I don’t think she
ever explained it. She just was. Other kids in the class were too.
Q: So your potential vegetarianism went underground!
A: Way underground. It didn’t resurface until
I went to boarding-school when I was thirteen or fourteen. My mother
was afraid for me because I had been mugged. She found a boarding school
for me down in Pennsylvania which was run by Seventh Day Adventists,
who are vegetarians, of course, as one of their tenets. So I became
a lacto-ovo vegetarian at school and only ate meat on holidays at home.
Q: Obviously the church tradition you were
raised in wasn’t Seventh Day Adventist?
A: No. I was raised Presbyterian. I went to an old
Scottish Presbyterian church down the street from the time I was twelve
or thirteen to the time I was twenty-two.
Q: So when your mother sent you to the Seventh Day Adventist school,
she really was making sure that your potential vegetarianism was some
kind of religion!
A: That is ironic, isn’t it? My mother was just
panicking, she just wanted to get me out of town. But I was never a
big eater, period, and was always very finicky about food. I went to
boarding school for two years and at the end of my sophomore year, came
back to the City to go to high school. It wasn’t until the last
year, when I was running track, that I finally made a conscious decision
about my diet. I’ll never forget the day, after track practice,
when I went to a Burger King and ordered a Big Whopper — or
something like that — and sat down and took a bite of it, and
it tasted really sour. I just put it aside and said, “I can’t
eat this.” From that moment on I never touched a piece of red
meat again. From that point on, I became much more conscious of my body,
and began eating a lot of grains and cereals. I graduated and went on
to Fordham University, all the time eliminating more and more animal
products from my diet. I read and re-read Dick Gregory’s Cooking
with Mother Nature, which really had a profound effect on me. At this
time, I wanted to establish my own identity, so in 1984 I dropped all
animal products from my diet.
Q: There was no awareness of animals as such,
it was more to do with your own body?
A: That’s right: my own body, and my own health.
I didn’t really get into animal rights until I listened to Barry
Gray’s radio program and he had on Nancy Payton from the International
Society for Animal Rights and they began to discuss chickens, and how
they were raised. Something just snapped, just like that. I called for
information from their organization, and that’s how I got involved.
I started to go to meetings and functions, and became a convert. In
1986 I went to announcing school and studied radio and got a job at
Q: What about the environmental side? Was that
a natural corollary which fitted into place when you got involved in
A: I was always interested in the environment, the
Earth, and pollution on a global level. But soon after I became a vegetarian
I began really to make connections with animals and the way they were
treated and manipulated and the way it affected our environment as human
beings. I’ve always tried to bring that connection together — whether
it be BGH [Bovine Growth Hormone] and how it affects people, or hunting,
factory farming, pesticides or whatever. When I first began Walden’s
Pond in 1989, I had a lot of programs on activism, the marches, and
what was going on within the movement. But since then I’ve become
more focused on the human angle?
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: That’s an interesting question. I’ve
sort of gone back and forth on it. I think I got disillusioned with
the animal rights movement at some point because they didn’t have
a broad view of society. As an African American, I bring certain perspectives
to bear on the issue and the movement, and I thought it wasn’t
as broad as I would have liked. So I decided that I had to do my own
thing and integrate more progressive viewpoints. I’ve worked with
the progressive Left and looked at capitalism, international corporations,
and institutions and how they impact upon the environment. I’ve
interviewed Jeremy Rifkin of Beyond Beef and discussed the whole idea
of the Cattle culture and how government and corporations sustain it.
I’ve also dealt with racism, and how it impacts on food, people,
and people’s health. I’ve also had a number of programs
concerning Black women’s health.
Q: How can the animal advocacy movement become more diverse,
or is it still a “white person’s luxury”?
A: I don’t think the animal rights movement per
se has done a good job in trying to reach out to people generally and
making a case of why they should join the movement. Sometimes I think
that has to do with politics, or some that are conservative in the movement
not wanting to reach out to people of color generally. I also think
that a lot of Black people are not interested in the movement; they
are more concerned with racism, and the struggle to survive in this
society as human beings. A lot of people feel that animal rights is
a luxury that people with time on their hands and money can indulge
and which is not relevant to Black people’s lives.
Q: How do you think that analysis fits in with
A: I feel empathetic with animals. Through no fault
of their own, they have been manipulated by society for its own uses
— whether for food or sport. I had a turtle when I was younger,
and I loved that turtle. A turtle is such a vulnerable creature in so
many ways, tough but vulnerable. If you turn it on its back, it can’t
function. I still feel close to that turtle. African Americans as a
whole have been abused in many similar ways by society. Being an African
American perhaps lets me understand that manipulation and abuse more.
I feel no one should be exploited or abused or taken advantage of; I
dislike discrimination of any kind. My circle, however, simply extends
to animals. Because it is such a cruel society, you have that compassion
drilled out of you. I realize that more and more as I get older; and
I have been very fortunate. We have to get back to some kind of standard
of respect and civility, and that includes animals and our environment.
But I think it’s a broad leap for a lot of people — especially
people of color — given the intense pressure upon us.
Q: What do you think about companies such as McDonald’s
going into neighborhoods where there is high unemployment and few opportunities
for people to work and saying that, while vegetarians and animal advocates
can talk about health and cruelty etc., it is giving jobs to people
who wouldn’t be able to get work?
A: It’s very tough, because who am I to say,
“Wait until the Health Food Store comes along”? There are
big dollars involved, the food is fast and tasty, and even the lighting
in a McDonald’s makes it a safe place in the neighborhood. I’ve
attempted to address the problem on the air. As a matter of fact, there
was a program on another station featuring the owners of a McDonald’s
in Harlem who had turned it into an Afrocentric restaurant. I was really
disgusted by that.
A: Because here was an international corporation which
when it comes to health and the environment has a poor record. When
Black people, through the slave trade, first came here, we were forced
to eat terrible food and have a legacy of health problems to this day
because of it. McDonald’s is not an African-based corporation
and has imposed an alien diet — with its heavy meat emphasis
and animal concentration — on the African body, which traditionally
has been used to multi-grain food. So, this motif of an Afrocentric
McDonald’s, with kinte cloth and all kinds of stuff like that,
was awful. In any event, I called the show and told him all this stuff.
The host told me to cover this all on my show! So, I did! The two owners,
two African American women, of the McDonald’s were there solely
to make money. But health has become a much bigger issue, and that’s
vital. Eventually, they’ll have to open up an Afrocentric Health
Food Store, which will be great.
Q: Do you feel that movements for healthy food
and animal advocacy will, therefore, have to come from within the Black
A: Black people listen to people like Gary Null and
read books such as Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, and become
much more aware, and take it back to the community. So, I think the
larger community has done a service to everyone. But there is, as far
as I see, a growing and continuing concern with health in the Black
community. It may not go in the direction of animal rights; it’s
coming very much from a position of survival. While that may also be
true of the larger society, it is even more so in the Black community.
I too came to vegetarianism from a concern over my health, but the more
I read and thought, I began to see the connection with animal rights
Q: You have a particular concern for environmental racism.
Do you feel the larger environmental movement is dealing with this;
and are local activities being under-reported by both the environmental
organizations and the mainstream press?
A: Yes. There’s definitely under-reporting of
this. There has always been a contempt for poor neighborhoods, whether
white or Black. The largest toxic dump in the United States is in Alabama
in a Black neighborhood; but it is also in a community which is poor
generally and where white and Black people live. I saw a photography
exhibition recently of poor people in Utah and Nevada who had lived
downwind of nuclear test blasts which had happened in the 1940s and
50s. Most of the people were white, and were being devastated by the
nuclear fallout. But Black people are targets as well. There’s
the sewage treatment plant in Harlem which was originally going to be
placed around the location of the Boat Basin or 72nd Street, but was
placed instead in Harlem through political pressure. There was a bitter
battle over it, but it was still built, and the smell from it permeates
the neighborhood. It’s very clear: in spite of the protests, there
was specific contempt for people in that neighborhood. There has been
substantial documentation on the location of toxic waste dumps around
the country, and it’s pretty clear the correlation between their
siting and the neighborhoods they’re in.
To a certain extent, I think the issue of environmental racism and the
movements which have been trying to stop it, have been co-opted by people
who have benefited from working with large corporations. For instance,
Benjamin Chavis, the Former Chair of the NAACP, used the issue of environmental
racism to push himself forward, and then later on it was revealed he
was lobbying for NAFTA on the side, which would cause intense environmental
damage. I think some of those who have talked about environmental racism
have got jobs in environmental organizations and yet the problem is
still with us. There are not enough people who are working on a broader
level with an economic, class-based analysis to criticize corporations
Q: What do you think communities should do
to help themselves?
A: Well, it may sound naive, but I do think kids need
to go out and see open space — away from concrete and asphalt.
They’ve got to go to the West and the wide expanse of land and
see the forests (what’s left of them) and other parts of the globe.
This is so important, because you get a broader sense of yourself; and
this needs to be combined with much greater environmental education
in schools. We need to know where we are, what kind of rock we’re
on, what type of soil we have. We need an awareness of what we were
over time; we need to know about earth, earthquakes and water: we need
to know where things came from and where they go.
Q: Do you feel the message is getting out for
people to make the connection between social justice issues and vegetarianism?
A: I don’t know — I’m certainly
trying to get my message out. My program is on WBAI at 1pm and now airs
every week, and I’m trying to get my name out and what I do more
and more. I would hope people will be inspired to do things, perhaps
by listening to my program. I do, however, see very few Black people
who are doing anything on animal rights. If people are inspired to come
along, that’s fantastic. But until then, I have to continue to
do what I have to do to plant seeds, and that’s the only way you
can move forward. It’s important for us to find balance in our
lives — between our personal and public selves — and
learn to take care of ourselves in what we do. We shouldn’t overextend
ourselves and bite off more than we can chew. I can’t be everywhere,
or be all things to everybody.
Q: Do you feel in that way that you are sometimes
considered the spokesperson for all people of color in the animal advocacy
A: There are all kinds of Black people; I’m just
one person and I don’t represent all Black people. I wouldn’t
want to either. At the same time, I do come with a certain set of experiences
to the table, and I would like to be recognized for that. That’s
why it’s important to have many voices speaking, not just my voice.
Right now, I’m the only person I know speaking about these issues.
I’ve been a token to a certain extent in the movement in terms
of what I do, but I think there are a lot of people working on lots
of different levels who just haven’t been seen or talked about;
and I think it’s important to reach out and broaden the movement.
That’s the only way we can succeed — by being more
progressive and more committed to diversity in our society. I’ve
been to a lot of these meetings in the movement, and I’ve seen
racism and insensitivity; but I’ve also met people who are wonderful.
I think the key thing is, however, to remember the issues we are working
on — the abolition of animal suffering, of testing, hunting, factory
farming — and keep working for those goals — but we
must also recognize that this is part of a larger aim to make society
more compassionate and healthy. That’s the way I see it.