Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


May 1995
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 policy.

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 vegetarian?
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 BAI.

Q: What about the environmental side? Was that a natural corollary which fitted into place when you got involved in animal advocacy?
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 your “conversion?”
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.

Q: Why?
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 communities?
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 more clearly.

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 who pollute.

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 movement?
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.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.