Meet Jasmine C. Leyva, an actress, filmmaker, and producer of The Invisible Vegan, a 90-minute independent documentary that explores the problem of unhealthy dietary patterns in the African-American community, foregrounding the health and wellness possibilities enabled by plant-based vegan diets and lifestyle choices. Jasmine identifies as a black American, hailing out of Southeast DC, “pre-gentrification” (she says, pointing that out makes a difference). The film interweaves her narrative with the professional and personal experiences of a prominent group of vegan activists. It also integrates interviews with popular culture luminaries including Cedric the Entertainer (actor and comedian), John Salley (former NBA player and wellness advocate), and Clayton Gavin (aka Stic of the hip-hop duo Dead Prez). Jasmine shares with Black + Well her perspective on veganism, and what she hopes viewers walk away with. Rent or Purchase The Invisible Vegan HERE. Full trailer available below.
What made you go vegan and decide to create this documentary?
I was exposed to veganism when I was twenty, which is why, initially, I only wanted to try it out for cosmetic reasons. I saw Chef Babette, the middle-aged owner of Stuff I Eat, and I said to myself “I want her body when I get older”. She shared her vegan habits with me and I put them into play. But my reason for going vegan evolved when I noticed health changes around my weight, acne, digestion, hygiene, etc. I read vegan books and I watched several documentaries on a vegan diet like Cowspiracy, Vegucated, Food Inc, Forks Over Knives, and others. As I learned, I tried to put my black friends on to the health game, but they dismissed me with “you’re on that white people shit.” or “you on that LA shit.” and it hit me… A lot of people in my community don’t feel connected to health and compassionate living because the subjects have not been equally marketed to us. When I reflected on the documentaries I watched, all of the messengers were white males who might not relate to inner city people of color that grew up the way I did. So I chose to create something tailor-made for people like me.
Is being vegan a total lifestyle for you? Do you avoid any and everything that is resourced from animals?
Recently, I’ve encountered debates on what it means to be vegan. I’ve heard it referred to as a diet, philosophy, religion and a lifestyle. What intrigues me is how offended some people get when you don’t use their semantics, so for safety, I’ll throw labels out of the window. I am on a journey of wellness and compassion. For the past few years, I have been following a vegan diet, and my latest purchases have been cruelty-free. However, while I don’t buy products derived from animals, I didn’t exactly throw away my wardrobe and shoe collection that was not ethically made. This shift of consciousness is a process and while there are rock stars that make the change overnight, I am not one of them. To avoid relapse, I took my time and upgraded like an iPhone. Once I secured one habit, I moved on to the next and this method makes it so I don’t really feel the change.
What's the number one misconception about veganism?
The number one misconception I encounter in regards to veganism is that we are depriving ourselves. For the first time in my life, I am hyper-concerned with how many nutrients I am getting. Before, I would eat fast food and several meals that contained no nutritional value. That is when I was depriving myself. I was deprived of vitamins, minerals, vegetables, fruits, healthy carbs, and awareness. Eating plant-based food isn’t deprivation; it is paying attention.
Do you think veganism is a form of revolution for the black community?
I don’t think veganism it’s always a form of revolution; that gives vegans too much unearned high ground. Some people go vegan to appease other people’s standards of beauty or want to follow celebrity trends. That’s fine, but it’s not a form of intentional revolution. Veganism becomes a form of revolution when intelligence, consciousness, change, and compassion are at the core of one’s choices.
When black people/ POC consider going vegan, ethical reasoning such as animal cruelty, the environment etc. are usually not a thought. The conversation is typically around consuming healthier food to prevent disease. Why do you think that is?
My film covers animal rights but it’s more focused on health. I received mild backlash for that choice and I told those people, I’m a black woman and I can’t operate the way others operate. If I had come out with a film about the conditions of farm animals while unarmed black men and women are being customarily executed, many members of my community wouldn’t have given me or my film the time of day. Not because I come from a race incapable of compassion, but more so because people are dealing with more immediate issues. When people are stressed out because they hate their own conditions, it’s hard to convince them, in this stressed state, to worry about another group they perceive to be unimportant due to cultural conditioning. The same goes for the environment. If people have to constantly worry about keeping food on the table, habitually in stress mode, these people aren’t in a position to put rational thought into the state of the environment in fifty years, they are in “fight or flight” mode. However, people in my community are repeatedly battling with losing friends and family to degenerative disease. So it makes sense, to me, that someone might be more concerned with their grandma’s diabetes or their mother’s cancer than problems they can’t see.
What advice/tips do you have for someone one interested in conforming to a plant-based diet?
Look at being unhealthy as a drug habit. Bad foods are just as, if not more, addictive than drugs. If a person tries to stop smoking crack, it’s going to be hard if it’s always in the house, if they always see commercials for it, if all of their friends are crackheads, and they have no support system pulling them in the other direction. So my advice: get a support system. Talk to your friends and find out who wants to get healthy with you and more times than not, these people exist in your circle.
What do you hope people who watch this documentary walk away with?
When my brother watched my film he said: “I’m not gonna lie, I’m not going to go vegan tomorrow, but you definitely gave me a lot of things to think about that I hadn’t considered.” At the very least, that is what I want. I want non-vegans to walk away with, at least, a new spark of consciousness in regards to their food choices. I want vegans to walk away with compassion for non-vegans and reflect on their marketing. They need to understand how some outreach efforts, while well-intentioned, can exclude, devalue and repel non-vegan people of color.
What does being black and well mean or look like to you?
It’s feeling sexy. And not because of photoshopped Instagram photos, but because you radiate energy and compassion. It’s loving yourself so much that you want the best for yourself down to the detail. It’s understanding that there are a plethora of forces trying to further disenfranchise our race, and we don’t want to be a permanent underclass. We need to be healthy enough and love our race enough to fight those battles. Being “black and well” is self-love and collective preservation. (Insert finger-snaps)
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