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Matt Ball: Changing the world by example, advocacy

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Matt Ball, left, co-founder of Vegan Outreach, talks with MBA student Tim Cawthorne about his vegan-related marketing research project.

As someone who’s been a vegan for nearly 25 years and is well involved in the local animals rights community, Peggy Raisglid admits she was nervous when prominent activist Matt Ball showed up at her vegetarian eatery.

“He was kind of like a hero long before I ever met him,” said Raisglid, who owns the Lovin’ Spoonfuls Restaurant, 2990 N. Campbell Ave. “The name was well known to me.”

Ball co-founded Vegan Outreach, an animal advocacy group working to promote veganism in the early 1990s. He co-wrote “The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact In Today’s World” and in 2014 published “The Accidental Activist.”

Over the years his reasoned approach has inspired thousands of people to adopt a plant-based lifestyle and to do what they can to reduce animal suffering. In 2005, he was inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame.

Now 47, he is a senior advisor at VegFund, an organization that gives grants to activists to support their outreach efforts.

“He’s extremely intelligent, a very rational thinker, very grounded with a lot of information,” Raisglid said. “You hope you can catch a little of the sunlight that beams off of him.”

About three months ago, Raisglid began selling “The Accidental Activist” at her restaurant. After reading the entire book in a couple days, she was inspired by a passage about how more research on animal suffering needs to be done and proposed the idea to universities around the country.

“I sent them all emails describing what kind of study I thought needed to be done,” said Raisglid, who has a doctorate in chemistry. “The positive response I got was from the University of Arizona.”

Studying motivation, Changing behaviors

Professor Merrie Brucks, who teaches marketing research for managers in the Eller College Department of Marketing, said she was interested.

“I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this would be perfect for my marketing research class,’” said Brucks, who had never done anything with animal rights. Past topics include a self-study that assessed the strengths and weakness of the marketing college’s teaching efforts and a study for the United Way about donor psychology.

The 17-person class is broken into four groups: food choices, or why people choose to buy and eat certain kinds of food; social stigma and norms, or how people in certain food groups look at people in other food groups; motivations, or why people choose veganism or vegetarianism; and how to reduce animal suffering.

VegFund gave the class a $1,000 merit award so students could design, carry out and interpret research.

“We’re looking at behavior change,” Brucks said. “The behavior that is trying to be changed is so complex. There are so many reasons why people choose the food that they do. … To me it was a very interesting problem to see how it fits in with animal suffering.”

Ball gave presentations to class, answered questions, offered feedback and met with the groups individually. He also is scheduled to attend the final presentations.

“He’s very fascinating to talk to,” she said. “He’s not a typical animal rights proponent in that he understands more — the people are not going to magically become vegan from one exposure — he understands more that it’s a process.

“They really responded to him and his passion,” Brucks said. “It also matters that they like who they’re working with and that person motivates them. He did that.”

Tim Cawthorne, a first-year MBA student with a specialization in marketing, said working with Ball has dispelled any previous opinions of animal rights activists.

“There was a disconnect for me as to what their true motives were, but interacting with Matt has helped me really understand what they’re all about,” he said.

Cawthorne’s group is conducting a survey about the social stigma and norms of veganism. It used picture and word association to determine groups’ perceptions of each other.

“I’m more aware of (animal suffering), and I’m more aware of how people are really actively working to prevent it.”

Becoming ‘The
Accidental Advocate’

Ball wasn’t always a vegan. In 1987, his roommate at the University of Cincinnati, Fred McClintock, told him about the realities of modern agribusiness and vowed that he would turn the soft-spoken and conservative college freshman into a vegetarian.

While Ball felt uncomfortable about how the animals were treated, he felt starved because he was living off grilled cheese and Cap’n Crunch cereal and he went back to eating meat. Ball fully committed to vegetarianism by the time he was a sophomore and never turned back.

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“It wasn’t until I was living on my own and had complete control of my food choices that I realized I had no more excuses,” he said.

Ball got into activism after writing an account of his becoming vegetarian in the school newspaper. The article got the attention of Phil Murray, who befriended Ball and also elected to go vegetarian.

The duo became activists and began doing whatever they could, whether it was leafleting, talking at schools or civil disobedience protests. They were once arrested at Proctor & Gamble’s annual shareholder meeting for protesting the company’s animal testing.

“We took an anything-and-everything approach,” Ball said. Murray now co-owns Pangea Vegan Products —

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in aerospace engineering in 1991, Ball received two graduate degrees: a master’s in forest ecology from the University of Illinois in 1993, and a master’s in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University in 1997.

Ball met his soon-to-be wife, Anne Green, at Illinois while she was working on her doctorate and moved with her to Pittsburgh after she was offered a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon. He worked a fellowship with the Department of Energy at Illinois, which he transferred to Pennsylvania, and a job as a biology research associate at the University of Pittsburgh.

He was taking classes toward a doctorate in environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon when he decided that he wanted to make activism — which at the time was a side project — a full-time job.

Along with Jack Norris, whom he met while protesting, he founded in 1993 Vegan Outreach, a nonprofit that attempts to move society away from eating animals and their products.

Working out of their homes, they did whatever they could to reduce animal suffering.

“Activism is determining the best way to reach people,” he said, noting that booklets were the most effective tools during the pre-Internet era.

The nonprofit eventually became successful enough that it could sustain itself. Green left her job in academia and started working for the organization full-time.

Citing seasonal effective disorder, the couple decided to move to Tucson in June 2007 after visiting for the first time in spring 1994 — and many times after that.

“It’s really nice to have someone I’m close to and so in sync with to be able to discuss things with,” Ball said of Green. “We both understand each other.”

Reasoned approach, rather than the ‘angry vegan’

While research has shown that five of six people who choose to become vegetarian don’t stay vegetarian, Ball remains encouraged.

He points to Meatless Mondays, “Vegan Before 6” (Mark Bittman’s 2014 book advocating plant-based eating before 6 p.m.) and the overall trend of trying new things as steps in the right direction.

Ball said he understands how big a decision it is to go vegetarian, especially considering his own experience.

“I understand that there are people out there who believe that only veganism matters,” he said. “But for me, anything that’s helping is good. Anything that’s causing fewer animals who are suffering on factory farms is a plus.”

Ball said he’s very grateful for the positive feedback from other members of the animal rights community, especially considering the mistakes he made early on. He believes his self-described “angry vegan” approach initially turned away people from his cause.

“I’m really honored to have made so many friends in the community and to have heard from a lot of people that my writings have helped them in their veganism and their activism,” he said.

Ball and Green are also thrilled with their daughter, Ellen, who was raised vegan since birth, and is a junior at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She’s a molecular biology major and is also on the cross-country and track-and-field teams.

An activist like her parents, her efforts are more focused on issues in the LGBT community.

“We’re so proud of her,” Ball said.

While his work follows him around on his iPad, Ball said he spends his free time running, hiking, traveling, doing photography and watching shows on Netflix.

“Anne and I try to do something fun every week,” he said. “I just love Arizona. … The diversity of the state is incredible.”

Through his work, Ball hopes to continue growing VegFund, specifically by supporting VegFests, or festivals that show how to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

“If I can convince one person to go vegetarian, I can suddenly have an impact in the world and set an example for other people,” Ball said.

Justin Sayers is a Tucson-based

freelance writer. Contact him at

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