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Hidden Gems: Meet Kyle Luzynski of Project Animal Freedom

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kyle Luzynski. 

Hi Kyle, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
With my 26th birthday now six months away, I am already celebrating the six years’ worth of animal rights activism I have engaged in thus far. Despite my relative longevity as an activist, however, I have overcome significant difficulties to reach where I am today, difficulties all but a select few realize the full extent of.

As a young child, I barely spoke until the age of two. Even then, I resorted primarily to short, choppy commands, such as “hungry,” “thirsty,” and—as I am embarrassed to admit—“wipe my butt.” My only friends as a young child were my cousins; otherwise, I grew up in a social vacuum, preoccupied by my own largely pre-verbal thought world.

By age five, I was still failing to develop at the same pace as other children; a family friend, Rita, who only retired a few years ago from her position as the Executive Director of the St. Louis Center for Hearing and Speech, noted I was significantly developmentally delayed. My parents’ concerns only grew as I entered kindergarten; I struggled to learn the alphabet, recall the months of the year, and even distinguish my right hand from my left hand (even to this day, I occasionally mix up “d’s” and “b’s” and hesitate as I determine which hand is which, preferring to simply point the correct direction should someone ask me). By first grade, I was placed in special ed due to a pronounced case of ADHD and a presumed intellectual disability.

But something remarkable happened; as I was inundated with new children, I began learning how to communicate, how to operate outside the peculiar, autistic operations that defined my mental aptitude. As my verbal capacity expanded rapidly during my second year in K-12, so, too, did my ability to engage with the outside world. By the end of first grade, I tested at or above the 97th percentile on the MAP test; by the end of second grade, I tested at or above the 99th percentile on the MAP test. Understandably flummoxed by these highly incongruous results, officials at my school commissioned an IQ test that same year; once more, I tested at or above the 99th percentile (it was not until fifth grade, however, that I was allowed to participate in the Talented and Gifted program as I was presumed too socially impaired to participate until that point).

My life is a story of overcoming limitations, of continuing to fight long after many would have given up. I have survived bullying. I have survived harassment. I have survived slander. I have survived libel. I have survived character defamation. I have survived every suicidal impulse since the age of 16 when I was diagnosed with severe, 1-in-a-1,000 level depression, and I have now outlived my friend, Nick, who committed suicide a few years ago only for me to discover the tragic news on Facebook. I have outlasted, outperformed, and, with increasing frequency, outsmarted many of my foremost opponents, and I have emerged all the stronger for having encountered and overcome their fierce resistance to my upward ascent.

I am a fighter. I have witnessed dozens of activists wax and wane, many seemingly lost forever. I have consistently broken the rules and defied the odds, going from someone presumed intellectually disabled to being named the highest-scoring member of the All-Missouri Academic Team from a potential pool of 100,000 applicants. I have overcome dozens of setbacks only to achieve unprecedented success, success that, even just a few years ago, would have been unthinkable. I have gone on to found arguably the fastest-growing animal rights organization in the entire Midwest, assembling a team of roughly 20 individuals despite the concerted efforts of a handful of toxic, vindictive activists who have used their wiles to deny me my rightful place in our local animal rights movement and beyond. I have survived it all, and I am all the stronger for it.

I intend to devote the rest of my life to the good, the just, and the true, the three pillars upon which my foremost ethical convictions rest, until my character becomes so supple no one will dare oppose me or my mission of building a fully vegan world by 2056. I may be the most hated vegan in St. Louis, but I do not intend to forever remain so; eventually, my character will shine through, and the dementors trying to feast on my soul will be expelled to Azkaban. I am not the monster people make me out to be, though I have certainly made serious mistakes and can be unpleasant to live with (I would much rather spend 8-12 hours a day fighting for the animals than complete monotonous, ineffectual tasks like cleaning my room, folding the laundry, or washing the dishes).

As my reach has grown over the past couple years so, too, has the amount of harassment I experience. People have added me to hunting mailing lists, animal ag mailing lists, and countless other mailing lists. I receive spam almost every single day, often in sudden bursts when one of my haters decides to give away my email to yet more businesses, groups, and other organizations I have no interest in. At least one of these haters has taken to calling law offices requesting I receive help with my “head injury,” a nonexistent pending eviction, and other legal matters for which I do not require representation. One of my haters is even homophobic enough to sign me up for immunodeficiency support groups, implying I struggle with HIV/AIDS or another immunodeficiency disorder, and fatphobic enough to suggest I need an electric scooter due to my erumpent obesity.

While it can be amusing to receive eyebrow-raising mail from the Church of Scientology, the overall effect can occasionally be demoralizing, especially when it is other vegans who are harassing me. I consider suicide every single day, and I know at least half a dozen people would secretly celebrate if I finally succeeded in killing myself (I have attempted suicide twice, only to pull out at the last moment). But I remind myself how much work there is to be done, how much good I can still do for the world even in my damaged condition, and I carry on. I am disabled, and I succumb regularly to major depressive episodes during which I nearly let go of everything that once mattered to me. But a sliver of that passion survives each mental die out, my strength eventually returning like life once again flourishing after a major extinction event. As much as people despise me, I worry I am here to stay, bruises and all.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?

My life has always been one of breaking the rules and defying the odds. In high school, no one would have imagined I would make it as far as I have, but I predicted I would outperform all my peers by the time I earned my bachelor’s degree; my prediction came true three years later when I was named the highest-scoring member of the All-Missouri Academic Team from a pool of 100,000 potential applicants. I have also gone on to found the fastest-growing animal rights organization in the entire Midwest, and we have finally crystallized our novel strategy for building the largest, strongest, and most resilient activist network the animal rights movement has yet seen.

I did, however, acquire a number of scars in the process of trying to maximize my impact for animals. When I became the youngest-ever board president of another animal rights organization, I moved far too quickly for my fellow team members to keep apace with me, and I maneuvered to change the strategic direction of this by-and-large antiquated organization to make us the largest and most successful we had ever been. My goal was to help the greatest number of animals to the greatest extent possible, a goal which required revolutionizing this largely stagnant organization. As so often happens with progressive political movements, however, this revolution was quashed by more conservative members, and I spent the next several months working at a fraction my potential until my closest confidants convinced me it would be better to start an entirely new organization than endure several years of micro-management only to most likely fail at my mission of revolutionizing this small, struggling, increasingly moribund organization.

When I finally tendered my resignation, I celebrated by eating cherry chocolate-chip ice cream and drinking Virgil’s Root Beer from Trader Joe’s, two of the items I had bought for this special, self-liberatory occasion. I also disconnected from social media and my email for four whole days out of fear of receiving any retributive messages. I had intended to facilitate a leadership transition as I still cared for their organization, but I decided against this course of action when my fear was confirmed whereupon I finally opened my email inbox after a four-day hiatus. Unfortunately, I matched the toxicity of the unpleasant email I received by shooting off several lengthy emails highlighting my extreme dissatisfaction with this organization’s conservative ways and seeming inability to grapple with transformative change in a healthy, productive fashion; that one negative email turned me against tendering this organization any further support.

While it is true I ruffled quite a few feathers around the time of my resignation, nothing could have prepared me for the drama that would ensue. I had imagined that by leaving this organization behind to found a much more successful, effective organization, I had escaped all the drama and debilitating micro-management I endured while board president of my former nonprofit. Unfortunately, I was sorely mistaken; my former nonprofit retaliated by manipulating three professional caterers into abandoning Project Animal Freedom just weeks before our first annual Vegmas celebration, an event upon which so much of our reputation was staked. One board member, in particular, did everything in her power to block, ban, defame, suppress, and otherwise harm me and the organization I founded. I have never witnessed another activist do something as appalling as actively trying to destroy another animal rights organization, but I have come to expect the worst from this individual and my former nonprofit.

Exceedingly few people, however, know the truth about the many lies, exaggerations, and other contrivances my former nonprofit and one individual have spread about me, and there are several compelling explanations as to why they have managed to pollute our community with so much misinformation for years on end with few, if any, refutations of such misinformation. Unlike the saboteur referenced above, I do not leverage my network to manipulate dozens of people into not liking someone. I am also a loner who finds parties dreadfully boring (at least when not eating or getting business done), who despises the inefficiency of most human interaction, and who is perfectly happy to sit at a computer working all day, loathing even the slightest diversion from my work.

Given my highly introverted nature (I tested at or above the 99th percentile for introversion on a test I took several years ago, though I appear to have softened in recent years due to the incipient recognition of the need to collaborate with others to achieve maximum impact), I have few close friends, making me particularly vulnerable to attacks; there is simply no one to defend me, and the handful of people who do know the truth either are not willing to engage with such negativity, are not well connected enough to make significant difference, are bound by confidentiality, or have been intimidated into silence by fear of retaliation and my former nonprofit’s predilection of weaponizing their pro bono attorney against me and the organization I founded.

My vulnerability is further compounded by Asperger’s, a disability on the autism spectrum that has long impaired my ability to understand social situations and respond in a way that other people find appropriate. Due to my social ineptitude, I often come across as a bumbling oaf, and my lack of social propriety leads many people to dislike or even despise me for relatively trivial slights that invariably happen when you are as socially clumsy as I am. I also have a mild speaking impediment and struggle to verbally communicate with others, especially when there are disagreements or emotions involved, a carryover from my largely nonverbal, autistic thought world as a young child. These weaknesses have caused me enormous grief, with some people begrudging me simply for my booming voice.

While I have made remarkable progress over the past few years, bipolar disorder still continues to haunt me, not because I still undergo episodes (I am celebrating one full year with neither a depressive nor a manic episode; typically, I would have 3-4 such events each year), but because of the social traps my mom claims I have fallen into “hook, line, and sinker.” Because of the mistakes I made years ago while manic, I have made it exceptionally easy for my detractors to assassinate my character, especially since people do not know the full context and, worse yet, have been fed years’ worth of misinformation by multiple people connected to my former nonprofit. If people knew what a handful of toxic, vindictive people did to evoke such reactions, if they knew how S the Sociopath always smirked every time she claimed to feel “unsafe” around me (on one occasion, she even successfully manipulated an alcoholic chef into physically assaulting me, and she pointed through the window once I was violently removed from the restaurant, laughing maniacally and rocking back and forth, overcome with joy (I have two witnesses who can attest to disconcerting fact, as well as its implications for her character)), they would realize I am not as evil as I am often made out to be; I am not the monster my former nonprofit would have you believe.

I may very well be the most hated vegan in St. Louis, but I am also likely the most lied about; it is the cumulative impact of these lies, not those sins I actually did commit, that have cemented my reputation as a moral transgressor of the highest order. I moreover have to live with the pain of being hated for things I never even did (S the Sociopath is a master manipulator, a pathological liar, and a secret saboteur willing to do whatever it takes to preserve her own crumbling reputation; once a rumor reaches critical mass, however, people start to believe it, no matter how outrageously false it truly is), and where I did err I have tried to make amends (I have even extended several olive branches to my former nonprofit over the past couple years, but they consistently make the wrong choice). I have also paid dearly for those sins to which I must confess; I contemplate suicide every single day because I feel trapped in a cobweb of deceit, hatred, and manipulation, that no matter how hard I try and no matter what I do, my fiercest critics and those acolytes they have successfully misled will still abhor me and the organization I founded, largely on the basis of outright lies, gross exaggerations, and viciously one-sided sob stories.

Overcoming drama and the wiles of a master manipulator have been the greatest challenge in our pursuit of a fully vegan Midwest by 2056. Fortunately, the influence of the individuals who have tried to stymie us (and who thereby jeopardized the rights, lives, and wellbeing of millions of more-than-human animals we will go on to help) continues to wane, and our success grows more undeniable by the day. In fact, my life coach, Mark Cook, thinks my former nonprofit is not only bitter, but also fearful of just how much our organization and I, in particular, are accomplishing; we have surpassed my former nonprofit by almost every metric in the span of just three years, and all this despite their consistent, underhanded efforts to undermine, delegitimize, and even outright destroy our organization. The optimistic way to view this situation is as follows: to have gotten as far as we have, we have had no choice but to significantly overperform, giving us tremendous pent-up potential that will be released as my former nonprofit’s empire of lies continues to crumble into the ocean, only to be washed away and never seen again.

At Project Animal Freedom, we will make history while they become history.

As you know, we’re big fans of Project Animal Freedom. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about the brand?

At Project Animal Freedom, we are working to build the largest, most resilient grassroots network the animal rights movement has ever seen via a unique community-building strategy that, to the best of our knowledge, no other animal rights organization has yet implemented at scale. This strategy involves targeting major metropolitan areas with human-animal populations in excess of 100,000 that lack a local animal rights organization. Remarkably, only 15 of 58 such metropolitan areas across the Midwest possess so much as a single local animal rights organization, leaving not only a massive void in the Midwestern animal rights movement but also an enormous opportunity to galvanize the Midwest like never before in the fight for more-than-human and human-animal liberation.

With just 15 out of 58 major metropolitan areas across the Midwest possessing so much as a single local animal rights organization, there exists a massive void and missed opportunity to radically strengthen our collective movement for animal rights across the Midwest. Indeed, many of these major metropolitan areas lack so much as a single veg-related group on Facebook, let alone a formally recognized nonprofit dedicated to the rights, lives, and wellbeing of the most innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless among us.

Meanwhile, extremely well-funded organizations like PETA and The Humane League, for their many victories, have failed to invest heavily in local animal rights activism, with the exception of their corporate offices in just a handful of cities and sending materials to organizers. Were PETA to implement our 50/50 fundraising rule—through which 50% of all funds raised by each chapter is reinvested in that chapter via a grant process that emphasizes efficacy before all else—and launch a chapter in every metropolitan area across the US with a human-animal population in excess of 100,000, they would have 317 thriving, community-organizing hubs each with a budget of roughly $90,000, much of which can be reinvested into fundraising efforts that not only sustain the chapter but consistently produce surpluses in a self-maximizing system of unprecedented growth.

But alas, PETA has failed; every major animal rights organization has failed, even the handful that does launch chapters (the three major chapter-building organizations in the animal rights movement either do not fund their chapters or make funding virtually inaccessible for their chapters, permanently stunting their growth and ability to build the largest, most effective movement possible in their respective communities; suffer from serious leadership issues, leading to mass defections and thus the loss of what movement they had built in many cities; lack a coherent strategy for actually generating transformational institutional change as quickly and effectively as possible; or some combination of the above, in addition to a number of other salient issues worthy of a more thorough discussion elsewhere).

At Project Animal Freedom, we strive to learn from the failures, missteps, and deficits of previous chapter-building animal rights organizations, including not only the institution of our 50/50 fundraising rule (which is actually very generous considering other animal rights organizations provide little to no funding to their chapters, but which is also necessary given the overhead costs necessary to maintain our network as a whole) but also through the application of a rigorous, strategic approach to chapter formation; the pursuit of maximally effective campaign targets; and the implementation of our unique community-building strategy.

In Lincoln, NE, we are currently testing our unique strategy for community-building, a strategy we have refined over the past 2-1/2 years in St. Louis, and the results are already highly compelling; in just under two months since joining our team, the highly dependable Lead Organizer of our Lincoln, NE chapter, Alex Gewecke, took the online vegan community for Lincoln, NE from 0 to nearly 150 people through entirely organic methods alone. We have taught him how to effectively network, even when no one else is networking and even in the absence of proper infrastructure for the explosive growth we seek. We expect group membership to explode to 500 people by the end of the year.

Project Animal Freedom is thus, first and foremost, a movement-based organization; our goal is to realize the full potential of the modern animal rights movement, and doing so requires the mobilization of millions of people fighting in unison to achieve a set goal. The best way to build such a movement, we believe, is through a strategic chapter-based system that emphasizes our three core competencies: marketing, fundraising, and leadership recruitment.

Some animal rights organizations, like PETA, have excellent marketing capacity. Others excel at recruiting leaders— for example, the Save Movement. But no major animal rights organization seems to have mastered all three (some, like The Humane League, come close but fall short when it comes to launching as many chapters as possible and heavily reinvesting in those chapters in a manner that produces a self-reinforcing feedback loop).

At Project Animal Freedom, we won’t just have sparse meetups and small-scale, poorly attended, once-a-month demonstrations. We won’t just have unusually passionate “Team Captains” fundraising on behalf of an animal rights organization that has only a marginal presence in their local community. And we won’t just send the rare, independent, standout activist free signage and a 10-page campaign action guide they will use at just a handful of events. Instead, we envision a self-sustaining, self-maximizing chapter system that electrifies the animal rights scene in major metropolitan areas across the Midwest. (Of course, each of these chapters will likely rely on the extremely dedicated work of a handful of activists early on, but by following our model, each of our chapters should succeed in building the infrastructure necessary to become a thriving, semi-autonomous tour de force in their local community. We can then harness the power of these chapters to exert the pressure so often necessary to generate large-scale institutional change.)

Because we economically empower each of our chapters, up to and including the hiring of exceptional activists whereupon their chapter reaches critical mass, each of our chapters can easily accomplish an order of magnitude more good than the vast majority of chapters run by other animal rights organizations. The long-term trajectory of each of our chapters, as they surpass benchmark after benchmark, is so encouraging, in fact, that generating an impact two orders of magnitude greater than the average chapter of another animal rights organization is entirely feasible, even on a 5–10-year time frame.

The work of these other chapter-building animal rights organizations is certainly crucial, but by embracing our movement-building strategy, they could enact exponentially more change than they manage to at present. Since they have thus far failed to implement this pivotal strategy, however, the task is now ours.

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?

The most essential character trait to cultivate in your life if you want to be successful? Sheer grit!

I have struggled with weight for the majority of my life beginning at age eight. By 3rd grade, I started becoming noticeably bulky. By the time I reached 6th grade, I was one of the fattest kids in my entire class, regularly indulging in chocolate eclairs, Lay’s ranch dip, and other unhealthy foodstuffs.

At age 12, I went vegan. I rapidly lost weight, going from one of the most obese kids in my grade to the fastest long-distance runner at a school of 800 in the span of a single year (my brother, Gabe, would later eclipse this record by becoming the fastest long-distance runner at a school of 1,700). I even became borderline underweight, with my great-grandma imploring me to spoil myself by eating a handful of Hershey’s Kisses almost every time I saw her and my aunt, a hospital worker, warning me I could wind up on the hospital bed due to anorexia (I was never anorexic, just unusually slim for our supersized American culture).

Around age 19, I began loosening up on my dietary restrictions, which were so extreme, my mom referred to my collection of dietary habits as the “Kylan Diet.” I would not eat anything with sugar in it for fear of bone char, I would not drink out of plastic bottles or containers for fear of plastic toxicity, nor would I touch anything that contained animal products for fear of contamination (a habit still going strong to this day, though I can now sit on leather without needing to use a sheet to shield myself from such coriaceous material).

As I slowly abandoned former dietary restrictions, one by one, I began eating gummies, cereal, and cookies—boxes and boxes of cookies! I would even throw cookie parties when I tutored students in logic (though, naturally, I ate half the pack by my lonesome). I also started eating 4-5 meals a day, constantly assuaging my massive appetite. I started gaining roughly 30-50 pounds a semester until, just two months ago, I tipped the scales at 327 pounds.

When I reached 333 pounds, I planned to make a Facebook post about my ongoing battle against erumpent obesity (I was born at 3:33 p.m. on Thursday, February 8th of 1996, endowing the number 333 with special significance to me). Instead, I am happy to report I now weigh just 310 pounds. This unprecedented weight loss coincided with the holidays, during which I spent several days feasting on vegan turkey-free roasts, mashed potatoes and gravy, and entire bottles of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider.

How did I manage to lose this weight? It required a radical change of perspective. At the end of last January, I imploded due to a major depressive episode obscured by the coronavirus pandemic. I ceased almost all activism, and my life descended into an endless rut of match after match of Age of Empires II. While I slowly mastered a very specific map titled “Forest Cyrcle Prison” with the 256x tech mod, I felt miserable every single day, consigning myself to a life of mediocrity, of failure. I felt my potential had drained away, that I had no choice but to become a vapid hedonist, always searching for happiness through mindless, mildly pleasurable activities, but never truly finding it.

After seven months of near inactivity, I made the sudden decision to quit my gaming addiction, and I deleted my Steam account. I decided that, rather than embracing a life of pointless frivolity and heavily internalized worthlessness, I would recommit myself to activism, no matter how hard my mind resisted or my anxiety flared (I spent my final few weeks of activism in January dreading each and every event, feeling like an abject failure, and stressing about the smallest detail going awry). I have never gone back since.

I abruptly reconvened the board, which had ostensibly been inactive due to the coronavirus pandemic (in reality, a depressive episode had severely compromised my ability to perform, with the pandemic only serving as a convenient excuse for my sapless productivity). I also committed to organizing a member meeting the first Monday of every month, even if adhering to this schedule (at the time) caused me significant distress. I reactivated our Events committee. My dread slowly dissipated, and I found myself willing to re-engage with a former self-identity as an activist that nearly died during my seven-month dry spell. I started enjoying the events I organized again. I began valuing interpersonal connection rather than being overcome by anxiety and ceaseless thoughts of social inadequacy.

As I rediscovered my purpose in life, my diet shifted; I found the motivation necessary to deny myself that next cookie. I found the motivation necessary to stop eating 4-5 meals a day, with food having served as my foremost analgesic after countless, emotion-dulling hours of purposeless, self-indulgent gaming. I also found the motivation to decrease the size of my meals, to skip that midnight snack, and to begin eating healthier, more vegetable-rich foods.

Soon enough, my cookie addiction ceased, and I could manage to eat just one or two cookies at a time without devouring the entire pack. I even managed to cut down my food consumption to just two or three meals a day, skipping breakfast most days of the week (it would be better to skip dinner, but a large, nightly dinner seems to be a habit too strong for me to break). In mid-December, I even decided to start jogging; that regimen lasted a single day as I broke my toe on a bowling ball carrier bag the very next day.

Despite sitting at a computer all day and, at most, taking a 20-minute walk with my puppy, I stepped on the scale yesterday to discover a startling surprise. I kept repositioning myself on the scale to confirm the result: I now weigh just 310 pounds, down from the 313 pounds I weighed the last time I stepped onto the scale and the 327 pounds I peeked at in early November.

On my weight loss journey, I have lost 17 pounds so far, but I will keep working until I reach my goal weight of 160-180 pounds by the end of 2023. The key to success, then, is a willingness to fight long after other people would have given up, with success being no more than the steady accumulation of small deeds that become larger habits. If you can change your habits, you can transform your life, the lives of loved ones, and ultimately the world itself.

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