Interview with Zilin Zhang | Capture life, glimpse joy

Author: ; Translators: Adela Li, Andrea Jia; Edited by Andrea Jia @Animal Dialogue

First published on Maker Sustainability Consulting 2020/03/31

It is the spring equinox and time to head home from work, Zilin had to take the subway home because the weather suddenly turned cold and she did not put on enough layers. Normally, Zilin always walks to work, and even on rainy days, she would choose biking as the mode of transportation. 

Zilin applies the concept of sustainability into every single aspect of her life. Her standards for herself are relentless, whether it is her five years of strict veganism, her prolonged refusal of take-out food, or even her attempts at reducing the use of plastic-packaged foods. 

She is restrained, but at the same time, she is also sensitive to life and extremely perceptive. 

Capturing the neglected matters 

Zilin does not think she is more perceptive to life than others. “Maybe what sets me apart is the fact that I focus on very minute details, but this does not mean other people are not perceptive to life.” 

For Zilin, being perceptive to life can have many manifestations, whether it is sharing photos of travel and food, or getting excited about selling goods on live broadcast. 

Zilin is not very sensitive about popular trends. For example, she does not follow the opening of new restaurants, popular tourist attractions, or this seasons’ latest fashion trends. 

However, she is better at discovering the little things in life and sharing them. On this day of the spring equinox, she posted this on her Wechat moments (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook posts): “A canvas bag tinted with strawberry brings a breath of spring.” 

She often shares little details of her life on her Wechat moments. “Tonight, the stars are so luminous, but it is a shame the riverside lights are also bright. Children are playing the game of Red Light/Green Light, alongside the scent of flowers that were not here this morning. Spring is here.” 

Zilin always dresses in a simple and refreshing style, and never leaves home without her Kindle. “My feelings are particularly sensitive to the realms of humans and animals, nature, and environmental protection. I love seeing the happy moments of the average person, especially if they are from a marginalized population. I am also delighted by the sight of blue sky, flowers, and tree saplings.” 

Zilin also loves to share posts that are particularly interesting and worthy of deep thought. “Some friends have told me that they love reading my posts, and I believe the reason is that I share content as a result of my own reflection. It is more down-to-earth.” 

A post from Zilin’s Wechat moments

Empathy and understanding of social issues 

Zilin is concerned about animal ethics. She often thinks about the relationship between humans and animals, the moral status of animals, and how can humans be responsible for them or fulfill their obligations to animals. “I enjoy critical thinking.” 

Not only does she reflect on the relationship between humans and animals, but she also puts her considerations into practice. 

Zilin’s undergraduate degree was in Finance, and she started focusing on animal protection since her third year of undergrad. She then did graduate studies at the Columbia School of Social Work at Columbia University. On why she chose the major of social work, Zilin smiled, “I might have had a compassion overload.” 

Photo credit: 瑛亮

Behind her “compassion overload”, lies her concern about vulnerable groups (humans and animals). She wants to better understand the formation, development, and resolution of social issues. “We can better help vulnerable populations by understanding social issues.” 

During her graduate studies, Zilin offered social services to a senior’s center in the largest Chinese community in Manhattan. She determined the type of support the client might need, such as legal support, mental health services, social assistance, and so on. At the same time, she fought for the rights of these seniors with the relevant authorities. 

*Zilin and her friends who also volunteered at the senior’s center in Manhattan 

“You need to know about someone’s living environment, personal characteristics, current predicament, as well as the reason for the predicament.” 

*A sunset in Manhattan photographed by Zilin 

An outstanding clinical social worker often forms a long-term, one-on-one, personal, and professional relationship with the client. However, this personal and professional relationship with the individual client also requires an accumulation of over 3,000 hours of service and professional certification. 

*The separate meals of Zilin and members of the senior’s center in the largest Chinese community in Manhattan 

“Social Work is a comprehensive discipline. During my studies, I realized that animal protection and services for people focus on different subjects, but in essence, the two types of work both pertain to humans. Even when working in animal protection, we are doing work around human stakeholders with regard to animals. We cannot change the behavior of animals, but we can change the behavior of human stakeholders within the animal industries.” 

Although social work is a subject that is centered around people, it can still apply to the understanding of animal protection and solving social issues through advocacy, social practice, and influencing policy.  

Caring for every living creature 

The most well-known aspect of animal protection is wildlife protection. However, Zilin’s establishment of a value system for animal protection is based on caring for every living creature. “I believe the essence of the animal’s benefits is their feelings, whether it is pain or happiness. I emphasize on the individual animal’s behalf, and I care about every single individual’s situation. 

Wildlife sometimes is regarded as a type of resource, though many wildlife conservationists also focus on the individual wild animal’s experience and feelings. However, farm animals and stray animals are not receiving adequate attention despite their close connection with humans and extremely large populations. 

*Zilin visiting a farm in Japan 

Zilin cares about animal ethics, animal legislation, and current news on animal protection practices. She hopes to make more people witness the sufferings of animals through her own actions. 

She interviewed the director of a save-performing-animals project (Hu Chunmei), a professor of animal protection legislation research (Dr. Peter Li), a famous philosopher in the field of animal ethics (Peter Singer), and so on. 

*In 2018, Peter Singer, a famous Australian philosopher, came to China to attend the World Congress of Philosophy, which coincided with the promotion of the new Chinese edition of Animal Liberation. Pictured is Singer’s words of encouragement to Zilin when she assisted with translation during the interview. 

Zilin is actively advocating the concepts of animal protection, animal welfare, and animal rights. However, she does not think demanding everyone to become vegan is the most practical and effective action. 

*Soy Matcha Latte 

“I think that rather than asking everyone to be vegan and stop eating meat, we should advertise for more purchase of products with excellent animal welfare. Meanwhile, reducing the consumption of meat could be beneficial to improving animal welfare, because lowering the numbers of animals allows better allocation of resources to provide better husbandry environment.” 

After sharing her own understanding and thoughts, it is inevitable to be questioned by others. Zilin sometimes wonders how she can better and more objectively understand animal protection and the entire animal industry. 

“I went back to China after graduating from graduate school. I hoped to find more opportunities for on-site visits to animal farms. Through multiple information channels, especially the views of industry workers, I wish to gain a more realistic perspective of the condition of farm animals.” 

*Photographed by Zilin during her visit to a cattle farm. She said, “Cows are very curious animals.” 

However, Zilin said, “I am still not sure about the most effective way to protect animals. I need more experience.” 

When she first joined the MSC team, Zilin hoped to both accumulate business and social experience and understand how to use business models to solve social problems.  

“My graduate thesis is on social enterprise management. Although I know the methods of combining business with society, I may have missed the point of business empathy before. Now I will think from the perspective of the enterprise. 

This type of compassion is indispensable to be sensitive to business and social issues and to develop empathy at work. 

“I attach great importance to the connection between people. It does not need to be too intimate. I can always sense the warmth of the human relationship which will brighten my day.” 

Talk about, understand, and help the rural population 

On why she likes to chat with strangers, Zilin said, “When I’m doing field research, I will take the initiative to chat with strangers in the village, especially the elders. I wish to understand their thoughts and listen to their voices.” 

In Zilin’s view, chatting with the elderly is not only because “they need to be heard”, but also to better understand the countryside.

“Going deep into the countryside can give me some opportunities that I don’t usually have, to understand the rural population that occupies half of China’s population, and to think about the relationship between villages and cities.” 

Zilin participates in the development of many rural poverty alleviation programs in Tongdao, Hunan, and Zhangjiakou, Hebei. She actively promotes rural development through initiatives such as cultural inheritance, community building, industry planning, talent development, and poverty alleviation e-commerce. 

Currently, she is working with her team to promote the rural development project in Tongdao County, Hunan. At this stage, they are establishing a public space for the village. 

“Once the space is built, there needs to be people, and then we need things that can bring the community together.” 

*Zilin discussing the making of lamp cover for the public space with the bamboo weaving artisans 

Whether it is an educational activity for rural children or a cultural activity that villagers can participate in, the purpose of the public space is to connect people.

“I hope this space is an interface between people outside and people inside.” 

At the same time, she also assists the village to collaborate with programs like agricultural technical support and crop sales channels and promotes the landing of these programs. 

“Execution is as important as thought. We can only establish contact with the village and discover its suitable development path during the execution. We cannot stay in the top-level design forever.” 

Thinking in actions, stepping forward in thinking

With more in-depth participation, Zilin has gained more ownership in different projects. When participating in a new market channel expansion and strategic construction project of a leading Chinese cosmetics company, Zilin actively communicated with team members, constantly clarified needs with customers, and gained insight into the strategic development of the company through a sustainable perspective. 

While accumulating consulting experience, Zilin also appreciates the team for their tacit cooperation. 

“We are not limited to communication at work, but we also discuss topics outside of the workplace. This helps to provide a positive bonding experience for the team.” 

However, when she first joined the team, Zilin felt puzzled and disappointed as her colleagues regularly ordered takeout.  

“Our job is related to sustainability, and I sure hope to see everyone moving towards this direction in their daily work and life.” 

*Even when buying strawberries, Zilin uses her own reusable container.

After communicating with Yang Ming, the manager of the business group, Zilin began to think differently. She began to understand the reasons behind everyone’s choice and action and decided to lead by example and motivate others through her own actions. 

In Zilin’s view, the pursuit of a sustainable world requires not only corporate actions but also personal actions. 

“Three months after coming to the company, I talked about waste sorting and reduction in a presentation. Later, everyone in the office started to sort garbage. I was very glad.” 

Xiaojie, the head of the operation group, thinks that it’s great to see everyone making meaningful changes towards sustainability because of Zilin. 

Compared to changes brought on by belief, Zilin thinks that people around us have more influence on each other. She is willing to share her inspirations in life. It’s a joy when her ideas influence people around her to live more sustainably. Like the newly sprouted green buds on the side of the road, she felt full of drive in life. 

Spring equinox was also “meat-free day”. Zilin happily posted about her roommate’s transition from “meat-lover” to accepting veganism. She smiled and said, “I really love to write about my life.”

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