Chicago activist Robert Grillo’s “free from harm” movement
Robert Grillo and Sweet Pea
By Lyz Hoffman
Doris, Danita, and Sweet Pea were waiting in their coop as Robert Grillo walked down the backyard stairs of his house, trailed by Elba, his dove. He opened a gate leading to the coop, and introduced his three hens. At Grillo’s prompting, I petted Danita, her black-with-hints-of-emerald feathers spellbindingly soft.
“You just see how simple it is for them to have their needs met and feel loved and cared for,” Grillo said. “It feels really good to be able to give that back to an animal that all we’ve had is a relationship of taking.”
Grillo rescued the birds from a chick-hatching program in 2009, a “kind of chance” action in a year that would go on to be most integral in his life.
“Their value is based on the extent to which they’re a utility to humans and other than that [they] have no value,” Grillo said later in the kitchen of his North Side home, holding Doris in his lap. “But by showing people something completely different, you’re challenging that belief.”
Challenging one of the fundamental beliefs of mainstream society has become Grillo’s mission.
Also in 2009, the year that he went vegan, Grillo founded Free from Harm, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to promoting animal rights and a vegan diet. (The organization’s 501(c)3 status is still pending but nearly complete, Grillo said.)
His decisions to go vegan — meaning abstaining from eating and using any animal products — and start the organization, he said, stemmed from both a series of small, cumulative moments of increasing awareness and years of on-again, off-again vegetarianism.
“It just became the most amazing and compelling thing for me to explore,” he said. “Breaking the silence on that issue was probably the most important thing I’ll ever do in my lifetime.”
Now, four years after the organization’s inception, the website — freefromharm.org — receives about 30,000 unique visitors per month and its Facebook page has about 8,300 likes. It’s a labor of love for Grillo. Although he pays the site’s web developer, Grillo doesn’t give himself a salary and doesn’t expect to for a while. He makes a living as president of Robert Grillo Creative, serving as a creative consultant and content developer for websites.
Since he started, Grillo, 47, has written more than 500 articles for Free from Harm, with some articles coming courtesy of a cadre of his peers.
“I just assumed it was a nonprofit organization with probably several employees,” said Ashley Capps, 34, a freelance writer who contributes to the website, about when she first discovered Free from Harm. “I later found out it was just something he was doing on the side by himself. It speaks a lot to his character and his commitment.”
Tall and thin, with caring eyes and a soft-spoken eloquence, Grillo said he aims to spread his message of animal abolition in a non-confrontational way. He understands that people can take a while to feel comfortable seriously talking about meat-eating.
“I call him the Fred Rogers of the animal world,” said Anne Hoffman (no relation to the author), 41, a local animal welfare advocate. “He just has such a kind, gentle, sensitive way of presenting himself while at the same time still getting the message across.”
Debby Rubenstein, the founder and president of the Wagner Farm Rescue Fund and Have a Heart Farm, echoed Hoffman’s praise of Grillo.
“I feel like I’ve known him forever,” she said. “Robert is probably one of the first to jump in and help someone else. He definitely lives the philosophy that we’re all in this together.”
Grillo’s view of “we” extends beyond humans to all creatures. “The fact that one species can solve complex mathematical equations and send a man to the moon and another can’t has nothing to do with suffering,” he said.
Grillo said he is hopeful that society can rethink its meat consumption, pointing to recent polling that found up to 6 percent of Americans describe themselves as vegetarians. As that figure grows, Grillo and his peers will continue asking their questions.
“People think they can totally derail the conversation by saying, ‘I love bacon,’” he said. “If we can live healthy lives without harming or killing animals, why wouldn’t we?”
We were nearing the end of our interview when Grillo brought up a question I had asked him earlier: For all of your friends and family who are supportive, are there any who aren’t?
“I thought, if the subject of your article was about a human rights issue, would people be looking for views that support slavery, support oppressive belief systems, or something of that nature?” he asked. “I bet they wouldn’t.”
Lyz Hoffman reporting for Medill Reports Chicago, a publication of Northwestern University (May 22, 2013)