Leaders in Animal Protection: AJ Dahiya

AJ Dahiya
Article published on VeganHacktivists.org

by David David van Beveren | February 9, 2022

AJ Dahiya is a philanthropic leader with nearly a decade of monastic service and the Chief Vision Officer of The Pollination Project, a global community of 4,000+ grassroots volunteer leaders in over 125 countries. 

As the Chief Vision Officer at The Pollination Project, AJ oversees the daily giving of $1,000 microgrants to grassroots community leaders around the world. By equipping individuals with both the initial funding and belief that they can solve society’s most pressing challenges, AJ is expanding the walls of philanthropy and empowering individuals to make a difference.

AJ is committed to challenging the status quo of philanthropy by encouraging grantmaking at the individual level, to ensuring that grantmaking is more equitable and accessible to grassroots leaders, and to creating a kinder, more compassionate world through service.

The Pollination Project has served an impressive number of changemakers across 166 countries! What are the shared qualities or characteristics among these heartivists who have become active in their communities? How can we inspire more?

There are many qualities and characteristics, but the one that stands out to me the most is the desire to be an antidote to apathy. There are many, many issues in the world and most of us can point them out. However, to go beyond pointing out the negative and to become an agent of positive change takes something special. I see that special quality in the heart of our community of changemakers. 

How can we inspire more? We live in a time where society may have made us forget the inherent power each and every individual has. Every individual matters and the innate potential within each and every one of us is the largest untapped resource for creating a better world. We have to believe in ourselves again, we have to support each other in offering our unique gifts to the world, and we have to reignite the power of the individual heart to be a compassionate vehicle driving change. 

It is not uncommon for activists engaged in social justice, whether they’re fighting against human rights violations or animal abuse, to experience burnout. What advice would you give to activists that are nearly burnt out or have already reached this stage? How can they maximize their impact in a more healthy and sustainable way?

Activism, much like life, is a marathon rather than a sprint. While we want to make positive change, it’s important to also be kind to oneself, because how we show up everyday—the mindset, the energy—all determine the level of impact we will have over the long term. 

We live in a world that is dominated by what people stand against and what people hate. A more sustainable stance is to be driven by what we stand for and what we love. Externally it may look the same, but internally when we are moving due to our dislike of the negative, rather than our love for the positive, it takes a toll on one’s well-being—mentally, emotionally and spiritually. 

I feel that it is important that we all have contemplative practices that give us space to look within, while we work without. If we can find time to pause, reflect, take inventory of our motivations and extend kindness and compassion to ourselves as well as others, I feel that we will be working in a sustainable way that brings out our best.

Inner resilience will come from inner reflection and a recalibration.

Your philanthropy addresses both human suffering and animal suffering. Can you speak more to your work in that regard, and the conscious decision to address both by yourself and The Pollination Project?

The world is a complex place, and humans are complex beings. We are committed to supporting a shift in the collective consciousness to create a kinder, more compassionate world for all beings. As individuals with our own particular proclivities, unique callings, and acquired tendencies we recognize that unleashing compassion takes place along a spectrum of human experience and understanding. 

Whichever issue area may call to someone, our efforts are there to fan the spark of compassion in each and every person in order to create a blazing fire of change. My interest is in serving anyone who has a desire to make a difference in the world and I want to support them in offering what they feel is uniquely theirs to give in the greater mission of compassion consciousness. 

Read the full interview here 

Doing Nothing Is Easy

To see something takes little effort. And when we see something, doing nothing is easy.

Part of the problem we have in today’s times is that we have lost view of the inherent agency each and everyone of us have to be agents of change. It’s become far too easy to do nothing and in a world that places high value on an easy life, we are possibly losing one of the most important aspects of being alive – the ability to act. 

We want fast food, next day delivery, and the world at our fingertips. The measure of success becomes the ability to put in little to no effort. 

Yet living a deeply fulfilling life is not an effortless task. It’s one that takes dedication, self- sacrifice and the willingness to push yourself to contribute to a world you want to see. If we want a kinder, more compassionate world, we have to do something.

What can we do to feel motivated to do something, rather than taking the easy route of doing nothing? We have to understand that we are worthwhile, the world is worthwhile and our efforts are worthwhile. We may feel small and helpless, but the impact of unleashing your inner spirit has limitless potential. While the world around you may not change overnight, your efforts will definitely begin to change you. You will realize that you have the ability to make a difference. Rather than feeling victimized by the world, you will begin to feel empowered to stand up and create a difference. 

This is the truth we see every day here at The Pollination Project. Individuals from all over the world, diverse and different, find within themselves a power greater than anything they could have ever imagined. 

The price that we have to pay to uncover the power of compassionate action is the willingness to do something. Doing nothing is easy, doing something is worthwhile. 

Join our community, be a doer and experience the deep fulfillment that can only be found in service to something greater than ourselves

The Heartivist Legacy of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week, the prolific author and thinker Thich Nhat Hanh died; although in penning that sentence I recognize he would take offense to the very idea. He did not believe in death, once writing: 

This body is not me. I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
And I have never died.

Although our spiritual traditions were different, Thich Nhat Hanh entered monastic life around the same age as I did, albeit around 60 years earlier. His teachings on peace and non-violence were transformational in my own personal understanding of the link between social change and inner transformation. Writing about the Vietnam war, he observed many peace activists who were consumed by anger, reflecting that:

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”

He noted in many of his speeches and articles the discordance he felt at seeing people do the work of a peacemaker while they themselves were not at peace. This understanding of the different qualities of “being” versus “doing” is still something I find deeply resonant. He helped the world understand that we cannot give that which we do not have; that our own lives have to be our message; and that, in activism, our own inner life deserves as much attention and care as those we wish to serve. 

He saw his eternal life in the continuation of compassion across the world; a legacy that I know has vibrance in our own beloved Pollination Project community and the spirit of heartivism present there. 

In his honor, may we all be attentive to the miracles before us, be they in “a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops;” 

May we find a sacred meditation in an everyday action, like drinking a cup of tea or eating an apple;

May we accept ourselves, knowing that this is what it means to be truly beautiful; 

May we walk as if we are kissing the earth with our feet. 


Photo credit © Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism

New Year’s Evolution

AJ Dahiya - New Year's Evolution

I must admit, I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. 

I appreciate setting positive intentions, continual improvement, and self-reflective efforts to be a better human. However, I find the idea of rigid timelines and lofty goals counterproductive and in some cases self-defeating. Too often, they are an outgrowth of a misplaced focus on outcome over process, intensity over consistency, and towering achievement over slow and steady daily practice. 

We celebrate astounding weight loss, forgetting that it is the product of thousands of small healthy decisions made repeatedly over time. 

We celebrate awe-inspiring athletic milestones, but not the daily training regimen that makes them possible. 

We marvel at scientific breakthroughs, but ignore the fact that these advances require determination through many failed attempts before ultimate success. 

I believe it was Aristotle who said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

The key here is the reference to repetition; even though we may see the new year as a demarcation of change, or sign up for a 21-day challenge, or pledge to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 days, the truth is that building a daily practice – building a habit – is not a time-limited proposition. 

The answer to the question “How long does it take to build a daily practice?” is simple. It takes a lifetime. 

Rather than resolution, I believe in evolution. 

That’s why our work at The Pollination Project matters to me. It’s a collection of seemingly small grassroots actions that are helping evolve not just the individuals behind them, but our entire planet, into a daily practice of compassion and kindness. It is a community of people who care about outcomes and achievement, sure; but who are also in love with the process of becoming. 

There is nothing special about January 1st except that, like every other day, it is a precious gift shimmering with potential; a new opportunity to build a practice of loving kindness, one small yet beautiful step at a time. 

The Place Where We Are Kind

This week, I am drawing inspiration from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. In particular, his poignant piece “From The Place Where We Are Right.”

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood

In these words I feel a call to humility, mercy, and compassion.

Indeed, so much of our political and social discourse has come to feel like a “ruined house.” Yet at a time of such great division in the world, Amichai’s simple reflection reminds us that even across great differences we have so much in common. We all long for safety, love our children and families, and want to be understood. And perhaps even more fundamentally, I suspect we all have our doubts. We wonder if we are choosing the right paths – whether we are doing enough – both individually and collectively. Yet we hesitate to give ourselves permission to admit that there is so much we do not understand.

If we lead with these “doubts and loves,” perhaps we can stand together not in the place where we are right, but in the place where we are kind. If we choose to listen more, perhaps in this stillness we will hear the whisper of our own consciousness, reminding us of the beauty and promise of our interconnectedness.

Planting Seeds or Stones?

AJ Dahiya - Planting seeds or stones

Lately I have found inspiration in the writings of the Polish-born American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s own life was a testament to the power of the human spirit. His father died when he was just a child, and many more of his family members were murdered in the Holocaust. He escaped to New York in 1940, where he continued his lifelong exploration of Jewish mysticism. 

What I love about Heschel is that although he was a prolific author, scholar, and professor, he was not an armchair philosopher. His faith deeply informed his thoughts on social responsibility. Heschel was a passionate activist for civil rights, joining his friend Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in the Selma to Montgomery march for equality. Of that experience he said “I felt my legs were praying,” and called on other religious leaders to show “spiritual audacity” in the face of oppression. 

Heschel was a man who thought deeply about the relative value of questions versus answers.

His work has particular resonance at this moment in history because, in my humble opinion, we seem to have far more answers than we do questions. Even in our most prescient social challenges – things like racial equity, climate change, animal rights, and more – we see that individuals tend to attach themselves to answers, catchy slogans, and foregone conclusions. The overarching values system has overpromoted the defense of answers far more than it has the passionate inquiry that should lead to them. 

This imbalance might be why we struggle to move forward meaningfully on even those issues that dominate public discourse. According to Heschel, adopting answers without questioning can never lead to meaningful forward motion. He once wrote:

“There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.”

Heschel, like our community of changemakers at The Pollination Project, was a doer. He was a thinker who manifested action through a process of deep inquiry, just like those our community uplifts each day. I daresay he was a heartivist. 

No stones have been planted in our global garden; only living thoughts that grow and blossom into a kinder, more compassionate world. Thank you to each of our changemakers who make up this vibrant ecosystem of kindness, whose prayers are extended hands to their communities. I am eternally inspired by you.

Real Friends

AJ Dahiya - Real Friends

There are over 7 billion people on the planet, each born with a drive to connect. The explosion of technology means we can digitally meet new people from all over the world. Social media “friends” lists can number in the thousands, a testament to our innate interest in the lives of others. 

But what is a “friend,” really?

When things are going well, we may find ourselves surrounded by friends. But when things are more challenging, many of those same people may well disappear. When adversity comes knocking, those who turn toward us rather than away from us are our real friends. When life becomes messy and the party’s over, real friends step forward and lend a hand to help us clean it all up. 

Early in The Pollination Project’s history, we supported a project led by Kelsey Crowe, an empathy expert who went on to co-write a book called “There is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” The book deals with how to support the people we love through illness or adversity. One aspect of the book that I won’t soon forget involved moving from thinking about being helpful to actually acting on that intention. This means replacing the ubiquitous “let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” with statements “I will bring you dinner on Friday,” or “I am coming over tomorrow to tidy up for you.” 

There is so much in this simple notion that underlies who we are at The Pollination Project. Our community is full of compassionate doers. Rather than waiting to be asked, they show up and fill the need before them. 

During the unfolding of COVID-19 across the world, I was so uplifted by the ways our community turned towards the most vulnerable in their own backyards. In recent weeks during the second surge in India, I felt this same inspiration. In moments of crisis, we are here for each other, bonded in our shared hope of a kind, compassionate world. 

Our highest aspiration is not to be a foundation that only gives away money. Our aim is simple: to show up and be a friend – a real friend.