Feature a Friend Friday – Mary Stesha Johnson

I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to get to know Mary Johnson over the years and its an honor to call her a friend. As a friend, I was pretty curious recently to learn more about her passions and what she’s been up to. Coincidentally, Michelle and I got to see her and BF Axel on an unexpected visit to AZ.

Mary is a vegan and I have always been curious about veganism. Likely because it’s a very touchy subject for many and a part of it involves food. In my observation, it’s pretty common for people on both sides to judge one another and forgetting about the personal reasons and beliefs for why someone chooses to vedge out or cookout. The arguments are typically black and white, right or wrong, and are largely anecdotal.

Nevertheless, the lesson that continually shows up throughout my life is to always question everything you know to be “true” with the purpose of gaining knowledge to understand the FULL story. There are brilliant people to learn from and we should take the time to understand the full spectrum of ideas and not quickly discard others views as misinformed because we disagree.

Remember, feature a friend is not here to push an agenda. It is to invite open and honest answers to the sometimes random questions I pose to learn more about who my friends are. And it’s usually randomly planned.

In one-two sentences, what do you do and who you are as a person?

I advocate for the well being of others and I do my best to live my values.

What values do you feel define who you are? 

I’m going to answer this question and the next together.

You started as a vegetarian. Do you remember if there was a last straw/breaking point that made you switch to veganism?

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12. As 12-year-olds so often are, I was pretty in-your-face about my beliefs. I wanted everyone to know the plight of animals and be on board with me in my quest for a vegetarian world. Everyone needed to see the videos of a cow hanging by its leg and slowly bleeding to death. I’d do lengthy presentations to classes and I was actually pretty good at it. All kinds of people went veg for a period of time (including your beautiful lady, Michelle). I didn’t have the whole picture though, and I don’t know that I wanted to.

What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t dig into what it meant to eat dairy and eggs. I was vegan on and off for maybe around 8 years. I knew it was the right thing to do, but not to the point where I was going to fully commit. It was so hard. I had a lot going on in my life and didn’t want to make time to learn what I needed to learn. I worked in services for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence 3 years and did not have the emotional strength to dig into the content that would send me over the edge. Vicarious trauma can be pretty overwhelming when you work in social services. Long gone were the days that I could pull up a video of suffering animals as motivation. I certainly didn’t want to learn that all the cheese I was eating was a product of certain animal suffering.

I have always known that my true calling is to help animals, so I left my job. It felt so good. I could go on for hours about how much I needed this. Friends and family would comment on how happy I seemed. I had space in my life to dig into animal rights issues. I got a job that supported me as a waitress, brewery tour guide, and bartender– fun, (typically) stress-free work.

Finally, I was given the opportunity to do a show on WRWO 94.5 FM/LP Ottawa. It is called “Meatless Mondays” within a larger show called “Compassionate Living”. For a few years, I had been vegan at home and vegetarian when at restaurants and with friends and family. When I started the show I was beginning to spend big chunks of time reading books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, collecting articles. I couldn’t do it anymore. I could not continue to eat products that animals are used and abused to create. I was also vastly expanding my knowledge of nutrition. It’s absolutely incredible how brainwashed we are as a society to think that these products are healthy and necessary.

Mary and Dr. Neal Barnard at Mad City Vegan Fest. She went 100% vegan while reading his book, The Cheese Trap.



Being vegan isn’t the most convenient. What keeps you inspired when it is seemingly impossible to eat vegan?

First, animals– the moments of pleasure given by eating cheese, flesh, eggs, etc. will never be worth the life of those suffering to create it.

Second, health– I could go on forever. Meat, dairy, and eggs are detrimental to health in a lot of ways. I mentor quite a few people who are switching to plant-based diets and they’re constantly telling me how much better they feel. My personal story is pretty incredible, too. I have endometriosis. Some of my symptoms have included extreme pain, side aches, sciatica and some other gems that are a little too TMI to share with you. Within 10 days of giving up dairy entirely, these symptoms started to go away and have since disappeared.

Third, environment– the amount of resources that go into animals grown for food is outrageous, not to mention all the pollution that occurs in the process.

And, fourth, human justice issues– so often these large factory farming facilities are created in poverty-stricken areas. Healthy food is also often not an option for marginalized communities. By participating in a nutrient-rich diet I can help advocate by model and also use my knowledge to help make changes.

The photo of the sheep is Earl (after Thomas Earl Petty). He jumped off of a slaughter bound truck about 3 miles from my house. When I found out, I contacted everyone I could think of to get this guy to safety. He now lives at Wedrose Acres Animal Sanctuary outside of Bloomington/Normal.

Tell us about WRWO Compassionate living? What do you hope this becomes?

I do a show called Meatless Mondays on WRWO 94.5 FM/LP Ottawa. I talk about transitioning to a vegan lifestyle though food choices. There are lots of recipes, 101 farm animal facts, and nutrition information. It has become a platform to engage my community on these topics. It opens the door for people to ask questions without judgment. I hope to continue with the show and maybe expand into classes and seminars.

Mary doing her thang on the air

What lesson or lessons has veganism taught you over the years?

Live your values. Everyone is at a different place in their life. Every change helps.

What is one thing you wish everyone knew about veganism?

You CAN do it. You CAN pass on meat. You CAN ditch dairy INCLUDING cheese. I promise. If you’re struggling, know that every little bit helps. Do it on the weekends, on Mondays, after 6 PM, just give up one thing– whatever you can do. Take baby steps. Ask for help.

Was that one thing? I lost count.

Any favorite passages or a quote/words you remember each day that guide your life?

“I like that every time I sit down to eat, I cast my lot for mercy, and against misery — for compassion, and against cruelty. Every meal becomes a prayer for a kinder and more just world.”

-Bruce Friedrich co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute

How do you Simply Kill it Every Day?

I don’t, haha. Some days are struggles. Some days I get really caught up in my head thinking that what I do isn’t enough. I wish others would see what I see. But some days I’m overwhelmed with joy– days that I get a new mentee, or a friend asks for a related book recommendation, or when people engage with the thoughts and ideas going through my head.

I suppose the quote from Bruce is a good way to explain my killing it every day. That each time I sit down to eat, I make a choice.

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