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A Kinder, More Beautiful Activism
Sarah Corbett demonstrates the quiet power of craftivism
By Esperanza Project Posted in Activism, Climate Change, Environment on December 18, 2018
The Godmother of Craftivism Previous  21 Planet-Friendly Holiday Ideas Next

Gentle is not the same as weak. If you don’t believe it, just askSarah Corbett.

I first encountered Sarah in my research for a story on activism for introverts. Her now famous Ted Talk inspired me to seek her out, and luckilyfor me, she responded, leading to several stories – one for RiceBusiness Wisdom and another for Yes! Magazine. There was just too muchwisdom and inspiration here not to share it all. Enjoy.

Sarah Corbett by Jenny Lewis 2018

Tracy: Can you share a bit about how you first got started on the craftivism approach?

Sarah: In 2008 I was working with the Department of International Development on a big project teaching people to be effective activists –  so I was traveling a lot, the job was full on I was doing crazy amounts of work, moving a lot – it was a big contract. I was burning out. I had just moved to London where I had joined lots of activist groups because I wanted to meet like-minded people, so I was doing lots of activism outside of work, training people to do activism inside work. I just didn’t fit into a lot of groups. A lot of them were very extroverted, very loud, very transactional, sometimes quite demonizing – or treating people like robots, just doing stalls or petitions.

I was reading in my job about clicktivism and slacktivism – and we were training people up to be activist monkeys in some ways – I have to be straight up about it.

I was on a train from London to Glasgow, it’s about five hours, a nice long journey. I was exhausted – and I get travel-sick on trains, so I struggle to do e-mails or read reports; I get sick – so I picked up a cross-stitch kit. It tiny and it was very cheap; it was just of a teddy bear – because I love to paint and draw but I knew that would be difficult on a train, and I just had this urge to be offline, to do something creative with my hands – I immediately noticed separating the threads you have to do it slowly so that it doesn’t tangle, and it made me aware of how tight my shoulders were – and that’s something I hadn’t checked in with myself about. As activists, my colleagues never checked in with each other – “Are you ok?” You just do lots of campaigning because that’s what you’re passionate about. And doing the repetitive action made me aware of how shallow my breath was, how tense I was. And then I was worried about not fitting in at my job, and not fitting in to any of the activist groups. It was a very comforting repetitive action of just doing this cross-stitch teddy bear, that I didn’t know what to do with afterwards, but the process was a very comforting thing, to give me head space and feel that I was doing something, empowering with my hands — which we now know through clinicians and neuroscientists how powerful handcrafting can be.

But it gave me a safe space to ask myself those uncomfortable questions of — am I being an effective activist, or am I just doing lots of stuff to feel effective? In my job, how can I make people not feel like robots? How can I engage them in a loving way? And the same with decision-makers. 

It gave me a few hours to really focus on that without being distracted or without going into a downward spiral just sitting there, still, thinking about the bad stuff. At the same time people opposite me on the train were asking me what I was doing because this was 10 years ago and people didn’t knit on trains, they didn’t craft; it was not cool. And I immediately thought to myself – oh if I was cross stitching a Gandhi quote, we could have a conversation about that – but the fact that a stranger was asking me what I was doing, it made me think how powerful it was that I wasn’t giving eye contact, I wasn’t shouting at them with megaphones, and they were asking me.

So that year I was thinking about how the process of crafting helps you think more clearly, more strategically and critically, and how you could make objects to help people to think … so my first project was mini protest banners that you hang at eye level, very small, to provoke, not preach at people.

Then I just googled crafts and activism because I felt there was loads of potential. My gut feeling was that there was loads of potential in this and the word craftivism popped up.

Craftivism was created in 2003 by Betsy Greer. So I went on her website to see if there were any projects I could do and then Betsy said that anyone could do craftivism and anyone could use the word, it’s just crafts plus activism – so I asked if I could use the word and tinker around. She was very gracious and said yes do what you like.

And it’s just like I do with my activism, I just tinkered with it to see where it could be beneficial, and did some stuff that was stupid and crap – and learned from my mistakes – but it all came from me being burned out when I completely serendipitously perhaps picked up that cross-stitch kit and it led to a click moment.

9. A cross-stitched mask on a mannequin in a shop window to provoke thought and action in passers-by some of whom work for global companies

Tracy: Tell me about your first campaigns – you said you did some stupid things. What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn?

Sarah: The mini banners was the first one, and it was really effective and really popular. I started finding facts or quotes or questions relevant to the issues that I could hang somewhere relevant to the issue. So I put a little banner in the financial district in London to encourage bankers to think about ethical finance; and then I put stuff about climate change near the town hall, or near a park. Same with issues about sweatshops and unethical fashion I’d leave in fashion districts and shopping malls.

I only started sharing them on line because friends and family were asking me about it. Within a month I had people all over the world contacting me and asking if they could join in.

I discussed it with my family – my mom’s a politician, my dad’s avicar, my sister’s a social worker and my brother’s a civil servant, and we’requite good at pulling stuff apart, saying can people misinterpret this? And howcould we make this more effective? So that was helpful. And when people wantedto join me, we set up this group, and we called it the Craftivist Collective inthe British Library Café. SoI started by coming up with a project every month for people to do.

And Iquickly realized that, one, I had a really intense job so it was hard to comeup with a good project, and the projects weren’t very good. I realized I wasputting craft as the priority instead of activism. So I was focusing on whatcraft should we do, and we’d shoehorn it into activism. One time we made thefeminist icon – the image with the fist – and we made them into keyrings andjust gave them to people.

But they weren’t very well made – they could havefallen apart easily, and they didn’t have a clear ask of what we wanted peopleto do to be feminist or to be part of gender equality; we were so focused onlet’s make something we didn’t think about what do we want to change, how do wewant to change it, who are the influential people to engage so we’re notpreaching to the converted? And are we trying to change laws or policies or behaviorsor cultures?

It was quite transactional in itself, so I learned a lot from those. And then, doing more and more workshops and seeing the benefits people were having from the making process, I came up crafter thought questions because otherwise people could think about anything, so I tried to facilitate the critical thinking.

And then people wanted to join in around the world so I started making kits because people wanted kits.

I read a lot about psychology, on the senses, on everything from the power of thoughts and colors and textures as well as political books on what influences people. I read a lot that hugely informs my craftivism, and that was a big sobering moment to really think through all of those elements, to be as effective as possible.

6. Graceful Activism: bespoke handkerchiefs for board members of a retail company to encourage them to shape their company to be as ethical as possible

Tracy: What about the specific campaigns you are most proud of in the past? You spoke to me about the Marks & Spencer campaign for example, where you were able to get a wage increase for 50,000 people by embroidering handkerchiefs. Can you tell me more about that?

Sarah: Yes, we took them to the board members at the AGM (Annual General Meeting) plus five of the chief investment officers of the biggest companies that invest in M&S – so that one was for me a big win because it took three years; the Living Wage foundation hadn’t gotten anywhere, so it felt like a real help to them to build a relationship with them.

 Then on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got the mini scrollsthat we do, the mini fashion statements I told you about. Whereas M&S was avery targeted campaign just with 24craftivists, and very closed and quite quiet – it was a very intimate form ofactivism –the fashion statements take 20 minutes to make each one, so youmake as many as you can and then drop them into shops that you think that arebeing unethical for people who love fashion to find, and encourage them to becurious about who made their clothes, without making them feel judged.

For that it was about reaching an audience that you might not normally – but also a big part of it was reaching new media outlets – and because it was offline and I made sure the images were very attractive for particular magazines, like craft magazines and fashion magazines – we didn’t name any brands, so that journalists could cover the campaign without feeling like they might lose advertisers. And we made sure it was as positive as possible, to say, “We love fashion and we want everyone to be part of the solution, whether you’re a buyer or a fashion journalist or a fashionista – everyone can be a part of the solution.”

And what was great about that was that we got on the homepage of the BBC News website which is one of the biggest in the world. We got in the home page of the Huffington Post, in fashion magazines, in places you don’t expect to see the issue raised. We got a double page spread in The Guardian, as well as online, which has been shared thousands of times. And I still hear from people who are nervous about activism or who didn’t know about fashion campaigns saying that they found it online and want to get involved. Even journalists – I got an email from journalist thanking me for the way we’d done it in such a positive way. And she wrote how she’s always keen to get the ethical element in her writing and in the fashion discussions but so far, the campaigns tend to be quite negative or a bit boring and not aesthetically pleasing and but she was able to cover our project – so every campaign we do is completely different, to make sure we cover all the angles.

One of our campaigns around climate change is called “Wear your Heart on Your Sleeve.” It’s to support The Climate Coalition’s “For the Love Of” campaign. We helped people feel comfortable to come along to a climate march and they’d never been to a march in their entire life. And that was about helping people with inner activism, and helping them see some marches really do need their help.

All of the projects have different strengths and weakness; some have more direct impact, some have more indirect impact. It’s difficult to measure activism, which is why a lot of people give up after a while or struggle to sustain it.

Tracy: Returning to the fashion initiative, what was the context?

Sarah: That was the Craftivist Collective, but we were doing it to support Fashion Revolution

15. Mini Fashion Statements with messages to attract not judge, encourage curiosity not close-mindedness

When I come up with a campaign I’m often looking at where is a gap that craftivism could help. Fashion Revolution is an incredible campaign organization at a global level; I know the founders, and they are brilliant at what they do. But everything they did was online – I have this idea this is my strategy – I’d love to be able to encourage people to write a thoughtful message on the scroll, and “to find out more see @fash_rev.” Then anyone who found the scroll would be able to find out more information, and they’d feel empowered and educated, rather than disempowered and judged. It’s a lovely way to support them and encourage people to find out more about them.

And again with craftivism, it’s a catalyst it’s not the conclusion. It helps people see they can learn more about a particular issue and the actions they can take; or it’s about building relationships with power holders that you continue to build relationships with; or it’s about you looking at what you can do as a voter, as a consumer, as a colleague, as a family member.

I don’t think craftivism is effective as a transaction I think people need to see it as a transformational tool and part of an activism journey.

I guess you can make lots of things and put them out into the world but I encourage people to be careful of how much resources they use and try and have deep impact as opposed to just making lots of stuff.

Tracy: What have you learned about the best ways to deepen your impact and make sure your strategy is really right on point?

Sarah: That’s why I wrote the book, really; to go through all of that; to say that, “Yes you could make a lot of stuff while watching TV – or you’re thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner. I have “crafter-thought” questions in each of my projects that link in with each of my objectives, and these are questions that need lots of time to mull over and they can be uncomfortable such as: ‘What are your values and how do you thread them through your life in what you do, what you say, what you buy?’– and that’s a big question, but you can say to yourself, for this line of stitching, I’m going to really look at that on my own, or I’m going to talk to a friend while we’re making it together, and I’m not be distracted by other stuff. It’s a tough question, but we can answer it if we put time and energy into it.

If you’re making a piece of street art if you one of the questions would be if you were a passerby, how would people interpret this? So you make sure your message is really clear; you’ve got a clear action for people to take; you’re not presuming that people know what your campaign is, if it’s not clear.

It means the maker takes ownership of the message their stitching or they’re writing, because they’re not going to put that effort in if they don’t really agree with the message. You can really reflect on those words. But it also makes it much clearer for passersby to know what it’s about and how they can take part. I think it’s too easy to misunderstand if you bring baggage to something that’s not clear; but at the same time. you want it to not patronize people; you want to intrigue, you want people to feel that they’re the one to come to that answer rather than that you’re telling them what to do.

We can all exercise empathy, unless you’re a psychopath. We all know how to interact in a strategic and effective way.

My craftivism isn’t quick and easy and sometime doesn’t make you feel wonderful; it makes you challenge yourself, but then you’re prouder for what you’ve done, and it helps you to learn a lot about yourself as well as about the issue. As well, it’s a time to empathize with the perpetrators as well as those who are directly affected and everyone in between. 

It’s an incredible tool to engage with distressing issues because you’re using your head, hands and heart and being proactive.

11. Pretty Protests: a stitch-in where a group of craftivists stitch outside a venue with  passersby who will be important to the decision-makers they hope to influence

Tracy: So that’s what you mean when you say transformational as opposed to transactional.

Sarah: Yes. When you’re giving a gift to a politician or a business leader or board member, you could just give them the gift and say, “I’ve made you this, you should now change your policy.” But for me that’s not going to work; it’s hard to change other people’s minds, and it does feel very transactional. But if you give something with a timeless message and you say, “I know you’ve got a tough job, but you’ve got a real opportunity to do some great stuff in the world – and I believe you can do that. How can I help you do that? Here are some suggestions, and some robust arguments of how realistically you could change a law, and how it makes business sense as well as helping the climate, or your employees. All of that robust argument and knowledge is just as important as the gifts that you make. And then following up with, “Can we have a meeting?”

And then: “Can you tell me what’s stopping you from putting that policy in place,” and “If I find out more information of where I think you could do that, could I show it to you? As a customer, I believe in your company and I want you to do the best job that you can.”

There’s so much strategy in the language you use, the body language, the emotional element, the senses, even down to what colors you use – I use warm yellow because it’s a very hopeful but also active color. Whereas pillowbox red is quite aggressive; it’s seen as a passionate, short-term to get people ‘s attention very quickly, but long-term it’s stressful and sometimes aggressive to people you disagree with, so it’s really important that we start from the other side with how we can engage them in a loving way.

We should still protest against what they are doing but I think we can do it in a loving, kind and creative way.

Tracy: What’s the current campaign you’re working on at the moment?

Sarah: We don’t have many projects but they’re all really well done, so that they can be used at any time of year. But also they can be more effective at certain times. The Mini Fashion Statement we encourage people to do it if they have a Fashion Week in their cities; for example, in London or New York for Fashion Week. The same with the Hearts on Your Sleeve campaign about climate change and protecting what we love – it makes sense that during the climate discussions with world leaders that you’d wear it, or you’d wear it in a march – but you can also wear it any time. Also there are certain ones that are time bound –  the Marks and Spencers campaign was very small and wasn’t something everyone could get involved in, because it was about building a relationship with their customers and their staff. So they all have diff strengths and weaknesses and different accessibility, and they’re all projects that anyone can do in the world with the kits and the book.

Some of them you can bring your own issue to – so if you really care about something local or national or international, you can do it in your Mini Banner or with our handkerchiefs. You decide which powerholders to give that to; it might be your senator, or it might be your local head teacher. You just strategically figure out what’s best.

Tracy: Going back to the psychology of what you’ve been doing. The last time we spoke you mentioned that it’s really important not to fixate on the negative, that there’s a part of the mind that is designed to work on solutions. Can you talk with me a bit about how craftivism plays into that?

Sarah: Yes. The way our brains work is that if we feel attacked in any way, whether it’s verbally or physically, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. And that’s the same for if you see a problem. Recently in California you see all those awful fires. If you just focus on those awful fires what your body and your brain says is: I need to not be by a fire, and you’re fixated on protecting yourself. Whereas what we need to say is, How can we make sure doesn’t happen again, and what world do we want where that doesn’t happen again?

I always talk about chocolate, because I love chocolate a littlebit too much. And if I say to myself I’m on a diet and I’m not having anychocolate – I’m just thinking about chocolate, because I’m thinking about nothaving it. Whereas if you say to yourself, I am a healthy human being, yourbrain sees that vision of what you want, and your brain basically tells you notto have chocolate without telling you that. It tells you what to eat – fruitand vegetables for example. It’s the same with climate change. You want tofocus on what we want the world to be, with no pollution, with healthy air,with clean water, and so forth – so your brain starts figuring out how to getthere. If we just focus on all of the awful stuff, our brain is literally sofixated on not letting that happen that we can’t think of the solutions.

So Ialways make sure that yes, we should absolutely make it clear what the problemsare, but the majority of the focus on the solution, and a part of that solutionis that we want clean air, we want healthier seas, and that means that we needto recycle. That means that companies need to be more careful about consumption.And so you need to make sure that balance is stronger on the solution side,just because that’s the way the brain work. That’s what neuroscientists haveevidence to show us, so I think that we should put it into place, and not justtalk about how we don’t want war, but talk about how we want harmony, and whatthat would look like. And it’s much more attractive to people.

You’ll reach people who agree with you if you say, “I don’t like this;” you get people to say, “Me, neither.” But if you say I really want a kind world, where people respect each other, you will reach more people who might have different versions of how you will reach that goal, but you’ve got a common cause that you can all work towards, rather than only engaging people you agree with, which naturally means that people who don’t agree with your process go “Well, they’re against me,” or “They’re not going to work with me.” We need to try and make sure that everyone feels a part of that solution equally.

26. A cross-stitched quote from Margaret Mead inside pop-up craftivism suitcase. to inspire and empower people who see it online and offline

Tracy: Do you have any last thoughts?

Sarah: My background is activism, not craft. I grew up in a white working-class area with lots of inequality. I was squatting at social housing at 3 ….  I think it’s important that people don’t see me as this white privileged woman who’s there to save people. I’m very sensitive about making sure we’re in solidarity with people, not trying to save people.

I get angry – and we should be angry at injustice – but I knowthat if we actually want to change things, anger isn’t action. We need to channelit into effective change. And for me, my work is based in psychology andneuroscience, but it’s also based on the work of incredible, effectiveactivists like Martin Luther King, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who did lots of quietstuff, and Gandhi, and Liberation theology in America. I don’t’ just do it forfun; I do it because craftivism is hard work, and if we’re going to put ourtime and energy into crafting something, we should put it into something thatwill make as much impact as possible. And I do think that it makes sense thatif we want our world to be more beautiful kind and just our activism should be.

And that doesn’t mean my ‘gentleprotest’ methodology is weak and passive. It means it’s actually more powerful.And I think as a woman it’s hard because we feel like we’ve got to be strong,and we shouldn’t be all smiley and make kitchy objects – sometimes that feels alittle bit like it’s against feminism – but it’s not. Brené Brown talks about Strength in vulnerability– and I think we all know that listening to people and showing that we valuethem means that if we disagree with them, they’re more likely to listen to whatwe say than if we just scream at each other.

In the climate we’re in, we’re in such silos we really need to question and find out some common ground rather than screaming and demonizing each other, which is not good for activism, it’s not good for our world and it’s not good for our own well-being.

I think we should be joyful activists without ignoring the harm and pain people have caused but focus on change and not demonizing or labeling people.

24. Craftivist Sarah Corbett quietly hangs up a mini banner

climate change craftivism ethical fashion Fashion Revolution Marks and Spencer Sarah Corbett

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