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