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Sarah Corbett of Craftivist Collective

"If we want the world to be beautiful, kind and just, then our activism should be"

It’s only in recent years that we have dipped our toes into the world of activism. It’s not that we were ignorant to social and environmental injustice before, we just offered our allegiance quietly and shyly through petition signing and charity donations. It takes confidence to stand up and shout out about complex issues even when your heart is engaged. Marches and protests can be daunting prospects for natural introverts.

Sarah and her Craftivist Collective offer an antidote to combative campaigning by promoting empathy driven, gentle protest. Using some thread and a needle, strong messages get woven into the world encouraging positive change through a more peaceful and mindful means.

Sarah’s new book, How To Be A Craftivist: The art of gentle protest is a manifesto for those interested in learning more about how to be a quiet activist.

Can you tell us the background of Craftivist Collective?

In 2008 I was a burnt out activist working full time for DFID [The Department for International Development] on this massive project that was training young adults as activists who weren’t usually. I was travelling across the country, working 80 hour weeks. I was also getting itchy fingers because I love making things. I love painting and drawing but my job was all laptop work and workshops so there wasn’t much time to be creative. I picked up this cross stitch kit in a little boutique shop with the intention that I would do it should I get travel sick. I immediately noticed it slowed me down. You can’t really do craft fast, you can’t thread your needle quickly because you might break the thread etc, so it calmed me down. The repetitive action was really soothing and it also drew my attention to how anxious, how out of breath and shaky my hands were, and how exhausted I was. It made me very mindful of how my body felt, which I hadn’t really had time to think about before. The comfort that I found in crafts meant I could ask myself quite uncomfortable questions that I had been avoiding such as ‘am I being an effective activist? Am I training people well or am I training people to become activist robots?’.

I’d joined lots of activists groups around this time because I had just moved to London, this sounds so ‘emo’, but I just didn’t feel like I fit in. I didn’t want to buy all vegan and I don’t like screaming at people. A lot of it was extrovert and performance based, a lot of it was about setting yourself up in opposition with certain people and it just didn’t sit right with me. I’m an introvert and that kind of thing drains me, but also I don’t want to demonise people, I want to encourage them to do a better job, challenge them in a loving way and have conversations with them, not create bigger divisions.

Through this little cross stitch kit, I noticed that the act of engaging in craft was useful for the process of thinking through strategy and complex social justice issues which with most activism you don’t get time to, so I found it very useful. Then people started asking me about what I was making, which made me think that if I was stitching something about social change I could talk about that as well and not just say ‘this teddy’, so I came up with the idea of a mini banner.

I started putting things online after a friend prompted me, and then complete strangers started asking if they could join in. So I met up with a group of people in the British Library Cafe in London and we came up with the name ‘Craftivist Collective’. As time went by people from all around the world joined us, so it just sort of grew organically.

I try to make sure not to shoe horn craft into activism though. It’s a tool that shouldn’t become the task master. Sometimes I don’t use craft because it’s not appropriate.

Is activism a big part of your background?

Yes, my passion is activism first, craft second, which I think is the right way round for craftivism to be effective.

I grew up in West Everton in the 80’s under a Thatcher government and we had a very corrupt council. My dad is still the local vicar there which is quite unusual. My mum was a local nurse with three kids under five, all living on the 14th floor of a tower block. So all we did was talk about religion and politics.

I remember early on we were squatting to save social housing and won that fight. I was a shy child but very curious and always watching, I was learning the mechanism by which we won. For example, we got a judge to give us free legal advice, we got people of all faiths, we got both bishops involved, we got the House of Lords involved as well as our local MP, we got the media. Squatting alone doesn’t work in terms of saving social housing.

Activism was always present in my upbringing though we rarely screamed or went on big marches, it was mostly about local community action and global issues like South African Aparthied. I learnt the impact of inequality, and then how you go about getting better housing, a new health centre in the area or whatever was needed.

I was head girl at school, a bit embarrassing, and I campaigned to win lockers. I didn’t get people to sign petitions and things like that, I just found out the head teacher was lying about how it was a health and safety issue and then I managed to get an influential parent governor’s support. The caretaker and I went round and measured all the rooms and eventually we got the lockers. So a lot of that stuff has influenced what I do because it made me realise that you don’t always have to do a march or hold up placards in a group shouting. Sometimes you just need to find out why something isn’t happening. You have got to find the right route, which angle to take, who has power and who doesn’t.

As the Craftivist Collective, we led a campaign on the living wage [find out more here]. The charity ShareAction who had already worked on it for three years felt like they were getting nowhere and asked if we could help them out. I was like ‘ok, if you’re getting nowhere with the CEO, who’s above him? The board members. So let’s target them’. When we started engaging the board members respectfully by providing them with handmade gifts, it led to thoughtful conversations, productive meetings and the announcement that they were to increase the number of staff on the Living Wage to over 50,000, above the official rates of that year.

The Chair of the Board told me that our ‘gentle protest’ approach was very effective. Not only did it create an emotional connection, it also presented a strong case that the Living Wage could actually help businesses improve in many ways. His wife told me the following year that without our bespoke and humble gifts, the Living Wage wouldn’t even have been on the agenda let alone at the top in many of the board’s meetings. You have to think creatively; think laterally.

People in positions of power are just a part of the system like anyone else. They probably aren’t doing things on purpose to harm others or the planet. With that in mind you have to ask what the barriers to change are. Perhaps they have got to care for their mum outside of work and they just don’t have time, or maybe their targets are monetary, which means they have got to deliver on that in order to keep their job. How is a cement company, for example, going to reduce their carbon emissions when cement is the core part of their business? Unless they are highly subsidised by the government or the UN it’s going to be really difficult for them to change.

You have to give people a break, give them some options. Give them some positive case studies to show that it’s not risky, and engage their hearts and minds as well as their logic.

So what have been the biggest challenges in getting to this point?

Knowing where you can have the most impact and not burning out. The whole point of this was that I don’t want to be a burnt out activist, I’m trying to teach people how to do slow craft activism.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am just one person with the same hours in a day as everyone else, so where can I be of most use? I don’t enjoy writing but I wrote the book [How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest] last year and one of the reasons for that was that if there comes a point when I financially can’t afford to keep doing this anymore, at least I’ve written what I’ve learnt down so it’s there for people to use. That’s why I’ve done the kits now too because people can do them without me being there.

What have been the highlights?

People say ‘oh my word, you’ve had Russell Brand and Malala attend workshops’ and although that’s great, for me a lot of the one to one stuff is more of a highlight.

Every time I get a lovely email from someone saying, ‘I watched your talk’, or ‘I got your DIY Craftivism kit’, or ‘I read your book’, and they tell me how it benefit them, I save it to a special folder. That way when I have a wobble, which is at least once a week, and I’m thinking does this make any difference? What’s the point? I can read those emails.

I was laughed at within the charity sector when I started doing this. Hardcore activists would tweet, ‘this is too fluffy, you are letting people get away with stuff’ but then I’d explain what I was doing and most of the time they would start to get it. The Communications Manager at WWF UK emailed me recently to say that their 2016 #OrigamiMigration campaign had been largely inspired by our ideas of gentle protest. They encouraged global supporters to send in thousands of Origami birds in solidarity with Doñana National Park, a World Heritage site in Spain threatened by harmful river dredging. The birds formed a beautiful display outside the Spanish Parliament in Madrid and managed to convince the government to cancel it’s plans which would have threatened million of migratory birds reliant on it’s bio-diversity. That’s amazing to me because we’ve been banging on about it for so many years and we know it’s beneficial, it shows that we’ve had some influence.

I have been asked to speak at a symposium at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] in New York. The professor emailed me to tell me she had been following my work for years and asked if I could go along to give a speech, be on a panel and teach her students. You just don’t know who has been watching your work over the years and been influenced by it!

What about going forward, what are your plans for the next couple of years?

That’s a thing that scares me actually, I just don’t know what’s going to happen in lots of ways. My big goal is the mantra which is on the website ‘if we want the world to be beautiful, kind and just, then our activism should be’. I get a lot of requests with very tempting budgets from organisations whose principles do not fit mine so I say no to a lot of of work.

Releasing the book this year has been a big chunk of work. I’m collaborating with Mind, the mental health charity, on a new kit for them which is also a fundraiser. That’s a new challenge for me, but also really important work because all the political parties in the UK have got mental health in their manifestos now but they haven’t committed to anything, so I think it’s a realistic campaign and we can get lots done.

Inherently I like to plan everything, but with this job I’ve had to learn to be open to what happens, because the context can change so drastically. I never thought someone like Trump would be in power or that the Tories could decimate our country so much and people still vote them in. Also, when I started, Instagram and Pinterest didn’t exist so really the world changes and you have to adapt.

That thread of beautiful, kind, and just has got to run through everything, but where it takes me, who knows?

"Sometimes you just need to find out why something isn’t happening. You have got to find the right route, which angle to take, who has power and who doesn’t."

What motivates you?

I believe in a creator God, and I am always overwhelmed by how clever the world is.

I know there will always be injustice, but I want to strive to make the world as gorgeous as it can be, that is what motivates me.

I have seen throughout history that activism works. The Civil Rights Movement worked, the Suffragettes movement worked. There is still a long way to go, but things do improve every year. Publications like Positive News remind me that we have eradicated so many things from the world and we are actually in a much safer place than the mainstream media suggests.

Also, I think I’m motivated by growing up in a very low income area, where people couldn’t fulfill their potential. Not just because of their own self worth, or confidence, but because of structures and systems that were generally oppressing them. I just don’t believe that’s right, so it’s a mix of striving for a gorgeous world and knowing that for some people not to be able to fulfill their potential when others can is just not fair. I can’t really ignore it because these are the people I grew up with.

So what does success look like to you?

For me personally I want to be able to just focus on doing good work, without the distractions of worrying about money. Success would be to do this as sustainably and effectively as possible without all those worries.

Success for the collective is it having as much impact and being the most useful tool it can be, and being as supportive as possible to people.

What characteristic do you admire most in others?

At the moment I just keep thinking about humility, especially in terms of campaigning. Things often go better if you don’t cling to the win, you’re not fighting against someone, but you are humbly and quietly encouraging someone in power to make the right decisions. To celebrate and listen to them, and offer any support you can give, yet still acknowledge that they’re the ones with the power. Helping them to do well, but often never claiming that you had any part in it. So I think humility is really powerful actually.

It’s also empathy. As the vicars kids in Everton you’re sort of a target, my parents aren’t from Everton and its normally family generations that live next to each other. Being bullied is shit, but I was always taught to ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ . I knew that the kids who were bullying me were feeling pain so I tried not to take it personally, probably due to my parents being so amazing.

When I see someone like Trump I just think that he’s not a happy bunny and it’s really sad that he’s so insecure, that he is so much of a bully. Does he have any friends? I pity him, I still value him as a human being, it’s a shame he has to alienate people. I don’t hate anyone, I hate what people do, as we should, but I actually feel much more sorrow for them than hate.

When you’re having a tough day, what cheers you up?

In my diary I note down what I achieved last year as well as my plans for this year. Sometimes I look back at them and I realise I have done quite a lot and that helps. I’ll also look through emails and letters from people and remember all the good stuff.

For a lot of people craft is about distraction and escapism or relaxation and that’s why people love it. Has the fact that crafting is tied to your job tainting that for you?

I don’t love craft, I love activism and I found craft to be a useful tool within that.

I know that when they hear the word ‘Craftivism,’ a lot of academics and activists immediate thoughts are that it must be fluffy, so I find that really hard. I talk about my approach being gentle protest, so when people ask what I do, I try to preempt any preconceptions. I say it’s this thing called Craftivism, and then I explain the different forms that might take, for example, we give gifts to power holders, do small street art to provoke not preach at people etc.

Have you made any sacrifices to pursue this?

Having a nice salary, having holiday and sick pay!

My friends are really forgiving because I don’t see them very often. I was going to go to Ibiza with my friends in October, and then I got asked to go Mallorca to teach 600 teachers how to use craft for social change, so I just gave up my holiday because I thought I could have a real impact with these teachers. I sometimes have to put work before friends and family though not always, it’s my sister’s wedding next month and I will be there obviously!

I just love what I do and I’m always thinking about it, but it can mean it’s hard to have a social life or switch off.

I travel a lot which isn’t very glamorous, so I miss church sometimes on a Sunday, which for me is my anchor, so that’s not always great.

I haven’t been on a date for a few years now. London’s weird because you have to do online dating to go on a date so that’s probably not helped.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

At the moment I’m reading a book by Brené Brown, she admits that she often thinks the worst of people. If people aren’t doing the perfect job, it’s because they’re being lazy, or not working hard enough, or not thinking things through clearly, and I can be a bit like that. Her husband said to her you have got to presume everyone is doing the best they can, because even if they are not, you have no control over it. So that’s a big one.

And also, just be yourself is an obvious one. You can’t be anyone else but you can use your own gifts, talents, context and circle of influence to be your best self and be part of the change you wish to see in the world rather than part of the problems.

What piece of advice would you give to a 21 year old?

Everyone is weird, so you’re fine!

Is there a motto or principle that you live by ?

The obvious one is treat everyone how you want to be treated. That’s my default for everything really. Would I want to be screamed at with a placard. No! Would I want someone to tell me what to do if they don’t know what my job is? Treat everyone how you would want to be treated.

"Everyone is weird, so you’re fine!"

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