The art of gentle protest
Sarah Corbett started practising craftivism (a hybrid of craft and activism) in 2008, after she became burned out and started doubting the effectiveness of the more traditional forms of campaigning she’d practised since childhood. In 2009, she founded the global movement Craftivist Collective, ‘to expose global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft, using provocative and non-violent creative actions.’
Here, Sarah explains why her unique ‘gentle protest’ approach to activism can be transformative for adults and young people, and shares tips on how leaders can enhance their programme and encourage their Scouts to make the world a kinder and brighter place, one stitch at a time.
Hi Sarah! You’ve been involved in activism from a young age. Can you remember where the instinct came from?
I grew up in Everton in Liverpool. My dad was, and still is, the local vicar, and my mum was a nurse, with three kids under the age of five. We lived on the 14th floor of a tower block. The building shook in the wind, and small fires were a frequent occurrence. Nothing awful happened, but my mum remembers asking the firefighters what we should do if something more serious broke out, only to be told ‘we’ve got ladders that can reach up to the 10th floor, but you’re on the 14th’. She started campaigning because of that need to safeguard our family and community, and since then, she’s become a local councillor and cabinet member campaigning on local and citywide issues. When you’re growing up in a low-income area, you feel the impact of inequality directly. It’s not something you can ignore.
Did your parents talk openly about injustice?
My parents were always open but gentle too. Whenever we discussed injustice, it was presented in a way that made us feel empowered and hopeful that we could be part of the change we want to see in our world, rather than helpless or hopeless. I’d advise Scout leaders to bear this in mind when they discuss weighty topics with their young people.
Activism isn’t something that should be forced upon us as a chore, nor is it something that should be tied to our own agenda, especially if we’re working with young people. Growing up, activism was a part of our everyday lives. In hindsight, I can see that reminders to practise what we preached and live out our values were literally part of the furniture! Half the mugs in the kitchen cupboard had different campaign logos printed on them, and we had posters on the wall of change makers like Martin Luther King. Those little things certainly influenced how we saw the world and our place within it.
For those who don’t know, could you explain what craftivism is?
‘Craftivism’ was coined by Betsy Greer in 2003, and it’s a broad label for anything that combines craft and activism. I call my approach ‘gentle protest’. Gentle protest is not about being passive or weak. It’s about channelling negative emotions into productive, strategic and effective activism and encouraging everyone to be a part of the solution. It’s about prompting people to use the action of making to slow down and reflect.
I create ‘crafter-thought’ questions for makers to reflect on alone or in a group whilst their hands are busy, then encourage them to use craft as a catalyst for change. Craftivism is very much a tool people can use in their campaigning when appropriate, just like petitions and demonstrations. We don’t make things just because we love craft; we make things because it’s an effective way to get a message across.
How does ‘gentle protest’ differ from other forms of activism?
When young people think about what an activist looks like, they might picture someone holding a placard or shouting into a megaphone, but we can all be activists – and quieter, more intimate forms of protest are often more effective. In my conversations with power holders, I’ve found it’s far more inspiring and effective to stand for something rather than against it. Being gentle is about practising self-control and using that self-control to advance your campaign, not your ego. It’s about being compassionate and considered instead of impulsive; composed instead of angry.
Could you give us a few examples of craftivist projects you’ve worked on?
As craftivists, we often give small, handmade gifts to power holders, like hand-stitched handkerchiefs telling MPs not to ‘blow’ the opportunity to use their power to support the most vulnerable people in society, or green felt hearts embroidered with the names of natural wonders the maker would miss if they were damaged by climate change.
These types of gifts are humble. They’re intimate. They’re interactive. Most importantly, they’re memorable. Power holders know that members of the public are not going to spend hours crafting if they don’t care about the issue. By investing your time and creativity, you’re ensuring your voice has a better chance of being heard. The gifts themselves are usually custom-made to suit the individual we want to influence. They are always consistently positive and empathetic in tone, and always respectfully challenging. As a power holder, it’s pretty disarming to receive such a thoughtful and thought-provoking gift, especially if you’re used to being screamed at all day.
When is craftivism a good tool for Scout leaders to consider using with their young people?
Just like Scouts, I encourage craftivists to act with integrity, have respect for themselves and others, take care of the world in which we live, explore different faiths, beliefs and attitudes, and cooperate with others to make a positive difference.
Craftivist activities can therefore be a great tool for a leader to have on standby, but they’re more useful in some situations than others. For example, craftivism might work perfectly if you want your young people to identify the topics and values that matter to them, if you want to help them to better understand their chosen A Million Hands issue, or if you want to enhance your programme planning around your Craft or Global Issues badges. It might also be helpful when something difficult happens in the world and your young people are affected, because it can empower them to channel their concerns in a positive and meaningful way.
How can craftivism serve those who want to work more closely alongside other adult volunteers?
Craftivism can be a great icebreaker to use when a new adult volunteer joins your section, or whenever you’d like to bring existing members closer together. It can also be used to strengthen ties between Scouts and other groups in your local community, or to promote the values and benefits of Scouting when you’re trying to recruit new volunteers.
If you use a multi-purpose community hall as your Scout meeting place, for example, you could host a craftivism evening to talk about the issues you care about as Scouts and find out about what matters to other people in your community and why. Doing so is an act of solidarity, but also an opportunity to work smartly together.
Handicraft can be an extremely effective way to bring people together, especially if they come from different backgrounds or have opposing views. The nature of the task forces you to be patient and allows you to find common ground in your shared goal. I’ll often use little psychological tricks to urge people to interact, like pretending I have fewer pairs of scissors than I actually have, so people are encouraged to share.
Emotions can run high when we’re discussing issues that matter to us. Do you have any advice for Scout leaders dealing with young people who might feel angry or frustrated by the topics at hand?
Instead of telling young people not to be angry, talk about how anger is a natural response to unfairness that shows they care. Then talk about why their anger should only be a short-term response, because studies have shown how long-term anger can be damaging to our physical and mental health. When we’re looking for long-term change, anger is not only bad for us, but bad for our cause. Remember: the world is full of change makers who use self-control, non-violence and kindness to create long-lasting change, from Desmond Tutu to Malala Yousafzai (pictured on the previous page).
How can leaders talk to young people about world issues, without letting their own political bias seep in?
It’s best to talk about universal themes like fairness and kindness, rather than focusing on micro issues or party-specific politics. It’s also important to explain to young people that expressing their thoughts and feelings through activism isn’t just something we do just to make ourselves feel better. It’s a strategy, a way of doing things. To illustrate this, you can explain that campaigning is something we can do as Scouts, not only because it represents our values but also because it’s a method we can use to protect others and ourselves, because it’s effective and because it works. If your young people find it difficult to see the point, you could talk to them about the various activists throughout history who have been successful, even if that success wasn’t immediately obvious or took many years to fully materialise.
How can Scout leaders talk to young people about the fact that activists don’t always get what they want? That sometimes we can try our best, and still not get the results we’re looking for?
Young people want to think big, and if they don’t reach their goal quickly enough, they can feel disempowered, so it’s important to manage their expectations about what’s possible for them to achieve.
In your Scout programme materials, you often use the analogy of climbing Everest. You talk about the fact that you can’t usually take your young people to Everest, but you can take them on a series of smaller hikes that could eventually lead to the equivalent of them conquering Everest.
The same principle applies to craftivism. You might not be able to solve the world’s problems, but you can work together to be the change you’d like to see. Step by step and stitch by stitch, you can have genuine impact.
Sarah’s book ‘How to be a craftivist: the art of gentle protest’ is published by Unbound books and available in all good bookshops now. You can watch her TED talk, ‘Activism needs introverts’, at go.ted.com/sarahcorbett and find out more about Craftivist Collective at craftivist-collective.com.
For free craftivist activity ideas, keep your eyes peeled on our social media channels and blog, where exclusive content from Sarah is coming soon.
Words: Aimee-lee Abraham | Images: Jenny Lewis