How many times have you found yourself commenting, in recent times, about the state of today’s world? How many times have you felt either angry, defeated, or both, about inequality, injustice or damage to our planet? I certainly have done a lot of grumbling, whilst feeling pretty powerless in the scheme of things.
How can I stop the oceans filling with even more plastic? What can I do about the shameful rise in the numbers of children and families living in real poverty? Then there’s the increasing problem of homelessness, the gender pay gap, under-resourced mental health services and so much more…
My spare time and energy are both limited and I hate confrontation. So any sort of direct activism would send me running for the hills. I also don’t believe that countering wrong-doing or institutional incompetence with aggression and anger is the right – or an effective – way to respond. So what’s the alternative?
Well, I have discovered one that I really want to share with you.
A month or so ago I became increasingly aware of a beautiful-looking yellow book that was getting a lot of positive attention among the creative community on Instagram. A few makers and influencers I follow, and admire, commented on the huge impact this book was having on them. I decided to find out more. The book in question is called How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest and it’s written by Sarah Corbett.
The first paragraph about the book on Sarah’s website drew me right in: ‘In today’s world it’s easy to feel helpless, but here is a book to initiate debates rather than shouting matches, to enable collaboration in place of confrontation. Gentleness can be a great strength, and quiet action can sometimes speak as powerfully amid the noise as the loudest voice. And if we want a world that is beautiful, kind and fair… shouldn’t our activism be beautiful, kind and fair? An interesting book for anyone wanting to be the change they wish to see in the world (whether they like craft or not).’
If I’d needed any persuasion to part with my £12 to buy a copy, those words would have done the trick. The book arrived beautifully gift wrapped and with a hand-written message from Sarah. As well as ordering the book, I made contact with Sarah herself to ask if she might like to be featured in this blog. Her response was, unsurprisingly, very warm and friendly and we arranged to meet earlier this week.
By the time we were seated opposite each other at Paper & Cup café in Shoreditch (a not for profit social enterprise helping the homeless through funds and employment), I had read most of the book and researched a bit more about Sarah and her particular take on Craftivism.
I also watched this Q&A session with The Guardian journalist Lucy Siegle:
I knew that Sarah had grown up in a deprived area of Liverpool and had spent much of her life as an activist and award-winning campaigner for major charities including Christian Aid, Oxfam and the UK Government Derpartment for International Development (DFID).
I also knew that the idea for the Craftivisit Collective first occurred to her on a train journey while working for a major charity. She was feeling pretty burnt out from too much confrontation as well as quite travel sick. She had bought a small craft kit to pass the time. As she stitched, Sarah began to reflect on the potential power in what she was doing.
‘Stitching calmed me down. It helped me think through issues more clearly and I was able to be creative with my hands,’ her book explains. ‘It felt empowering. I discovered that the act of stitching in public led to people asking me questions about the injustice issue I was stitching about. My local MP had been ignoring my petitions and requests to take action against injustice. So I hand embroidered a message on to a handkerchief asking her not to ‘blow’ her chance of making a positive difference in her powerful position. I gave it to her as a gift to show that I wanted to encourage, support and help her tackle injustices as a critical friend not fight her as an aggressive enemy.’
The Craftivist Collective
Sarah’s approach worked. The issues she raised finally gained her MP’s attention because of the way she’d gone about it. Sarah was then able to build on this relationship to politely – but consistently – hold her MP to account.
Sarah realised she was on to something, and in 2009 she founded The Craftivist Collective. The term ‘Craftivism’ was first coined by US maker and writer Betsy Greer as ‘a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes you stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.’ Sarah contacted her to ask if there were any guidelines to follow. Betsy said there were not and gave Sarah her blessing to create her own Craftivism projects.
‘Unlike the usual forms of activism, my ‘Gentle Protest’ approach to Craftivism is not aggressive, loud or transactional, but focuses on the gentle art of protesting, threading humility through all that we create and do. Gentleness is not a weak form of protesting. It’s not mild or non-assertive. It requires self-control when what we feel is anger or sadness at injustice. It requires thoughtfulness and to do it well, Craftivism isn’t fast and easy. Using craft for activism doesn’t automatically make it gentle. My goal is to enable people to do activism in a beautiful, kind and fair way that models the world we want to live in.’
The Craftivist Collective is just that – an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafted works to help themselves and encourage others be the positive change they wish to see in the world. Sarah supports this by developing tools and projects that Craftivists can undertake as individuals or by organising their own group gatherings.
A gentle manifesto
As Sarah’s manifesto states, her mission is to connect hands, hearts and heads to truly make a difference:
So here Sarah and I were in Shoreditch last Monday morning, with a pot of tea each. I furiously scribbled notes as we chatted. Sarah has an infectious passion for what she is doing that I found very inspiring. I asked how I could best help her right now.
‘Please tell people about the A Positive Note campaign we’re running in collaboration with mental health charity Mind,’ she answered, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘We only have until March with this. Ask you readers to join us in sending a positive message to their MP – encouraging them to help improve the lives of people with mental health problems. That’s one in four of us in any given year. Basically we’re asking our MPs, politely, to deliver on the election promises made to us. All the parties put mental health in their manifesto (the first time this has ever happened by the way!). By 2021 mental health and physical health will be on a par for the services needed to cope. That needs addressing now, while we have so many new MPs and at a time when every MP vote and seat counts.’
How to get involved
The easiest way to support the Positive Little Note campaign is to buy one of Sarah’s ready-made kits. Each contains everything you need to create a beautiful hand-stitched fabric envelope containing a message to your MP. Here’s a film Sarah made to explain how it works. The kits cost £12, with all profits raised going to Mind.
I asked Sarah to explain a little bit about the thinking behind the hand-stitched note idea:
‘MPs receive so many petition cards and emails every day it can be difficult to have your campaign noticed. Not only do these hand stitched bespoke envelopes attract attention from MPs and their staff because of the time and care spent making these beautiful objects, but the encouraging and thoughtful handwritten note inside (asking for health equality) engages politicians’ hearts and hands as well as their head. This helps the Craftivist become critical friends with their local MP rather than aggressive enemies.
‘I’m so proud of these kits (all made super ethically in the UK by me) and that 100% of profits go to help Mind continue their important work. You can take part on your own or in a group – big or small. It’s up to you. ‘
How to begin?
I was also keen to ask Sarah about getting involved with Craftivism in a more general way. Where to begin?
‘Visualisation is a powerful tool,’ she explained. ‘Best place to start is by imagining the sort of world you’d like to live in. The world you’d like to help craft. Not the one you want to eliminate. Share dreams, not complaints. Start with what you can do to make changes in your everyday life. If you feel like you want to change the world, but don’t know how, becoming a Craftivist is a way to become part of a bigger picture, something holistic. When you switch the light on in the morning, think about your energy supplier, the bulbs you use. Are they as ethical as they can be? Do the research and find out, if you’re not sure. When paying for your train ticket, think about the bank you use. Are they as ethical with your money as you’d like them to be? Look into alternatives. It’s all about being the change you’d like to see in the world.
‘As human beings, we all want to be seen and heard. And we all need to be part of the solution to world problems. Using craft materials that are small, delicate and soft creates a comforting space which helps us to ask ourselves and others uncomfortable questions about how to tackle injustice issues.’
Sarah’s gentle protest approach to Craftivism is rooted in the principles of love, respect, solidarity, collaboration, forgiveness. Not combat, shaming or selfishness. That really resonates with me.
It takes more strength, in my opinion, to protest in a thoughtful and self-controlled way with compassion and empathy for all involved. Human beings are fragile, after all, and we should be handled with care.
Buy the book
I have loved reading Sarah’s book. It’s full of interesting ideas and I highly recommend it to you if you are interested to find out more about gentle forms of protest. Buy a copy here >>
Today the Craftivist Collective has thousand of members around the world. Sarah has delivered talks, workshops and events to over 12,000 people and her book is getting a lot of attention. None of this success has happened overnight or easily, however. It’s all testament to Sarah’s hard work and determination:
‘It’s taken years since I picked up the needle on that train journey,’ she told me. ‘Craftivism for me is about being in it for the long haul.’
And she knows that her campaign is taking on a life of its own as it gains traction with more and more people.
‘I’m aware that some people may use it on campaigns that I may not agree with,’ she says. ‘But my goal is to inspire and empower you to take a stand against injustice and increase the skills needed to engage in Craftivism effectively. Being gentle in the way we use power can lift people up to take the action that is needed. We need to be careful to be a gentle protester, not a rebel. A rebel tends to be unreceptive, rigid and unwilling to learn and listen.
‘The art of gentle protest requires that you don’t maintain conflict but focus on a path to resolution. I want to support people to be their best selves. Helping, not harming, others. “Shouting, heckling, and hating are not the only forms of political engagement,” Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Our gentle protest approach to Craftivism is part of that light, and it is getting in.’
To help fund Sarah in her work, you can ‘adopt’ her here
You can either make a one-off payment or choose from monthly payment options from £10.
Photography: copyright From Britain with Love and Craftivist Collective
Craftivist Collective is listed in the From Britain with Love directory here >>
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