In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Corbett, an award-winning speaker, professional activist, author and the founder of Craftivist Collective, a social enterprise which uses the technique of craftivism (combining craft and activism) to engage people in social justice issues.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Sarah speaks around the world on the how we might use quieter forms of activism to invite people to slow down and think deeply about the issues they’re facing.
Her two books, A Little Book of Craftivism, and How To Be A Craftivist have been wildly popular, and her TED talk, Activism Needs Introverts, was featured on TED’s homepage in November 2017 and has since generated over 1 million views.
Written, recorded & produced by Nathalie Nahai © 2019.
NN: Hello and welcome to The Hive podcast. Today I have the pleasure to be speaking with Sarah Corbett, an award-winning activist, author, and the founder of Craftivist Collective, a social enterprise providing products and services to help individuals, groups and organisations to do Craftivism which is a combination of craft and activism in the most effective way to help change systems, structures, hearts and mind.
Sarah speaks to people around the world on how we might use quieter forms of activism to invite people to slow down and think more deeply about the issues they’re facing, how to engage power-holders in a more intimate way, and her TED talk, Activism Needs Introverts, was actually featured on TED’s home page in November 27 as one of their TED talks of the day, and has since generated over one million views.
So this episode is quite special for me because I first met Sarah several years ago in a beautiful little event in Wales called The DO Lectures where she spoke about her unique gentle protest approach to craftivism and she captivated the whole room and the whole conference with her quietly radical approach, and had two books, A Little Book of Craftivism, and How To Be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest, have been widely popular and given the importance of… Oh, shit, I’m going to do that again.
Her two books, A Little Book of Craftivism, and How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest, have been widely popular and given the importance of activism and participating politics right at this moment, I wanted to invite her onto the show to share her insights and ideas about how we might the conversation to make a positive impact, however quietly.
So, Sarah, thank you so much for joining me.
SC: Thanks for having me.
NN: So, I want to dive in with asking you to maybe share a story that you once told me about, a beautiful interaction you had with one of your local MPs at the beginning of your craftivism journey. Can you tell us about that?
SC: Yeah. Sort of odd really. It was very logical in my head when I did it, so, it was a few years ago now I moved into a new area of London so I was in a new constituency so I had a new MP, and as you know I’ve been an activist my whole life, really, so I support lots of different charities and have signed up to lots of mailing lists, so I get lots of email petitions to send to your MP or postcards to send that would come through the post with different charities magazines, and I’d make sure I had time to do them if I agreed with them. I sort of thought nothing of it, really, and forgot that I had moved into the new area and was just like, “Yep, yep, this makes sense. I agree with these issues.”
And then I got an email back from my local MP’s office, from one of her staff members saying, “Please stop sending us these petitions. It’s a waste of your time and it’s a waste of our time, and it’s a waste of charities’ money,” which, one, I’d never received such an honest email like that by a politician or their staff before, so it was quite a shock to the system, and it was really upsetting. You know, you think, “I deeply care about these issues and your MP, your Member of Parliament is there supposedly to represent you in Parliament, you’re their constituents.” Luckily I didn’t reply back to the email having a rant. I decided to do the hoovering instead which I think is always good when you’re in a bad mood.
But I thought about this and thought, “Well hang on a minute. I haven’t met her yet. I wonder why her office have sent me this email, and how am I going to reply,” because, you know, my mom’s a local politician, I’ve worked with politicians before and since, and it can, if you work with them well, it can make a big difference, locally, nationally, and sometimes on international issues as well, so I didn’t want to just think, “Okay, I’m going to write off my MP and there’s no point contacting her.”
So while I was doing the hoovering I was thinking, “Okay, if what I always do is try and put myself in their shoes and think, “Okay, so, I know politicians are really busy with lots of demands. She’s a new politician so she might be overwhelmed by the amount of casework and emails she gets in, her staff are probably new, as well, and probably quite young as most are in MPs offices, and they’re probably thinking, you know, we have very… It was quite clear through what I was sending that we had different political ideologies and a lot of the stuff she hadn’t voted for. So, it was saying I disagree with you in a lot of things, and this was a few years ago when activism had a bad name, it’s very loaded and people are still quite nervous of the word activism, but maybe not so much now, because it’s more main-stream when celebrities and different people are saying they’re activists as well.
But I thought I need to share with her, I’m not a scary, angry activist. I’m angry but I’m not scary and I genuinely want to see where we can work together. Where possible she could change my mind if she gives me more information I don’t have, and I thought it was a good chance to find a way to meet her and say, “I’m that person. I’m nice and I might be actually quite useful for you for stuff we agree with, and I wanted to challenge each other where we disagreed.”
And then, at the same time, I had this little box of… you know when you get those old boxes of handkerchiefs that are like three in a box, they’ve got little flowers on, you know, and I got it from an old lady from church and I had it in my room thinking I’m going to give it to a charity shop because I have two hankies on rotation, so I didn’t need it. And then I immediately thought, “Oh, handkerchiefs, don’t blow it.” I thought of what a great metaphor that is to say, “How do I show my MP that I genuinely care about these issues?” I’m not a clicktivist or a slacktivist, and I’m also not a scary activist that won’t listen to her. So, what if I said on this handkerchief, “Don’t blow it. Use your power for good. I know you’ve got a tough job but I want to encourage you in your role and here’s a gift as a little positive reminder to try your best.” And an excuse for me to meet her and show that I am a nice, kind person.
NN: That’s so creative.
SC: So, I just wrote with a Biro in my neatest handwriting on the handkerchief a bit like it was a letter. I checked with my family who are really good sounding boards about the wording to make it non-violent language and encouraging, and I just wrote, “Dear, my MP, her name and MP at the end. I know being an MP is a big job and a tough job but what an amazing opportunity you have as well to really improve our world locally and nationally and even internationally, and I want to encourage you in your role to not blow it.” And I put “Don’t blow it,” in capital letters, but the rest was all very curly and soft fonts, and then I signed it, “Yours in hope, Sarah,” with my surname and my post code.
Then I just backstitched over the top, and it took a number of hours, it took me about four sessions to do, on and off, but it was great for me because it gave me time to think about what would I do if I was an MP and when I meet her, how am I going to give her this as a gift and not as a manipulation tool or throw it at her face or something that is more about me rather than about her. It really gave me time to think more deeply and critically and calmly than ping off a quickie mail saying, “Shame on you for not listening to your constituents.”
So I emailed them saying, “I’ve made Jane a gift, and can I meet up with her at her surgery,” because as a constituent they have to give you a slot. So, of course, politicians want a gift, but they had their earliest slot on a Saturday morning, and I am not a morning person, so I had to drag myself out of bed to get the local library with this wibbly-wobbly, imperfect handkerchief that I’d stitched at the top of the message and clearly handmade and embarrassingly gave it to her and said, “I’m that person that’s been emailing you, and I really care about these issues and I wanted to get to know you, meet you, and see where we can work together but also find out why we disagree and learn from that.”
And she went from being extremely busy and very standoffish, you know, I think, she’d be honest and say she was, as well, to suddenly getting this handkerchief that she immediately looked at the back and looked at my messy knots where I tried my hardest but it wasn’t as neat as it could be, and her whole body language changed and she went from being, yeah, quite stern and cold to saying, “Oh, my word. How long did that take you?” And we talked. She said that she had a cross stitch piece that she’d been making for her best friend for a wedding present and it was coming up to the 10th anniversary of her friend’s wedding anniversary.
So we had a giggle about that and then it sort of opened up a space where I could say, “Why did you become an MP, Jane? What are you passionate about? What are the issues you care about? This is what I care about. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? What do you think we could do about it?” So it really was a catalyst for a safe conversation with each other. It showed respect. It showed I cared enough that I’d spend hours making this gift for her rather than something flashy as a big display to give to her office with a big hoo-ha. It was very humble and quiet, and we ended up doing some work together on different campaigns we agreed on. Where we disagreed, I learned a lot from her position and some of the barriers of why she couldn’t do certain things that she did agree with.
She trusted me when I said, “What do you really care about in the area?” And she talked very honestly about how FGM, female genital mutilation or cutting, some people call it, was a big issue in the area. I don’t live in the area any more, but she said it’s a really huge issue that she wasn’t aware of because it’s very underground, and it wasn’t in the media a lot at all. So I managed to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” I were in touch with these two charities that I knew of, and she said that they wouldn’t get back to her emails, possibly because she was from a political party that they didn’t agree with fully.
I managed to get hold of those charities and said, “This is a big issue for us locally, on the ground. She cares deeply about it. She could be a really strong ally, especially in a political party, probably don’t… allies in,” but it was about a long-term relationship with my local MP and seeing where we could make big and small changes to me, personally, to her, and within our roles.
NN: Yeah. And I think, one of the things that really strikes me about your story, there’s a few things I think that just, that really touch me. Is kind of diving down, is expectation of confrontation, and you mentioned briefly this non-violent communication, choosing your words quietly and carefully to make sure that your hope was what was apparent, so that you had some place to meet, something that you could construct and build together.
You mentioned about the possibility that we do have to use these kinds of things to manipulate. Where do you find that line because, I sometimes wonder if I’m kind to someone or suggestive to someone by supporting their strengths. Sometimes I sort of think, “Well, maybe I should just be really super blunt. Is this manipulation? Is this me just being funny?” And, I, knowing psychology, I second-guess myself quite a lot because I always want to be erring on the side of what I would feel comfortable with.
What are your thoughts about that, on that fine line, I think?
SC: Yeah, it’s a good question and I have to challenge a lot of… You know I run the Craftivist Collective, so we have people all over the world taking part and I have to challenge a lot of craftivist individuals and groups when they say, “We’re going to make this big thing for our local MP, or our representative in Congress,” or whoever. And I have to sort of, in a loving way, try and say, “What are you trying to change? Are they the right person? Where can they help? And the gift you’re giving them, is it really a gift or is it honest to say that it’s more of a media stunt? Is it more of a display to get media attention, or is it more of, you know, one of the many great strengths about craftivism?” Is it so visual and it’s offline, so it actually really works well online, people really like sharing offline stuff online.
And often people try and do all of it with one object. So I knew with my politician that I needed to build a relationship with her and show that I cared and I was respectful of her, so doing a very small, humble gift that I didn’t share on social media, it was really important. So she, then, didn’t see all over Twitter, “Look what I gave my MP.” It was a very intimate thing that it wouldn’t have been intimate if I’d told everyone about it beforehand, took lots of pictures, you know. As soon as you give a gift to someone and then say, “Can I have a photograph of you holding up the gift I’ve given you?” Changes the whole dynamic.
So, everything is context by context. I did another project which was when the G8 was hosted in the UK and I did a big national project with Save The Children. It was about support and the Aid budget, the 0.8 Aid budget, which at the time, the Conservative government were in power and David Cameron was hosting the G8, and that was really to get politicians to support the 0.8 budget, and my MP really cared about that, even though her local constituents and local party members, which, if your local party members disagree with you as a politician, that’s really quite scary if you lose local members.
So, because I built this critical friendship, we didn’t agree a lot on lots of issues, but we were critical friends. We have this friendship. Her office called me and said, “We agree with the campaign you’re doing. We need to show that members of the constituency care about this issue, too. Let’s do a photo shoot with people who care about these issues, and we have these jigsaw pieces as a campaign about being a piece of the solution.” So, in that case, that was win-win of, “Yes, let’s do a media stunt because this helps both of us.”
But with some things, I think you’ve got to be really honest and I mean, in my book, and I try not to sound really hippy, but I do talk about, you sort of know when you’re getting a gift of whether this is more about the other person or if it’s about you. And people get a knitted jumper made by their grandmother. Is it because their grandmother loves knitting and they want to give you a jumper, or have they made you something with the colors that you love, with the pattern and the style that you love, and really thought about you first and then made something bespoke that you’ll love? We make gifts for power-holders from board members to politicians to journalists and lots of different people, and I talk about focus on what colors they love, what fonts they use, what hobbies they have. Look at, are they a trustee of a particular organization on LinkedIn, and that might show you what they’re passionate about.
Put a quote on your handkerchief around the idea of not blowing it, but be in that person you… Be the change you want to see in the world, but have a quote from someone that you think they’ll love, whether it’s a musician, if they love music, or someone who’s really into gardening or something. Don’t pick something that you love because they might… It shows more about you than them. All of my objects, I try and encourage people to use them as a tool, not a taskmaster, and use them to serve the cause rather than be about you. But also, not about massaging the ego. I really don’t want to put people on pedestals or say to people in positions of power, “Oh, only you can fix this. Please help us,” and really grovel. It’s about respect and respecting their position in power, but treating them as a human being.
We’re all much cleverer than we think. You know when you get that gut feeling of, “Am I being manipulative?” You probably are. There are challenges. I try and go, “Okay, well, how can I make sure this isn’t or do I need to change my strategy, or do I just need to reframe how I gift this to someone, or do I need to do it anonymously sometimes?”
NN: And it sounds like it’s also very much about being clear in one’s intention for that piece, so if you’re doing something collaboratively to put it on display, as a public piece, then that’s going to involve a different approach than doing something for an intimate quiet moment which then gets used to serve some other aim that wasn’t maybe there explicitly.
SC: Yeah. And the problem is, we’re all busy and we all want a quick fix, so often we want one thing that will tick all the boxes, but as soon as we try and tick all the boxes, we’ve actually diluted the impact that that craftivism object could have, or any activism object. I think we’ve got to be really clear on what’s this for and how does it fit in the bigger picture. When I went to the big NGOs, I remember doing one campaign where we had giant engagement rings and we were saying to politicians, “We’re proposing a climate law that we want you to sign,” so we had people go down on one knee and have this giant ring. And it was great for media.
But it was very clear from the beginning, I made it very clear when I was working for the charity that every politician we did it with, we were very honest with them to say, “Look, this for a good photo stunt for the local paper.” And then I’d say, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to leave you with this giant prop, because we know you’ve got no room in your office and it’ll probably be a pain in the ass to have it.” And that actually really again showing them that we were thinking about them and their logistics of their tiny offices and their staff and not wanting to be a pain.
It was a great excuse, actually, having this giant prop to sort of show that respect and that empathy and compassion whilst also challenging a lot of them to sign this agreement, but most of them didn’t want to at the time. So, I think honesty actually is really helpful to say to people, like, “This is quietly for you to keep in your pocket. It’s a handkerchief to encourage you,” or, “This is a big display because we really need good images to gain more support from people across the country, or with social media influencers,” or something. So, I think actually honesty is probably the best policy.
NN: And so I wonder, sort of talking a little bit about some of your work as a former professional campaigner and tying some of the learnings that you took away from that, especially now in the context where we’re looking at Extinction Rebellion and the climate strikes and this huge extraordinary international movement that’s happening, this activism movement, what are some of the most useful skills that you found you developed during your time as a professional campaigner? Maybe that you’ve seen people use in these sorts of protests, demonstrations, and what are some of the things that you think people could benefit from hearing about, that you know have worked for you?
SC: Oh, it’s a big question and I have so many different answers for different contexts. I’m always a broken wheel with everyone because I’m like, “Context is everything. What’s the context?”
NN: So maybe let’s start there.
NN: How can people assess well what the context is and what questions might they start asking themselves about the context enables them to take the right strategy that’s going to be more appropriate or more useful?
SC: Yeah. I mean, I try and look at everything holistically. So the first thing I always try and get people to start with, which is actually, really… I mean, I love learning about how the brain works, or I read a lot on neuroscience and psychology and it really helps inform my work hugely, learning about how the brain works and how we engage in the senses. So I look a lot about what colors to use, what fonts to use, what textures, how to engage two or more senses which makes it more memorable for both the maker and the person who sees your activism.
So all of that stuff I think is really important to just try and understand how people’s brains work. We know that if you scream at people we get them straight into fight, flight or freeze mode, so whether we actually agree with people or we want to listen, our brain can’t multitask. We go straight into closing off and survival, so actually when we scream and shout, again, that might be useful if we’re trying to get media attention or have particular images, but if we scream at particular people that we want them to change their mind, that’s not productive.
For me, it’s also, I find it really unkind. I don’t want to scream at people because I don’t want people screaming at me, unless you know them really well and you know, like I know with my brother that sometimes I just need to be like, “Can we just stop and talk about this?” But I’m not screaming at him, I’m trying to change the situation first to listen, whereas I know if I scream at my dad, he’ll just completely leave the room. Everyone engages with things differently because we’ve all got different personalities, but in general, yeah, as soon as you feel attacked, then we just close off to any form of change or even listening to each other.
I find that quite frustrating. And I think it’s great with chants, you know, when people go on marches and they want to do big chants because it’s really good for solidarity and for people to be part of a group, if they’re more extrovert and like that sort of thing. But we always need to start with, “What do we want rather than what we don’t want.” So what’s the vision of the world we want, and on this particular issue, so say if its climate change which we’re talking about now, what do we want the world to look like? So we want clean air, therefore we want clean energy if we want clean air.
If we want soil to be healthy then we need to figure out how to do that. As soon as we just focus on the problem of what we don’t want, again, I mean, you can tell me if I’m wrong on this, our brain just focuses on the problem. Gets worried about the problem and doesn’t know how to look away from the problem. But if we look at the vision of what we want and really try and imagine it and not just what it looks like, but what does it feel like, what does it smell like, what does it taste like, what does it… you know, all of those senses, then our brains try and figure out how to get there. Sometimes even just in our subconscious without us realizing, while you’re asleep, it’s figuring out how to reach that goal of what you’re trying to reach.
I always tell people to start with, what are you trying to get to and then work backwards. I think it’s brilliant that Extinction Rebellion’s happening. It’s a simple message with, it’s got three main points of what they’re asking from the government and from different governments around the world. I think they could be stronger so that people are really clear because there’s a lot of people who were against them saying, you know, “I can’t get into work on time, or one of these young people doing who should be having jobs.” If they had their three points much clearer of this is what we want rather than just what we don’t want, I think that might engage more people.
But I do think having people physically somewhere is good media attention, it’s empowering for people. You’re using your body so you’ve got clear tasks you can do. My concern with some of it is, a lot of it is focusing on, “This is what we don’t want, the world is going to end,” which we have to acknowledge but for our own wellbeing, for activists as well, if we’re in this anxious state, if we’re eco-warriors rather than eco- worriers, we can actually get our stress levels can make our health really bad so it’s not sustainable. And we only engage people who agree with us, whereas I think we really need to make sure that we say to everyone, “Look, it’s a no-brainer that we fix climate change because not only do we have to for the world’s sake and the human race’s sake, but this links to your kids having clean air to breathe outside the schools,” or really make it relevant to people that’s not party political.
And then with the student strikes, again, similar for me is, I think it’s actually really powerful and it’s a nice simple thing for people to do, but I think while you strike, again, make it clear what change you want, but also while you’re striking, a strike is not doing something, and I think it’s really worrying for people if they just sit at a demonstration or don’t go to school that day. It’d be much more empowering if they said, “While we’re striking we’re also looking at what can our schools do in terms of changing their energy supply? What can we do in terms of the food that we get in our schools? What are we asking local businesses to do?”
So having that balance, we’re against this, but also having some practical, positive actions you can take to say what you’re for and how people can join you in that. I think we need that balance rather than just one or the other.
NN: I love this idea of, you’re looking at the practicality of the things, the practical steps that people can take to build their visions. And actually talking about the practical, it’s also important to know why you’re doing these things, and one of the things I wanted to ask about is, this really wonderful, very, I find, very unusual manifesto that you have on the craftivism website for making a difference in the world. Can you share some or all of the core values, depending on which you want, that you use to base your approach in?
SC: I haven’t thought about it being quite unusual in the words, but it totally is. Yeah, I think with the manifesto, after a few years of trying lots of craftivism, and you know we learn from mistakes, so honing my craft, and so it links back to our first discussion about how do we know if we’re manipulating people by giving them? Are these gifts real or are they fake manipulation tools? So it’s a bit of a checklist for people, and it’s 10 points, and each of them has a title and then a little sentence underneath.
So if I just pick out a couple, the first one says, “Be the tortoise.” So, for me, craftivism is a tool in the activism tool kit, so it’s not replace all the forms of activism. We still need marches if they’ve got a clear strategy and accountability of what they’re trying to change. We also need to do those online quick petitions, particularly when we need urgent action before certain votes. But being the tortoises is about craftivism’s really good because crafts could just slow down. You can’t do craft fast without not making a knot or breaking your thread, and the slowness really helps you go from despair or anger or sadness to helping your brain slow down, quieten down and think more clearly, and then actually think more critically and strategically.
So the first point is, “Be the tortoise,” and it says, “Breathe. Take it slow. Craftivism is about taking a thoughtful approach to mindful activism.” And then if I want to pick one from the list, it’s really hard because… all my little babies, but I guess, one that I think is particularly relevant at the moment is number three, which is, “Solidarity not sympathy.” And it’s about preserving the dignity of others by sharing solidarity with them in your craft or your activism, and understand their struggles so that you can understand the solutions. Activism is not about charity.
I think for me, I find it really important, regardless of your background, but I grew up in a very low-income area in the UK in Everton in Liverpool in the ’80s with huge inequality, very high unemployment, really bad health rates. It’s still one of the most deprived wards in the UK. And we’d have lots of people with big hearts wanting to fix the system and help poor people, and it was really horrible because they were looking at us as poor people. Some other stuff they were doing came from a big heart but was not helpful. I remember as a kid in primary school, my mom saying, “Oh, some people have dropped off shoes, secondhand shoes, if anyone wants to wear them,” and they’d drop them off to the youth club. And there was no way anyone was going to wear them.
I remember as a, like a seven-year-old thinking, “Hell, no. I’ll be bullied wearing secondhand shoes.” And it was really undignified. What we wanted was people to have jobs that were well paid so they didn’t have to have five jobs. We wanted people to have the support they needed and the structures in place so that everyone could flourish. We didn’t want secondhand shoes that no one had asked for, and that just created more of a division, really, between the haves and the have-nots. So there’s lots of points in there to gently nudge people in the right direction, and what’s great with the manifesto is, yes, it’s a big weird but WWF said, the World Wildlife Federation, not the wrestling…
NN: I did wonder for a second there.
SC: … and I got an email from their head of campaigns a few months ago saying they used the manifesto for a craftivism campaign they did in Spain, and they won the campaign to protect migrating birds with a particular law that was put in place and they used our 10 point manifesto, and said it worked.
NN: That’s so exciting.
SC: It’s free on the website, but it is, yeah, a different way of doing activism, which sometimes is needed.
NN: Yeah. And one of the things I find really interesting about you, personally, but also in the way that you are active, is that you’re quite an introvert, and yet you’re a leading voice on this global stage. I know we talked about the TED talk but also you got invited to speak in all places around the world. How has that been for you? How do you find or attempt to find, as many of us do, any kind of balance?
SC: Yeah. I don’t think anyone’s balanced, we all strive for it.
NN: Oh gosh, yeah.
SC: We all need this. Yeah, I mean, I’m quite an extreme introvert so I only realized I was an introvert after I read the Susan Cain book Quiet. I don’t know if you’ve read it, and it’s all about introversion. I didn’t know what introversion meant, really, but I’d always… I grew up in an activist family. My dad’s still the local vicar in the area of Everton I grew up in. My mom was a Mayoress and then a Foreman, now she’s a politician and was a cabinet member and then mayoral lead, and now she’s Deputy Mayor, so always grew up around activism. We squatted in social housing at the top of our street when I was three and saved those campaigns, and it was always part of… We campaigned on anti-apartheid. Lots of different issues and went to South Africa when I was eight to learn about what they were doing there about apartheid.
NN: Oh, wow.
SC: So for me, I’m an activist and I know I do activism because it can work, and it has worked, and that’s made my passion is how to make activism more effective and more inclusive of people. For me, I only realized I was an introvert reading this book, but it was a huge like epiphany moment, a moment of enlightenment, because for decades I’d been thinking, “Why am always so exhausted after a march, after…” Even just a campaign meeting, I’d often be the secretary writing the minutes or I chair meetings, I was really good at mobilizing people in my different jobs in campaigns. But it was always so exhausting, I’d literally have to go home and sleep because I just couldn’t stand up when everyone else seemed so energized.
So it was actually a huge relief to sort of… It’s a bit like when people say they felt ill for years and then they finally get a diagnosis. It was something similar for me. I was like, “Oh! This is why I’m tired. Introverts like being on their own and have deep thoughts. They like deep conversations with one-on-one, rather than hosting lots of people.” My sister is quite an extreme extrovert so we have these conversations all the time with where she gains energy where I lose it, what we’re both good at in different ways, and I did the TED talk, Activism Needs Introverts, because the more I… how would you say it, like, admitted I was an introvert.
NN: It’s like coming out.
SC: It’s like coming out but not as scary, obviously, but the more I admitted it, people were like, “Me, too.” And I was like, “We’ve got different traits that are really helpful.” And activism is actually quite elitist in lots of ways. It’s all about stimulus, it’s all about getting lots of attention, it’s about mobilizing loads of people together, and it was very driven by extroverts, so that was normal.
But a third to a half of the world are introverts, so, one, we need to engage those people as activists, but also, that probably means a third to a half of power-holders and decision-makers that we’re trying and encourage to make big decisions and change their mind as well, they’re introverts, so they probably will close down at a lot of this loud, angry activism.
So for me it’s really important to say that activism needs introverts and we have different skills. It’s difficult because I only set up the Craftivist Collective because people found online and friends were asking me what I was doing with this thing called craftivism, and they wanted to join in. And it’s hard to say no to people if they want to join in [crosstalk 00:34:19], and even though I was like, “I just want to do it on my own.” But there was a real need for people, so people online who I didn’t know, saying, “I’m a burnt out activist, and I think this might help me be an activist in a more sustainable way,” or, “I get really anxious of people and confrontation, but this is something I feel like I can do.”
It really reached people in lots of different ways as far as people who love craft, you know, a real diverse audience. So I felt like I had to do it, and then it’s just grown over the last 10 years, and I do travel a lot. I try not to travel too much because of carbon emissions, of course, but I do, yeah, big talks, big panels. But I think people often see introverts as the same thing as shyness. I remember talking to John Ronson about this. He was like, “I’m an introvert.” And he’s actually not. He’s figured out he’s an ambivert, because shyness often is hand-in-hand with introverts, but introverts, is just about where you gain your energy.
So, doing lots of talks, I still get really nervous, but that’s not about gaining or losing energy, that’s just about being in front of a big crowd. I think, for me, as I’m sure it’s for you with this podcast, you see a need and you want to help people learn to be better global citizens and being more aware of how the brain works and how we can be good citizens on this planet and stewards. That sort of trumps anything that you think, “Oh, I’m not going to do it.” But it is, yeah, it’s a tough one. And as an introvert, I get a huge amount of people online asking lots of questions, and I like replying to them and I love challenging people about their activism or craftivism strategies.
But it’s also very draining, so I’m trying to figure out a way of supporting people but also not wearing them out at the same time.
NN: I think maybe you need a team of introverts, extroverts, ambiverts, but talking about drawing on the community, I wonder if there’s one story, maybe, that sticks out for you, that a community member has shared about something that they did or they made or they gifted someone, that really touched you.
SC: Oh, so many. I mean, what’s amazing now, especially with my big book that came out, what, a year-and-a-half ago now, I’m getting more and more people send me amazing long emails of how they read the book and then taking part with some of our kits or free projects online, and you know really sharing how they changed their minds on stuff, or how they’ve taken action that they’ve never done before and now they’ve got confidence to go on a march that they would have been scared to before, or to have that difficult conversation with a family member or a friend about the xenophobia that they’ve just had.
I mean, what I love, and it’s a constant reminder of how there isn’t one-size-fits-all, there isn’t a recipe for successful activism because we’re all so different and we all interact with things differently, which is frustrating because it makes activism really bloody hard work and it can take years and decades to change anything, and then it can go backwards and you have to campaign again. We live in a messy world and therefore activism is really hard to make an impact, but we get emails from people saying I’ve changed their minds or I’ve changed their habits or that they’ve seen activism in a new way that they can do. It’s really amazing.
And then having WWF contact me saying that they’ve changed the law in Spain and with our help, it’s just wonderful to know that birds migrate and are over Spain, they’ve got a bit of support with the law in place to make sure that they get what they need. And then one campaign in the UK managed to go from 50,000 staff for one of the biggest retailers in the UK who were on minimum wage, we got them an increase in their wages to be the living wage.
It’s really hard to pick one out of so many. There’s an amazing woman I talk about in the book, who’s a single mom in Sweden. I was in Stockholm for five weeks doing an exhibition and workshops and stuff, and she was very angry and she had really bad back pain and she was a mom of a small child who was in primary school. I’m not going to guess the age, but young girl, and she was very angry about lots of the racism that was happening and really wanted to make these big, stitched banners, and was pretty negative and quite scary towards me. She was a big woman and was quite scary. And she ended up coming to one of my workshops after being… She came to a talk and she was like, “Nope. Don’t agree with this. I think we need to really say what needs to be said, not being kind to these horrible people out there.”
So I said, “Okay. How are you feeling?” And she said, “I’m exhausted. This is all so awful what’s happening. I’m seeing so much hatred.” And I was like, “Well, do you want to fight hate with hate? And does that work?” And I said, “Come along to a workshop, bring your daughter if you have to. It will be quiet, you can just sit in the corner and have a listen, or you can have a go, but I know it sounds full of fear and weak, but come along and see what you think. Might help you just to sustain yourself and find a better way for your own well-being in a more positive way to do stuff.” So I tried not to be patronizing.
I mean, good for her, she came along, quite cynical, but we noticed she was sitting next to someone who worked in the Swedish Embassy. It’s very different there, and she would have said that the mom I was mentioning, you know, calls herself an anarchist, and she sat next to this person who worked at the Embassy, and they had to share scissors because that’s what happens in my workshop. And the person who worked in the Embassy couldn’t thread their needle so the anarchist helped and they ended up having this quite quiet conversation about, “Well, what is an Embassy? And what does it actually mean? What’s the point?” And then, the person who worked for an Embassy said, “Well, tell me about why you believe in anarchy?”
And they had this very respectful conversation which straight away, just, was like… I never thought that would happen, and she learned a lot, but also she started thinking about how she sent me a letter, and I mention some of it in the book as a quote which she was happy for me to share, saying that it really helped her think about how to be a good role model for her daughter. So she went from being demonizing these people who were being racist to actually trying to see the pain that they had and why they were reacting in this way, and what was the best way to tackle it so that she didn’t ignore the awful things they were doing, but she could find a way whether it was through craft or whether it was through other forms of activism or just conversations and asking opening questions, you know, find out what she could do about this issue and what her daughter could do about the issue.
So it’s not often like quick responses that change things, or it’s not one answer. It’s, again, looking at the complexities of where people live and what influence we have in different ways and how to do things in a more sustainable way that is more effective as well. I wouldn’t do what I do, I wouldn’t do general protest if it didn’t work. I do it because it’s hard work but it does work.
NN: So, if you’re going to give people just a seed of advice for getting started in activism or maybe a place that they could start their inquiry, what advice might that be?
SC: Oh, it’s really hard. There’s so many things. I think for me it’s starting with practice what you preach before you preach it. So often we tell other people what to do but if we’re not doing it, it gives the person you’re telling, it gives them an excuse to say, “Well, you are not doing it.” So, if you’re wearing a jumper with a big logo of a very unethical company, but you’re telling companies to be more ethical or you’re telling customers to be more ethical, then that’s quite hard for that customer to listen to you because you’re not practicing what you preach. Or you acknowledge it and say, “I can only afford this, or it’s secondhand, but these are the steps that I’m taking to be more ethical, and this is what I’m therefore asking you to see what’s possible for you.”
NN: So really modeling the behavior.
SC: Absolutely. And the same way that I do it all the time when I talk to business leaders and politicians when I say, “Changing your energy supply is a huge thing we can do, whether it’s your building or whether it’s your whole company, whether it’s you as an individual, it’s often cheaper now than dirty forms of energy, and it’s win-win. I changed my energy supply and it was super easy.” It’s hard for people to ignore if you say, “I’ve done it and it wasn’t as hard as I thought,” or, “I’ve done it and you know it’s a bit of a pain to change my habit, but we all know that after 10 weeks of habits change quicker.”
I think figuring out what you want other people to do and then working backwards of how you can do it. Lots of people are on a small budget, can’t change to buying organic cotton bedsheets but they could write a letter to the company that they bought their bedsheets from and say, “As a customer I wish these were organic and fair trade and I want you to tell the manager that because in the future I really want to buy from you that’s more ethical.”
It comes back to the first point about having that vision of what you want for the world and whether you’re a part of that solution or whether you’re a part of the problem, and if you’re part of the problem, how can you then still make change. I have an iPhone which is part of a big problem so I need to figure out what other phones I can get or what works better or what are the ways that I can… you know, there’s always things that we can do well and do badly, but you just have to try.
NN: So, what would you say right now is your biggest concern for the future?
SC: I think climate change is my big worry, and that we’re not talked down. It’s not working fast enough as it needs to, but for me, my big concern within that is that we need to do activism better. We’re just creating bigger silos online and offline. We need people who care about climate change to not just stay in their silos of who agrees with them, but find ways to talk to people on their streets they’ve never spoken to and make it relevant to them.
Talk to farmers and say, “This might sound like we’re saying that you can’t do your job or it’s going to cost you more money, but imagine if you would be part of the solution.” I read a book recently by Van Jones who’s an American journalist. Brilliant book and it’s for Republicans and Democrats and it’s sort of letters to both, and one of his points, which I think is a no-brainer and that can work in so many others ways, is when he talks about how we need clean energy in America and it’s that we’re now one of the fastest growing profitable products that America is making, and California especially, and making huge amounts of money from it, which is great, but a lot of the people on the right will say, “You know, coal miners losing their jobs, you’re losing people in oil mines, in oil, they’re going to lose their jobs.”
And Van Jones says, “Hang on a minute. If we can get all this clean energy, all we have to do is prioritize people doing the old energy consumption work in that industry and swap them over, and have pro-discrimination in those roles and get HR involved.” I think we really need to say what we do want and how we can all be part of it, and what we don’t want, we need to show everyone that they can… This isn’t going to cause them harm when this is something that we can all be part of, regardless of political ideologies, regardless of what we might disagree on. This is a huge issue that we’ve all got to come together on and show it to different people that this fits their context and is something that is relevant to them and can be a cheaper and healthier thing for everyone.
I feel like climate change is just an opportunity for us to change so much for the better.
NN: Yeah. So, what vision are you working towards achieving? What would that look like for you?
SC: What would my vision be? It would be that everything’s clean energy, so, renewable energies, ideally. That we all keep an eye out on our neighbors and check that we’re… you know, how everyone’s doing. We learn how to listen to people we disagree with. I always think about what’s the main reason for all this injustice and inequality in the world, and I used to think it was greed. And then I thought, “Maybe it’s insecurity and we’re all insecure.” And now my thought is, “I think we just all need to learn to be more emotionally intelligent, and we just… we really lack in that.” We’re not taught it in school. We’re not given time to think through, “Why am I feeling this way? What’s the best way to respond to people.”
I think that my vision of a better world is a happy, healthy, harmonious one where everyone’s really emotionally intelligent.
NN: I love the sound of that. It would be so nice. Give people a bit of education in how to actually connect with others more thoughtfully, non-violent communication classes, honing social skills…
SC: Well, we’re learning more and more now about the issue of loneliness all over the world, so, I feel like emotional intelligence classes for us all would solve a lot of problems.
NN: I think it would be a great, great place to start. So, given that context makes a big difference for each and everyone of us in terms of how we choose to engage with the topics that we’re most concerned about, maybe this is going to be an unanswerable question, but what single action would you suggest that people take today, as individuals, to build towards a more creative or resilient future?
SC: Oh, my word. I mean the problem is, there isn’t one. One quick thing. There isn’t one action people can take.
NN: Might it be sitting quietly for 15 minutes and thinking about a little action
serving to them?
SC: Yeah. Well I think, I mean, I just finished a book by a brain surgeon which I loved called Into The Magic Shop, which everyone should read, all you listeners should read that, but actually he grew up in a really tough part of America, in poverty, with a alcoholic father and a suicidal mom. Horrific stuff. And as a kid he learned mindfulness and to sit and just look at a candle flame for a while. So maybe my… and it’s something I really struggle with, so maybe my answer would be, “Let’s all, yeah, light a candle and look at the flame for five minutes so our brains can just stop thinking,” which then actually helps us think more clearly and remember things more easily and help us with our emotional intelligence.
So, maybe five minutes of looking at the flickering flame.
NN: That sounds wonderful. I’m going to nick that one when I go and do that.
SC: I think I’ll do that tonight.
NN: Sounds good, that’s our evenings knocked out. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I’m going to list a bunch of different things that people can explore and investigate if they want to find out more about you. I’m going to post the link to your fantastic video, Activism Needs Introverts in the show notes.
And in terms of socially, we’ve got lots of different places people can find you. Is there one in particular that you prefer over the others? I’ll list all of them in the post that goes along with that.
SC: I like Twitter and Instagram for different reasons, so, yeah, if you look @craftivists on Twitter or Instagram you’ll see what we’re up to.
NN: Lovely. And if people want to check out your website, it’s craftivist-collective.com and I’ll also be linking to your two wonderful books, A Little Book of Craftivism, and How To Be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest.
Sarah, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really enjoyed talking with you.
SC: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.