Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her new weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Times she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world
Dear Activist Whisperer,
I have an MP who’s a really lovely person and who does lots in the community but any time I try to contact him about anything all I get is the party line. I’ve tried to get him to express a personal opinion about something. But I feel like all I ever get back is boilerplate, stock answers from Conservative HQ.
I get write-to-your MP emails and I just bin them because it feels like there’s no point. Is it worth me even writing to an MP like this about ANYTHING? What else can I do to get his attention, let him know how I feel and try to change his mind on issues I care about? I’m scared to meet him in person because he probably has all the answers and I’ll feel stupid. Hoping you have some insight or creative ideas.
I had a similar experience. I sent my MP email petitions and letters. Unlike you, I didn't get any replies. Finally, I got an email from one of her staff telling me to stop contacting her because it was a waste of my time and her time. Yikes!
I had met my MP once but I was in a group. I didn’t know her so I decided to put myself in her shoes to help my response. She was a newly elected MP: maybe she was nervous to veer away from the party line with her own views? She was voting for what I was sending petitions against: maybe she thought it was pointless to engage with me because it looks like I would never vote for her or, worse, she saw me as an ‘angry activist’ whom she didn't want to attack her? Maybe her staff member was struggling to keep on top of all of the requests my MP was receiving and my persistence had simply tipped him over the edge?
One thing I know from speaking with many psychologists over the years about activism is that there no silver bullet to changing someone’s mind; achieving that is normally a culmination of many micro actions. However, there are some powerful ways to influence others such as forgiving them for past actions, praising them for making a change and engaging them as a unique human being. With that in mind, my response was to stitch a message on a handkerchief for my MP:
Dear [her full name] MP,
As my MP I am asking you to please use your powerful position to challenge injustice, change structures keeping people poor, and fight for a more just and fair world. I know being an MP is a tough, big job but please DON’T BLOW IT, this is your chance to make a positive difference :)
Yours in hope
Sarah (Corbett), [postcode]
My strategy? To show I wasn't a ‘clicktivist’ but genuinely cared. I didn’t want to demonise her: I wanted to encourage her with my little gift and I hoped she would humanise me back. My long-game was to become a critical friend where we could work together on some issues and listen to each other on others. I wanted to be the most effective local lobbyist I could be.
I emailed the office and asked if I could meet my MP to give her my gift. MPs have a duty to meet their constituents and so I was offered a slot during her Saturday morning surgery in the local library. I googled her to learn as much as I could about her. I asked her questions with a smile like why she became an MP and what issues did she care about. She accepted my gift, was impressed that I had spent hours stitching it and went from being cold and formal in her manner to mentioning that she had tried to cross stitch a gift for a friend’s wedding and still hadn't finished it 25 years later. We both laughed (fun fact: humour is a powerful tool to bond with someone and for you to be more memorable to them) and she started to open up.
My MP said she was concerned with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) happening in our constituency. I was shocked, deeply saddened and thanked her for her work on this. I offered to put her in touch with a well respected small charity I knew. I contacted the charity to say that although they might not agree with my MP’s political party’s ideology (I didn’t) I thought she could be a valuable ally. A month later, my MP thanked me for the connection made; they were getting a lot done together locally and nationally. Three months later she contacted me asking for help to gather local support to protect the UK foreign aid budget, which I happily gave.
For the two years I lived in that constituency we worked together on issues local and national and where we disagreed we communicated that respectfully. Her different viewpoints helped me become a more thoughtful, creative and ultimately effective campaigner and I will always be grateful for that.
Self-interest will sadly be the most powerful motive for some people. But that needn’t stop us from finding common ground and working for progress without compromising our own principles. It can strengthen a campaign to have cross party support and progress is needed from many directions. For example, did you know that three of the biggest insurance companies are moving investment and insurance policy from coal? Sadly, it’s not for moral reasons but because the assets are financial liabilities. Regardless of the motives, these actions are helping us move to a cleaner energy world.
Obviously, every MP is different but I hope this story helps you with the next steps of your journey with your MP. Johan Sacks, author of Unsafe Thinking (2018) said recently at a talk I went to: ‘Don’t be an expert. Be an explorer’: I would encourage you Ross to explore what you have in common with your MP, explore what makes your MP tick and work out how this can influence the way you lobby them (avoid manipulation - it will break any trust you may have built!); explore ways you can help them progress on particular issues and what power you have to attract them to work with you where appropriate.
Curiosity may have killed the cat but it won’t kill you and as a campaigner in this situation, it will only make you more effective.
The Activist Whisperer
1. Chapter 8:’ The Gift’ of my book How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest explains more of the story of my hanky with my MP: https://craftivist-collective.com/How-To-Be-A-Craftivist-the-art-of-gentle-protest
2. This video goes through how I helped influence decision makers to increase the wages of 50,000 of their staff within 10 months: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTgMTeGqKv8&t=567s&app=desktop
3. One of the handful of books I refer to regularly for how to interact with people is Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. It’s an easy and great read and worth keeping as a reference book to help you in your future activism.
Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her new weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Times she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world.
If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]