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The Activist Whisperer: Start small to make big changes

Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is an author, the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Life 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 am 16-years-old and have just been on an activism residential with other girls my age. It was the first training session of a 9 month project where there will be more training days and weekends away; we all get a local mentor and are supported to create our own campaign on an issue we care about. I am going to focus on campaigning against plastic because that’s what I care about most and we need to fix it now. But I need to come up with my own campaign, and I’m freaking out! I don’t know what to do. How big it should be? I don’t even know if I have the skill to do it;  it’s such a big commitment. It seems like such a huge project on top of school work and other stuff I have to do. Part of me wishes I hadn’t signed up to the programme, even though I really want to save the world. I need to tell my mentor really soon what my idea is. Can you help please? I really do want a plastic-free world!

Stressed-out Chloe, Norwich

Dear Chloe,

Last summer I was working with a group of young people. The messaging for their training programme were slogans like Use your Voice, Stand Up, Be Heard. They were told to think about what injustices they cared about and to create their own campaign to tackle it. My role was to sit with them individually and give them feedback on their project, help them improve it if I could and to encourage them.

I had just 20 minutes with each activist and it was intense. There was a lot to go through: What they were trying to change, who the decision makers were, what resources they would need for their campaign, how to mobilise people to support it …. I fell asleep, exhausted, on the train home.

The biggest problem I saw was that they started from the wrong place. The campaigns had nothing to do with their age or campaign inexperience (Amika George the teenage campaigner who started #FreePeriods proves you can make real change as a teenager). Their focus was on creating something new, big, shiny, neatly packaged and that they would lead on.

Three campaigns were to ‘get justice for the Grenfell Tower Fire victims’ (the fire had just happened and it had clearly upset a lot of them, even though no one knew people directly affected or had been to Kensington where it happened). I asked how their campaign would complement the London-based grassroots campaign ‘Justice 4 Grenfell’ founded by people directly affected. They hadn’t thought about that. We discussed why they picked Grenfell to campaign on. I discovered that they had experienced living in social housing or knew people who had problems through dampness, exposed wiring and other issues. They had important stories to tell.

We discussed how their outrage at Grenfell Tower was a chance to be part of fixing bad housing policy locally (even nationally!), while being in solidarity with the victims of Grenfell. They quickly found that there were local housing campaigns already in existence that they could be in coalition with, learn from and help strengthen by creating a campaign that complemented these existing campaigns. They went from ‘standing up to be heard’ (but feeling freaked out by their big plans like you are feeling lovely Chloe) to being part of a bigger campaign in their own way. I reminded them of the African Proverb:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

We then discussed the value of boundaries. We discussed how much time they realistically had for their campaign so that it didn’t harm their educational and other commitments. We discussed what resources they had including financial budget, their own skill sets and the prospect of help from others.

Rather than trying to mobilise everyone for their campaign, we discussed what was the most influential audience to focus on engaging with and how best to do that. Do ask your mentor about how much time and support they can offer and create a realistic schedule for the next nine months to help you be the most effective activist you can be in a sustainable way.

I find this story helpful for my own campaigning and hope you do too:

I Wanted To Change The World - Author: Unknown Monk AD 1100

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.

I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.

When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realise the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realise that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the Nation and I could indeed have changed the world.

This story doesn’t let us off the hook. It’s saying that instead of starting with a big campaign, start with yourself and where you have power and influence, and work outwards. For example:

1.  How much plastic do you use?

2.  Is it easy to reduce your plastic consumption? If not, what help do you need from others?

3.  What is your school doing to reduce plastic usage?

4.  What is your local council doing about the plastic problem?

5.  Are there companies near you who could reduce their plastic usage and recycle more effectively?

I’m sure your programme leaders wanted to empower you to be a changemaker not  pressure you to make grand plans that you might struggle to deliver. If someone says your project isn’t big enough you can say that you are going to make a positive difference one careful step at a time and you won’t stop moving forward until you see a world free of harmful plastic: you’re walking humbly.

In solidarity,

                                                                                               The Activist Whisperer

Additional Reading:

1.  Identifying your “Circle Of Influence’ will also help you focus on which power holders you have influence with and that will help you see where you could have the most impact on the issue of plastic.

2.  You are just one piece of the solution - don’t burn out trying to do it all Chloe:

3.  Don’t forget that as well as campaigning, you can also change your own lifestyle and that can help strengthen your campaign:




If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]

If you're question is chosen you will receive Sarah’s one-off hand stitched fabric post-it note created for your question to keep



Instead of starting with a big campaign, start with yourself and where you have power and influence, and work outwards

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