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 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 found your previous post really helpful and your comment “Where and when can I be of most use with my skills and time?” particularly resonated with me. My question is about taking part in campaigns organised by other individuals or organisations. I wonder about the impact of some campaigns. I suspect some aren’t as thoughtful and strategic as you recommend in your book How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest. The Sadiq Khan yellow bikini balloon is an extreme example - I’m guessing the £58,000 that was crowdfunded for it could have been put to better use! So can you give me some signs to look for that suggest a campaign is likely to have real impact?
I’m glad that you found my column useful and thanks for your fab question. It’s a question I hope all activists ask before they join any campaign whether it’s urgent action required, an issue you're directly affected by or you have the privilege to choose to join or not. Everyone’s time and energy is precious and campaigns can demand a lot physically and emotionally so it’s important we invest in the campaigns we think will have the most impact.
Firstly, you don't need special skills to be a good activist - what’s often needed is common sense, good questions and the willingness to find wise answers. When you buy a washing machine or book a holiday you do some research before making your decision right? Ditto for your activism.
If I had to answer your question in one tweet it would be the quote from Martin Luther King (that I have tattooed on my shoulder): we need a ‘tough mind and a tender heart’. There is no perfect formula to win a campaign because humans are complex and contexts vary and shift. However I’ve made you this list m’dear: 10 elements that I believe are really important to examine in any campaign before you take part. Sadly, I’ve seen people with great intentions but who have lacked some of these elements which has allowed those against them to weaken the campaign’s message and therefore impact.
1. Clear goal: Does the campaign have a realistic solution to communicate well and a strategy of how to reach it? Without a solution to plan towards, your campaign might not help a cause or worse, it might cause more harm. Of course, plans need to be flexible, but we need to know what success will look like.
2. The right target? My mother is a City Councillor and sadly, because of austerity measures forced on the Council from central Government, she had to reduce funding to Sure Start Centres when she was Cabinet Member for Children’s Services. She had helped set up one of the first Sure Starts in the UK and desperately didn't want to reduce their budgets but she had no choice. She had some people protesting against her when they could have been campaigning with her to the Government’s Secretary of State for Education to reinstate funding to keep the Sure Start Centres open and running. Are you targeting the right person?
3. The right campaigners? Some people are more influential than others in campaigns. For example, if you are targeting an MP you will have more power as a local constituent than someone from outside the constituency catchment area. And a retail company is more worried when their core customers campaign for change than people who they think would never buy from their stores in the first place.
4. Credibility of the campaign leader: Are they a skilled campaigner or keen to learn? Do they have a good reputation or is there anything in their past that could jeopardise the campaign?
5. Service not celebrity: Our activism should not just be about winning, about being right, or becoming famous. Arrogance is toxic and can weaken a campaign if the focus is on the campaigners, rather than serving the cause.
6. Solidarity not sympathy: Injustices affect some people directly in harmful ways and we should be emotionally intelligent when tackling the issues so that we are not adding to their pain. Lilla Watson, activist, academic and artist, says that the following quote is born from the activist groups she was part of: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
7. Timing: What is the campaign’s timing strategy? Will there be protest at a company Annual General Meeting (AGM)? On the morning of a House of Commons vote? For one campaign, I had five weeks to deliver it. For another campaign I have three years. Each campaign will be different.
8. Complement, not compete, with other campaigners: Check if there are organisations or individuals already campaigning on the issue you care about and if you can join them, learn from their research and help them grow their campaign’s impact rather than starting from scratch.
9. Tactics: Being violent or promoting messages about a power-holder’s personality, rather than their policies, might make us feel better in the short-term but it gives the opposition an opportunity to ridicule your tactics instead of answering your demands. It’s harder for people to ignore campaigner who are humble, self-controlled and kind. If they ignore you, they look bad - not you. Some campaigns are suited to hashtags, some to a private meeting between the campaign leader and the perpetrator. Don't fail by focusing on the wrong tactics.
10. Resources: Check you are practising what you preach: If you wear a T-shirt with a slogan against sweatshops, make sure that garment has not been made by unethical shops.
No campaign will be perfect (which, as a perfectionist, annoys me!) Don’t be discouraged if you don't see immediate results Helen. By facing an injustice with a tough mind and tender heart your campaign will have much stronger foundations making it much more likely to have a positive impact than a campaign built on rocky ground.
Yours in solidarity,
The Activist Whisperer
1. Watch the film Selma (2015) to learn how Martin Luther King Jnr and the Civil Rights Movement created strong strategic campaigns that included training campaigners in non-violent direct action, a media strategy, key dates to work towards and more.
2. Read the book How Change Happens by Duncan Green. It is full of case studies from around the world showing how campaigns were successful.
If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]