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The Activist Whisperer: Why hurt people hurt others

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 found your column ‘Sexism at Work’ really helpful, but what do you do when someone is purposefully harming others? I’m really struggling to see the good in people at the moment. I am struggling to see the humanity in the boys on the front page of London newspapers who have just murdered another boy from a neighbouring ‘gang’. My neighbour is full of hate for immigrants and people of colour, regularly making sweeping derogatory statements. I am too scared to challenge his views (which I also feel awful about!) and I think shouting back at him will only make things worse. I am so upset by the horrific actions people are taking in the world and then I’m upset that I can feel myself seeing them as monsters, which I know isn’t good, but I don’t know what to do with my feelings. I can feel my heart just getting colder and colder towards these people and I feel like I’m going in a downward spiral. Please help me stand up for equality and respect for others in a safe and effective way.

Lost in my emotions,

Sarah, London

Dear Sarah,

I grew up in a low-income area of Liverpool in the 1980s. At the time, the area had high unemployment, poor quality council housing making people ill, a lack of shops with fresh fruit and veg, and rising drugs and gang issues. I loved the ‘nins’ (local older women who were like grandmothers to all of us) and the sense of community with lots of our neighbours but…it was not always an easy area to live in.

Not many owned cars in our area. A few times, we found our car with dints in the ceiling from kids messing about on the roof of the garage and jumping on it; my baby brother’s Christmas present bike was stolen out of the garden. I was bullied for a time at school and then I would have objects thrown at me by some from the local secondary boys school on my walk home. Inside, it made me very angry at ‘those people’.

One day, I heard two bangs on our kitchen window and then a crack. A boy had thrown eggs at the window and then a large rock. I could feel my blood boil: How dare he! What have we done to deserve this? My parents worked hard to support the community. He must have no respect, no empathy, no heart! It made no sense to my young self.

My dad soon found out who the boy was and said he was going around to chat to the parents. Completely out of character for me, I asked to go with him. I wanted to show the boy I wasn’t scared of him (well, I was but I could hide behind my dad: I was only a little kid then) and I wanted to stop feeling so powerless!

When we got to the boy’s home, his mum invited us in. My eyes were opened: I began to understand the tough situation he and his mother were having to cope with. I didn’t see this boy as a horrible human being anymore, I saw him as a boy in a family that was struggling to make ends meet; a mother trying her best to provide for her kids, a home that wasn’t as cosy and calm as my own. I saw a boy angry with his life and embarrassed at his situation.

No wonder he cracked our window with a rock and threw eggs. I bet it felt good. Powerful. Fun. A release. An escape for those few seconds. I could see how tempting it would be if I was in his situation.

After that incident I began to realise that hurt people hurt people. Insecurity fuels fear. Fear fuels self-protection. Self-protection can lead to violence against others; greed, taking power. Seeing a happy confident person can turn jealousy into anger. The boy who bullied me at school had lost his father and, although he had a loving mum deeply concerned about him, he was hurting and he knew his mum was worried about how they could survive financially. An old classmate of mine is in prison for wrong actions he has done because he chose to join a gang as his ‘family’ and saw it as a way to gain power and money.

Of course, they could have chosen self-control and rechannelled their anger, as many people do, but we never know someone’s full situation. It’s much better for our own wellbeing to see people as unique individuals who may be struggling in some way and for us to hope for the best for them. Don’t try to fix people but do treat them how you would like to be treated: Show them that you see them as human. Hard, but it helps you, and can help them.

There is a group of lads who sit on the steps of the entrance to the estate I live in. It’s easy to feel intimidated by them, fearful of what they might do or say; it’s easy to label them as ‘troubled youth’. There have been a few times when there have been police raids and they have been arrested. When I walk past them I smile (being careful to show respect not patronising them or fearing them). I ask them how they are, send my love to any of their family I have met and wish them well. If I have heavy bags (which I do a lot for work) I ask gently if they can help me up and down the steps of the entrance. They always say yes and smile back at me when I thank them. They are not bad people, they are people who have sometimes done bad things.

Next time you see your neighbour you could smile and exchange a greeting. Even just saying something about the weather to connect. Show respect to him as a fellow human being, regardless of his harmful comments.

Show you believe that he can be a kind man, and help him see that in himself.

In solidarity,

The Activist Whisperer

Additional support to help turn your anger into effective action:

1. READ: Views on race from people who were racist

2.  WATCH the film Dead Man Walking on how to love a racist, rapist murderer (based on a true story)

3.  SUPPORT the charity SaferLondon working with vulnerable young people through donation, volunteering or other ways.

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

Insecurity fuels fear. Fear fuels self-protection

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