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,
A couple of years ago I first became involved in activism and my involvement has increased ever since. I went from being a casual follower of world issues to a volunteer, to working for activist organisations and joining political campaigns. I want to make activism a long term part of my life because I strongly believe in the value of it, and there are many times when I have deeply enjoyed it. But I don’t want to become a disappointed, cynical person who feels grumpy at the idea of even one meeting - the person that I could feel myself becoming. How can I tap in to the part of me that is excited by activism and not allow it to become a self imposed chore? How can I manage the highs and lows of activism in a healthy way?
Your question feels like the other side of the coin to Lucy’s question that I gave advice on here. Whereas Lucy didn’t know where to start, maybe you don't know when to stop? I recommend a read of that short column linked above to help you lay the foundations of being a thoughtful global citizen and focus on what campaigns you think you could be of most use to with your skills, influence and time, rather than trying to do everything. Then read the below.
Welcome back Jayne.
I have some tattoos to help me be part of the positive change I want to see, as well as to remember to enjoy the beautiful parts of our messy world. One of my tattoos is a jigsaw piece. It’s on my forearm near my watch: so I see it most days. It helps me with a similar question to yours that often pops up in my inner monologue. The jigsaw piece reminds me that I can’t fix the world alone. It is humbling to think of ourselves as one piece of the solution to an injustice, rather than the whole jigsaw puzzle.
Wanting to save the world on our own is not only unhelpful because we’re setting ourselves up to fail but it can also be harmful because we’re less likely to work alongside others. And if people sense that our motives are not 100% to serve a campaign but to gain recognition for ourselves we risk discrediting our campaign.
My jigsaw piece reminds me that to progress we need different jigsaw pieces of different shapes; people with different skill sets to ours, people with different contacts and people with different experiences. We need different tactics at different times too. I get excited at this stage of a campaign, thinking through who else is needed to strengthen a particular campaign and about how we can all complement each other and work together towards a clear goal.
Campaign on a few select issues
Some campaigns have a jigsaw space that my skill set, experience and influence fits into better than others. Therefore, campaign on one or a select few issues where you have thought carefully about where you can have the biggest influence, rather than taking action on lots of campaigns where someone else’s jigsaw shape might fit better.
I think that once you’ve focused in on what solutions you want to help create, you will feel excited to join a meeting where there are clear roles, responsibilities and action points with the other jigsaw pieces together sharing in a common purpose. I’m excited for you Jayne just writing that!
Secondly, the jigsaw piece reminds me that I’m more than just an activist: I’m a sister, daughter, friend, bookish cinema-going, Icelandanic-music-loving, cinnamon-bun addicted person and much more! One recurring problem I see in activists is that we risk valuing our own self-worth only through our activism work. We might win one campaign (which is difficult) but then there are so many other injustices to campaign on that we can quickly feel like a failure again.
We might go to one meeting but then there are so many other meetings that we feel ashamed we didn't go to. When you label yourself just as an activist you risk becoming that cynical, grumpy person you don't want to become because you are less likely to feed the other wonderful parts of yourself. You might spend too much time at activism meetings and not enough with loved ones (I’ve been guilty of that). You might struggle to switch off and rest or enjoy non-activism hobbies. You also risk weakening your activism because you're not experiencing other things that could help you think outside of the box of traditional activism techniques.
Thirdly, if you label yourself just as an activist you open the floodgates for people to ask you to join lots of other campaigns and thereby dilute your effectiveness. Would you expect a Doctor to spend their whole free time helping sick people and then be happy for that tired doctor to perform surgery on you? Make your boundaries clear so that you are not only focused and effective but so that you don't risk putting people off of doing activism if they think that it will mean they have to give up their identity or other passions.
With all the above points it could sound like I’m making you (and me) feel like what’s the point of little us campaigning for a kinder, more fair and beautiful world? That’s when I hold tight to the words of Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist who famously said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
So my dear; find the jigsaw puzzles you fit best, enjoy the company of the other pieces, and together, develop a strong strategy to create a healthier and more harmonious world for all of us won’t you please.
from one jigsaw piece to another, in solidarity,
The Activist Whisperer
1. Read How Change Happens by Duncan Green to focus on reaching your solution with a clear strategy, flexibility, patience and urgency (yes that sounds like a contradiction but it’s not) and sometimes change happens through working with unlikely allies.
2. Read Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday to learn how to keep your ego away from your activism (undervaluing or overvaluing yourself).
3. Read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit to stay hopeful that activism can and does work.
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 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.
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 especially by her for your question to keep