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Crafting change one stitch at a time

Sarah Corbett thinks people should build more bridges. Not in the sense of traversing waterway by means of concrete mixer and steel - though her solution is certainly still hands-on - but rather that “2016 has shown us clearly that we need to listen to those we disagree with.” That “doesn’t mean agree with them,” says Sarah. No, instead she advocates that you “understand why they came to a different conclusion to you” and “find common ground”

It’s not a new idea, even for Sarah. It’s one she has come to over years of becoming slowly disillusioned with the “quick, easy or aggressive” forms of activism she saw on offer while working as a professional campaigner. Musing on alternatives, she came to realise that: “Protest is often people shouting at people, sometimes demonising people and often aggressively demanding change.”

The Craftivist Collective is the antidote Sarah set up in January 2009. The word craftivism was around before then and it appears in so many forms that Sarah compares definitions of it to those of the word punk: “Blondie, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and the Clash are often described as punk bands but are so different.” Her own interpretation of craftivism is of using craft (such as cross-stitching) as a tool to strengthen activism. At different moments it can be a prompt to slow down and think strategically, a way to provoke but not preach, or a means of encouraging challenges to the status quo.

“Creating something physical shows yourself and others your commitment to the cause and it’s becoming more rare. Most of my projects involve crafting messages, and you are not going to stitch a message or handwrite it over and over again if you do not take ownership and agree with the message.”

She is now writing a how-to book about it, garnished with the subtitle ‘the art of gentle protest’ because: “We still need to protest against injustice, but we need to do it with care, compassion and consideration. Gentle is not a weak or passive word but I hope it encourages respectful, graceful and thoughtful activism.”

Craftivists don’t tackle gentler topics than other campaigners; they have held stitch-ins at train stations to campaign for fairer transport fares, handed out handkerchiefs at an AGM to promote paying employees a living wage, and made miniature fashion statements calling for improved conditions for factory workers. There are particular groups who often connect to it more than others though, “such as people who enjoy craft, shy people, burnt out activists and people who are scared of - or put off by  - occasionally aggressive forms of activism but do want to be part of the change they wish to see in the world.”

Combine these tendencies and the resulting etch-a-sketch more than faintly resembles Sarah circa. 2008. “I’m an introvert so most forms of offline activism drained me of energy even though I was passionate about tackling injustice.” “I picked up a cross stitch kit because I missed using my hands and being creative and noticed that it slowed me down, made me mindful of my physical and emotional exhaustion and helped me think critically about how to be an effective activist.”

Since then, Sarah has uncovered more and more proof for her hypothesis that craftivism can reach audiences that might otherwise never have considered activism. She recently delivered a TEDxYouth talk in Bath to the next generation of activists: 1,600 teenagers and their teachers. The topic was ‘Activism Needs Introverts’: about how introverts can maximise their activist potential by playing to their strengths. And it’s not just youngsters who are cottoning on to her ideas: “I love the fact that stitching on a train or in the park or putting up a small piece of craftivism in the streets or wearing your craftivism can and has created conversations about social justice where you might not usually see it.”

In a strange way, perhaps, it seems as if Sarah’s path to craftivism - complete with detours into other forms of activism - was predetermined at birth. “I’ve been involved in activism since I was in the womb” she says. Sarah grew up in West Everton, Liverpool: an area “where you could see the impact of inequality and injustices directly”. Her dad is the local vicar and at that point her mum was a nurse, then a full-time mum (now she’s a Cabinet Member of Liverpool City Council); “They brought up me and my brother and sister to stand up and speak out when we saw injustice and I learnt from them and members of our community how local campaigns could be won.”

Another family has now taken her in too. During the closing months of 2016, Sarah was adopted. Or at least in name only she was. “I asked in November 2016 if people would adopt me for the 12 months of 2017 for £10 a month so I could gain the living wage and focus on doing important work without worrying about money.” More than 180 supporters from around the world stepped up to back her, with more still welcome in order to help the Collective strive even further. This “isn’t a new concept” says Sarah, though as the adoptions mainly take place online, it is a modern update of its predecessor: the historical tradition of patronage of artists and activist.

More than that, it’s a running start into what looks set to be a busy year. “I’ve already received many more emails and social media comments post-Brexit and after the US election results from people that desperately want to protest against many politicians, business people and journalists”. In response, she will be launching ‘The School of Gentle Protest’ with vlogs and downloadable tools to provide support, advice and skills to current and newbie craftivists.

Together, they will “build bridges not walls with those in positions of power”. Whether their crafts can stop those same people from building walls themselves remains to be seen. But Sarah’s advice is clear-cut. “Breathe. Be mindful of your motives, make sure you’re focused on making the world a better place, be in solidarity with those suffering - and then work with courage and care.”

If you want to help change the world a stitch at a time, you can visit the Craftivist Collective at their website or Twitter page, or find out more about Sarah’s upcoming book here.

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