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Don't Blow It! Craftivist Collective’s founder Sarah Corbett on crafty activism

Image by Craftivist Collective

In our loud, fast world it’s easy to think that the most successful activist is she that shouts loudest. But as the issues we face mutate and morph, so activism has begun changing and shifting to meet odds that seem increasingly overwhelming. While apathy can result in 'slacktivism' (signing online petitions of Facebook ‘likes’) and feelings of frustration can explode into violent and aggressive protest, for the Craftivist (‘craft-activist’) Collective another way packs an equally powerful and arguably more efficient punch - stillness, focus and contemplation.

The first item on the Craftivist Manifesto is ‘Breathe; take it slow’, the second is ‘Craft is our tool.’ By their own admission these guys are more tortoise than hare but don’t underestimate the force of this quiet organisation.

Through a series of practical kits – including instructions for the 'Don't Blow It' hanky to be sent to your local MP - the Craftivist Collective are offering up potential provocations and tools for change that are as dynamic as Anonymous (with solutions that are arguably more tangible). Theirs is a system of solidarity not sympathy and the practice of engaging in craft as protest is not about knitting blankets for those in need. It is about placing yourself in a position where you think carefully about the problem at hand and deal with it in a way that celebrates beauty and involves consideration. It effects things quietly but powerfully.

We talk to the inspiring and super down to earth, (think Grayson Perry meets Gandhi – my only slightly jokey description) founder of the Craftivist Collective Sarah Corbett, about her own transition from activist to craftivist, the links between mindfulness and her method of ‘crafter-thoughts’, upcoming events, how craft is anything but kitsch – sweary stitching for starters - and why gentle change can be a force for good.

Run Riot: What journey did you take in your move from traditional activism to craftivism?
Sarah Corbett: I've always been an activist. There is a photo of me aged 3 squatting with my family and our local community in West Everton, Liverpool in 1980s to save social family housing. I went to South Africa in 1991 with my family as part of my Dad's sabbatical as the local vicar to learn about what the churches were doing to tackle apartheid, and when I was a teenager I was voted Head Girl at school by my peers and successfully campaigned to win lockers for the students (lost the campaign to eradicate gym knickers from the P.E kit!).

I ended up working for large charities as a professional campaigner as well as joining activist groups in my spare time to meet like-minded people. But over the years the work took its toil and I burnt out which then led me to search for other forms of activism that fitted my talents, personality and principles. I'm an introvert so constantly being on marches, group meetings and extrovert actions drained me of energy. Demonising politicians and business people didn't feel dignified or effective - but actually created barriers rather than co-operation. I felt like a lot of 'slacktivism' (easy quick campaigning actions like signing petitions) didn't offer the chance for me and others to really think through the complexities of injustice and how we can all be part of the solutions. I was concerned that a lot of angry, aggressive activism wasn't effective and some traditional forms no longer worked. If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind and just, surely our activism should be more beautiful, kind and just too?

I picked up a cross-stitch kit in 2008 because I was travelling a lot with my current job and I had itchy fingers to be creative on trains and not just do laptop work. I noticed that handicraft slowed me down, helped me think more critically and strategically, and it felt empowering to be offline using my hands to actually make something tangible. I felt that it might be able to tackle a lot of the concerns I had about traditional activism. So I googled 'Craft activism' and this word Craftivism popped up coined by Betsy Greer in 2001 but there were no projects I could do or groups I could join so with her blessing I started creating my own to see if I could tackle some of my concerns and do activism in a sustainable, beautiful, kind and just way.

Run Riot: Practically how does craftivism work?
Sarah Corbett: The short version definition by Betsy Greer says: Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite. She goes on to give examples of "craftivists teaching knitting, sewed scarves for battered women’s shelters, and knitted hats for chemotherapy patients".

However people interpret merging craft and activism very differently and for me the activism is the priority and craft is the tool. I don't see activism as donation, fundraising or awareness raising but looking at structural and cultural injustices and asking how we can change them long term through strategic campaigning. I'm also very sensitive about crafting gifts for vulnerable people - it can be done through good intentions but often the receiver can feel undignified or not want a knitted blanket and it doesn't help with long term change so we have to make sure craft is our tool not taskmaster. The Suffragettes didn't win the vote through fundraising or donations but through campaigning for laws to change. I think craft has some strengths that really tackle some elements of activism that I am concerned about, but we have to be courageous and careful on how we merge the two which is why we have a 10 point manifesto as our checklist.



Image by Craftivist Collective

Run Riot: As you say in your manifesto it is a bit like ‘punk’ in that it is such a broad umbrella term. What form does your personal and collective craftivism take?
Sarah Corbett: We focus on 'gentle protest' which was the name of my exhibition in Stockholm this summer 2015. All of our craftivism has to use the hands in a repetitive action for a long time (sometimes hours) to slowly and mindfully think through injustices and how we can be part of the change we wish to see in the world. I often refer to our craftivism as 'slow activism'. Our projects are always small and beautiful, not big and brash. They always try to encourage and strive for a positive future rather than dwell on the injustices. I produce crafter-thoughts for people to reflect on whilst crafting to really grapple with injustices and think critically about how we can tackle them as individuals and a collective - using the time to empathise with the victims as well as the perpetrators and everyone in between.

Depending on our goal each craftivism project has different objectives e.g our Footprint kit focuses holistically on our own 'inner activism' - stitching a message on your footprint to keep as a physical reminder to encourage us to think about the imprint we are leaving on the world and our journey as good global citizens. Our 'Don't Blow It' hanky kit is a gift you make for someone influential like your local MP to build a relationship with them and encourage them not to blow their chance of making a positive difference in their powerful role. Our Mini Banner kits are to provoke, not preach at, passers-by about an issue that you care about and are to be hung up in an area relevant to your issue. We have 2 more kits launching in 2016 too so watch this space.

Run Riot: People like Grayson Perry have made the public aware that craft can be used to make powerful social commentary. Which makers, artists and stitchers influenced your practice when you were starting and who do you admire now?
Sarah Corbett: Julie Jackson's book 'Subversive cross stitch' showed me that crafting didn't have to be super kitsch - you could even swear in cross stitch, which gave me confidence to see how I could use craft as my tool for activism. Reverse graffiti artist Moose has done some beautiful work around the world showing up pollution, giving value back to unloved buildings and The Yes Men are brilliant at cutting through culture with fake newspapers, subverting adverts amongst other things.

I love how handicraft like the work Grayson Perry has done can really intrigue and engage people in thought and dialogue because they are unique pieces with mistakes in, handmade and shows commitment by the maker. However I'm more influenced by activists such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Mandela in how they do strategic campaigning using their emotional intelligence, prioritising who to target, how to build relationships and understand their 'enemy'. Saying that, I can't wait to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition and see how his art has really mobilised people in questioning the way the Chinese Government run China!

Run Riot: You are hosting an event on 24th November to raise awareness of climate change along with the People’s Climate March. Along with ice cream (as if you need anything other than that!) what ‘craftiness’ can people expect from the evening?
Sarah Corbett: The evening will be across two rooms with everything you need to prepare for the Climate March on Sunday 29th November in London - tools and tips to make your message on a placard (you can make some for your friends to take home to encourage them to join the march too), mindful cotlouring in of a group banner, our current craftivism project 'A heart for your sleeve' and a chill out are to get the scoop on the Sunday March whilst eating your ice cream. I've made a playlist for our DJ on the themes of protest, change and the weather so even the soundtrack will be through-provoking and fun. Come and bring your friends. All attendees get Ben and Jerry's goodies!

Image by Craftivist Collective

Run Riot: In your #fortheloveof campaign you say you want to create ‘craft warriors rather than weary warriors’, which feels like an admirably hopeful endeavour. Climate change can seem like an overwhelming problem. How is this campaign designed to counter that feeling and why should people get involved?
Sarah Corbett: I often feel overwhelmed but there is so much we can do on many different levels. Locally we can be more intentional in buying more ethical food, clothes and household goods, you can move banks to one that invests more environmentally sound, as well as keep an eye on your own carbon emissions and where you source your energy. You can join a charity such as The Climate Coalition to campaign directly to your MP for change, use their resources to teach about climate campaigning to schools, youth groups or other communities and you can add your voice and feet to the Climate March on Sunday 29th November to show world leaders that the UK want them to create a bold agreement tackling climate change at an international level.

The hearts we are encouraging people to make as part of the #fortheloveof campaign are to wear on your sleeve with what you love embroidered on your heart. Stitching them gives you the time to reflect on what you can do to be part of the solution individually, intrigue people to ask what your heart is about, on and offline, and show world leaders that we are watching then and encouraging them to protect what we love. It might not seem like a lot but these hearts and actions all add up and can help shift laws as well as cultures.

Run Riot: Your practice of focusing activism through crafter-thoughts, with its emphasis on peace and quiet as an important aspect of both stitching and life, has echoes of the wave of interest in mindfulness sweeping society. Do you feel part of some bigger change?
Sarah Corbett: I always say that our approach to craftivism is designed as a part of the activism tool kit, not to replace other forms. I still sign petitions and go on marches but craftivism and our crafter-thoughts are an important element to slow down, think, intrigue and create conversations and communities of shy people who might not feel they fit into other activist groups. Campaigning is vital for long term change but it should always go alongside striving to live ethically, questioning our actions and habits and offering help where you see emergency relief needed like giving to charity when you see an earthquake. Peace and justice should be threaded through all that we do, say and think.

Run Riot: Even with this sea-change we still live in a loud busy world and making change happen in a gentle fashion like you are advocating is a challenge. What advice would you give to people who are trying to get themselves heard but don't want to shout?
Sarah Corbett: First of all I would ask what message they want to be listened to, who are the influential people who can change an injustice and how do we find them, plus if it's the right message to be said. Activism is a craft like any other job we have to hone. I would ask you to think about who you are targeting, make time to try and understand the problems or distractions your target might face and then how you can intrigue, inspire and empower them to join the cause to improve our world and decide for themselves to do something. I'm quite shy and don't like shouting lots and we are in an age where we don't need to shout with placards or megaphones, which often makes people shut off and back away anyway because they feel nervous or preached at - we are all pretty stubborn human beings who don't want to be told what to do even if we know it's right! There are many other outlets such as social media, writing letters to your target (a very powerful tool when targeting politicians), making gifts to start a conversation and connection, street art, craftivism… so much! Often the more quiet and humble an approach, the more powerful and moving it can be.


Get Crafty for our Climate
Tuesday, 24 November at 6.30pm
at Rich Mix, London, United Kingdom
Free Event | Registration Required
Info and registering: eventbrite.co.uk

Image by Craftivist Collective