Book Review: How to be a Craftivist: the art of Gentle Protest, by Sarah Corbett

June 27, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

I spent an idyllic bank holiday recently in a hammock reading How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest. Seemed fitting somehow, as the book is all about ‘slow activism’.

Corbett, an award-winning campaigner and lifelong activist whose leftie parents dragged her along on demos from the age of 3, starts with a question: ‘If we want our world to be a more beautiful, kind and fair place, then shouldn’t our activism be more beautiful, kind and fair?’ From that, she develops a mixture of manifesto, memoir and toolkit, based on 15 years of ‘gentle protest’. The result is fascinating, and a bit disturbing too (at least for me).

The starting point was her disenchantment with ‘robot activism’:

‘My response to seeing injustice was to sign lots of petitions, host lots of stalls, go on lots of marches. I would go to lots of meetings, chair some of them, write up the minutes for others, plan events and stunts, write and send press releases.’

Sound familiar? That robo-activism meant she stopped talking or listening to people – a conversation with a punter while getting them to sign your petition just meant less time to get new signatures. It also didn’t work for her – she starts her TED talk picturing herself taking refuge in a music festival toilet, emotionally drained from the effort of confronting total strangers with a petition.

What she proposes instead is intriguing – the making and giving of gifts to advocacy targets, and of public art to trigger thought and conversation. There’s a burgeoning ‘craftivist movement’ and an awful lot of embroidery. The natural constituency for this approach is a mixture of craft hobbyists, introverts and burnt-out activists.

Her iconic example is Marks and Spencer, which had steadfastly refused to discuss the Living Wage in its UK branches, despite a traditional activist campaign from the likes of ShareAction. In desperation, ShareAction asked Corbett for help. She chose as the target the 14 M&S board members, 5 chief investment officers from the biggest shareholders, and 5 M&S models. Next she recruited a crack squad of embroiderers, bought 24 M&S handkerchiefs (no boycotts here – it’s all positive engagement), and asked each of them to sew a design and message that fitted the character and CV of their designated target (lots of Googling to find out what they wore, interests etc). That insider strategy was complemented by some gentle outsider stuff – small ‘stitch-ins’ outside M&S shops to get conversations going with staff and customers.

The hankies found their target, with board members comparing their messages, craftivists speaking at the M&S annual shareholder meeting, and then a year of follow up, with more craft, more meetings etc. And boom. M&S adopted the Living Wage. The lessons she draws from this include:

  1. Ownership: this is about the board taking responsibility for the Living Wage, not about ‘us’ being right
  2. Empathy: the 5 hours of stitching to make a bespoke hankie comes with a lot of thinking about the life, interests and constraints of the recipient. That really helps the connection.
  3. Allies: ShareAction and others were involved – craftivism is an addition to other forms of campaigning, not a substitute.

To which I would add – craftivism can break a logjam, where positions have become polarised by ‘them v us’ activism.

Craftivism is hardly a new idea of course – think of the 19th Century ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ led by William Morris and John Ruskin. When I worked on Chilean human rights in the 1980s, the ‘arpilleras’ – small hand stitched tableaux by groups of Chilean women, showing both everyday scenes, and the repression of General Pinochet’s dictatorship, was one of the most effective ways of arousing empathy among Western publics.

Where Morris had wallpaper to get his message out to a wider audience, today’s craftivist has Facebook and Twitter– a small piece of subversive cross stitching can be hung in a public place, photographed and shared before it is taken down.

A word on my discomfort while reading the book. One source was just my own failings as a human being: I have no colour sense, don’t understand fashion, and am absolutely useless with my hands. Every time Corbett urged the reader to think about these things, I could feel my stress levels rising (the opposite of what is supposed to happen!) To be fair Corbett does not expect her readers to be naturally skillful crafters, is as interested in the art of gentle protest as in the making of craft objects and feels craftivism is open to those who like me are not au fait with the fashion world or at all creative with our hands. But still, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

Another concern was that the book is all about taking care of ourselves as activists, and empathising with the Northern targets of our activism – the M&S board and customers. Although the book argues that the slow act of making something creates space for reflecting on the complexity of the issues (e.g. the dilemmas facing M&S directors), it often seems to assume that the rest is all straightforward – the world is made up of good v bad; sweatshops are bad; renewables are good. As a shades of grey kinda guy, that lack of nuance and curiosity alarms me. Stuff like localism, de-growth, voluntary v regulatory approaches have strong arguments on both sides, in my book.

And yet the process of craftivism and its ‘gentle protest’ seems very compatible with the messages of How Change Happens – empathy, reflexivity, humility and understanding the system (or at least parts of it). Overall, it seems an extremely useful addition to the campaign repertoire, especially for the introverts among us (I’ve had my – metaphorical – festival toilet moments too – don’t ask).

Sarah tells me that she is planning to set up a ‘Gentle Protest Lab working with NGOs and funders to test new ways of campaigning’, which sounds amazing – if you want to know more, contact her on sarah[at] or follow her on twitter/instagram (@craftivists).

And here’s her Ted talk


June 27, 2018
Duncan Green