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How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest
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How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest
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How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest
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17 September 2017

How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest

“Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”—Mahatma Gandhi

Written by Sarah Corbett

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

I was annoyed. I had sent my local MP petition cards and online petitions about issues that I cared about and the only response was an email from a member of her staff telling me to stop contacting her. They said it was a waste of my time, their time and charity’s money. I was shocked, I didn’t expect that type of response. Our members of parliament (MPs) in the UK are supposed to listen to their constituents and represent their interests and concerns in Parliament. So shouldn’t her staff at least have pretended to care, even if they disagreed with my protests? I didn’t reply straight away; I didn’t know how to. I was too angry to think straight. For days I thought about it on and off. Then when I had calmed down slightly I tried to put myself in her shoes and exercise a bit of ‘intelligent empathy’. Why would her office staff believe that this was the best response to send me? What would they have thought of me when receiving my petitions?

Looking back, the petitions I had sent my MP were either petition postcards or email templates I was receiving from charities I supported. All I had to do was sign them and press send on my emails or post them to her.

When signing petition cards and e-petitions to my MP I would always add a little message on to the templates saying that I cared deeply about this issue and hoped that she would work hard to support the most vulnerable people in our society, but writing that didn’t take much time either. I guess her team of staff would have seen me as an ‘armchair activist’, just posting these quick transactional petitions to her and not doing anything else. I would have probably categorised myself as a slacktivist if I was an onlooker.

Maybe my MP and her team also doubted the level of my concern because I was sending her petitions on lots of issues from global warming to tax avoidance, human rights injustices to corporate greed. Did she see me as fickle? For me, these issues are all close to my heart and are linked to the growing inequality gap in society. After researching more about my MP and what her voting record was, I could see that she was new to her role, she had received lots of support from her political party nationally to help her win her seat, and she, so far, had always voted with the party line. Nearly all of the petitions I had signed were against what her political party was doing or believed in. It looked like we had very different ideologies and so maybe her team thought there was no point in talking with me since it looked like I would never vote for her or support her campaigns.

Also, as I looked at some of the petitions I had sent her, I realised the wording was very direct and impersonal, they never related to any local concerns and hardly ever included the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. Most petitions said something along the lines of: ‘Take action and get the government to do…’ with not much room for discussion or nuance. If I was her I could imagine feeling exhausted by all of our demands, especially as they were mostly faceless requests that were not very polite.

I don’t want to stop signing petitions, they can be useful to mobilise people around a campaign, gain public and media attention and pressure people in power to make a change. Each country works differently. In the UK, British citizens can submit and sign petitions for Parliament. If the petition meets the standards for acceptable petitions then over 10,000 signatures will receive an official response from the government. With over 100,000 signatures the issue will be considered for parliamentary debate. They can work. Maybe she didn’t see me as a slacktivist but proactively wanted to deter me from signing petitions that included ones protesting against her political party?

As a constituent I didn’t want to give up contacting my MP. I wanted to know more about how my MP was representing her constituents, including me. I wanted to see where I could make a positive difference within UK democracy, and working with or through our Members of Parliament still looked like one of many useful pathways to help break down structural injustices and replace them with laws that help create long-term social change. I decided that it would be useful to book an appointment to meet my MP face-to-face at one of her surgeries, state my commitment to these causes I had signed petitions for and find out the best way to help tackle them. We might agree on certain issues and she could tell me how I could support the campaign better. If we disagreed, I would ask how she came to that decision and change my mind if my argument was not as well informed. I didn’t want her to see me as someone not willing to engage in dialogue and discussion. I wanted to show her I genuinely cared about being a responsible, loving citizen and working with people, even if our views are different. But how could I show this?

I thought about the email I had received from her staff, about how I could show her I was a friendly and kind person, not an aggressive activist (activists can have a bad reputation, sadly). I wanted her to know that I didn’t just want to tell her what not to do, treat her like a robot, have my photo taken with her with a charity campaign prop for media attention and then leave. I also didn’t want to be a pushover, and just let her fill the whole session talking at me, which had happened previously with another MP when I lived in a different constituency. I wanted to find out more about her passions, purpose and personality. I wanted us to treat each other like fellow human beings, show her my commitment to social change, have a conversation and see where we might be able to work together as critical friends not aggressive enemies.

I decided to hand-stitch a message on a handkerchief. I had a packet I had been given as a gift but didn’t need them all (I already have two handkerchiefs I use). I was thinking about who uses them and how people use them: they’ve not just been used to blow noses. I knew they’d been used to show surrender in a battle, judges used them to place on their heads out of respect when they sentenced people to death, people offer them to someone who is crying. I liked that it was a soft, small and comforting object you could keep in your pocket. I thought it would be a fun metaphor for my politician to gently remind her not to ‘blow it’ but use her powerful position to make a positive difference in the world. I wanted to stitch an encouraging message for her that was also timeless and universal, so it wouldn’t become irrelevant during her time as an MP. I picked a lilac-coloured handkerchief that had a faint pattern of small flowers all over it, the calmest and sweetest hanky out of the bunch. After discussing the wording with my family we decided on the words:

Dear [her full name] MP,
 As my MP I am asking you to please use your powerful position to challenge injustices, change structures keeping people poor, and fight for a more just and fair world. I know being an MP is a tough, big job but please DON’T BLOW IT, this is your chance to make a positive difference :)
 Yours in hope 
Sarah (Corbett), [postcode]

I wrote the message in my neatest, prettiest handwriting at the bottom of the hanky like a letter and then backstitched over the top. It took me five hours on and off over a few days. While I was stitching I was thinking about the difficult job MPs have and the large amount of work her staff might have to do. I was thinking about what preconceptions they might have of me and how I needed to make sure I presented my gift for her in a humble and friendly way, showing that I was not demanding that she do something for me, but giving her a gift to encourage her in her new job.

I emailed her team asking for an appointment. I said I wanted to meet my MP because I am a new resident in the area, she’s new to her role and I wanted to know her better and learn more about her aims in her role. They replied with an appointment time early on a Saturday morning at the local library. I dragged myself out of bed (I’m not a morning person!) with my hand-stitched gift in my pocket, my heart beating fast and met her with a nervous smile. She looked apprehensive at first and we shook hands and sat down at her desk with one of her team next to her. I said that I had sent her office some petitions I cared deeply about but that I wanted to meet her today just to get to know her a bit better and to give her a gift. I took out the hanky and gave it to her, blushing with embarrassment! She went from looking guarded to warm and appreciative. She opened it up, read the message and then turned it over and had a look at my stitching from the back. She said she had started doing a cross-stitch design for her friend’s wedding present and that friend has her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this year and the cross-stitch isn’t finished yet! We had a little giggle about that and I said how long the hanky had taken me and I hoped it would encourage her in her role to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable people in our area and the world as well as protect our planet from more harm. I told her that the time it took to make the present gave me time to think about the job of being an MP, the area we lived in and the global issues we are all connected to. I asked her why she decided to go into politics. We discussed some of the issues I had sent petitions about and I made it clear that I was keen to learn why she decided to vote a particular way and she asked her colleague to send me more information about a particular bill she had voted on. I said that I would continue to send her the petitions I cared about from credible charities working on these issues and that I hoped her team would have the capacity to reply explaining their support or why they voted against it. I also agreed to be put on her local newsletter mailing list to keep up to date and to come along to any events I could support or wanted to know more about. We parted with smiles and handshakes.

I received an email from her team the following week thanking me for my hanky with a photo attached of it as a permanent fixture on the pinboard on her wall. Since that initial meeting we both refer to my hanky in all of our correspondence. Her team now know me as ‘the hanky girl’ (which is not what I was looking for but, hey, it helps them remember me) and reply to my emails. And we contact each other to ask for mutual support when needed and are more strategic in how we work together. For example, she was losing members of her local political party in the campaign she supported which asked the government to increase the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of GDP. To any MP it is a worry when you are losing local membership: you look bad to your party and you’re in a weaker position for re-election. She cared about implementing an increase in foreign aid and so did I. We joined in a photo call alongside other constituents who supported the campaign for local media attention, which in turn helped her show her party members that she couldn’t ignore the support for the aid bill even if she wanted to and I used the story to share with craftivists, other campaign organisations who were part of the coalition for this campaign and other supporters across the UK to help strengthen the campaign.

We still disagree; I can’t claim to have changed her views or voting directly and I will never know how much impact my gift and our interactions have had, but it has helped us connect and build a mutually beneficial relationship. What the gift did do was to help me become a better lobbyist: I used the time it took to make the hanky to empathise with my MP, reflect on her situation and ambitions and think through how to interact with her in our initial meeting. Investing time in making this present gave me the courage to meet my MP in person rather than stay in bed. Handing over my hanky gave me a chance to meet her and get a feel for what makes her tick. I learnt so much from listening to her explain her voting decisions and I gained useful information to help me in particular campaign work, which I could share with charities. Without this small, delicate and imperfect handmade gift I’m not sure we would have worked together after the meeting or that I would have become as strategic in my lobbying to her. I believe that this one act of making her something touched her more deeply than any petition I have given her. The physical object still on her pinboard has been a tool for continuous and respectful communication.

Be a loving, critical friend

To make long-lasting change we need to be loving, critical friends rather than aggressive enemies and craftivism is a great tool to help with that shift. I have craftivism hanky kits people can use to help them connect to local influential people, build long-term relationships with them and communicate with them in a respectful and memorable way. Some people hadn’t met their local politician until making them a present gave them the courage to meet them. Craftivists around the world have made gifts for teachers, police officers, business people, journalists, senators and other people in positions of power as a tool to encourage them to use their power for good and to challenge them when they are abusing or wasting their power.

Over the last seven years of making gifts for influential people I’ve learnt so much more since giving my first craftivism hanky to my MP. In this section we will look more at how gifts can have even more of an impact by looking at improving the aesthetics, the power of the language we use, how to have grace threaded through our gift, and how to use our gift as a catalyst for change.

This is an edited extract from Sarah Corbett’s book, How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest.  For more information on the kits mentioned above, visit Sarah’s site.

Sarah Corbett

Sarah Corbett is the the founder of the award-winning Craftivist Collective, which uses the beneficial processes of handicrafts and the final products as tools for a gentle, respectful and more strategic way of doing activism.

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