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Sarah Corbett on the power of gentle protest
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Sarah Corbett on the power of gentle protest
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I'm reading
Sarah Corbett on the power of gentle protest
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Articles
9 October 2017

Sarah Corbett on the power of gentle protest

“Our greatest strength lies in the gentleness and tenderness of our heart”—Rumi

Written by Sarah Corbett

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

‘Gentle protest’ sounds like an oxymoron. Gentleness brings to mind something soft and mild. ‘Gentle protest’ sounds attractive but also hopelessly naive and idealistic. But in fact, protesting gently can be hugely effective. Nelson Mandela went to jail believing in violence as a successful agent for change. Twenty-seven years later, he and others had slowly and carefully honed their skills in non-violence to turn one of the most vicious and prejudiced governments in the world into a democracy working with those who had oppressed them.

Throughout history, gentleness has threaded through many effective campaigns for social change and I believe that to be effective social changemakers, we craftivists should focus on honing our craft of craftivism specifically in the art of gentle protest.

I believe that the most effective way to be a craftivist is through the art of gentle protest. It’s a way that we can—alone or in a group—effectively protest against harmful structures, attract people to protest, and reflect on the way we want our world to be, challenging injustice and harm through values of love, kindness and humility. A gentle protest approach is in line with our goal of doing activism in a beautiful, kind and fair way that models the world we want to live in.

There is a place for disagreement and it’s often unavoidable, even using our ‘gentle protest’ approach. Sometimes there’s a deliberate need to generate some disagreement to bring some issues to the public. Some of the great religious and political figures of history have been protesters and human progress owes much to their effort, and the effort of the many we do not know of. We need to be careful to be a gentle protester not a rebel. ‘The rebel’ tends to be unreceptive, rigid and unwilling to listen. The art of gentle protest requires you don’t maintain conflict but you focus on a path towards resolution. The value of conflict is the opportunity it creates for debate, discussion and exploring new approaches; it is rarely constructive on its own. Scilla Elworthy, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize, said:

“At the beginning, I was so outraged at the dangers they were exposing us to that I just wanted to argue and blame them and make them wrong. Totally ineffective. In order to develop a dialogue for change, we have to deal with our anger. It’s OK to be angry with things (such as the nuclear weapons) but it is hopeless to be angry with people. They are human beings too just like the rest of us and they are doing what they think is right. And that’s the basis we have to talk with them.”

Violence is not only inhumane; it also can be ineffective. It is always worth remembering to treat people how you would like to be treated – with dignity and respect – whether they are the oppressor or oppressed. It’s easy to take the moral high ground if we’re not the ones making the decision. Our craftivism can help us protest gently and effectively against actions, not people; policies not personalities. It can create opportunities to open our own hearts and see where we fit into the injustice and whether we need to confront our own presumptions or practices as well as protest against other people’s actions and the parts they play in systems of injustice. If we protest gently, we can help create community rather than conflict. Through craftivism, we can overcome barriers and borders and create honest connection where there was isolation.

Sometimes our protests using craftivism are direct, sometimes they are more subtle, but they should always be created to engage all involved with kindness, decency and thoughtfulness. For example, when we do something that is harmful or thoughtless, and someone close to us says, ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed,’ their words are powerful. It sinks into our heart and mind much more than when someone shouts at us – because what they are saying is that they love us, believe that we can do better, and that we know better than to repeat our mistakes. That’s the gentle approach I’m talking about, one where we show love and we value someone, and believe that everyone can make the world a better place. We want to support people to be their best selves, helping not harming others. This requires us to be hopeful and open-minded. We shouldn’t assume that a businessperson will ‘only be interested in the money’. We should probe to uncover a broader range of values in a person.

Gentle protest is not about condemning the things people have done in the past but opening up conversation to see how we can all work towards creating a better future. This is what the anti-apartheid movement achieved: oppressed people forgave and worked with their oppressors for peace and reconciliation. Both sides knew it was the only way for long-lasting change. The process was not about making sure people knew they were wrong but about people knowing they were valued and cared about; not about proving who was right or pointing out people’s faults, but seeing how they could be helped to acknowledge and fix the injustice; not putting forward a robust argument but building a relationship so that everyone could change the situation together.

A gentle protest approach to craftivism will work differently for different people in different situations. Sometimes what’s best for one person is not best for another. Sometimes it might be best to use your craftivism to offer a solution, other times it’s better to encourage and help people find solutions themselves. For one person a quiet chat might be most appropriate, whereas a bold but gentle confrontation might work best for someone else. The impact can be different for everyone.

With a gentle approach to protest threaded through all of our craftivism work we will focus on what is causing injustice and how we can help to fix it to stop more people and our planet being harmed. In our planning and in our crafting we can use our craftivism as a tool calmly and carefully to reflect on and understand the injustice issue more, empathise with all those involved, and work out how to engage with those with the power to change it in an emotionally intelligent way. These questions are not always welcome but our intriguing, fragile and attractive craftivism objects can help our protest become a gentle and effective one.

Be gentle until the end. When people are being unkind to you, stay gentle with them. When you are being provoked to react, don’t react. When you are asked something by someone with the intention to trap or trip you up, be wise and maybe stay silent.

When learning of the different gentle ways we can protest against injustice using craftivism, we can see ourselves like a beautiful horse in its prime. We are not wild dogs led by our emotions, barking in anger and showing sharp teeth to anyone who looks. A well-trained, elegant horse knows how to use their power. Sometimes they carry people towards justice on their back, sometimes they lead the way, and sometimes they are led by others. Sometimes they work the land unglamorously, pulling the heavy plough, sometimes they courageously take a leap over a barrier to reach their goal. Whatever they do, they do it with elegance and controlled strength.


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

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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