SARAH CORBETT - how the craftivist collective creates change with 'gentle protest'

SARAH CORBETT - how the craftivist collective creates change with 'gentle protest'

Sarah Corbett is an award-winning activist, campaign consultant, Ashoka Changemakers fellow and founder of Craftivist Collective who has helped change government laws, business policies, hearts and minds.

Memories of her mother (at the time, a nurse with three children under five) fighting to keep her family safe from fires in their council tower block, and being a part of the South African anti-apartheid movement after family visited South Africa in 1991 as part of her farther’s sabbatical (he is a vicar), have undoubtedly shaped Sarah’s life. In 2008 during a successful career as a professional campaigner for NGOs including Christian Aid and Oxfam GB and the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID), Sarah felt burned out. She found herself doubting the effectiveness of many elements of conventional and confrontational activism. It was time to try a different approach. 

Sarah discovered Craftivism (a term coined by American writer and crafter Betsy Greer in 2003)  but with no other projects or groups available to join in with she began creating her own Craftivism projects which led to her founding Craftivist Collective in 2009 after people around the world wanted to join in.

‘Gentle protest’ is a term and campaigning approach that Sarah and the Craftivist Collective have become known for. When we think of activism we often think of confrontation and aggression. Not something beautiful and heartwarming. ‘Gentle protest’ reminds us to be that which you want to see in the world. Compassion, empathy, kindness and love as well as thoughtful campaign strategies are used to create beautiful messages that can open people’s hearts and minds to affect positive change.

One of Sarah’s guiding mantra’s (that she has tattooed on her shoulder) is ‘A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart’ from Martin Luther King’s 1959 sermon. This reminds us that although what we are trying to achieve may be a difficult, painful or heart wrenching we must approach people with love and have a strong strategy to be most effective in achieving the change we want to see. 

The fashion industry has seen the impact of the Craftivist Collective through their Mini Fashion Statements which are ‘shop dropped’ in the pockets of garments in fashion shops around the world, anytime of the year supporting the campaign organisation Fashion Revolution. Scrolls, tied with a pretty bow and featuring an invitation to “please open me”, are used as reminders of the role we can play as consumers. Designed to make us think about how the clothes we buy and wear are made, and how we might be able to help tackle problems like poor conditions for workers or the use of materials that are damaging to the environment.

One of our nation’s best-loved shops Marks and Spencer (M&S) has also felt the power of ‘gentle protest’. Asked by the CEO of the charity ShareAction, Craftivist Collective created a campaign encouraging M&S to pay staff the real Living Wage. Carefully selected Craftivists across the UK hand-stitched bespoke messages onto M&S handkerchiefs as bespoke gifts for the board members and its largest shareholder companies, encouraging them to not ‘blow it’ but use their power for good governance and lead the way in the retail sector. These were delivered to the board during the company’s 2015 AGM. Following a series of discussions, in April 2016 M&S announced they would pay current Living Wages to the 50,0000 staff who were paid the national minimum wage. They are still working to make M&S an accredited Living Wage Employer. 

Most of us have a fear of the consequences of speaking out in some way. The idea that troublemakers don’t get on in life is something that we can be confronted with. However dialogue is changing and we are beginning to realise it’s the people who think differently, and speak up gently and thoughtfully that can often make things change for the better.

Listening to Sarah’s story makes us realise that we could all have a little more of a ‘gentle protest’ approach to life.

Listen to podcast above, on iTunes, SpotifySoundCloud or Stitcher

If we want a world that is beautiful, kind and fair, shouldn’t our activism be beautiful, kind and fair?
— Sarah Corbett, Black Neon Digital Podcast Episode 19
Sarah Corbett, Founder Craftivist Collective

Sarah Corbett, Founder Craftivist Collective

My mum always says in the womb I was part of activism meetings. It was very natural to have people in our back kitchen campaign planning around how do we get a new health centre, how do we make sure our housing isn’t mouldy which is making people ill, and boycotting certain brands because my parents said we don’t want to give them money, which is why we don’t buy this and that. So it was always there [activism].
— Sarah Corbett, Black Neon Digital Podcast Episode 19
I immediately noticed that the repetitive hand action of stitching and threading your needle forced me to slow down, calm down, made me very mindful of how shaky I was, how shallow my breathing was. I was very anxious and burnt out and thinking whether could I be an activist still, or whether I was doing activism well or badly and teaching people well or badly.
— Sarah Corbett, Black Neon Digital Podcast Episode 19

We throughly recommend you read Sarah’s book, ‘How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest' (Random House UK) available in all good bookshops, online shops and signed copies Craftivist Collective website.

If you would like to support Sarah to continue her Craftivist Collective work please do consider 'adopting a craftivist' (Sarah!) and you will receive a beautiful exclusive yearbook as a thank you, only available to adopters.

all photos taken by bec o'conner for black neon digital

podcast recorded at sarah’s home in east london

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