Episode #118 The Gentle Power of Craftivism: With Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective
What can you do if you want to be a gentle, careful, strategic activist? The kind who catalyses change in empathic ways, who strives to understand people in power and who uses the magic of hand-crafts to connect at the level where (r)evolution happens? Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective does exactly this and empowers others to join her.
At the age of three years old, Sarah Corbett occupied social housing to keep it standing (it’s still up), and from then on, was a committed activist at the local, national and international level, first with her parents, and then later, as part of wider activist movements. But as an introvert, and a deep strategic thinker, she wanted to make change in ways that were gentle, but powerful, harnessing the power of connection, rather than outrage and confrontation.
Founder the Craftivist Collective, she has spend the past fifteen years empowering crafts-people around the world to harness the power of their creativity, their clear intent, and their capacity to connect with lawmakers at all levels from the C-Suite of major retailers to MPs and civil servants – finding their humanity, and becoming a critical friend rather than another source of outraged triggers.
Sarah’s work has helped change government laws, business policies as well as hearts and minds through her unique ‘Gentle Protest’ methodology. She works across the arts sector, charity sector and academia, as well as with unusual allies to reach people nervous of activism in an attractive and empowering way. Corbett regularly gives talks, events and happenings around the world. Her book How To Be A Craftivist: the art of gentle protest is now available in paperback. Her talk Activism Needs Introverts was chosen as a TED Talk of the Day and has over a million views.
In this episode, she talks us through from the beginnings of the Craftivist Collective with a letter to an MP embroidered on a handkerchief, to the summer-long campaign of the Canary Craftivists, focusing on the goals and ideals that bring people together from grandmothers to grand daughters, to seasoned WI campaigners, to first time activists finding a voice for their climate concern that doesn’t involve banners, chants and confrontation with the security forces.
Manda: My guest this week is Sarah Corbett, founder of The Craftivest Collective, which, as you will hear, pretty much does what it says on the tin. It’s a group of crafters who are also activists. But this is not the XR style of activism. This is a very gentle, focussed, strategic kind of activism. That makes the most of empathy and creativity and finding ways to connect with people so that they are able to listen to the points that we’re trying to make. I will let Sarah explain this in far more detail. So people of the podcast please do welcome Sarah Corbett.
Manda: Sarah Corbett, Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It is such an honour to have you. I have been meaning to invite you since the very first episode of this podcast, which was in January 2020 I think. So we’re only a couple of years late. So welcome and thank you.
Sarah: Oh, thanks for having me.
Manda: You’re more than welcome. So way back in those days, I just wanted to talk about craftivism. But since then you’ve created the Canary Craftivists. So can we use that as a way into what craftivism is about and how it works and why it’s such a powerful way for ordinary people to find their kind of inner activist, in a way that isn’t necessarily going to have them gluing themselves to a bank or chaining themselves to a road?
Sarah: Yeah, definitely. It’s my most recent project, and I think it encompasses a lot of the gentle protest elements of the craftivism projects, so I would absolutely love to talk for hours about it, Manda. So you might have to shut me off after a few minutes!
Manda: No worries. First of all, we have an hour, so that’s fine. And if you want to talk unimpeded for the entire hour, that’s totally fine by me. But let’s kick you off with…tell us what canary craftivism is. But before that, I think a little bit about who you are and how craftivism as a whole arose. And then let’s hone in on the Canaries.
Sarah: So I am a Scouser. I grew up in West Everton, in Liverpool. My dad is still the local vicar. My mum was a nurse and then full time mum and community worker, and now she’s a counsellor and has just been elected deputy mayor of Liverpool City Council. So I grew up very much surrounded by seeing local injustice on our doorstep. So in the 80s, we had a Thatcher government and a very militant council. Some listeners might know of. Lots of really bad housing, high unemployment illiteracy, taboo issues, huge amount of issues and then grew up with drugs and gangs happening. And now we have fuel poverty and food poverty and very much saw inequality on our doorstep. And my parents were involved in community action on local issues, national issues and global issues like South Africa, apartheid. And I went to South Africa when I was eight. It was the only sabbatical that my dad took. And squatted aged three in social housing to save them, and we saved them and they are still standing.
Sarah: And did lots of campaigning as a kid when I was little and didn’t have a, you know, couldn’t say yes or no. But then growing up in school and at university, I ended up working within activism for different international development charities and the UK Department for International Development. And was always part of activist groups. You know, I care about lots of issues and so many, as you all know and your listeners will know, so many overlap and interwoven. So I really care about inequality and wanting everyone to be equal and about helping our world flourish and be a healthy, happy, harmonious place.
Sarah: And yeah, I grew up in that environment, seeing where activism could work, where it doesn’t work. And I think what makes me quite different; I’m 38 now, but still always learning; what makes me quite different to some of the activists I know and work with and people who don’t do activism, which is who I target; is a lot of them don’t realise that those quiet, uncomfortable conversations with power holders and unusual allies behind the scenes are just as important and impactful as the big demonstrations outside an embassy or the marches, or the popular things to click on on Twitter. You need so many different ways of doing activism. And that’s probably why I ended up doing the strange work that I do. So I always say craftivism, people need to see a little bit like the word punk. When you think of punk music, Manda you think of, I think of, all of these different bands that sound completely different from individuals to groups from all over the world, but they’re all under that umbrella of punk. And craftivism, I think you need to see in the same way. It was coined in 2003 by an American lady called Betty Greer, who’s a knitter and also did a sociology master’s at Goldsmiths in London. And said that the personal is political and there’s activism within these knitting groups that she was part of. And she meant activism. She talks about it as people make doing and mending; people talking about politics within a group.
Sarah: And I, in 2008 googled the words craft and activism because I was cross stitching on a train to Glasgow for my job. And I was getting travel sick on the pendulum tilting trains, so I couldn’t do my work. And I immediately noticed that Cross Stitching slowed me down, because you can’t separate your thread too fast. It calmed me down because the repetitive hand actions of doing these little crosses in a gentle way so you don’t break the thread or make a knot, helped my my breath regulate. And it made me mindful in a way that I hadn’t ever been mindful before of how shaky my hands were, how tight my shoulders were. And a lovely older couple opposite me on the train asked me what I was doing. And with the activist in me, I immediately thought, damn, if only I was cross stitching a quote by Gandhi about inequality, we could talk about it. But isn’t it interesting that not only are people asking me what I’m doing, which could open up a way of doing activism differently and not forcing it on people. But the time on my own doing repetitive hand actions gave me the comfort of craft to not go into a downward spiral of despair about inequality and injustice in the world. But it gave me the comfort to ask myself really uncomfortable questions about: When am I being an effective activist? Am I burning out because I’m an introvert? Can we do activism in a gentle way without it being weak and without it being polarising? And it gave me this action to use my head, hands and heart together. So I googled craft and activism.
Sarah: The word existed, but there wasn’t any projects, so I emailed Betsy and said, I think there’s something in this. Can I come up with my own projects and use the word? And that was in two thousand eight. And then since then, over a decade later, I’ve been tinkering of where craft can be helpful in activism and where it’s not, and which audiences can get the most impact from it and in what ways. So there’s lots of ways you can do craftivism, but I think the most effective way if you really want to change hearts and minds and policies and laws, which I’m proud to say we have helped have an impact on; is by using it in a gentle way. Not in a passive or weak way, but in a way that’s strategic, that’s thoughtful, that’s mindful for the maker that uses your critical thinking in the process, but also is very careful in terms of its strategy. Who are you making these objects for? How can they be catalysts for conversation and connection with power holders? And not just making lots of things because you love to make things, putting them out in the world and going: I’ve done my bit. I think it could be way more effective if it’s done in a more slower, thoughtful way.
Manda: Brilliant and perfect and thank you. So there’s a lot to unpick there. So even before we go into the Canaries, I’d like to unpick some of the earlier history of you getting permission from Betsy, obviously, to use the craftivist phrase. I thought you had made it up and it’s really interesting that you hadn’t. And the discovery that it changed you and that if you brought your critical thinking to it, if you were gentle, if you were empathic, then you could begin to connect with people. And it struck me when you and I first met at Schumacher, you were talking about this. It was very similar to the work of Scilla Elworthy, who had done a lot of this work around anti-nuclear stuff; where she would research the people who had decision making roles in nuclear agency and then get to know who were their wives, who were their kids and write them personal letters. And I remember you saying that you cross stitched, I think, or you embroidered a letter to an MP. Am I right? Did I remember that correctly?
Sarah: I embroidered a handkerchief to my MP.
Manda: Right? Can you so tell us more about that?
Sarah: Well, first of all, yeah, Scilla Elworthy is amazing, and I actually quoted her in my book How to Be a Craftivist; The Art of Gentle Protest, because I just think she’s brilliant. So I’m really inspired by her work, as well as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, and lots of people who… How did they engage with power holders that they might disagree with completely? Or even are directly oppressed and harmed by these people? The humility involved of thinking above themselves of how can we ideally work with people to make a change together, rather than just clashing is incredible. So on a very small scale, I was emailing my MP at the time, my member of Parliament when I lived in Battersea, who was very different to my political ideology. We didn’t have much in common and I was sending her lots of emails from different charities that I supported and postcards from different charities. I was getting lots of stuff in from from campaign organisations I believed in. And I got an email back from her office saying, ‘Please stop contacting us. This is a waste of your time and our time and charity’s money’, which I didn’t expect and I hadn’t received before, and I was really shocked. One, I thought, ‘How dare you? You’re supposed to represent me in parliament’
Sarah: And I wanted to respond straight away. But I thought, instead of replying to this email, I’m going to do the hoovering to get my anger out and to try and figure out a way that would be useful. Do I just ignore my MP and look at where I have power elsewhere as a consumer, as a colleague? Or do I try and challenge her? So I googled more about her. I saw where we had common ground. She used to work for John Lewis, which is a cooperative, so clung to that. Saw that she had the party very much behind her as a new politician, a bit of a rising star. So of course, you wouldn’t want to rock the boat because they’d invested a lot of time and energy into it. And I was in an area that had voted for her, and she probably saw me as someone that would never vote for her. So it wouldn’t make sense for her office to invest in me or have a conversation with me. And strangely, I had a pack of handkerchiefs that an elderly lady had given me. But I have two handkerchiefs I have on rotation, so I don’t need any more. But instead of giving them to a charity shop, I thought, Hmm, handkerchiefs. And I was thinking, How do I show my MP that yes, I might never vote for her, but I am a constituent and I do want to challenge her. And maybe she could challenge me on things, and I might change my mind if she tells me why she’s voted in particular ways. So I thought, I need to show that I’m not just a clicktivist and a slacktivist, and I’m not just, you know, the the label, the stereotype of an activist of I just want to scream and shout and throw milkshakes at her.
Sarah: So I did the hoovering and had these handkerchiefs on the side of my eye line and I thought, ‘Hankies, blow it, don’t blow it’. And I thought about how craft was so powerful as a way to show you spend hours making something. So I wrote a message and I got my parents to check it, who are really good sounding boards, which was a letter in a way. It said, Dear my MP, I know being an MP is a really difficult job and a really impressive one with lots of responsibility and lots of influence. I really want to encourage you not to blow it, but use your power for goods to help our world flourish and help our community fulfil its potential. Yours in hope, my signature, my name and my postcode, and I spent the time back stitching over my own handwriting and my handwriting was it was all cursive. It was the neatest I could do it. It wasn’t spiky letters. It wasn’t exclamation marks. I wanted that gentleness to come through and every time I stitched over it, and it did take a number of hours in different sessions, I thought if I was her, how would I feel receiving this? How am I going to send it to it? Am I going to post it to it? Am I going to put it in a box? Am I going to hand deliver it? It gave me the time to really put myself in her shoes, as it’s very unlikely she’s sitting down twiddling her thumbs.
Sarah: She’s probably very busy. She might have to make quick decisions. How can I be useful to her? She was part of the local church, which was a very big church. Maybe I could talk about how I go to another local church and how we have, you know, I could be of use to her with certain audiences like women’s institutes that I know and support and work with. So I was trying to not only empathise with her workload, but also think about her perspective on politics. How I could be mutually, how I could be beneficial for her and some of her work where we agree and see her as a human being. And then I went and asked for a meeting, which as a constituent they should offer you a meeting. So they gave me the earliest time on a Saturday morning in the local library, which was a bit annoying. And I decided to go in with my hanky and say, Hi, Jane, you don’t know me, I’ve been sending some campaign cards to your office with your very busy staff. And I’d just love to get to know you. I’m new to the area, you’re new to the area. I want to know what makes you tick; and I’ve made you this hanky as a way to encourage you in your role. And immediately she went from being quite cold and who is this person? And probably quite nervous as I’m down there as ‘the activist’. To she immediately looked at the back, which made me think, Oh, maybe she crafts.
Sarah: She saw it wasn’t perfect. I was a bit embarrassed to give it to her. I didn’t go in with an ego at all or to try and manipulate her, and I said, Oh, you used to work for John Lewis. I love cooperatives and you know, my mum’s a local politician. She was a local councillor at the time and the Minister of Education. We talked about things where I knew that we could find common ground and a bit of a bridge, and then we could challenge each other, but in a respectful way. And it meant that any time I contacted her office again, they knew me as the hanky girl. They were more likely to reply. The neuroscience behind it is that when you give a surprise gift, that’s a good a positive gift. It creates dopamine in people, so they’re much more likely to engage with you, even on a subconscious level. They might not realise they’re doing it consciously or not. And it’s a physical thing that took me about 10 hours to do, over different sessions. So, it didn’t make her change you know, her party politics. It didn’t change a law. But it did help me be more of a critical friend than an aggressive enemy. And it did help us work on some things where we did agree, like the 0.7 aid budget. We did a lot on that a few years ago together, where it was mutually beneficial for our audiences, and it did put a lot of pressure in the party, especially because she was losing members of her own party who were against her support of 0.7 aid budget.
Sarah: So she, her office, contacted me and said, I know you’re for this. I need to show that my constituents are for this. Let’s do something in local media. So it was that messiness of activism, where you have to know where to compromise, where to negotiate, where to be purist, where to do a media stunt and when to have those hidden conversations. But I think that handkerchief really helped me see that it could be, Craftivism can be useful catalysts for connections and relationships with people you disagree with. But I also use it for bits of street art, to engage people online, we make stuff for ourselves as physical reminders to be the change we want to see. There’s lots of different ways to use craft as a form of activism. And there’s lots of bad ways you know; you could crochet a voodoo doll of a particular dictator in the world.
Manda: Let’s not go there.
Sarah: But I think it’s important to acknowledge that. So that is activism. And I say that’s more harmful and helpful, and it focuses on personality, not policy, and it’s divisive and polarising. Yet there’s still the simple version of any craft with activism is gentle is not true, and I think we really need to use the process to challenge ourselves to be gentle and loving and strategic and not be led by our love of craft, which is much easier to do and more fun, but less fulfilling.
Manda: Yes, so gentle and loving and strategic, and we are definitely going to get on to the Canaries very shortly. But I’m also remembering a story about Marks and Spencers that did result in actual policy change. And it also seemed to me that that was an occasion where you were able to bring in basically little old ladies – the kind of people who were definitely not going to be marching up and down with banners or doing the kind of obviously vocal, shouty, aggressive, confrontational activism. But you were able to set up something that was a hybrid between street theatre and the gentle strategic activism. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And then I promise we’ll get to the Canaries.
Sarah: Yeah, so I learn through doing. You know, I read a huge amount of books on neuroscience and psychology and crafts. But, you know, to be an effective craftivist and an effective activist, you just need to have a go at stuff and learn from your mistakes and tweak things. So I learnt from my handkerchief to my MP that that was useful. And I got an email from the CEO of Share Action who do shareholder activism, which is a really clever way of doing activism. You buy your share in a company, you go to the AGM, you ask a question, you get to vote. It’s really clever and it fits in with my gentle protest ethos. And she had read my little book of craftivism, which is a little booklet before I wrote the yellow book How to Be a Craftivist. And she said for three years they’d been trying to get one meeting with the CEO of Marks and Spencers, to discuss becoming a living wage employer. Because they weren’t, they were paying minimum wage, not the living wage, to the majority of their staff on the front lines, in the shops. And they’d got nowhere. And she said, I’ve read your little book. It’s very odd. We’ve tried all the traditional activism and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. You’ve got five weeks before the next AGM. What do you think we could do? So I thought it’s very it would be quite attractive for me to come up with a brand new project because it will be fun and I like creating new things.
Sarah: But, I had to eat some humble pie and think, OK, let’s not start from my love of craft and love of creating ideas. Let’s start from why is this CEO not engaging? He doesn’t. And what forms of activism have they tried that hasn’t worked? And let’s now go with a new form. So if they tried all the traditional – of lots of petition cards, demonstrations, performative activism outside – Why don’t I try a more intimate form of activism? So I decided to buy 24 handkerchiefs from Marks and Spencers to show that we were customers, not boycotters. I gave them to 24 craftivists across the UK. I have craftivists in the collective all over the world, but this was focussed on the UK. And I picked people who either looked like or were core customers of M&S. Because I know they’ll listen to them more than people who don’t look like their core customer base. And then I gave them all one power holder to focus on making a hanky for them. So we have 14 board members. The CEO is one of the 14 board members. He has to listen to the board members more than anyone else.
So that’s why we focussed on them. But I also focussed on five of the chief investment officers of the biggest shareholding companies of M&S, because that’s going to scare the CEO and the board as well. And I also picked five of their celebrity models. It was a few years ago because I thought that might help. It didn’t, but you live and learn. But what was really powerful was, I said to my craftivists, you know, I’ve given you your hankies from M&S. I want you to Google everything about the person I’ve given you. So if they’re a board member, are they really loud and flamboyant and extrovert? Are they quite shy and nervous? Look on LinkedIn. What’s their route to their board position? Is it through tech? Is it through the company itself? What board position are they on? Is it the chief investment officer, chief financial officer or is it the CEO or is it the merchandise person? What colours do they wear? You know, are they online a lot and really active or are they not? How old are they? Really try and understand them as a human being and not just as a board member, and then find a quote from someone that you think they would admire and find a quote that’s timeless from that person they admire about being a positive change in the world. And also use symbolism and colours that you think they’d like.
Sarah: So one handkerchief we had a quote from Anita Roddick about how being ethical is good for business, and it had flowers all over it because that board member was a female working in business. We had one that was a quote. One of the board members was sikh, so we had a lovely thing linked to his faith. We had another quote from a musician, because we found out the board member was a board member for a philharmonic hall as well, so clearly liked music. And they had musical notes drawn all over their handkerchief. And we boxed them up. We wrapped them up so you couldn’t see each others. We wrote handwritten letters and I did a template with Share Action to say, ‘As customers, we love your staff, we love your products’, you know and made it link personally about whether your grandmother also loved them. So we had lots of personal elements in the letter. ‘So therefore we’re shocked and sad that you don’t pay the living wage because not only does it make sense in terms of business and staff retention and productivity and reputation, but it also makes moral sense as well’. So we had it, so it wasn’t manipulative. It used Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication; open questions, very positive. But it did end with we think this is something that you could do and pioneer and be the leading company that does it.
Sarah: So a little bit of ego in there. And we would love you to have a meeting with share action and the Living Wage Foundation to discuss becoming a living wage employee. So we tried to cover all the bases of what we thought they might react against. And we hand wrote the letters and we hand-delivered them at the AGM, at the side, after we said, Could we give you some gifts? Not on a big display, saying ‘look at us!’. So it was not performative at all. It was very quiet. We went to shareholders or proxy shareholders, and immediately the board went from being quite nervous and a bit confused to the chair of the board said, Yep, we’ll have a meeting and we had meetings over the next 10 months that did not involve craft, that were heated, where they would push back and then we would come with a counterpoint. And then I got people to make Christmas cards to the CEO, saying, ‘All we want for Christmas is the living wage’ in a really nice way, not in a disrespectful way. And then Valentine’s Day card saying, ‘please show your love to your brilliant staff and offer the living wage’. And then just before the next AGM, they announced to the media that they were paying the level of the living wage to all of their staff.
Sarah: They’re not a living wage employer, accredited one, but we went back to the AGM to say, ‘Well, done you!’ Not ‘well done us’, which I think is important for activists to remember. And what was fascinating was the board members were searching for us. They were like, Oh, we wanted to say, thank you for this and thank you for that because we built that respect and we’d done it in a gentle way; where it was about them and how we could help them do something good. And what was fascinating was we had board members come up to us, one to one, saying, OK, my hanky is now in the archive Museum of Marks and Spencers in Leeds, and the only objects that go in the archive is stuff that has changed our history. And we had one board member saying they had to go home, and their son, who was eight, said, Well, what’s the living wage? What’s this? And they had to explain what the living wage was, which I’m sure probably had far more impact in terms of gentle protests than maybe even the handkerchief. But the handkerchief was the catalyst. And the chair of the board found me, took me aside, which he did not have to do at all and said it was the most powerful campaign they’d experienced because it was so unusual. It was so humble.
Sarah: Every handkerchief had its own, was so unique and had its own intimate interaction with us as craftivists. And he said, every time they met, which most boards meet very regularly, they kept saying to each other, What was on your hanky? Where have you put your hanky? And then they’d say, Well, you know, one of them would say they might have a point. Maybe we should look into it? Or how is that going? How far are we going on the living wage? So there was always some blockers, but between the 14 of them, you know, there were some people who were for it, some people who are against it. But by having these bespoke, humbly made, handmade objects that were physical that were not red and black in capital letters, that were not performative, that were very much a tool to serve them and try and encourage them to have a really positive legacy personally and as an organisation. And that we kept nudging them throughout the 10 months. It’s all of those elements. It’s not just the craft, it’s not just the colour, it’s not just the font. It’s all of those elements that I think shows that craft does have a role to play in activism and should be part of the toolkit. Not to replace other forms of activism. But at certain times, in contexts with different people, it can be really helpful.
Manda: Magic, thank you. Yes. And I think that’s important: time and context and everything that you said about humility, about making it, about the people themselves and keeping on nudging them. All of the neuropsychology of that completely works. So, and the thing that I wonder looking at the world around us now, is whether it works best with people who don’t have a political structure behind them? So your MP was a new MP and I read Isobel Harding’s book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, which is genuinely terrifying. The process of becoming a politician is designed to dehumanise people. If you cross all the thresholds and you actually get elected, the process of doing that is basically, you know, with a few obvious and honourable exceptions of Caroline Lucas and Jeremy Corbyn and one or two others. It’s designed to turn you into a party machine and therefore to be, however susceptible you might be on a human level, you get back into Westminster and the party machine takes over. Which, if I have understood correctly, is one of the reasons they were so desperate to get people back in when COVID had sent people home and they were becoming human again in their own homes and ceasing to be the bots, basically. So we’re moving on to the Canary Craftivists. Which is your new book. I will post a link in the show notes. Your previous one was with Unbound. Is this with Unbound as well? I didn’t look.
Sarah: No. This one’s self-published. This was the project went so well and has so many elements to it, I knew I couldn’t turn it into a craft kit, so I turned it into a beautiful manual.
Manda: Beautiful book. Yes, it’s glorious. Photography is fantastic. The ideas are great.
Sarah: Oh yeah, Liz is amazing.
Manda: It’s actually a beautiful object in and of itself. And if anybody wants to be a craftivist, a canary craftivist, or any other colour of craftivist. It’s just a really easy read.
Sarah: Oh, good.
Manda: Really beautiful and totally practical. So you have fairly near the beginning, Page 13: your canary craftivist goals. I’d really like to go into them in a bit more detail. And then Page 192 the kind of manifesto at the end. And everything in between. But what is canary craftivism? How did it arise and what has its impact been to date?
Sarah: So it came out of knowing the COP was going to happen in Glasgow. This was pre pandemic. I’m really passionate about how craftivism is accessible to everyone and anyone can do it. But I think we’ve all got limited time and I really want to focus on running the craftivist collective. I really want to focus on where I can have most impact. So I used to work for lots of different NGOs. I still work a lot as consultant and collaborators with them and doing workshops and teaching, and I do a lot with the Climate Coalition, who I love because they’re so broad and it’s a coalition of different climate organisations. And before the pandemic, I was asking them, What are you doing before COP in Glasgow? So I was asking different organisations I know. So some XR groups, I was asking. I was asking Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and Climate Coalition and Women’s Institute and as many organisations as possible. What are you doing so that I could map out what they were doing and then I could see where my work could be of most use to fill some of the gaps rather than competing with other climate organisations or activists, which is not helpful. And what I noticed was a lot we’re doing stuff with existing climate activists and lots on the left or middle ground, but there wasn’t a lot… And lots in cities… But there wasn’t going to be a lot happening with people who don’t see themselves as activists, which are UK government is a conservative government. So I knew that we needed to show that a conservative audience really cared about this as well.
Sarah: If we had a labour government, I would work differently and target a labour more labour audience. And I wanted to offer something that wasn’t just in the big cities. That was ideally in conservative constituencies, in suburbia and places you don’t normally see climate action. For people of all different political persuasions to come together, but specifically people who don’t see themselves as activists and have never done climate action before. So that was my context. Then the pandemic hit. COP was delayed another year. But what I had in my head was this idea around Yellow Canaries, because I knew Yellow Canaries were used in the coal mines. They were seen by coal miners as colleagues, not objects. They would, you know, tweep and sing with the coal miners as friends. And then when they got quieter and sleepier in the coal mines, the miners knew that to save their canary friend and colleague, they needed to get out. And I found it fascinating. There wasn’t a lot on there that I found, but what I did read online in different academic journals was that these miners would say in the UK and mostly America, in those two places, would say, yes, the Canaries were there to save us, but really we were there because we loved our Canaries and we wanted to save them.
Sarah: So it was fascinating how they saw them as colleagues and not objects. And I love that they’re yellow. They’re delicate. They’re small. They were sort of these friends like these critical friends rather than aggressive enemies. Yellow is my brand colour because it’s a hopeful colour, but it’s still an active colour. The Canaries being small and delicate, really connected with me and my audience. And I thought, yes, the quick, easy thought in my head with the activist hat on would be Let’s all dress as canaries and do die ins. Let’s have dead canary humans everywhere. The Guardian would love it. It would be really good media. You’d get people to go: I get it – dead canaries. So I was really nervous to keep going with this Canary idea, because all I thought was – I always think the worst and work backwards – so I just thought, I don’t want to scare people so much about the end of the world is near, that it makes them disempowered rather than empowered. So with the luck of the pandemic, I had a few months to figure out what to do and to mitigate those risks.
Sarah: So I thought, OK, I’m going to get people to hand make life size yellow canaries, that fit on the palm of your hand. You can crochet, knit, cross stitch, whatever craft you want, but it needs to take a few hours to make and it needs to use repetitive hand actions. So I’m not asking people to make a clay one or to do a machine one where they could sew over their finger. You need to use the repetitive hand actions to think through. I offer craft-a-thought questions, so you use the process to think through these questions, which are: where am I part of the problem with global warming? Where can I be part of the solution? If I was my MP what might be stopping me from being part of the actions that we need to build a cleaner, greener future? And more questions about how can we all improve the world quicker? So I had craft-a-thought questions for people to think through, and then you make one for your MP. So I had a letter to go with it, as a template letter, which is in the manual, and you give one to your MP. You could probably make hundreds and love to craft hundreds, but it was about quality, not quantity. It’s about writing the letter, the letter was specifically saying, I haven’t done climate action before and I really love our constituency. So it was very much focussed on constituency level to make the MP think, Oh, yikes, if I don’t do anything, I might not get voted in again, and that this is an issue beyond the typical climate activist who I love and know and support but are doing their own thing.
Sarah: And then alongside that, I wanted visuals for local media. So we focussed it as a summer project because in the summer there’s not a lot of activism happening. Mps are on summer recess and local media, local newspapers are desperate for content. So I thought and it’s a lovely time of year with the pandemic, people were nervous of being indoors in small groups, so I asked people to also dress up as canaries. They could just wear a yellow T-shirt or hoodie, or they could make a beak and a cape. However creative you want to be, but I want you to be in groups of 12 or less. So this is the counter-cultural part of quality, not quantity. One canary per MP, even if you could get 50 people focus on 12 people or less. So you’re more likely to get people involved who are anxious of big crowds. Introverts. You’re not going to create division within the community where you’re taking up too much space.
Sarah: And I said, find an area in your constituency that most people really love and are proud of. So is it on the hill overlooking Norwich? I took my group to Hampstead Heath overlooking the city of London. We had some near a beautiful lake that they want to protect from global warming in a certain area. So really, look at where do you love that isn’t divisive. And take a beautiful picture of you 12, Sitting there and crafting or chatting. Completely silent or chatting quietly, so you’re not in the way of people, you’re not being disruptive. You can have a picnic if you want, or craft, or just take your picture and leave. But it’s a beautiful image to intrigue readers in the local paper. And then we had a press release template, where people put in their quotes, saying why I love our area and I want it to flourish as a grandmother. Or I love our area because I love swimming in our local pond. Stuff that isn’t divisive that is really trying to focus on that common, you know the common causes and how we all want to make our world better, but very localised. And those elements of making a gift for your MP with a letter, having your flock come together for your photograph for the local media.
Sarah: We had those elements and then I said to – I mean, this might be strange for some of your listeners – I said to XR Group, Extinction Rebellion groups and other activist groups I know and climate active groups I know and I support behind the scenes a lot. I contacted them all and had lots of phone calls before I launched the campaign in June and said, “Please don’t retweet this and share this with your audience. This isn’t for you. This is specifically for people who’ve never done climate action before, who are nervous of activism, and if they see that you’re doing it, they might not do it. So for the greater good, please do not share this, or if people start sharing it, say this isn’t for us. It’s great that we’re doing our thing and they’re doing their thing”. And people got it. But there was a bit of little bit of tension. But it was really focussed on that narrowness, so a bit like the M&S campaign. It was twenty four craftivists. I didn’t ask for more. I was very specific. This was the same as all of our social media on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter was. If you’re more of an eco worrier than an eco warrior, come join us. If you’re an eco warrior, go do your thing. So it was really trying to be specific and clear.
Sarah: And in terms of, you know, we didn’t change a law, but I tried successfully, I think we did fill some of those gaps. So we got a huge amount of local media over the summer months leading up to September and COP was in November. We got over a hundred flocks together in the UK with members who’d never been part of climate activism or activism before. We had hundreds of people send canaries to their MP and got lots of responses back publicly and privately from politicians. So we have some those images that I can see you’re looking at in the manual. Of some politicians having photos that they tweeted out, saying my canary, Alan, is on my desk. Or ours is hanging in our office here. So quite indirect impact rather than changing a certain law. But the focus of the campaign was to show that it’s not just your typical leftie climate activist who cares about global warming and what the government’s doing. It’s everyone. And it was a catalyst to then keep a relationship with your MP and keep a relationship with your flock. So we have one flock in the manual, which is three generations of one family, all have very different political perspectives and part of different political parties. But they came together with this common cause, which makes it even more powerful for the local media and for the local politician, and to engage other families to say, ‘OK, maybe we can come together on this issue’.
Sarah: So all of my campaigns have very different objectives. Some of it’s about local or national media, some of it’s about a policy or a behaviour or a culture. This one was about just before COP, how do we help build a more diverse, larger community to support the climate justice movement? And then keep engaging that community to keep holding their politicians account in the future. So the canary they’ve sent their MP, they’re not going to send another one every month, but they can say, How’s Alan my canary doing? I’ve noticed that there’s a law coming up now that we need to push harder, to to implement things more top down or a law that needs to be pushed through. What’s your response on that? Do tell us. How can we do more locally? It’s really helping hold people accountable; politicians, as well as local business leaders and counsellors that people have made canary’s for as well. And the manual is there as a tool for people to use in their own contexts, wherever they are in the world. But it was very much focussed on if you’re an eco worrier rather than an eco warrior, then you’re the right audience for this.
Manda: Yeah, and you had W.I chapters or clans or whatever. I don’t know enough about the W.I, but which is exactly that section of the population that I would imagine would never do anything activist, at least not this kind of activism. And there we go.
Sarah: It’s really mixed. And I, you know, for years I’ve been targeting Women’s Institute. So in the UK, women’s institutes have been going for decades and they are seen, if you’ve got to stereotype them, they will be seen as white women in their fifties in suburbia. Not political but crafty and coming together with other women. Now it’s a very diverse mix. You have the Shoreditch sisters and the Dolsten darlings and the Borough Belles. And quite young, like more cool and hip, crafty type women’s groups that would be more leftie. But you also have the more apolitical or right leaning in different communities. And the Women’s Institute have always been really politically influential with any politician and with any ministers and prime ministers of whatever party they are. So for over a decade, I knew that 1. The craft would hook them in. But they also get asked all the time by national charities and local charities to get involved in their campaigns. So there’s a lot of competition there. So very gently, I’d been saying ‘this could be something for you’. And I launched the campaign first of June, knowing that I’d need a few months for them to get involved, because they’re asked to do so much. But I targeted some W.I’s and not others, and I targeted the ones in the manual who hadn’t done climate action before. Some have. So one group, which is the Cardiff Birchwood W.I, which is around the Cardiff area in Wales. I went to Wales, I went to Cardiff to meet with that group to get some beautiful photographs of them outside the castle and to engage other W.I’s.
Sarah: And they’d never done climate action before and were very nervous to. Because they didn’t want to put their head above the parapet. They didn’t want to be seen, possibly as leftie if they weren’t, which sometimes activists are naturally seen that way. And it was incredible. It got lots of media in Wales and in Cardiff. We’re now going to get a feature in W.I Life magazine. They’re going to do a whole feature about the manual to engage more people to take part. And there’s an incredible image in there, of two grandmothers who are part of the W.I with their granddaughter. And they came to the castle with their lovely little granddaughter, who I think is probably about six in that image Manda. And they said they came, they’d never done climate activism or activism before, but they’re worried about their granddaughter, and they wanted to do something that would support her but wouldn’t be divisive, wouldn’t be hateful, wouldn’t scare their granddaughter or make them feel like quite nervous about what they were doing. So it was really about targeting those audiences and trying to say to some climate groups, there’s enough other things for you to do. You don’t have to join this action.
Manda: Yeah, yeah. And that was so prescient. We had a friend from here who crafted a 10 foot polar bear called Clarion and then walked with him as a pilgrimage from Bishop’s Castle up to Glasgow for COP. And asking for people to support along the route. It was 10 mile sections a day. All he had to do is maybe half a day, come and walk for. And there were people along the route saying, I know you’ve had someone XR has retweeted you; I can’t come.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s just so sad.
Manda: And that just makes my blood vaporise and blow my head apart. And you know, you could look at the neuropsychology of that for quite a long time. But then by recognising that that is a thing, and instead of getting incandescently angry about it, working with it, is part of what I think craftivism is so impressive for.
Sarah: And I think it’s working. So I challenge my craftivists a huge amount. So I’m constantly having to say ‘be the tortoise, you know, the tortoise won the race, not the hare. Slow down. Don’t just do lots of craft because you love doing it. It’s quality, not quantity. It’s using the process to think critically about what you’re doing and not just watch the TV while you’re knitting.’ It was a gift in lots of ways doing this campaign, because not only could I say to activist groups that I know and love and have friends in, the reason I’m doing this for this audience and not you is this reason. So it helped that way. But I also could challenge these grandmothers in Cardiff to say, I see what you’re saying, but we need XR just as much as we need you. We need politicians, we need to work with politicians just as much as try and campaign against them. You might completely disagree with the House of Lords system, yet while it’s still in place, it’s a good way for us to think about how to get lords on board so that they can weaken certain laws or promote certain things within government. So it was a real opportunity to challenge people to understand politics better, understand activism better. I mean, recently quite a few heads of campaigns of big charities have bought the manual and they’re not copying it and they know not to copy it. But they’re sharing it with their staff to say, Let’s not forget about introverts. Let’s not forget about apolitical people or people on a different side that aren’t our normal supporters.
Sarah: And what I was saying to him, was that it was a great opportunity as well that nearly everyone that I got to make a canary for their MP, didn’t really understand what role their MP had, how they could ask for to meet them. And that’s what their MP should offer them. Some of them said, ‘Now I’m going to make Canary’s for all of the other surrounding MPs’. And I had to say, ‘You can’t. They don’t have to reply to you, because you’re not a constituent. It really is more powerful if you can find a local constituent for them and get them on board and ideally someone who’s never done activism before. And please don’t make lots for Boris Johnson because he doesn’t have to respond. He gets so much in his office, he’s unlikely to. And please do not make one for Alok Sharma’. But because people had these great intentions and were DM ing me on Instagram and emailing me saying, we loved this, we’re going to make more and we’re going to hang them all over the local community. I could say this is how politics works in a non patronising way. This could work if you’re hanging it up in your local church or your local community centre. If you’ve got a clear tag on their saying what actions people can take. But don’t just litter. Don’t just make stuff that could end up in a landfill or that people have no idea what your canary is about. Like, let’s take a step back and people would get a bit annoyed with me and say, ‘I’m just trying to do something good’ or ‘I just want to do something with my love of craft’.
Sarah: And I could say, ‘I love that, but let’s slow down and focus on the craft is to serve the cause. Not as the taskmaster’. And my ten point manifesto says that craft is the tool, not the taskmaster. So not only did it help engage in local media and engage politicians and lots of conservative politicians, which was the focus. It was such a great gift to help people see what power they have as a constituent, what power they have in their community, how they might slip into, you know, ego or focussing on the fun element of crafting and how they need to challenge themselves on that. You know, I see that as like a long term impact just as much as the short term. And I didn’t go to COP. I specifically didn’t do anything at Glasgow, because we couldn’t afford it, and it wasn’t strategic and there was lots of other stuff happening there. So I got very high up people in the charity sector saying, What are you going to do at COP? And I’d say to them, We’re not there for a reason. We’re doing all this stuff in the summer because nothing’s happening in the summer. What’s the point me going to COP? There’s enough happening there. So it was quite sobering for people to challenge themselves as well: Is there a reason that they should be going? Is that a good use of their supporters money? You know, that was my gentle protest to them a little bit.
Manda: Yeah, and that seems to me really quite crucial to what you’re doing. The quality, not quantity. Let’s not litter the world with yellow canaries that don’t mean anything to anybody; but let’s really target and then connect with the people who can actually make a difference. And what we’ve seen post COP, is quite a lot of backtracking. The IPCC, on the day of recording, we’ve just got a new report out which is much bleaker, much more hardcore. But at the same time, there’s a lot of pushback within the ruling party in Britain and I would say elsewhere, of questioning our commitment to carbon zero by 2050, which everybody knows is too little, too late anyway. But they’re saying we can’t do it. And the oil prices have leapt through the roof. As a not disinterested observer, I look at, you know, bent on Beurden who really did get minced at cop by a rather lovely young Scottish woman called Lauren; came away and it’s as if they went ‘OK. So you guys think you can do with that oil? We’ll show you!’ And the oil prices skyrocketing and now we’re in a war that is going to eat massive amounts of carbon.
Manda: And so I’m interested in individual MPs because we’re back to they’re all cogs in the machine. And yet the government is composed of 600 people, who are people, and it has been drifting ever further to the right, actually racing rather than drifting, I would say. And it seems that we have a prime minister who listens a lot to what to me would seem very hard right Social media. The whole thing that he did with Starmer about Jimmy Saville was straight out of the kinds of right wing social media that I couldn’t look at without my eyes bleeding. And so you and the craftivists and everything that you’ve done are, I am guessing, providing a counterweight to that. And I’m wondering how things have progressed since the summer, because we’re now beginning March. And our your craftivists or your flocks, your hundred flocks around the country still in touch with their MPs and the policy makers? And are they seeing any traction having demonstrated that your actual constituents, people who might actually vote for you really do care about this? Are you seeing differences. Changes in nuance of how the MP’s are behaving?
Sarah: Well, one is no easy answer, and there’s no silver bullet to any activism. I run the craftivist collective with patrons, so I have people who give me £10 a month to do what I do. Because it is very counter-intuitive. So it doesn’t fit a lot of funded models. So I didn’t do a very robust social impact survey to send to all the craft harvests and ethnography and all of that. It’s very anecdotal and it’s me, I am a one woman band on purpose. It’s me directly contacting all of them with those questions and building a relationship face to face with them. So it is just me doing it, in case people think it’s a bigger organisation. And I said from the beginning, your canary and your flock is a catalyst, not a conclusion. It’s the start, not the end. I always linked it in with the Climate Coalition from the beginning, knowing that as a one woman band, I need to not burn out. I also have a handbook to write at the moment, so I have very limited time. So I always said, join the Climate Coalition, see what they’re doing. There will be a time during Valentine’s Day with the ‘show, the love’ campaign, to nudge your MPs to say ‘How are you showing your love to us as constituents and to the world?’ To keep holding them account. And it’s been very different. So you’ll see on our social media and on our blog and in the manual, on purpose I’ve been very honest with the responses we’ve got from MP’s and from Craftivists. So some craftivists have said I still haven’t had a reply from my MP. Or my MP went, ‘Yeah, yeah, I don’t really care. We’re doing what we need to do’. But a lot of them have said, ‘Oh my word, I’ve never received a gift like this before. Me and my team love it. We’ve got it on our on our desk to encourage us.’ Some of that will be greenwashing and good washing. And I’ve said to the craftivists whose MP that is: look on the websites at what they’re voting for and hold them account as that critical friend so that they know they can’t get away with it. But others are really struggling and sometimes within a party, if they’re conservative, they going against the grain and against the whip and need a lot of support. So they do need their constituents to keep being public about things. To say, ‘look, my constituents need this, my hands are tied’. And there’ll be other ones like you’ve mentioned, Caroline Lucas and others that feel like a lone voice, and it encourages them to keep going. So there’s no easy answer. I think the more you can try and do something where you’ve thought through the strategy, but you also have to let go a little bit. Because as soon as you turn craftivism into, “I’m going to give you this handmade gift if you vote on X”, you’ve changed the whole dynamic.
Sarah: So I’m very honest with craftivists to say this isn’t just do this one fun thing and the world will be fixed. This is for you to engage deeply and invest in.. Your crafter thoughts might come up of Oh crap, I need to change my pension provider or what shares I have in particular companies.
Manda: Or my bank.
Sarah: My bank. Or I need to look at how I should have renewable energy in my home and can I afford it? Like it’s just as much about change in the craftivist and their community as the politician. And that’s where it’s messy. And I get frustrated where people say, Well, this activism is problematic and that activism is problematic and all politicians are corrupt or the whole political system is awful. Yeah, but there’s a privilege of doing nothing, and we don’t have that privilege, so we have to work in the muck. My mum is deputy mayor, was a cabinet member for decades. She works within a horrible mucky system and she does her best and it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s that whole thing of moving that I and the arc of justice, you know, you do your best knowing that you’re not burning out, that you’re trying to have the most impact you can and then you have to let go. What I don’t want is for people to wait for a silver bullet and for something perfect.
Sarah: I work a lot with people behind the scenes, with business leaders and politicians and their staff, who I would disagree with on 70 percent of things, but they’ll be 10 percent where I feel like I can really nudge them in that gentle way. There’ll be some stuff where I can say, Look, I’m going to scare you here. I will tweet some of the awful stuff you’re doing, Unless you tell me that you’re going to change it. So there’s, you know, it’s being that critical friend and being aware that the world is mucky, but you’ve got to get in the muck and just do some stuff. And what I think the Canary project reminded me is, we only got a hundred groups, flocks happening. So a few hundred people across a population in the UK of millions. I had a budget of ten thousand pounds, which is tiny for what we delivered, because of the help of my patrons to do it and to pay for the photographer and people that should be paid. But we just did stuff. And the more you do stuff then talk about it, you’d be surprised at how it’ll get picked up by media and social media. Because the majority of people aren’t doing stuff. They’re talking about what to do or they’re talking about what’s the silver bullet? How do we change the political system? We need to have those chats, but I’d quite like listeners here to be crafting a canary while they’re listening to this podcast or to be thinking about, can I write that handwritten letter to my MP and see what it teaches me and what journey this takes me on? Because it is shocking how it reminds me that a hundred flocks of canaries across the UK has had some really positive impact.
Sarah: It’s been balanced of not so negative. So yes, we’re making physical resources, but the point is that they never end up in a landfill. That people do re wear their canary capes and beaks for other moments that we’re going to have over the next few years. I’ve said keep hold of them, because there’ll be key times that we need to stand outside an AGM for a certain company or have a photo stunt next to a financial district in a certain area for something. It is going to happen without me being an out. But it is that we need to see it as we need every angle covered. I need my mum as a politician. I need my sister doing her amazing social work. I need my brother who’s a civil servant, trying to do what he can within a very restricted space. And my dad being a brilliant vicar. All of us are trying to make social impact in different ways, and it’s all having an impact in different ways. And I think we just need to get stuff done.
Manda: Yes, totally. So we’re heading for the end. I’ve got a link to your book on Unbound and your website, and people can become a patron on your website. If they also do want to be crafting a canary or do something craftivist, will they find ways to join a flock or set up a flock on your website as well? And is there anything else that you would like to point people to so that they can become involved in something that’s gentle and has huge, energetic integrity? It seems to me that that’s a really important part, is that the energy people put into what they’re doing if they follow your guidelines has its own integrity that has to come through and bring integrity into a system that is designed really to wring the integrity out of people. So you’ve got to be feeding in something good. So if people want to do that, how would they best do it?
Sarah: So the best place to go is to our website, which is craftivist-collective.com, and it has everything there on the home page. I created the manual as a physical manual rather than a digital one, because the way our brains work as we engage much better in two or more senses. So actually, there is so much involved in the Canary Project, it helps people much more to have a physical manual. It is made on recycled paper, so that helps. But I’d say, yeah, go on the website, have a look at all the free online resources we’ve got. So the manifesto is super helpful. We’ve got some videos on there. And then I’d grab a copy of the manual. It might be that you decide, you know, you don’t want to join a local flock. It explains how to do that in the manual. It might be that it actually just inspires you on your own project in a different context. But I think the manual is a really good place to start of learning the theory and the practise and the case studies and then thinking for yourself, how can I use this in my context? Where I have power. Who do I have power with? What time do I have? What energy do I have? And where you can start from where you’re at. But don’t just sit hoping something perfect will come up on your lap. You’ve just got to start making and then unpicking. And, like you said, thread your values through everything that you do.
Manda: Yay. That feels like a really wonderful and beautiful place to end. So, Sarah Corbett of The Craftivist Collective, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Sarah: Well, I hope it was helpful for your listeners Manda. And if anyone’s got any questions, you can find me on email and social media to keep the conversation going. And I hope you all, yeah, keep trying things out and you know, we learn from doing.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Sarah for the clarity of her thinking. I am always so impressed with the way that she brings genuinely strategic thinking to very large problems and is able then to hone in on what will work. And if you’re the kind of person who has been wondering what you can do and not wanting to be part of Extinction Rebellion or the other more extrovert activism, then definitely I would recommend that you head over to Sarah’s site and see how you can become part of the movement that she is catalysing. Every single step that moves in the right direction helps us to shift on a larger scale. And there are so many things we can do. You can support her financially. You can become a craftivist. You can do both. Or you can begin to build groups in your area that bring people together across the divides that are being created, to make sure that we don’t connect to each other. Because the more people that we can connect from as diverse backgrounds as possible, the more likely we are to be able to move towards change. So that’s your task for this week. Find five other people who don’t think in the same bubbles as you do and talk to them about what’s happening in the world and how we can be part of the change that we need to see.
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