[With a unique “gentle protest” approach, new craftivists are
channeling homespun energy into social justice. ]



 Tracy L. Barnett 
 December 18, 2018
Yes! Magazine

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 _ With a unique “gentle protest” approach, new craftivists are
channeling homespun energy into social justice. _ 

 Sarah Corbett, award-winning campaigner, author and founder of the
Craftivist Collective, recently released her new book How to Be a
Craftivist in the United States. , Jenny Lewis 


Sarah Corbett never dreamed a cross-stitched teddy bear could change
her life and how she approached her career. But looking back, she
realizes that that’s when it all started.

Corbett, a professional campaigner for causes and charities, was
preparing to board a train from London to Glasgow to give yet another
workshop on training people as activists.

But she was exhausted, stressed, and burning out. With a five-hour
journey ahead of her, she couldn’t work because it made her travel
sick. Feeling a hankering to do something creative, she picked up the
tiny cross-stitch kit. As she took her seat and began to work, she
immediately noticed something.

“Separating the threads, you have to go slowly so that it doesn’t
tangle, and it made me aware of how tight my shoulders were, and
that’s something I hadn’t checked in with myself about,” she
says. “As activists, my colleagues never checked in with each
other—‘Are you OK?’ You just do lots of campaigning, because
that’s what you’re passionate about.”

People began to ask her what she was doing. “I immediately thought
to myself, ‘Oh, if I was cross-stitching a Gandhi quote, we could
have a conversation about that.’ But the fact that a stranger was
asking me what I was doing, it made me think how powerful it was that
I wasn’t giving eye contact, I wasn’t shouting at them with
megaphones, and they were asking me.”

That made Corbett realize that there might be better ways to engage
with activist communities. She had just moved to London, but was
having a hard time fitting in.

“A lot of them were very extroverted, very loud, very transactional,
sometimes quite demonizing—or treating people like robots or just
doing stalls or petitions,” she says.

By contrast, the repetitive action of cross-stitching made her aware
of how tense she was. The process was comforting and gave her space to
ask herself whether she was really being an effective activist, or was
she just doing lots of things to feel effective?

What Corbett discovered for herself on her train trip is known as
“craftivism,” a term popularized by North Carolina activist Betsy
Greer. With Greer’s blessing, Corbett spun it into her unique
“gentle protest” approach, and a decade later has turned that
epiphany into a high-impact career, the international Craftivist
Collective and a whole lot of creative social change. Corbett’s
book, _How to Be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest _(Random
House, 2018), was just released in the U.S. and will be presented at
SXSW in Austin, Texas, in March
[] 2019.

Greer, for her part, has been surprised and delighted to see how the
concept has spread across the globe. “For a while, you could track
the word back to me,” she says. “Eventually I got an email from
Africa. I was getting emails from people in places I’d never been
that were way outside my demographic.”

Greer learned to knit from her grandmother before knitting was cool.
She studied craft as a sociology student, and wrote her dissertation
on knitting, DIY culture, and community development. That led to her
first book, _Knitting for Good: A Guide to Creating Personal, Social,
and Political Change Stitch by Stitch_ (Roost Books, 2008).

In her research on crafting and activism, Greer began to realize that
this was nothing new. She has traced craft as a form of resistance to
tapestries of the disappeared
under Pinochet’s regime in Chile, and diapers and headscarves made
by Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
Even the legendary abolitionist Sojourner Truth
engaged in knitting and needlework as a form of resistance.

Greer comes from a military family, so the war in Afghanistan affected
her personally, with a cousin and a friend who served there. In the
mid-2000s, she began a needlework series based on anti-war graffiti
from around the world. Taking anonymous images—a bomb as a head on a
human body, the Statue of Liberty holding a missile instead of a
torch—and working them in cross-stitch, she illustrated the effects
and toll of war: “How it embeds itself in our daily vocabulary in
the news, in conversation, in our worries, even though in many cases,
we are spared the actual gravity of war at our doorstep,” she wrote
in an email.


Participants of the Craftivist Collective workshop in Bristol stitch
slowly and quietly while sharing their “crafterthoughts.” Photo
from Craftivist Collective.

Working on those pieces, she found, was a great way to explore her
feelings about war. She created the series, she says, “to show that
people all around the world are against war, but very few people
actually make the decision to go to war.”

In the U.K., Corbett was taking the concept in new directions. In
2016, she and a small group from the Craftivist Collective teamed up
with ShareAction, a movement for responsible investment, to organize a
living-wage campaign aimed at the British retail giant Marks and
Spencer. They used gift handkerchiefs with bespoke embroidered
messages for the company’s board members and investors, then
followed up by carefully cultivating relationships with them. The
campaign eventually resulted in pay increases
[] for
the company’s 50,000 workers.

Other campaigns involved embroidered messages on small protest banners
[] to
be hung at eye level in public places and on embroidered hearts
[] worn
on sleeves. Last year, the Craftivist Collective created a campaign to
support Fashion Revolution, a global movement launched after the 2013
Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than
1,100 garment workers. Makers dropped tiny, handwritten scrolls into
the pockets of clothing sold by retailers who engage in unfair trade
practices. The scrolls had messages such as, “Our clothes can never
be truly beautiful if they hide the ugliness of worker

The idea, Corbett says, was to encourage them to be curious about who
made their clothes, without making them feel judged, and give them
options so they could join the movement, as well. The campaign
resulted in global media on the homepage of BBC News
[], a double-page spread in
_The Guardian_
[] and
rare coverage in fashion magazines because of Corbett’s “gentle
protest” approach to activism.

The line between craftivism and artivism—the use of art in
activism—is a fine one.

Greer says she intentionally chose craft as a way to reclaim a
practice that has been historically demeaned and undervalued for
thousands of years. Additionally, she says, she uses craft as a way to
encourage people to be creative precisely because it’s not art.

“There can be a lower barrier to entry because due to its
utilitarian roots it doesn’t have to be beautiful as culturally
defined, and it doesn’t have to go up on a wall—but it can!—so
there can be less pressure mentally to be good,” she says.

Elizabeth Vega, who has been using art to empower and inform since the
early days of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri,
prefers to give the work the stature she feels it deserves—so she
calls it artivism.

“It stems from the place that art and craft is something we all have
within us,” Vega says, who has degrees in sociology and counseling
psychology. “It’s a way to make sense of things and a way to have
cultural intersections but also to process.”

She remembers the moment when she began to realize the power that art
could have within the fight against racism in St. Louis. Her social
justice group had set up a story wall to help people process the death
of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old Black man who was shot by a White
police officer in 2014, setting off the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There was a mother and daughter who came to see the memorial. And
as they walked away, you could tell they were really feeling it. They
were walking kind of separately. And I noticed the 13-year-old, and I
said to her, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ and this child fell into my
arms and wept like I was a member of her own family.”

Vega encouraged the two to create something that they could put on the
memorial, and they collaborated and came up with a beautiful image:
the words “hands up” with two hearts, the word “unfair” and a

“And I think that’s the role it has,” Vega says. “Sometimes
before we even have language, we have images, we have things that are
visual. And so holding space with art materials gives people an
opportunity to process, so that by end of it they do have words, and
they have a greater understanding of it.”

But besides the inner work, the act of creating together can have an
even greater impact socially, Vega says.

“The beauty of art and craftivism and this kind of resistance work
is that oftentimes we are fighting against things—we’re constantly
fighting against oppression, against racism, against sexism—but the
art reminds us of what we’re fighting for,” she says. “And
that’s connection, and beauty, and humanity, and the ability to
create and dream and collaborate.”

Tracy L. Barnett wrote this article for YES! Magazine
[]. Tracy is a Mexico-based independent writer
focused on the environment, social justice, indigenous rights and
travel. She is the founder of The Esperanza Project and author of the
upcoming book, Looking for Esperanza: One Woman's Search for Hope in
the Other America.

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