Craftivist Collective: Liverpool-born founder and activist discusses craftivism – Interview with Sarah Corbett
As the founder of Craftivist Collective, Liverpool-born campaigner Sarah Corbett is at the centre of a movement which aims to change the world with actions that provoke reflection and discussion rather than derision and division.
Following the release of her new guide to craftivism we sat down with Sarah to discuss her first steps as an activist and taking on the might of Marks & Spencer with some bespoke handkerchiefs.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
How much did your upbringing in Liverpool shape your life as an activist?
I think you could say that even in the womb I was an activist.
Born and bred in Everton, my mum was part of lots of local community action groups. There’s a picture of me aged three outside a cluster of social terraced houses which we squatted in to help save them from demolition.
I even remember little things like my mum forcing Fairtrade coffee on people when it tasted disgusting but she was determined to support it.
We went to South Africa when I was eight years old as part of my dad’s sabbatical from his role as vicar at St Peter’s Church in Everton to see what the anti-apartheid movement was doing and what the churches there were doing.
It’s always been part of my makeup to ask why injustices are happening, seeing it first-hand in Everton and South Africa, and also seeing how we can improve the world through effective campaigning if we do it strategically and lovingly.
Can you remember one of your first successful experiences with activism?
When I was head girl at Archbishop Blanch School, one of the things that students always dreamt of was having their own lockers.
The headteacher told me it wasn’t possible because of health and safety reasons but after speaking to the caretaker I found out this might not be true.
We literally went around the corridors and classrooms measuring and found out it wasn’t a health and safety issue which was stopping us from having them.
I knew there was a very influential parent who sat on the board of governors who the others would listen to so I got him on board.
We got the lockers in the end and that for me was quite a turning point because I didn’t get students to sign a petition or hold a demonstration.
It showed me that to do activism you didn’t always have to have a placard or a banner or shout, you could do it very quietly and it could work.
That was a real wake-up call which stuck with me through all the years I was doing traditional activism and helped me realise it doesn’t normally work screaming at people or throwing eggs at them – we need to be strategic and a bit more crafty.
How did the craft angle come into your thinking around activism?
It was never planned.
I was working for the DFID (Department for International Development), teaching young people to do effective activism, and as part of my job I was travelling up and down the country, getting really burnt out.
By then I’d also moved to London and joined lots of activism groups so I could meet like-minded people and keep campaigning, but I was getting quite anxious because I didn’t fit into a lot of these groups.
Many of the groups were very demonising of the people in power and would often label them as awful human beings. It was very ‘us versus them’ campaigning.
I was travelling up to Glasgow on the train for work once and I missed using my hands properly, as you do when you’re just typing away on a laptop, so I picked up a cross-stitch kit for the journey.
I hadn’t tried cross-stitching before but I wanted to make something creative. Separating the threads and the repetitive hand action calmed me down and was a very comforting thing to do.
I thought that the process of craft could be really helpful to do this slow reflective activism that wasn’t on offer. People started to ask me what I was making, so I thought ‘what if I stitch a quote about inequality?’.
I started making mini banners, which were small and beautiful rather than big and brash, and hung them in the street below eye-level so that people would be excited to find them.
The banners were placed somewhere relevant to the particular issue, so if it was about unethical fashion then I would put it near a shopping centre or if it was about extreme capitalism I’d put it somewhere where I knew bankers would walk past.
I was trying to get activism into places where you wouldn’t expect to see it but in a gentle way that intrigued people into thinking for themselves.
“It’s always been part of my makeup to ask why injustices are happening, seeing it first-hand in Everton and South Africa.”
What do you say to those who might question whether this slower, quieter form of activism can actually get results?
In the early days some charities I used to work with would laugh, but the more I explained how it worked in terms of the psychology, people started to get it.
My work caters for different situations in different ways; there isn’t one recipe that will work for everything.
You’ve got to decide whether it’s best to make something to display publically or whether it makes more sense to do something quieter, like giving a gift to a politician and not telling anyone so you can build a relationship.
I often talk about how craftivism should just be one tool in the activism toolkit. It’s good for intimate activism, slow activism, quiet activism, but I will still go on marches which have got clear goals to make people accountable.
Likewise, I’ll still sign boring petitions when we need a quick, immediate response so that a policy doesn’t get voted in.
I’m not saying my book (How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest) is the solution, but I am saying that if we want the world to be beautiful, kind and just, then as much as possible, our activism should be beautiful, kind and just.
Are there any Craftivist Collective campaigns you’re particularly proud of?
For one campaign we worked with ShareAction to try and get Marks & Spencer to pay the living wage.
ShareAction had been trying to organise a meeting with the CEO of M&S for three years without getting anywhere.
I got together craftivists from around the country and asked them to find out as much they could about each of the 14 M&S board members – everything from whether they were shy or flamboyant, what they loved, etc.
Then we made beautiful bespoke handkerchiefs gifts for them which encouraged them to lead the way in the retail sector and pay the living wage.
M&S went from ignoring us to having meetings with us and within 14 months agreed to pay every one of its 50,000 staff the living wage.
That was a tangible example of where our more gentle form of activism and protest was successful.
How to be a craftivist: the art of gentle protest is out now.