When crafts become activism

A new generation of craftivists are channeling
homespun energy into social justice.

Collective Mini Protest Banner, Brick Lane, London. Credit: Craftivist
Collective. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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
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.

at a Craftivist Collective workshop in Bristol. Credit: Craftivist Collective.
All rights reserved.

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

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 exploitation.”

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
, 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 tear.

“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.”

This article was first
published in YES!


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