How to be a Craftivist

If we want a world that is beautiful, kind and fair, shouldn’t our activism be beautiful, kind and fair?

Award-winning campaigner and founder of the Craftivist Collective Sarah Corbett shows how to respond to injustice not with apathy or aggression, but with gentle, effective protest.

This is a manifesto – for a more respectful and contemplative activism; for conversation and collaboration where too often there is division and conflict; for using craft to engage, empower and encourage us all to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Quiet action can sometimes speak as powerfully as the loudest voice. With thoughtful principles, practical examples and honest stories from her own experience as a once burnt-out activist, Corbett shows how activism through craft can produce long-lasting positive change.

I read How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett for a book club I’m part of, and I have to say my feelings were mixed. Part call to action, part campaign strategy and part activism memoir, the book details how Corbett launched her craftivist movement and the hard won successes of her creative campaigns.

There was a lot about her movement that I liked. For a lot of people, joining a march or – god forbid – canvassing feels difficult if not impossible (I know there can be some privilege wrapped up in this. I’m getting to it). As such, Corbett coming forward with a version of activism that holds out a hand to shy types to whom walking up to a stranger with a petition would feel like actual death felt inviting without being accusatory.

Her campaigns are so creative – with emphasis on using sustainable and ethically sourced materials (rather than, say, feminist slogan tees made by women making less than minimum wage in unsafe factories…). From creating small scrolls to slip in the pockets of garments at fast fashion stores asking #whomademyclothes to messages carefully stitched onto handkerchiefs and sent to local politicians, Corbett breaks down her campaigns stage by stage, inviting the reader to get involved at every turn. She describes how she goes about building relationships with those on the opposing side of the argument, and it is certainly interesting to see how she manages to engage with some powerful people using craftivism, getting them to interact with her work in a way they haven’t with activism before. Through her work she inspires people to communicate with her on an issue rather than go on the defence – something that often feels impossible to achieve.

She also makes a huge point of solidarity over sympathy; so, creating campaigns that centre the people affected by the issue with understanding that they know what the solutions to their problems are. People aren’t waiting for you to walk in and save them, they’re looking for support.

All that said, I have to admit I had a really hard time with her consistent use of the term ‘gentle’ to describe her method of protest. While I know I am coming at this with a certain amount of internalised gender-related garbage, the way her work emphasised being agreeable and non-threatening jarred with me. I wish that Corbett had addressed this, or at least taken an analytical stance on the way that agreeableness has been demanded of women to their massive detriment over time, but she never did.

And then there’s the issue of privilege. Sarah Corbett is a white woman (as am I) so carrying a lot of privilege that I don’t necessarily feel that she addresses particularly well during the book. As it goes on, it starts to feel like she is placing gentle protest in opposition to what she considers aggressive protest, and it was this slowly encroaching binary that I found myself taking issue with more and more. While I think her methods absolutely have value (she has achieved a hell of a lot more than I ever have!), I think that it’s much easier to make a gift for your local politician attached to a very friendly letter, as she recommends, when you’re dealing with a situation you’re not currently affected by. Right? If you’re personally impacted by the ‘hostile environment’ immigration practices or benefits cuts currently screwing over hundreds of thousands of people you’re probably going to feel a lot more like yelling in someone’s face – and I don’t think you would be wrong to do that.

Like I said earlier, craftivism, according to Corbett’s ideals is at least partly about welcoming in people uncomfortable with other forms of activism – I actually fall into this group. I deal with pretty bad social anxiety so the intensity of activism fills me with FEAR. But I also wonder whether we should expect – or even aspire, in this situation – to feel comfortable? Especially if you’re a white woman. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own accountability, and in particular all of the various (many) ways in which I don’t live up to my own ideals, and while a lot of actions Corbett presents in the book are great, there was a degree to which I felt she was offering people a way out of getting their hands dirty.

I guess I’m on the fence. There were times while reading that Corbett totally lost me – she tells this weird story about getting dumped by a Tinder date because he ‘didn’t want to date an activist’ until she told him that she was actually an agreeable nice activist, not an ‘angry’ one. I was waiting for her to be like and the moral of the story is fuck that guy, but instead she ended up dating him after she convinced him of her ‘gentle nature’. But at other times her methods really appealed to me, particularly in terms of her tenacity and her approach to a campaign as a long-term commitment.

Have you read How to be a Craftivist? What do you think?

Hope in the Dark

If, like me, you have started to look out the window first thing in the morning with a sense of impending doom; if when you think of the world you imagine, instead of a globe balancing on the back of an infinite number of turtles, more of a sinking ship that’s also burst into flames and about the blow any second; if you feel like you’re in the middle of an apocalypse in which instead of a zombie virus, people are infecting each other with hatred….

Mate: You really need to read this book.

hope-in-the-dark

Hope in the Dark is a history of activism, of success and failure. Of persisting in the face of a power that seems much greater than your own. Rebecca Solnit writes poetically about post 9/11 New York, civil rights battles and local business vs international corporations among many things, through the lens of hope.

I think we all need a little of that at this particular moment.

Since there is nothing in this book I could possibly say better than Solnit already has, I decided to do this review in quotes:

The definition of hope:

‘It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.’

On functioning in the paradoxical world:

‘F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other and since it is not all good it must all suck royally. Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and be determined to make them otherwise.”’

On protests against the Iraq war:

‘The dream did not last, though the moment is worth cherishing. Instead came the nightmares of burned and maimed children, bombed civilians, soldiers incinerated by depleted-uranium rounds, history itself wiped out when the United States permitted the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum and the burning of its National Library, US soldiers picked off a few at a time during the months of occupation and insurrection. The millions marching on February 15 represented something that is not yet fully realised, an extraordinary potential waiting, waiting for some catalyst to bring it into full flower. A new imagination of politics and change is already here, and I want to try and pare away what obscures it.’

On working towards that which you may never actually see:

‘There’s a wonderful parable by Jorge Luis Borges. In the last years of the thirteenth century, God tells a leopard in a cage, “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” The poem is the Divine Comedy; the man who sees the leopard is Dante.’

On progress:

‘…women used to make sixty-six cents to the male dollar and now we made seventy-seven cents, so what were we complaining about? It doesn’t seem like it should be so complicated to acknowledge that seventy-seven cents is better than sixty-six cents and that seventy-seven cents isn’t good enough, but the politics we have is so pathetically bipolar that we only tell this story two ways: either seventy-seven cents is a victory, and victories are points when you shut up and stop fighting; or seventy-cents is ugly, so activism accomplishes nothing and what’s the point of fighting? Both versions are defeatist because they are static. What’s missing from these two ways of telling is an ability to recognise a situation in which you are travelling and have not arrived, in which you have cause both to celebrate and to fight, in which the world is always being made and is never finished.’

On activism:

‘Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.’ 

 

 

Reasons NOT to read Me Before You

For months, Me Before You was little more than a blogosphere rumbling that I decided to ignore. The story sounded clichéd and cringe-worthy, and the air of tragedy surrounding its romantic lead another example of people with disabilities being reduced to one dimensional victim figures.  For anyone who doesn’t know, Me Before You is a about a recently quadriplegic man who falls in love with his carer. Even though they love each other and are happy together, at the end of the book he makes the decision to kill himself, because he sees that as a better option than living with his disability. As you can imagine, the story is deeply offensive to many disabled people and their families.

People complained when the book first came out. No one really listened.

Then the movie was released, and the dissenting voices got a lot harder to ignore. Disabled activists protested the premiere and co-opted the film’s #LiveBoldly to promote the rights of disabled people to actually live boldly instead of submit to the movie’s message, which equates the disabled body with the need for death. The #DISABILITYTOOWHITE went viral on Twitter, and a much needed conversation about representation took place. On the rare occasions disability is represented in TV and film, the actors are disproportionately white people.

And the other thing about those actors? They are almost always non-disabled.

That it is a story written by a non-disabled writer about a character subsequently portrayed by a non-disabled man is only the beginning of the problems with Me Before You.

During a conversation on the disability and representation episode of the Black Girls Talking podcast (listen here), Vilissa Thompson, disability activist, founder of Ramp Your Voice and originator of #DISABILITYTOOWHITE (@VilissaThompson on Twitter. Follow her. She’s awesome.) talks about the problematic images Me Before You promotes. She explains that:

‘A lot of people have never met a disabled person… that image of disability in a story like Me Before You can create this prototype of what disabled “is”. Just like in black media, if you see a negative portrayal in a movie for whites who may have never met a black person in their town or experienced blackness through friendships, that’s the only representation that they have. So it’s very important for groups like us, those who are minority groups – disabled or of colour, or both – it’s very important to have positive, affirmative and accurate portrayals, because for some people what they see on TV or the big screen is all they know, and if they see that disabled people live a pitiful life and want to die that’s how [they] are going to think about the disabled experience and react to disabled people when [they] meet them.’

The message of Me Before You is powerful and destructive. It is the latest chapter in the story of disability as tragedy (previous chapters include Million Dollar Baby, another tale of choosing death over disability), an ableist narrative in which the disabled can only live on the fringes of society, trapped by ‘inabilities’ to communicate (as if speaking with your mouth is the only form of communication), or to walk (wheelchair users aren’t ‘bound’ by their wheelchair. It’s how they get around) or whatever the perceived tragedy is. Stories like this aren’t helping anyone. In an article for The Independent (read it here), disabled campaigner and Trailblazers Regional Ambassador for Northern Ireland (part of Muscular Dystrophy UK), Michaela Hollywood, makes the point that:

‘Advertising disability as a fate worse than death is offensive and damaging. It’s damaging for the young people with disabilities who are watching this film. It’s damaging to the public perception of disability. It’s damaging to us – to how we live and our aspirations for the future.’

It speaks to an ableist culture that, as Mik Scarlet writes in his movie review for Disability Now (read it here), ‘If you’re suicidal and non-disabled you’re ill, but if you’re suicidal and disabled you’re making an informed choice.’

Listening to the voices in the disabled community is vital. As allies, we need to demand better. For all of us. We want stories that reflect the real, complex lives of disabled people. We don’t want a culture that supports the idea of disabled people as a burden on society.

Say the guy on Me Before You had chosen to live. Say that instead of the story of his death, we were offered the story of his relationship, and the unique challenges he and his partner would have faced together. Say actual wheelchair users had been consulted to ensure a portrayal that felt true to the experience. Imagine a disabled actor in his role. Wouldn’t that have been a way more interesting movie?

In her BGT conversation, Vilissa Thompson said the following: ‘When you write about an experience that’s not yours you have a big responsibility to portray it fairly and accurately.’

It doesn’t seem fair or accurate that, as Michaela Hollywood writes ‘Hollywood is again telling people like me that it’s better to choose death than live as a disabled person. It’s saying my life isn’t worth it.’

The popularity of Me Before You demonstrates how much disabled voices need to be heard. I hope people start listening.