Sarah Corbett

This description of Sarah Corbett's work was prepared when Sarah Corbett was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Sarah founded the Craftivist Collective to transform the way people think about, engage with, and most importantly do activism. Through her principles of ‘Gentle Protest’, she is inspiring both the most seasoned activists and first-time changemakers. In a unique way, she helps them to redirect their influence and energy into social movements, getting them deeply engaged in issues and on topics that they can help to change.

The New Idea

Sarah is creating a kinder, more inclusive and effective form of social action by moving communities towards more thoughtful changemaking. Activism tends to conjure up many negative connotations: from angry, reactive picketing to disengaged ‘slacktivism’. Sarah believes it can be different.

She has developed her own unique Gentle Protest methodology for craftivism (craft+activism), transforming the way people think about, engage with, and most importantly do activism. Sarah’s approach does not replace traditional activism but offers new tools to add to the activism toolkit, making the overall approach more emotionally intelligent, inclusive, engaging and sustainable. The Gentle Protest approach is a methodology that supports people in slowing down to think critically and take the time to build strategic approaches for change.

Gentle Protest is multi-faceted, asking people to empathise with everyone involved in an issue and be compassionate in their activism, rather than limiting themselves to the typically transactional style of campaigning. This helps activists connect personally with their perceived ‘adversary’ by doing things for this person and helping him or her see themselves in a different light. This is done by establishing an empathic relationship with the person. This is an approach to changemaking that is slow, mindful, inclusive, quiet, intimate, intriguing and as a result, more effective and strategic.   

Using the power of ‘making’ to engage thoughtfully with the issues we care about, Sarah’s form of craftivism has become one tool in what Sarah terms her ‘gentle protest’ toolkit.  Recognising the power of her methodology, she intentionally developed a craftivist framework that was sector and issue agnostic. This has meant that her craftivist approach is applicable to any issue: from sustainable fashion to environmentalism or human rights.  

Through training, engagement and support, Sarah provides an alternative to existing forms of activism with a kinder, more thoughtful, and slower ethos. She has succeeded in sparking a new movement of craftivism, and the Craftivist Collective now supports autonomous, self-organised groups across the UK. They are also partnering with organisations as diverse as the World Wildlife Foundation, the Women’s Institute and UNICEF.  

Sarah understands her impact on two levels: 1. individual mindset; 2. influencing campaigning organisations to adopt and integrate models of gentle protest into their methodologies, making them more effective.

As a result of her work, she is inspiring both the most seasoned activists and first-time changemakers to redirect their influence and energy into social movements, getting people deeply engaged in issues and topics that matter to them. The Craftivist Collective has thousands of members, who Sarah supports by developing tools and projects that they can undertake as individuals or by organising their own small groups.

To date, Sarah has delivered over 300 talks, workshops and events to over 12,000 people and is now launching the Gentle Protest Lab to further spread the practices of Gentle Protest.  

The Problem

Activism is seen to be a niche activity. Traditional forms of activism tend to engage a certain audience that like (or do not mind) being loud or extrovert in their approach. A third to a half of the world’s population are introverts and therefore are at risk of burning out by trying to adopt the typical extrovert activist approach. They often do not feel that they can fit the stereotype of what a perceived activist is. Mainstream forms of activism limit who engages in activism, how they engage and if they commit to campaigning long term or not.   

Sarah believes that who is involved in activism is a product of what activism looks like: loud, polarising, and abrasive. Such a culture of changemaking runs the risk of being transactional and reactive, rather than strategic. For example, mainstream forms of campaigning, such as petition signing, focus more on the number of signatures than fostering long-term or meaningful engagement with a cause.

This often means that, despite their efforts and intentions, many campaigns are stuck in shallow and transactional cycles, using old methods that are often ineffective, and at worst harmful.  Furthermore, campaigning practices often create an "us vs them" mentality. Campaigners tend to presume power holders are purposefully doing harm to people or the planet, and so approach them with aggression, blaming, shaming and demonisation.

This tactic leads to more division and a fight or flight response from the power holders, which often translates to limited efficacy. There are few accessible alternative social and political changemaking which go against current activism and community involvement practice.

The UK is experiencing an intense period of political and social polarisation without any accessible transformational alternatives. Increased polarisation leads to fewer places, forums, or opportunities for exchange, meaning an ever increasing divide is being further entrenched. Without alternative paths for campaigning, current practices can only further feed into this culture of polarisation.  

The Strategy

After working as a campaigner for ten years, Sarah began exploring ‘making’ within activism, realising that craft was a useful tool to engage people with activism in a different and meaningful way. Craft has a low barrier to entry and it is accessible to all, particularly introverts and others who are unlikely to attend campaigns.

Moreover, Sarah realised that the slowness in craft creates opportunities for strategic, critical thinking and a place for building empathy with key campaign audiences. As interest grew around her work, Sarah founded the Craftivist Collective in 2009, where she began working with activist groups and non-activists alike, transforming them into ‘craftivists’. The Collective emerged from the increasing demand from people and organisations around the world who want to be effective, gentle craftivists.

The Craftivist Collective is free to join and accessible to anyone. Sarah calls it the ‘shop front’ of the wider movement, enabling it to be approachable and inclusive while feeding into the broader narrative of gentle protest.  

As the Craftivist Collective grew, Sarah’s work began to receive attention from mainstream activist groups seeking a new approach to their work. In 2015, ShareAction felt like their traditional tactics were not yielding success in advocating for the real Living Wage at Marks & Spencer, and so asked Sarah to create a “craftivist” action to support the campaign. Using the principles of Gentle Protest, Sarah decided to match fourteen craftivists in the Collective with Marks & Spencer’s fourteen board members.

Each craftivist was tasked with researching their board member and creating a bespoke handkerchief, tailored to the board member’s unique interests. While years of ShareAction’s traditional campaigning methods had not succeeded, within 12 months of the craftivists gentle protest approach, Marks & Spencer agreed to the real Living Wage for 50,000 staff.  

Sarah spent years refining the principles, models and tools of craftivism. Each craftivism project Sarah creates has a unique objective. One might focus on personal transformation, another on engaging the public or media; one might focus on becoming a critical friend of a power holder, etc. All of these approaches engage a wide audience and build a large portfolio of case studies. These tools are designed for groups or individuals to use and learn more about effective ‘gentle protest’ craftivism.

Groups are autonomous but encouraged to join Sarah’s projects and use her manifesto (outlining commitments to include solidarity, sympathy and slowness) alongside books and other tools for effective changemaking. She has also held training sessions and workshops on the step-by-step approach, values, and guidelines. She has now codified the Gentle Protest approach in a set of online toolkits and resources, accessible to individuals, community groups, and organisations.

Her Gentle Protest approach shifts a culture of confrontation and demonisation to a culture of mindfulness and respect.  By emphasising key principles such as empathy, slowing down, positivity, acting thoughtfully, and thinking critically, Sarah is incentivising the contemplation of global issues, thoughtful conversations rather than arguments, and taking action, no matter how small, towards social change. This approach to activism encourages a much wider array of people to become engaged and empower changemakers in the face of injustice, inequality and prejudice.

In order to keep this growing, Sarah strategically leverages media, technology and public speaking engagements to focus on storytelling, core to her strategy in educating people that activism needs to be strategic, empathetic and attractive to engage diverse people for the long term. Sarah aims to continue the Craftivist Collective as a social enterprise, offering products, services and support to individuals and groups around the world to be effective gentle craftivists (e.g. training of trainers).  Sarah has written a book outlining the principles of Gentle Protest, building off the back of her work in craftivism. While craftivism is the way to quickly engage people, the broader message is around changing the system of campaigning and activism. She is now turning the Craftivist Collective into a social enterprise to feed into the larger approach and sustain the gentle protest work. She is also launching the Gentle Protest Lab.

With the Gentle Protest Lab, Sarah is putting theory into practice and developing the evidence base for craftivism, while also laying the groundwork for other forms of gentle protest. In order to build on her research, test the methodology further and develop real social change, Sarah has been identifying and then partnering with specific institutions, organisations, and community groups. For example, to consolidate her existing research, she is now in discussions with the London School of Economics (LSE) and Dr Duncan Green (a Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB) about partnering with an academic institution to host the research element of the lab. The Gentle Protest Lab will build on the theory and practice Sarah has already delivered. It will strengthen her methodology by increasing the theoretical understanding of the ‘Gentle Protest’ approach and building on existing support from academics and professional practitioners such as the positive psychologist Professor Stephen Joseph who already uses her work as a case study with his BA students in Nottingham University. She will also work in partnership with NGOs to implement the methodology – she is currently in discussions with Amnesty International and Lush.   

The Gentle Protest Lab serves as a point for replication and dissemination of new forms of gentle protest. Sarah aims for craftivism to be the first approach of many others going forward. She utilises a train-the-trainer model through workshops and training with members of organisations that will then bring the learnings of gentle protest techniques and strategies back to their respective organisations and companies.  As part of her larger media strategy, Sarah also engages wider audiences and continues to present, speak, and teach at conferences and events. She has partnered and conducted trainings with organisations and companies such as Unicef UK, Mind, Save the Children UK, Greenpeace UK, Bystander Revolution (USA), The Climate Coalition, Comic Relief, ShareAction, and Fashion Revolution. There are over 60 Craftivist Groups that use her manifesto, resources and ideas to help with their work and regularly ask for support and advice. She has also delivered over 300 craftivism talks and workshops around the world to over 12,000 people. Sarah’s TED Talk ‘Activism Needs Introverts’ has been viewed over one million times.  

The Person

Sarah grew up as an activist in West Everton in Liverpool, the fourth most deprived ward in the UK. Her father is the local Anglican Vicar and her mother (previously a nurse) is now a city councillor and mayoral lead on better business. From a young age, Sarah was thrust into the world of activism as her community battled against the effects of inequality.

At the age of three, Sarah joined her parents as a squatter, successfully saving local housing from demolition. In the vicarage, her parent’s home, Sarah was surrounded by campaigners, community organisers and activists who came together to strategise and support each other. For example, both of the bishops of Liverpool would come to support local and global campaigns, such as the South African anti-Apartheid movement.

In secondary school, Sarah was voted Head Girl and successfully led a student campaign to secure lockers for students. While she was studying Religions and Theology at Manchester University she was diagnosed with M.E. (Myalgic encephalomyelitis, which is both Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia Syndrome). Despite this, she still received a First Class degree.

Sarah spent the next decade in the charity sector, engaging people on issues around global injustice, through organisations like Christian Aid, the Department for International Development (DFID) and Oxfam (GB), as a community and activism campaigns manager. However, in 2008 Sarah experienced complete burn-out and began doubting the efficacy of the typically used forms of activism. She wanted to find another way that was more effective, loving and kind.

After picking up a cross-stitch kit to do on a train journey, she had an ‘aha’ moment. She realised the power that lay in creating something with her own hands, slowing down, and being thoughtful and mindful through this activity.  She went on to found the Craftivist Collective in 2009, initially as a group to gather people interested in joining her craftivism. Momentum quickly grew and Sarah realised, through the intense demand from individuals and organisations alike, that she needed to begin thinking about how to move this beyond her immediate community.

She began developing a robust methodology that could continue to spread without her, and throughout the process also published a book ‘How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest’.