Slowing down, stepping back

Part of my journey as a campaigner has been learning when to take a step back, reflect and take care of myself. I’m still not brilliant at it, but I’m certainly better at recognising the signs, and acting on them, now.

Embroidery has become a key part of my self-care toolbox. I was always into crafts as a kid, and even did art at A-level. But as I got into full time work, I got out of the habit. Then a couple of years ago I discovered my old needlebox at the back of a cupboard and rekindled my love of stitching.

I recently took a week off work and treated myself to an embroidery course at St Martin’s college (cue five days of me humming Common People). I’d pictured a WI-style scene: apolitical chat about sewing techniques over endless cups of tea. The reality was quite different. My fellow classmates were nearly all undergrads, and my teacher a self-confessed art school radical, so the chat was almost exclusively about politics. So much for the break, I thought.


The fruits of my labour at the embroidery course

My week off got me thinking about the relationship between embroidery, the arts and campaigning. This blog explores two aspects: the role of the arts in self-care and its direct use as a tactic.

Step away from the computer!

At a basic level, embroidery helps me to unplug from an information intense, highly digitalised world.

Those of us who work as campaigners within organisations spend a lot of time sitting at desks using a computer. We write and receive tonnes of emails, and look at project plans, reports etc etc on screens. With the advent of smartphones, this often continues outside of usual office hours, whether its responding to emails on our commute home or monitoring engagement with our campaigns on social media. Even when I’m not looking at a work-related things on social media, I’m usually engaging with something political, as nearly all the people I follow are involved in one campaign or another.

To have the world’s biggest fights at our fingertips is revolutionary (literally), but it can also be totally overwhelming. Staring up at the mountain of work we still have to do on so many issues, in so many corners of the world, can be paralysing. It can also bring up anxiety on a personal level, generating questions like ‘am I focused on the rights things?’ and ‘am I doing enough?’


Unplug from the gird by Aloha to Zen

In the face of this, it’s restorative to put the device down and pick up a needle and thread (or pen, or paintbrush). A needle and thread doesn’t have you mindlessly hopping from one channel to another as an hour goes by like it were a minute. A blank piece of fabric doesn’t present you with hundreds of pieces of information a minute, or make your eyes sore from the glare. It’s beautifully present.

Art as a tactic

Integrating activism with the arts (known as artivism) and crafts (craftivism) is increasingly popular, and I’ve seen some effective examples of it.

I used to do a more policy-focused job for an end of life care charity, and went many consultation events as part of this. One I attended used visual minuting. This is where an artist listens to the discussion and draws pictures and text on a big piece of paper to capture the key themes. The result is like a mural that develops over the course of the event, that people can go up to, look at and reflect on.


Visual minuting via Creative Connection

This way of recording an event helps to engage with a wider audience since its accessible to people who may have English as a second language, additional learning needs, and simply those who prefer to learn visually.

Another example of making public policy more inclusive using visual arts is the King’s Fund’s ‘alternative guide to the NHS.’ I’ve used this short animation countless times to explain Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms to activists, and its infinitely better than any policy briefing I’ve seen.

The arts can also be used to engage targets in novel ways. ShareAction and the Craftivist Collective ran a campaign to get Marks and Spencer’s to adopt the Living Wage. They organised a series of ‘stitch-ins’ at M&S’s across the UK, and gave hand-embroidered handkerchieves to each of the board members, and a craftivist kit to its shareholders, at the company’s AGM in July 2015. Over 50,000 staff have had their wages increased to £8.50 as a result of the campaign – a result not to be sniffed at (sorry, I couldn’t resist).


Living Wage craftivism kits for 250 M&S shareholders. Photo by Polly Braden via Craftivist Collective.

I met the brains behind Craftivist Collective Sarah Corbett as she collected an SMK award for the campaign earlier this year. She talked about how this approach, which she calls ‘gentle protest’, has been effective not at getting cut-through with targets, but also at involving different types of campaigners, particularly introverts who are put off by more confrontational forms of activism.

Another example is Hollaback! who have been using ‘chalk walks’ to engage the public in conversations about street harassment of women.


Hollaback! chalk walk message

There are many more examples. Instagram has lots, but the best place I’ve found for critical analysis of creative action is Beautiful Rising (warning: you can easily spend several hours on their website!) As they say:

Making change requires a lot more than figuring out the right policy goal and then rationally explaining why people should support it. Activists must be able to engage people’s imaginations, activate deep-seated values, and uncover the human face of political issues. When it comes to the emotional and cultural side of social change, the arts offer potent resources.

– Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution

Politics has certainly creeped into my embroidery designs but I’m yet to use embroidery as a tactic in my campaigning. I’m thinking about how I might incorporate it into my work in the future. I’m keen to avoid using it as a tactic gratuitously or just because I like the idea of it, it would need to genuinely fit within a campaign strategy. Where the arts do help to reach new audiences, or successfully influence a target, they can make a campaign both beautiful and effective.

The long haul

Whether or not your art or craft intersects with your campaigning, finding a way of slowing down, blowing off steam and re-energising is an essential skill for any campaigner wanting to be in it for the long haul.

There is growing recognition of the need for activists to take time out for themselves. Maybe arts aren’t your thing. Luckily there are other ways to exercise self-care, and it doesn’t really matter which one(s) you chose, as long as it works for you.


50 Ways to Take a Break by Karen Horneffer-Ginter

It’s important to recognise that some people have more opportunities for self-care than others. I’m able to go home after work and do embroidery while others go home after working many more hours than me, in much worse conditions, for less pay, and return home to domestic work and/or caring responsibilities. Under these circumstances self-care can feel like a luxury. But it mustn’t be viewed in this way. Self-care must absolutely be viewed, as Audre Lorde famously said, as an act of self-preservation. When it comes to my ability to sustain a career in campaigning without burning out, I’m hopeful that a stitch in time will save nine.


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