Home » Sarah Corbett: Activism Needs Introverts at TEDxYouth@Bath (Full Transcript)

Sarah Corbett: Activism Needs Introverts at TEDxYouth@Bath (Full Transcript)

Sarah Corbett – Founder of Craftivist Collective

I’m going to share a secret with you that I hope I don’t regret. And I haven’t shared it with nearly everyone I know. And that is that over the last probably 10 years, I have been hiding in toilets quite a lot. It’s nothing dodgy. There’s a few reasons I do it, and it tends to be at events. And it might be events that I go to, which are quite loud, and if it’s very loud and there’s a lot of stimulus, then I get a little bit overwhelmed, and I go and sit in the toilet for a bit of quiet time and to recharge my batteries. Or it might be an event like this where you talk to lots of people, and I love talking to people, but talking to loads of people for a long time really drains me of energy.

So I’ll go and have a little rest in the toilet so no one can see and don’t get upset that I’m not talking to people or think that I’m an emo or I’m a bit sad or I’m just being rude. Or I do it at events where I don’t know lots of people, which happens a lot, because I travel a lot with work, and I’ll come out into a room where I see lots of people talking in groups, and I immediately look around, freeze, and get too scared to join a group and start talking, so I go and hide in the toilet.

And few years ago, about seven years ago, I found myself hiding in a festival toilet, a music festival toilet, and if anyone’s been to a music festival, yeah, you’ll know that by the third day, it’s pretty nasty. I was standing in the toilet because I couldn’t even sit down, because the toilet roll had run out, there was mud everywhere, and it smelled pretty bad. And I stood there thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t even need the toilet.”

But the reason I went was because I was volunteering for a large charity on climate justice, and it was seven years ago, when lots of people didn’t believe in climate change, people were very cynical about activism, and my role, with all of my teammates, was to get people to sign petitions on climate justice and educate them a bit more about the issue. And I cared deeply about climate change and lots of inequality, so I’d go and I’d talk to lots of people, which made me nervous and drained me of energy, but I did it because I cared, but I would hide in the toilets, because I’d be exhausted.

And I didn’t want my teammates doubting my commitment to the cause, thinking that I was slacking. And we’d go and meet at the end of our shift, and we’d count how many petitions had been signed, and often I’d win the amount of petitions signed even though I had my little breaks in the toilet. But I was always very jealous of the other activists, because either they had the same amount of energy as they had when they began the shift of getting people to sign petitions, or often they had more energy, and they’d be really excited about going to watch the bands in the evening and having a dance. And even if I loved the bands, all I wanted to do was to go back to my tent and have a sleep because I’d just feel completely wiped out, and I was really jealous of people who had the energy to go and party hard at the festivals.

But it also made me really angry as well inside. I thought, “This isn’t fair, I’m an introvert, and all of the offline campaigning seems to be favoring extroverts.” I would go on marches which drained me; that was the other option. Or I’d go and join campaigns outside embassies or shops. The only thing that was on offer was around lots of people, it was very loud activism, it always involved lots of people, it was performing. None of it was for introverts. And I not only thought that that wasn’t fair, because a third to a half of the world’s population are introverts, which isn’t fair on them, because we burn out, or we’d be put off by activism and not do it, and everyone needs to be an activist in this world.

And also, I didn’t think it was particularly clever, I didn’t think it was very strategic to only offer extrovert forms of activism. You can see this little child in the corner with a mullet. That’s me, age three. This is from my local newspaper in the 80s. I grew up in Everton in Liverpool, which is a very low income area. And in this campaign, we were squatting to save local social housing that was really important for the area. And we won the campaign. And you can see that little child. I’m just looking. I’m just watching. I’ve always been quite shy. I’ve always been quite quiet. But I’ve enjoyed and loved just looking, people-watching, and seeing what’s happening. And because I grew up in an activist family – my dad’s the local vicar, and my mom is now a local politician – we got involved in loads of local issues because there were lots of issues that we needed to campaign on and still is now.

But we’d also campaign on global issues like South Africa apartheid and lots of things. But I could see that a lot of the activism that worked wasn’t only extrovert activism. It wasn’t only the loud stuff, it wasn’t about people performing all the time. A lot of the work that was needed was in the background, was hidden, wasn’t seen. And when I ended up just being a campaigner – because it’s the only job I can do really; I was campaigning at university, and for the last 10 years, I’ve been a professional campaigner for large charities and now I’m a creative campaigner consultant for different charities as well as other work I do – but I knew that there were the other forms of activism that were needed. I started tinkering about seven years ago to see what quieter forms of activism I could engage with so I didn’t burn out as an activist, but also to look at some of the issues I was concerned about in campaigning.

I was very lucky that, when I worked for Oxfam and other big charities, I could read lots of big reports on what influenced politicians and businesses and the general public, what campaigns worked really well, which ones didn’t. I’m a bit of a geek, so I look at all of that stuff, and I wanted to tinker around to see how I could engage people in social change in a different way because I think if we want the world to be more beautiful, kind and just, then our activism should be beautiful, kind and just, and often it’s not. And today, I just want to talk about three ways I think activism needs introverts. I think there’s lot of other ways, but I’m just going to talk about three. And the first one is: activism is often very quick, and it’s about doing.

So extroverts, often their immediate response to injustice is, “We’ve got to do stuff now. We’ve got to react really quickly.” And yes we do need to react, but we need to be strategic in our campaigning. And if we just act on anger, often we do the wrong things. I use craft, like needlework, like this guy behind me is doing, as a way to not only slow down those extrovert doers, but also to bring in nervous, quiet introverts into activism. By doing repetitive actions, like handicraft, you can’t do it fast; you have to do it slowly. And those repetitive stitches help you meditate on the big, complex, messy social change issues and figure out what we can do as a citizen, as a consumer, as a constituent, and all of those different things. It helps you think critically while you’re stitching away, and it helps you be more mindful of what are your motives.

Are you that Barbie aid worker that was mentioned before? Are you about joining people in solidarity? Or do you want to be the savior, which often isn’t very ethical? But doing needle work together, as well, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts, everyone is on the scale in different places. Because it’s a quiet, slow form of activism, it really helps introverts be heard in other ways, in other areas, where they’re often not heard. So because – it sounds odd but – while you’re stitching, you don’t need eye contact with people.

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