What all campaigners can learn from The Canary Craftivists

I’ve written before about the work of Sarah Corbett and the Craftivist Collective – I really admire the commitment to principles of gentle protest and the level of thoughtfulness that’s goes into the approach. In my view, while it’s easily dismissed by some it’s a unique but vital form of campaigning.

The movement’s most recent campaign, Canary Craftivists, appeared on my social media timeline throughout 2021, and I think it was one of the most interesting and original pieces of activism that I’ve seen for a while.

One of the benefits of being a patron of the Craftivist Collective (and I’d really recommend becoming a patron, for £10 per month you are supporting this important campaigning ) is that I recently got sent a copy of the #CanaryCraftivists Manual – which is a beautifully curated guide on how to run the campaign. Even if you’re not into crafting I’d really encourage getting hold of a copy as it brilliantly unpacks the Craftivist approach.

As Sarah explains the idea behind the approach was two-fold for “participants 1) organise a small gathering of craftivists as a ‘flock’ to hold a stitch-in by a loved local landmark and invite the local press to cover it and 2) handcraft a life-size canary and a personal letter for their local politician or other local powerholders urging them to do more and faster for the environment“.

During 2021, the reach of the campaign was really impressive, especially when you consider that it’s driven by a one-person team at the center of the Craftivist network – with 99 flocks came together across the UK, securing lots of local media coverage, seeing canaries sent to almost 200 MPs and achieving stacks of reach on social media.

And I think there are lessons that all campaigners can learn from the success of Canary Craftivists, here are just a few;

  1. Take time to find a tribe (or flock) – it’s easy to focus on finding individuals that are interested in the same issue or cause as you and mobilise them for action -that’s important. But what Sarah has done with Craftivism is take an alternative approach, find those with another interest (craft) and then invite them to get involved in acvitism – in a way that appeals to their existing interests, and it totally designed to help individuals to .

    As Micah Sifry wrote in his newsletter last week – we know individuals are more likely to get involved in activism for a cause when the following 3 conditions are achieved “First, they have to experience a direct, personal contact, through their social networks, to a movement organization. Second, they need to be at a moment in their lives where they are open to a personal change. This is what sociologist Douglas McAdam called “biographical availability.” And third, they have to actually participate in some form of initial activism—a rally, protest, meeting, counseling session or the like—which they enjoy and decide to continue doing”. It strikes me that the model of Canary Craftivism certainly achieves 1 and 3.

  2. Really think about the visuals and the asthetic – if your wondering about why a canary – the campaign took inspiration from yellow canaries because they are small and sensitive little birds yet in the past they quietly helped warn miners of dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide with miners. In the same way, the Canary Craftivists hope that their little canaries and local demonstrations will gently warn and help remind their politicians and governments about the urgent dangers of global warming.

    And it’s that level of thinking and detail that marks out this approach – sure, perhaps a canary doesn’t immediately make you think about climate and the environment, but spend a little time and it’s excellent connection, whatsmore it makes for great images and content that individuals want to share with others on social media.

    I know I’m guilty of not spending enough time thinking about how decisions about design and visuals impact my campaign approaches, but in a world where great images and visual content can stand out, there is something in this for all campaigners.

  1. Obsessively focus on the local – The campaign encouraging small gatherings (or flocks) to come together to meet and craft in loved and recognisable locations – using those gatherings both as an opportunity to generate local media coverage for the campaign – an important route to reaching local MPs – the target, but also the opportunity to connect with others in the local community who shared the same interests.

    As campaigners, we can often thinking about building up to a central moment or gathering, but the local flock approach clearly really worked – drawing in many who might have rejected getting involved with other forms of activism, and developing a model that was perfect for our socially distanced times.

Plan for your engagement with decision makers to be both memorable and thoughtful – each individual was encouraged to take the time to handstich and name a canary and send it to their local MP.

We know that every day MPs will receive hundreds of pieces of correspondence, from email, to letters to phone calls so the canarys really got noticed. The feedback from MP suggested that the carefully and thoughtfully stitched canary complete with letter will cause them to pause and not just respond with a pre-written response.

In few campaigns that I seen have seen such a stream of such considered correspondence from MPs and their staff who have recieved their canaries as exampled below – as another MP wrote ‘my whole team were awed by the kindness and the effort that you put in‘.

It’s evidence for a hunch that I think most campaigners hold – that MPs are more likely to engage for longer with something that has taken time for the sender to put together with thought – a reminder that with a bit of careful thought you can come up with a campaign idea that really makes a lasting impression.

If you want to support more amazing activism from the Craftivist Collective you can find out more about becoming a patron here.

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