A is for activism: activism with a variety of typefonts

an abstract image in different 50's style - circles and colours, blue, mustard, red, yellow, pink...I was challenged this week for not being an activist. The idea of ‘difference being different’ was ridiculed:

“Jo Verrent said different is delicious. Excuse me? Vodka and tonic is delicious. Chocolate; oral sex; toothpaste. Different is sheer shit if you’re the one who’s not the same and is constantly reminded of the fact in no uncertain terms.”

They’re not wrong. I don’t disagree with them. But when I say ‘difference is delicious’ it’s part of the struggle to make things better; it’s not a way of accepting the status quo.

My work has always been grounded in ‘diversity and inclusion’, yet increasingly I noticed that words like these tended to switch people off. You can see eyes glaze over and people begin to nod off. The feelings associated with those words are often focused around guilt and shame, lack of capacity. In many situations, they make people paralyzed, less able rather than more able to act. I wanted a way that helped me convey my passion and my commitment, that enabled me to share that more widely with people, but ultimately that made people excited, enthused and more able to act themselves.

Being criticized also made me think long and hard about activism means, and how I use it (or don’t) within the work that I do. I think it’s exceptionally useful to embrace criticism and find the nuggets that move you forwards.

So what is activism? Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis.

Pretty much everything I do is designed to promote change – certainly in a social sense (and often in relation to political or economic ends too).

Perhaps the difference is in how I go about it.

Once I’d woken up to injustice (as I began to go deaf as a teenager, it didn’t take long) I started out marching, campaigning, fighting, battling for rights. And I’ll still do that, do still do that. But I also started to think about other ways, other routes in to make change happen.

I read up on influence and power, looked up persuasion techniques, researched concession, negotiation and campaign theories, studied conflict resolution, found out more about anger and what it meant. I studied mindfulness. Found out more about my anger and what it meant.

“When you say something really unkind, when you do something in retaliation your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or to do something back to get relief from his suffering. That is how conflict escalates.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

I also found out more about my passion. If you want to make change happen, I believe you should focus where your passion lies. I am passionate about art – artworks for sure, but also for the transformational ability art has to change how people see the world. How could I marry the two – a love of art and a desire for change?

I also love arguing but I wanted to find ways to make change happen, not just to make arguments happen.

Don’t argue. Don’t even think of it as argument. What you’re doing is trying to persuade. The responses you think of when you’re arguing are sharp and hurtful and belittling. When you persuade, you’ll avoid those and try to win the person over with the good sense you’re making, and the kindness and clear-headedness with which you’re making it. That’s very different and much more effective. One of the reasons people don’t like to discuss things with conflicting opinions is that they argue. Arguing tends to be upsetting. Persuasion, on the other hand, is fun if you’re doing it right. Fun for both of you.

I wanted to find a way that made it fun, that meant I could draw alongside people rather than meet them head on. That enabled me to influence and effect change, not just result in slanging matches and slammed doors. I wanted to make people feel positive about what they could achieve, to motivate them to do more, not beat them up for what they have failed to do in the past. I wanted to increase the range of behaviours at my disposal so I could match the response to a situation – behaving in a way that might achieve more than it would if I simply got upset.

Oh, I can still get angry, have no fear about that. I can still speak up, shout, rant and rave. I’m not afraid to make my views felt.

But I can also listen, work with people I don’t share a perspective with to find common ground, try to understand what leads people to think certain things, think in a certain way… And I think all of that makes me a better activist, not a worse one. The important thing in that sentence is that it makes me the best one I can be. That doesn’t mean for a moment that everyone should or could work like that.

I think different people should have the freedom to push for change in different ways (oh, there I go again – difference being delicious!). I can remember Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape in a fantastic video documentary of Disability Arts (Moving From Within, by Chris Ledger) saying that some people might campaign against oppression through being involved in a direct action march, and others might do so through creating sculpture.

I say ‘difference is delicious’ deliberately as a way of reframing the argument, as a way to help people see things from a different perspective. For me this works, I am getting to have influence in places and with people that my old ‘butting heads together’ approach never gave me access to – in this country and internationally.

I don’t say ‘all things are delicious’ – war, famine, oppression, discrimination aren’t for sure. But I’m not sure these are ‘different’ to what we have in the world at the moment…

I suppose I want diversity in everything – even activism.

I love the direct, in your face art of Katherine Araniello, and the comedy of Liz Carr – even if at times they leave me breathless with their ability to say the unsayable.

I also love the mix of politics and craftsmanship in works like Liz Crow’s Resistance and Bedding Out, for example. The ability of artists like Rita Marcalo to push boundaries, Jez Colborne to push expectations.

And I love the mind-altering work of Sue Austin and her underwater wheelchair (amongst many other pieces) – for me, this is no less a piece of activism than those mentioned previously; it changes the way people think about disability.

When disabled artists take centre stage, sometimes that act alone is the most political thing that can happen. When Liz Carr was cast in Silent Witness on primetime TV, she did an interview for Ouch:

“I remember saying to one of the writers ‘shouldn’t we talk about disability?’, and he said the biggest thing we can do, the most political act is just her being there. She’s a forensic scientist, she’s married, confident, self-assured, she’s got the measure of the other characters and all of that is what’s political about her. You don’t have to go on about whether she filled in an Access to Work form when she started at the Lyell Centre – who cares? Just her place in the show is important.”

Is this activism? For me it is, it’s part of the rich, diverse range of ways in which we campaign for change. My approach is about embracing many different types of activism and valuing them equally.

For me, it’s about seeing activism as using different typefonts.

Image by  Patrick Hoesly and remember if you have enjoyed this and want to read more, you can subscribe to Jo Verrent’s blog by email.

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