ActivismFeatures

Quiet Riot

Person standing at the bottom of a waterfall

The morning after the 2016 election, Sophia Dembling woke up feeling shocked, appalled and terrified at what lay ahead. “And I still am,” she confessed. 

She’d been planning to attend Hillary Clinton’s inauguration, so as she stewed over the headlines, one jumped out at her. She decided to go to Washington, D.C., anyway — and join the Women’s March. But marching, and bunking with 11 strangers, was not an appealing prospect. 

Dembling, author of “The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World,” is an introvert. She’d never ventured into political activism, but thought the stakes were so high that she needed to get involved. The decision has provided endless fodder for The Introvert’s Corner, her blog on Psychology Today. 

This election cycle, a growing number of organizers are working to increase civic engagement among the long-overlooked one-third to one-half of the population who identify as introverted. In part, this shift is due to an explosion in technologies that provide less intrusive ways to participate. In part it’s due to rising awareness of the needs of this quiet, but sizeable, minority. 

For many, the epiphany was unleashed with Susan Cain’s 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Cain’s book argues that Western civilization has exalted an extroverted ideal, undervaluing and underutilizing the skills of introverts.

“The thing about extroverts is that they are loud and proud, so we are more likely to hear what they are doing than we are to hear about introverts' contributions,” said Dembling. “So it can be easy to imagine that only extroverts need apply. But this is not the case. All of our skills and contributions matter.”

While extroverts are energized by social stimulation and contact, introverts find it draining. That means they’re often alienated by traditional types of activism: door-knocking, cold-calling, marching with bullhorns and the like. 

“Introverts are by no means apolitical, they just find the world a little more difficult to navigate,” said Rice University political science professor Robert Stein. A University of Nebraska study found that even the act of voting in a traditional voting booth raises cortisone levels — a physiological indicator of stress. The study showed that people who voted at home had significantly lower cortisone levels. Those findings underscore the need to make absentee ballots universally available, Stein said — and they apply to political participation as well.

“If you’re an introvert and you don’t want to go out and march in the streets, or go to a political rally, it doesn’t mean you lack efficacy. You can still vote, you can still express your opinion in Facebook posts, on blogs, in newspaper articles; you can make campaign contributions,” he said.

Kerryn Rodriguez, a Cleveland, Texas, schoolteacher, tried to do traditional activism but found the stress levels impossible to navigate. First it was calls to a phone bank; then it was door-to-door canvassing. “Just the idea of going up to someone’s door had my heart racing a little bit, and my palms sweating,” she says.  

Fortunately for people like Rodriguez, introverts and their needs are now on organizers’ radar, and there are more ways than ever for them to get involved. 

“There are there are platforms that allow you to do text canvassing, and there are programs that allow you to do call scripts,” said Brandon Naylor of Democracy Works, a nonpartisan group promoting its “TurboVote Challenge” to reach the lofty goal of 80 percent voter turnout by 2024. “There are a bunch of different ways these days that introverts can be involved.” 

Texting as a tool for voter outreach is just one way to mobilize a growing army of introverted volunteers. Texting came of age during the 2016 presidential campaign and has gained ground with the 2018 midterms. 

To Gerrit Lansing, it’s just a sign of the times. “In general, I think politics is moving from a service-based industry to a technology-based industry,” said Lansing, a former chief digital officer for the Republican National Committee and the White House, and co-founder of Opn Sesame, a texting app used by Republican campaigns. “While I’ll be honest, I don’t think we built these tools with introverts in mind, the fact that it’s a positive outcome is great. You can bring more people into participating in managing the republic, and having a good election.”

Resistance Labs, a texting platform used more by Democrats, employs a third-party app called Hustle so that volunteers can text from their own phones without revealing their phone numbers. 

“For someone who’s introverted, it’s wonderful,” says Jacinth Sohi, the platform’s operations manager. “When someone replies, you have that layer of the phone. People who are more analytical want time to process and think through a more thoughtful response.”

But texting works on many levels, and not just for introverts, says Sohil, who identifies not as an introvert, but as a millennial.  

“It’s generational, too. I think that younger folks, we’re not used to calling on the phone. I seem very much like an extrovert, but I’ll avoid cold-calling somebody at all possible costs,” she says. Text messaging also gives the messenger the advantage of time. “People who are more analytical want time to process and think through what their answer will be, and you don’t have that luxury with a live phone call.”

But there are much older technologies that are mobilizing introverted activists, as well. One is postcarding; another is sewing.

Tony McMullin was phone-banking as a volunteer for a congressional campaign in Georgia when he started seeing Facebook posts from friends in other parts of the country who were frustrated at not being able to help out with the campaign. He hit on the idea to share his list and his talking points with his friends and ask them to send postcards to the voters. Eighteen months and 3 million addresses later, his Postcards to Voters project has engaged more than 40,000 volunteers in campaigns all across the country.

“It’s not a new thing; in fact, it’s a very old approach, but it’s sort of lost its place with all the technology,” said McMullin. “This is activism for introverts. They really can’t bring themselves to get on the phone and talk to strangers — they cannot go door to door, they just feel horrible doing it.”

But postcarding, like texting, appeals to a wide range of people for a host of reasons, says McMullin. People with mobility issues, or foreign accents — and in some places, people of color — can find it difficult to go door-to-door. This gives them another option. 

Another door has opened with the advent of craftivism, a concept popularized by, among others, British author Sarah Corbett, founder of the global Craftivist Collective.

As a professional activist, Corbett worked for nonprofits on issues ranging from maternal health to fair wages to climate change. She is passionate about the work, but found that it left her drained and exhausted, no matter how much she believed in the cause. She never understood why until she encountered Cain’s writing on introverts. “The more I read, the more I realized I wasn’t a freak — and that I had a different skillset that was just as valid.”

Corbett’s breakthrough led to a shift in her career that has resonated internationally as she began tailoring her work to introverts — and to extroverts who long for a kinder, quieter, more creative approach to activism that has proven to be highly effective. 

Her campaigns began to take a different shape. She discovered sewing on a train trip, where she wanted to do something creative but couldn’t paint — and then hit upon an idea. She ended up creating a campaign in which activists created gift handkerchiefs with embroidered messages for business and political leaders, ultimately leading to pay increases for 50,000 people. Other campaigns generated embroidered “mini-banners” to be hung at eye level in public places, and other messages were worn on a heart on one’s sleeve. 

A fashion industry intervention involved “shopdropping” — essentially the opposite of shoplifting. Makers would drop tiny, hand-lettered scrolls into, for example, the pockets of clothing sold by retailers who engage in unfair trade practices, hoping customers would find and contemplate their questions about the clothing’s origins. The campaign resulted in global media on the homepage of BBC News, a double-page spread in the Guardian and coverage in fashion magazines because of Corbett’s “gentle protest” approach to activism.

Her experiences in organizing such campaigns led to her book, “How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest,” released earlier this year in the U.S. The idea, Corbett said, is to “strategically thread love, humility and beauty through their activism instead of hate, ugliness or aggression.”

“Craftivism can be a useful tool to encourage people to participate in two ways. First, you can use the process of crafting to channel your anger or fear into action,” she said. “Secondly you can use the handmade object itself as a catalyst for conversation, connection and action in others. It might sound naive but it’s far from it. I’m proud to say our craftivism has helped change hearts, minds, policies and laws.”


Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based in Guadalajara.