FCBG are thrilled that sisters Alice and Emily Haworth-Booth have written a blog for National Non-Fiction November about researching and writing a book about the history of protest movements, what they discovered about the power of the collective, and how they hope to inspire action in younger generations by showing that everyone has a place in creating social change a part of a bigger community.
With Protest!, we wanted to create a book about collective action, rather than concentrating on individual ‘heroes’. We had noticed that there were a lot of books for children about inspiring people but hardly any about groups. When we first got involved in protest, it was the collaborative element that felt so new and rewarding. We focused on this in the book because we wanted children to know that you don’t have to be an extraordinary or super-talented person to make a difference. An individual leader, however charismatic, is nothing without a collective force behind them. It was examples of the energy and creativity that only a group intelligence can produce that inspired us the most.
There are so many innovative ways people have made use of the power of the collective, from ancient times – like the plebeians leaving Rome en masse so that the rich and powerful leaders of the city would finally notice how much they relied upon their contributions to society – to the present day – like the sign language Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters have used to request supplies and share information in large crowds. We loved finding out about the secret meetings the Levellers had in 17th Century London, identifying each other by the sprigs of rosemary and sea-green ribbons they wore in their hats, and about how in 1980s Chile people let each other know they were against the regime by walking and driving slowly. And people can act together even from a distance, like the children who sent Lego to the Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei when the company refused to supply it to him for his protest art. Although we had begun the book pre-pandemic, as we continued writing into 2020 we discovered ever more timely examples of people acting together while apart, for reasons as diverse as globalisation and the banning of protest in despotic regimes.
Protest has been part of human life for so long, and yet is largely left out of the history curriculum. It was great to read about the details that brought long-ago events to life, and made us realise that everyday people have always changed the course of history. One of our favourite stories is that of the peasants in 16th Century Germany who walked out when the local Countess demanded that they stop farming and collect snails’ shells for her to use as spools for her embroidery threads. They tied shoes to poles to symbolise their march towards freedom and used the newly invented printing press to spread their message.
Many of the stories have funny characters, because people in power so often make themselves ridiculous, and humorous moments, because the structure of a protest is much like the structure of a joke in how it undermines expectations. But it is also true that most of the protests took place in the context of terrible oppression. We didn’t want to pretend this hadn’t been the case, so we tried our best to state the facts as clearly and simply as possible, whilst also looking for the hope and joy that is inherent to collective resistance.
This joy is something we found again and again in the activist testimonies that we read during our research, and it echoes our own experience of protest. When we joined an environmental activist group led by women and non-binary people in our twenties, we found an outlet for our creativity, discovered our own power to make ourselves heard, and, perhaps most importantly, realised that we were not alone. We write in the book about how movements have value and meaning beyond their stated goals – that coming together to create community is changing the world in itself.
We hope children who read the book will be inspired by that idea and see that protest movements need everyone, and there is room for everyone in them. We’ve included short ‘tactics’ sections at the end of each chapter, focusing on specific areas like Noise, Theatre, Art and Sport, so that children with particular interests can find out more about how those things can be part of social change. And of course, there are plenty of examples of children themselves leading protests and showing how every generation has something new to bring to the ever-evolving effort to make the world a better place.
Alice and Emily Haworth-Booth, London – November 2021
Protest! How People Have Come Together to Change the World is published by Pavilion Books, £14.99 hardback. Out now. www.pavilionbooks.com