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The Joy of Making: A Passion and a Profession – Ep. 153

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Brave is a practice. You do one little thing that makes you feel brave, and then twenty years later, you look back and you're like, 'ugh, I can't believe I thought that was brave.' But it was in that moment, it's just that you've built up the muscle for it. " - A quote from Episode 153: The Joy of Making Guest Shannon Downey

COMMUNITY • ADVENTURE • ACTIVISM

Shannon Downey

Top Takeaways From This Episode:

  • The creative process itself is often more rewarding than the finished product.
  • You can’t grow if you’re always the expert. We learn so much when we allow ourselves to be a student. 
  • We do brave things every day whether we notice it or not.
  • The way we think about something frames its significance in our lives. An inhaler is just an inhaler— It’s up to you whether you see it as a burden or a tiny medical miracle.

Show Notes:

Craftivism (Craftwork + Activism)

This week, Heather talks to Shannon Downey, a self-described craftivist who makes a living out of art, education, and community organizing. She is the founder of Badass Cross Stitch, a venture that blends craftwork and activism to generate lasting, radically progressive creative communities. 

Shannon’s been an activist her entire life, but she only got into embroidery as an adult. Before she was a craftivist, Shannon ran a digital marketing company. The job required her to use technology frequently, and her perpetually-online life exhausted her. When she came across a cross-stitch pattern on Etsy that referenced her favorite TV show, she jumped at the opportunity to do something offline. Shannon followed the pattern she bought and fell in love with the process. 

The Joy of Stitching

Now, she calls needlepoint  “the greatest artistic medium of all time.” Part of the joy of embroidery, she says, is that it helps build a digital/analog balance in her life. It is so easy to be digital at every moment of the day, and she wants to help people unplug. Having something joyful and mindful to do outside of the digital world can be helpful and meditative. 

Shannon also enjoys the distinctly feminine history of needlepoint. The artistry of fiber is a hand-craft that women are historically encouraged to do. This means, inevitably, that the way people think about needlepoint is usually steeped in sexism. Shannon didn’t consider herself an artist for a long time for this reason. After she untangled why needlepoint didn’t feel particularly artistic, though, she came to embrace the title of “artist.” This act opened her up to more creative opportunities than she imagined. Once she thought of herself as an “artist,” she felt qualified to do creative, artist-y things. 

Shannon’s quick to say that the word artist doesn’t necessarily mean “quality.” She makes things because she feels like she needs to make them, not because she wants to make something pretty or good. Above all, she values the process of stitching itself, and she wants to share her love for it with as many people as possible. It’s Shannon’s goal to teach one million people to learn how to stitch before she dies (She’s taught 100,000 so far).  

Crafting a Living

Shannon first got into teaching stitching by way of her activism work. One of her first published designs sprung from her work with victims of gun violence in Chicago. There was a surge in national school shootings at the time, and Shannon noticed that the word “gun” was on her radar more than usual. The next day, she kept track of when she heard, said, or read the word “gun.” It racked up to 72 times. 

The sheer number validated all the heavy feelings she felt about gun violence. That night, she stitched a gun and posted a picture on Instagram. Some people liked it enough to ask her a pattern. When she posted it, they tagged her in their own works. As a steady stream of photos poured in, Shannon had an idea: She could sell these works and use the funds to give back to her community. She ended up selling every single piece at a mutual-aid art show. 

An Idea is Born

The experience led her to realize that craftwork and activism combined could create tangible change in her community. From this, Badass Cross Stitch was born. Badass Cross Stitch's primary goal is to build safe, creative spaces where Shannon can push people to examine structures of power in the United States with a critical eye. 

Shannon offers remote introductory embroidery workshops and craft-based social events on a pay-what-you-can basis. Pay-what-you-can usually always evens out, Shannon says. She doesn’t want there to be barriers to keep anyone from participating. She doesn’t look at who pays what because she doesn't want people to feel guilty for the product of that mental evaluation. Nowadays, the majority of Shannon’s events are online. Pre-COVID, she hosted workshops across America. Some of them were even sponsored by organizations, so Shannon could host them for free to the public. 

It’s Scary to Learn Something New

Many of the workshop attendees are adults who enter the workshop anxious about their status as a student. It can be scary to learn a new thing, especially if you’re not usually a novice. Shannon is conscious of this vulnerability, and she tries to make her workshops safe spaces for her students. At the end of the session, they do a share-out, where everyone goes around in a circle and uses one word to describe how they feel. The words, Shannon says, are always words like “calm,” “centered,” or “connected.”  It’s fascinating to her that people want to exchange numbers at the end of her workshops. The connections fill her with joy. 

Shannon doesn't like to pick what people stitch, but she wants their choice to challenge them in some way. Once, a woman chose to stitch her inhaler. This woman hated her inhaler—She despised being dependent on something outside of herself. Later, she got the chance to tell Shannon what the act meant to her. As she stitched, the woman thought about how lucky she is to own a portable thing that instantly makes her body feel better. This marked the first time she thought of her inhaler in a positive light, and she started to cry. 

The Courage of Small Things

When asked if her work feels brave, Shannon hesitates. Her bar for what counts as brave is high, she says, because she’s worked on being brave her entire life. After a bit of thought, she admits that her life does feel brave. Two years ago, Shannon decided to leave her life behind and travel the country in an RV.  She gave herself a year of planning, but she had an RV and nowhere to go when the pandemic hit. All of the 150 cross-country events she planned were canceled. She gave herself space to mourn, but then she decided to pivot. Now, she uses Zoom to create online stitching communities. 

The hardest part of the work she does, Shannon says, is that she finds herself having the same conversations over and over. It can feel disheartening and overwhelming to constantly talk to white women about white privilege, like you’re trying to drain the ocean. At the same time, though, she feels best suited for the job. As a white woman, she is uniquely positioned to have these difficult conversations. Some might argue that the activism work she does is perpetually unfinished, but she loves to celebrate her successes. She has a tiny flag that says, “Yay me!” that she likes to wave when she has wins: big and small.  

Get to know Shannon

As a self-described craftivist, Shannon Downey dedicates her life to mobilizing people through art. She is the founder of Badass Cross Stitch, a venture that blends craftwork and activism together to generate lasting, radically progressive creative communities. You can sign up for her remote events, like her introductory embroidery workshops and “social stitch-ups,” here. Be sure to follow Shannon on Instagram and Twitter.  

Giving is Good:

As their former Director of Development, Shannon supports Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago. AAAJ | Chicago is a coalition-building movement that empowers people to enact change in their communities on a grassroots level. They offer opportunities for leadership, advocacy, civic engagement, and bystander intervention training. If you aren’t in the area and would like to support your local branch, AAAJ also has locations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. You can donate here, and be sure to follow AAAJ | Chicago on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

"I'm so motivated to keep doing this and keep bringing people together. I can't control the outcome of what this all means for people, but I know that I created a moment in their life where they learned something, they connected, and they felt something." A quote from Episode 153: The Joy of Making Guest Shannon Downey
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