As Gina Martin launches her new book, a toolkit for new-gen campaigners, she talks to Fleur Britten about changing the world — and yourself — for the better.
When Gina Martin was 16, all she cared about was, she says, "wanting to make out with Kevin — but Kevin didn't fancy me". Martin may have succeeded recently in making upskirting — the act of taking photos up someone's skirt without consent — a crime in England and Wales, but, she insists, the only difference between her, a "regular working-class person" with "very mediocre" academic grades, no political or legal experience and "no idea where to start", and the rest of us is the knowledge shared in her first book, Be the Change: A Toolkit for the Activist in You. All of us can — and should — become activists, she says.
Martin is right — the news is full of stories about civilians making a greater difference than most politicians do in a lifetime: Greta Thunberg on the climate emergency, Malala Yousafzai on female education, Nimco Ali on female genital mutilation. Even Kim Kardashian is finally putting her influence to good use as a "criminal justice activist", crusading against unfair prison sentences. Activism, then, is officially cool. And the publishing world is right behind them with a bandwagon of new books: for example, How to Make a Difference by Kate and Ella Robertson of One Young World, a platform for future global leaders, and Do Something: Activism for Everyone by Kajal Odedra, the UK director of Change.org (both out in August).
Martin is her own best advert. So effective was her campaign that many of you will already know her story. After the-then 25-year-old ad-agency copywriter caught a man taking and sharing photos of her crotch at a festival in July 2017 she went to the police, but they couldn't help as it wasn't illegal. So she took to social media, where she slowly grew an army of supporters, and she collaborated with a young, passionate lawyer, Ryan Whelan, to attempt to change the law. After collecting more than 110,000 petition signatures, she approached the media, then leveraged that coverage to take on the justice minister. The rest is legal history.
There couldn't be a better time to become an activist, she says when we meet: "My campaign may not have done half as well had it started in 2006." Having cultivated a signature look of power red, Martin, now 27, is instantly recognisable. "When I started campaigning, I was going to a lot of places [Parliament, for starters] I felt nervous to be in. Red feels like a confident colour, like, 'I'm here.' " Today she's dressed in mostly second-hand clothing — a red leather "shacket", red cropped Levi's, black patent heels, a black revolutionary-style beret and a 100 Women I Know rape-awareness T-shirt. This is personal branding. "My advertising experience really helped me to market the whole campaign," she says.
Is there pressure for activists to be 100 per cent politically correct, given that taking down hypocrites is almost a national sport? Yes — she is "constantly" attacked on social media for, say, having chicken in her fridge or plastic bags in her home. "As soon as you stand for something, you're expected to stand for everything," she says, "but that's not possible." Instead, she wants to see more "imperfect influencers who we can learn with together". In her book, Martin writes that "new-age activism is all about being yourself" — albeit an amplified version.
Indeed, as she discovered, the campaigning process is a powerful exercise in self-development. New-found purpose, self-esteem, resilience and confidence in her professional ability were just some of the unexpected benefits of campaigning, and she quit the agency in February to set out as a full-time "writer and activist". As well as continuing to raise awareness on upskirting, she is currently planning her next campaign (though she won't reveal any details yet). There is even such a thing, she says, as the "activism cure" — ie, the idea that by taking an action, you cure yourself of certain insecurities. "Activism is so empowering. It's the kind of balm our society needs right now."
Such personal growth is hard-earned, though, and came with "553 days of exhausting work": 5am starts to squeeze in the campaigning before going to the office, a year of rape threats ("basically, don't reply") and rivers of tears. "It was the single hardest, most testing and most complex thing I've ever done," she writes. How on earth did she keep going? "You just do if you care about something — that's the essence of activism," she says (although she admits she contemplated giving up "hundreds of times"). Also, the campaign reached a scale where it was "way bigger" than Martin, "so I didn't have a choice, because of the amount of messages I was receiving from young girls and women who had been upskirted". But, she reassures, you needn't take on such a monster task. "Activism can be the smallest thing, like, 'I want my local shop to stop selling battery eggs.' "
With this relatable role model before me and her toolkit in my hand, I realise I'm out of excuses for stalling on my own campaign ideas, such as getting the world "plalking" (picking up litter while walking), or stopping taxis and buses from idling, or instigating a carbon tax on flights (triple for business class). "We should start a campaign!" has even become my go-to platitude whenever someone has a grumble about something.
Knowing that I need to start with a small part of the puzzle, I mention to Martin my hope of banishing polystyrene packaging ("Oh my God, yes please!"). But, I wail, who am I to tackle this, when there are so many better-qualified people — and aren't they doing it already? Where on earth am I going to find the time? These comprise my mental barrier, and it's overcoming this, Martin concedes, that is the hardest part of activism. That barrier, she says, is self-doubt, which is rooted in imposter syndrome, and something that she felt badly (remember those tears).
Her solution? Recognising that the voice in our head saying, "You can't do this," is not actually us, but society. "Once you realise that, you can separate it from yourself," she says. Unlearn those "years of internalised messaging" by taking specific actions every day. "You can train your self-belief like a muscle. Every time someone asked me to do something I thought I couldn't, I would just say yes and then work it out later." So, she suggests, start small, approach one company and build on that. "It's all about incremental actions to build momentum."
Adopting the right mindset is key. Anger is a great motivator ("I was f****** angry, which made me do it"), but, she says, "You need to be taken seriously by people who maybe don't think the same way as you, so you have to be diplomatic — recognise that anger, use it, but don't become it." Humour should also be in your toolkit: "It helps people to be open to conversation." (Martin has an advantage here — her sister Stevie is a comedian. "We're a very silly family, we're Scousers." Her dad, by the way, is a professional drummer, her mother a nursery nurse.)
OK, so how about this? How about I become the #PlasticPolice and issue comedy penalty notices to perpetrators? Could that build momentum? Could I actually Be the Change? (And can you hear that self-doubt?) There's only one way to find out.
Be the Change: A Toolkit for the Activist in You (Little, Brown Book Group, $38) out on June 13.
Written by: Fleur Britten
© The Times of London