“The big doll’s name is Annabel, and the little doll’s name is Jane.” It was Christmas 1984. The miners’ strike had been going for nine months. Money was tight; they couldn’t afford food, and relied on food parcels. Christmas presents were out of the question this year. But a little girl in Russia had taken the time to send two dolls to a little girl in England, and to tell her what their names were. “This person didn’t know me at all, but they cared enough to make this stranger happy. It meant so much to me. I kept those dolls for years.”
Samantha McMillen was nine and living in St Helens, Merseyside, when she received this package from a stranger. Her father was “a coal miner – local pit”. And she remembers “that we had no money. I remember that there was a lot of conflict. You had people putting windows through, there was a lot of shouting. But more than anything it was a tense situation because there was no money. I remember shopping for food, depressed because my parent just didn’t have the money”. If we were thinking how to help that small, hungry child, food would be surely be uppermost. People need food, they need water, they need housing. Samantha and her family did get that help – without the food parcels they received to keep them going through the cold, bleak winter, they could not have survived. And yet, for Samantha, it was the small, personal, perhaps seemingly superfluous gesture of a doll that has stayed with her. “It made me want to do something for other people. It’s had the biggest impact of anything on my life.”
Thirty years later, Samantha is sending a package of her own at Christmas. The ethical underwear company, Who Made Your Pants (WMYP), teamed up with Women for Refugee Women; on 2 December this year, people who bought a pair of pants had the option to buy a second pair (or pack) at half price to be sent to a woman who is being detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. In the space of a day, around ninety people bought 150 pairs of pants to give away. “I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says Samantha. It reminded her of the dolls she had received from a stranger one Christmas and how much they had meant to her.
Women detained at Yarl’s Wood usually just have the clothes they are taken in. That means just one pair of pants. They can be given spares, but they don’t own them. They are issued to them for the duration of their time in custody. In the midst of the pant-ordering chaos, Women for Refugee Women emailed Becky John, the founder of WMYP, to tell her that a woman who had been trafficked into the UK and then arrested and detained “had specifically asked for pants”. Heather Jones, of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, contacted WMYP to say “Much hilarity caused by asking women in Yarl’s Wood ‘what size knickers do you wear?’” Another woman, who bought two pairs of pants, both to go to Yarl’s Wood, wrote to Becky:
“I’m relatively comfortable now, but I have been the recipient of charity in the past. If you get grief from any of the usual suspects along the lines of ‘you could buy and send twenty pants for the price’, you might like to know that when you are dependent on what other people give you it can be really lovely when you are given something that the giver things you might like as well as what you might need. I mean, it’s really great to get what you need too, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but when you get given something beautiful that you know the giver would want for themselves, and not just the most basic thing on offer, it can help make you feel like a real person and not just the recipient of charity. That’s why I’m spending nearly thirty quid on two pairs of pants.”
When we think about changing the world, we usually think big. We don’t usually think about sending pants, or about small acts of kindness. We don’t normally think about the everyday. We think about ending patriarchy, racism, ableism. But what are these huge social phenomena made of, if not the everyday? For many people who experience an oppression, it’s the daily grind of small, seemingly insignificant things that add up. Before Laura Bates started the Everyday Sexism project, we didn’t talk about the daily indignities, casual assaults and verbal shots that made up women’s lives. Because when you take each cat-call, each bum-pinch, each talking over in a meeting on its own, they seem too small to care about. A picture of a woman in her underwear every day in the largest circulating newspaper in the UK? Who cares, when women are being beaten and raped? But it is those small things that add up to a culture in which women are second-class citizens. When we take them on their own, they seem irrelevant – but taken together, they are nothing less than a system structured around ensuring the continuance of male supremacy. And we can’t tackle that structure if we ignore the little things that make it up. If we continue to say, “this is too small to care about”.
John Coventry, Global Communications Director at Change.org, the online petition platform, agrees. It is the small changes, he insists, that are crucial. He even has a name for them: “the little big things”. You have to take people with you, he says, and the way to do that, is to begin from where they are and start a conversation. “No one has a god-given right to have people believing immediately in their big abstract concept of what they want to see changed. We have a duty as campaigners to take them on that journey to where we are. There are lots of little steps to bring them on that way. And the most important thing that people will hear, the most important story that you can tell them, is the story of winning.”
Coventry uses the example of the so-called “homeless spikes”, metal studs that were installed on the floor of an alcove outside a luxury block of London flats in June. A mental health nurse started a petition on the same day the image of the spikes went viral online, asking Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and the developers to remove the spikes. The petition quickly amassed 132,562 signatures; celebrities tweeted about the issue; it featured in numerous newspaper and magazine columns; it made the news. The spikes were removed within a week. It was a major achievement: a clear injustice had ended.
And yet, despite the clear callousness of the spikes, despite the fact that we could more or less all agree that they were wrong, that they made us ashamed of the society we had become, Coventry tells me that, throughout the campaign people were writing in to complain. “Removing these spikes doesn’t mean that life is better for rough sleepers”; “donate money to a homeless charity, that’s what you should be doing”. Of course getting the spikes removed didn’t solve the issue of homelessness, Coventry says. “Nobody thinks it does”. But what it did do was begin a conversation that no one had been having, but which desperately needed to start. We began to acknowledge in a public debate that homelessness was on the increase. That while homelessness steadily declined from 2003 to 2010, it has been growing again since 2010. That our society was not getting progressively better anymore, it was getting progressively worse. And we couldn’t continue to ignore it. When you look at it like that, at the way the campaign to get rid of homeless spikes outside one building in one London borough, it’s hard to disagree with Coventry when he says, “the small things, the little big things, they are almost the most important things”.
Samantha agrees. “People don’t realise that a small action could mean so much. And I think, with enough of these small actions, you could potentially change the world, I really believe that. But you have to start somewhere and something small is meaningful. It doesn’t have to be huge. It has to be loaded with thought and concern and some type of empathy. I think as long as you care, there’s always stuff you can do and it doesn’t have to be material. A smile at the right time to the right person can mean everything.”