Tessera theory: Three simple steps for sustainable activism

Recently, every coffee, Skype call and pub lunch with my girlfriends has ended up in the same place: “Ugh. The world is such a mess. I feel so helpless.”

We try to console ourselves that it can’t all be that bad, really. But the evidence is stacked against us. A fascist is taking the reins of the free world. Britain is pulling itself apart over Brexit. Europe faces an unprecedented rise of the far right. And Syria, Iraq and Yemen are bloodied and scarred beyond recognition. And that’s just the beginning.

Meanwhile, the everyday battles over racism, homophobia, classism  and misogyny still call for foot-soldiers. In this divided and unsettling world, it’s hard to see how any of us can make a difference.

The American anthropologist Margaret Mead wisely said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” With this in mind, my friends and I set about formulating a theory; a simple way in which each individual can feel simultaneously empowered and involved, without being overwhelmed by the scale of the world’s problems. I call this “tessera theory”.

A tessera is a tile in a mosaic. Together, thousands of tesserae make up beautiful artworks and can cover pavements and cathedrals. Each tiny tile, on its own, has very little impact. But together with a thousand others, it becomes hugely valuable and impressive.

Of course, this is the theory behind mass protest. While a lone individual can occasionally  grab headlines, a vast swathe of individuals blocking a highway or storming a palace is more likely to effect change. However, tessera theory is not about everyone moving together, en masse, towards the same goal. Tessera theory is about everyone making their individual contribution towards the goal that matters to them. Let me explain.

The problems of the world are vast. They are unmanageable for even the UN, EU or NATO. So it stands to reason that they can’t be fixed by you or me. But when we think in that way, we’re approaching the problem from the wrong direction. Tessera theory is about choosing the part that you’re going to tackle, alone or in a group, and ignoring the rest. Let’s break that down.

Step 1: What bothers you?
I’ve worked in NGOs for over a decade, and when I speak at conferences, students often ask me for career advice. They want to use their degree and/or their skills to make a difference, but they don’t know where to begin. The first step is so simple, but often overlooked: decide what matters to you.

This is important because you’re not going to stick at something if you’re not passionate about it. If you care about kids, don’t work for a donkey sanctuary, because you’ll spend all day on jobs.com trying to figure out your next career move. This applies to the stuff we do in our free time too: if something is important to you, you will make time for it. If it’s not, you’ll be forever procrastinating and making excuses not to get stuck in.

Draw a diagram – put yourself in the centre and write the concerns that you have around the page. The things that matter most to you, whether it’s LGBTI rights or arms control, should be placed closest to you. Things that matter less, that get less of your attention when you read the news, should be further away. You have a instant representation of where to focus your efforts.

Step 2: What capacity do you have?
Once you’ve picked a maximum of three areas that you want to focus on (one area is better, especially if you’re time-poor), figure out what capacity and resources you have. This time, divide a sheet of paper into three columns: skills, financial, and network. At the top of the page, write down the number of hours per week that you are willing to spend busting the problem(s) you identified in step 1. Then under each column write down the resources you have that will help you tackle the problem.

The “skills” column is about what you’re good at. Extroverts might be better at organizing conferences and demonstrations; introverts may be more comfortable making donations, writing articles or taking photos. The methods you choose should be just on the edge of your comfort zone, so that you’re not making things difficult for yourself, but at the same time you’re maximizing your capacity to make change. Skills to focus on can be as varied as: public speaking, cookery, blogging, networking, podcasting, connecting with people, writing, accountancy, events organizing and photography. Whether you’re an engineer, a dentist, a gardener or an artist, there will be an organization out there that meets your priorities for change and which can use your skills. And if there isn’t, set one up! All of the big charities and political organizations started this way.

“Financial” is about the amount of your own money that you’re willing to throw at the problem. For some people, making donations to organizations that represent their views is the best way to contribute. These people are generally time-poor and cash-rich. But not always. Just like the tessera in a mosaic, the pennies add up to vast sums when everyone contributes their bit. Similarly, if you want to organize an event or start your own group, you may need some cash to begin with. This could be for renting a space, printing promotional materials, paying guest speakers or building a website. Don’t bankrupt yourself; the point of this exercise is to see what’s manageable for each of us, so that we can each contribute our tessera in a sustainable way.

“Network” is about figuring out who can help you. If fundraising is your thing, it’s about listing who you can ask for cash. If you’re a mobilizer, the people on this list will be friends and contacts who can help you to organize events, who will be on your committee, or who will advise you on the areas where you are lacking skills. Get together with like-minded friends and brainstorm the kinds of people you need – expand your network by getting your friends to get their friends on board.

Your three columns will help you to understand your own capacity for making change. At different times of your life, your capacity will be different. If you’re a new parent, you might not be able to devote much time or any money. But you may be able to spend an hour per week mentoring somebody who has more spare time and energy, and who needs your professional knowledge in order to succeed in their activism. Or perhaps you could let a local group borrow your camera equipment or use your kitchen to hold meetings. If you’re a busy professional, foregoing that extra Thursday night cocktail could give you an extra £10/$10 per week to donate to Planned Parenthood or Doctors Without Borders. And if you can get your friends on board, that amount could soon become hundreds of pounds/dollars per month. And if you simply have no spare time at all, then just changing your shopping habits is a legitimate action for social change. Spend your money in charity shops and independent stores; buy ethical, and avoid the tax-dodgers and companies that refuse to recognize their workers’ rights. Some people’s tessera contributions are larger than others; your tessera might be made up of ethical consumerism, if that’s the only change you can reasonably make in your life right now. Re-evaluate your capacity when things change in your life.

Step 3: Switching off.
Once you have picked the area that you’re going to focus on, and decided what steps you can take to effect change, switch off from everything else. Seriously. So long as you’re genuinely doing the most you can do towards your chosen battle, there is no point wasting time getting depressed by all the other sad stories and bad news. A few rules here:

– NEVER engage with trolls on the internet. They sap your time and energy to do good things, and that’s how they win.
– Time with friends, whether it’s IRL or over the phone/internet, should be used to share positive messages and creative ideas. Have a “two-minute moan” rule, and then move on to sharing the good stuff that keeps you motivated.
– “Liking” and “sharing” is not the same as taking action. Only post stuff that motivates others to share in your actions. Putting a sad emoji next to a depressing news article won’t help anybody.
– Vicarious trauma is real. If the news is getting you down, turn it off. You’re no use to anyone if you’re traumatized and depressed.
– That said, keep informed about the area you’ve chosen to focus on. Find out who else is working on this issue and connect with them. Keep updated about the news on that topic so that you can make informed decisions.

And those are the rules of tessera theory. The maximum contribution from each individual, based on ability and capacity, all joined together to make an enormous mosaic of social change! It’s just a theory, so use the comments below to share your thoughts and ideas for improving it!

Saphia Fleury is a London-based editor specializing in human rights law and social justice issues. Her most recent publication as editor, Combating torture and other ill-treatment: A manual for action , was published by Amnesty International. 


Aziz Alhamza – citizen journalist

Aziz Alhamza photo
Aziz Alhamza – co-founder of ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’

Citizen journalism – the collection and dissemination of news by members of the public – came to prominence during the Arab Spring. Where national and mainstream media outlets are distrusted or deficient, ordinary people share photographs, film and their first-hand descriptions of events, often online, to present an alternative narrative. Citizen journalism can be a form of activism and resistance, and can therefore carry enormous risk.

Aziz and his friends were ordinary teenagers when civil war broke out in Syria. They were motivated to join protests in 2011 when a group of young Syrian students were arrested and tortured for spraying graffiti with anti-government slogans. The young men began documenting the human rights violations carried out by government forces in their home city of Raqqa, and sharing this information with the world via the internet. Often, their citizen journalism was the only source of information coming out of Raqqa that wasn’t state controlled and heavily censored.

Then , in 2013, the group calling itself Islamic State (IS) arrived in Raqqa. Soon, IS was using Raqqa as its “capital city”, from where it controlled the large areas of Syria and Iraq that IS occupied. It also became the centre for organising terrorist attacks against European countries. As in other areas under its control, IS committed atrocities in Raqqa that included murder, torture and rape, as well as crackdowns on activists and anybody who disagreed with them.

With IS in control, no official journalists could enter the city, and reporting on events there was banned. Aziz and his friends set up a secret organisation to document the crimes of IS and government forces and their impact on daily life for civilians in the occupied city, including food shortages and lack of medical care. Their group was called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), and its members soon realised that they would have to operate in secrecy to keep themselves safe.

Not long after their occupation of Raqqa, IS began killing people who opposed them, including people whose only “crime” was collecting and sharing information about life under their control. One of the first members of RBSS to be killed was Al-Moutaz Billah Ibrahim, who was stopped while trying to leave Raqqa with a camera and a laptop. When IS fighters found information about RBSS on Moutaz’ laptop, they executed him in a public square, as a warning to others.

Some members of RBSS fled over the border to Turkey, but IS tracked them down and assassinated three more. A handful survived, including Aziz, by going into hiding and finding refuge in other countries. Their families were targeted, but their determination to tell the truth remained strong. As Aziz explained, “We won’t stop. We have too many friends and family dead. The only way we will stop is if ISIS kills us all or we go back home.”

Gunfire rings out in the streets of Raqqa today, as the Syrian government fights to take back control from IS. From their new homes in exile, Aziz and his fellow activists continue to receive information, photos and videos from citizen journalists in Raqqa, which they post on the RBSS website. Thanks to their determination, and the enormous courage of those still in Raqqa who risk their lives to share their stories, the world cannot turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed there.

The RBSS website is available in English at: www.raqqa-sl.com/en/  Copyright for the photo of Aziz Alhamza above has not been verified. Please contact this blog if you are the copyright holder.

Mary Quaile: Working-Class Hero



Long before women were represented in Parliament, they were active in trade unions, campaigning for the rights of all working people. The history of these early labour activists is less well-known than that of their male counterparts. Yet women have historically played a crucial role in all aspects of trade unionism – organising and recruiting members, advising on the issues facing workers, and leading campaigns to improve working conditions.

Mary Quaile was just 12 years old when she left school to work as a domestic servant in England. The year was 1898; servants had few rights and child workers were even more vulnerable. As soon as she was able, she fled the harshness of domestic servitude to seek work in France, before taking a job in a Manchester cafe.

In 1909, inspired by the trade union leader Margaret Bondfield, and no doubt by her Irish father’s involvement in the Brick and Stone Layers Union, Mary decided to set up a union for cafe workers in Manchester. Two years later, she was offered the job of Assistant Organising Secretary at the Manchester Women’s Trade Union Council.

In the years before the First World War, Mary and the Organising Secretary, Olive Aldridge, held hundreds of meetings with women in different types of employment. They found that one of the most common complaints by women workers was being unfairly dismissed from their jobs. In the winter of 1911-12, they raised money to support 300 mill workers from Bradford who were on strike due to low wages. The majority of the mill workers were girls and women. In 1914, Mary was promoted to Organising Secretary, a post she held throughout the War.

Throughout her life, Mary held various positions in trade unions, always highlighting the particular issues faced by women and girls. In 1925 she led a delegation to the Soviet Union to research conditions for women and girls. A year later, she addressed an estimated crowd of 20,000 people in Manchester during the General Strike, urging striking workers remain peaceful and not to provoke the authorities.

After retiring due to ill-health, Mary continued to volunteer for Manchester Trades Council until her death in 1958. Her obituary in the Manchester Guardian celebrated her “determination to get trade unionism for women accepted”. The newspaper recalled that, even though she was “often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples, and threats of violence, [she] never betrayed any sign of fear.”

So many of the women who campaigned alongside Mary Quaile are forgotten today, and the women’s rights activists we remember tend to be from more privileged backgrounds. Yet Mary’s own working-class roots reflected the people she fought for, and brought her closer to them. She was remembered by those close to her for her “warmth and lovable personality”. For the rest of us, her courage and determination shine through in the hard-won rights that we often take for granted.

(Photo: Mary Quaile. Copyright holder unknown. Please contact me if you are the copyright holder for this image.)

Lucy Nabijou: Making Refugees Welcome

Lucy N (on left)

Lucy Nabijou (left) with other members of Refugees Welcome Haringey

Since the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people fleeing conflict and persecution have had the right to be recognised as refugees. Yet in practice, despite their need for sanctuary and the dangerous journeys they make, reaching a safe country is not always the end of the refugee’s struggle. Since 2011, the conflict in Syria has displaced several million people to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. In these camps, people live in limbo until they can be resettled in a third country or returned to a safe home. Yet safe countries are often reluctant to open their doors to refugees, fearing a political backlash. Throughout Europe, activists have countered this political unwillingness under the loosely-formed “Refugees Welcome” campaign.

On 2 September 2015, the body of a three-year-old child washed ashore on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey. Alan Kurdi and his family had set out at night in a small inflatable boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, in the hope of making a new life after escaping the horrors of the Syrian civil war. When their overcrowded boat capsized, Alan, his brother Galib and mother Rehana were among those who drowned.

Photos of the little boy’s body made news headlines around the world, bringing a human dimension to the vast tragedy of the Syrian crisis and the hundreds of migrants and refugees who drown each month in the Mediterranean. In the UK, following an outpouring of sympathy for victims of the Syrian war, the Prime Minister reluctantly agreed to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrians. Yet their resettlement depended on local council authorities finding housing and other resources for the new arrivals.

Lucy Nabijou watched these events unfold from her home in Haringey, London. Despite having recently retired from work due to ill-health (she has multiple sclerosis) Lucy felt a personal responsibility to do something for these Syrian families. With her background as a teacher of migrants and asylum-seekers, and experience of working with Palestinian refugees, she understood how politics can get in the way of humanitarian acts. Proceeding with caution due to her disability, she nevertheless realised that there was something she could do right there in Haringey that could save people’s lives.

She quickly formed a dedicated group of volunteers who called themselves Refugees Welcome Haringey, which set about pressuring their local council to find homes for vulnerable Syrians living in refugee camps. At first, the local authority refused to sign up to the resettlement scheme; in fact, Lucy found them to be “stubbornly opposed to our calls and openly hostile to us”. Realising that they would not change the council’s stance with words alone, she decided upon a different tactic.

One of the council’s reasons for not inviting vulnerable Syrian families to Haringey was a lack of affordable homes for them to live in. So Lucy and her fellow volunteers began searching the borough for suitable homes. Property prices in London are notoriously high. Yet, after much research and many difficult discussions, Lucy was able to convince a number of private landlords to offer their houses to Syrian families for well below their normal rental price. This meant that the council could now afford to pay the rent for these families to be re-housed in London.

Running out of excuses, and with a growing number of Haringey residents joining Lucy’s campaign, including the two local Members of Parliament, the council backtracked. In November 2016, Haringey Council agreed to resettle 10 Syrian families, taking them out of camps in the Middle East and giving them a new start in life.

Lucy continues to campaign for more private landlords to join the scheme, and for the council to open the doors to more women, men and children from Syria. The organisation she created has grown and now supports refugees and migrants who settle in Haringey, helping them to integrate into the local community, and is changing attitudes towards migration in London. By creating a local response to a global issue, and looking beyond the limitations of her disability, Lucy continues to change the lives of people whose futures would otherwise have been very bleak indeed.

Refugees Welcome Haringey is currently working to counter the UK government’s “hostile environment” policies, which threaten the safety and livelihood of anyone with precarious immigration status and fuel divisions and tensions in society. You can read more about the group’s work here.  


Jacoba Blom-Schuh

jacoba-arie-and-frans.jpgJacoba, with her husband Arie and son Frans

It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable person than a prisoner detained by a murderous regime. To be unjustly imprisoned is to live at the absolute mercy of your captors. You are stripped of your autonomy and dignity. Any action that displeases the authorities can be extremely dangerous. And yet, despite the few resources at their disposal, there are examples of people bravely resisting or disrupting the aims of their oppressors from within their prison cells.

Jacoba Maria Blom-Schuh was 39 years old when the Nazis marched into her home town of The Hague, on The Netherlands’ western coast. Within days of the occupation, resistance from the Dutch people was forced underground, and the German forces quickly set about establishing their brutal system of control. People were expected to submit in every imaginable way; small acts of defiance were cruelly punished, often with death.

In the winter of 1940, the German occupiers extended the so-called “Winter Help” programme to The Netherlands, encouraging the Dutch people to donate money, ostensibly to help the poor. As in Germany, people who refused to donate had their names taken down and could be shamed publicly. Yet the Dutch people were suspicious of the “charitable” aims of the scheme, and suspected that their money was going to support the German war effort.

In April 1941, as spring arrived in the streets of The Hague, Jacoba was approached by a Winter Help collector for a donation. She refused, and told the volunteer that she believed “the proceeds from Winter Help are for the Germans and members of the NSB [the Dutch fascist party].” She continued: “They are a gang of thieves, just like Adolf Hitler.” In an atmosphere of total surveillance, Jacoba’s words were reported to the authorities and printed in the local newspaper. Within days, she was arrested.

Jacoba was imprisoned by the Nazi SS in extremely precarious circumstances. Thousands of Dutch prisoners were deported to concentration camps; most did not survive. Despite the extreme danger, Jacoba refused to submit and co-operate with her jailers. She was known as a talented embroiderer, and so the SS guards gave her a pile of socks to darn. Socks are a crucial part of soldiers’ equipment. Yet, rather than mending them, Jacoba sewed the socks shut, making them unwearable. Using the most limited and basic tools – a needle and thread – she had found an ingenious yet extremely risky method of resistance through sabotage.

Despite her refusal to co-operate, Jacoba was released from detention after three months. She continued to resist against the regime than had imprisoned her, helping a Jewish teenager, Vera Cahn, to avoid deportation. Some of Vera’s family had already been arrested, but she had evaded capture and spent the rest of the war hiding at home with Jacoba.

One year after the liberation of her country from Nazi rule, Jacoba was killed in a car accident. Yet her legacy continues today in two important ways. With Jacoba’s help, Vera survived the war, and later married Jacoba’s son Frans. At the age of 91, Vera is now a great-grandmother, and lives in Amsterdam. Her home is close to the Dutch Resistance Museum, where a brief account of Jacoba’s daring actions, alongside embroidered panels that she made in prison, continue to inspire new generations to take a stand against injustice.

Lillian Bilocca – The Fearless Fishwife

Lil photo

Women are often at the forefront of demands for workers’ rights. Yet those calling for better protections can find themselves sacked from their jobs and even outcast from their communities. Labour activism can be a very lonely world, and it may take time before the contribution of the activist is recognised and celebrated. While there is still progress to be made in many countries, the fight for better working conditions in the UK has made workplaces safer for everyone.

Lil BiIocca knew a thing or two about fish. Her husband and son were both seafarers, and she worked long shifts up to her elbows in icy water in a fish-processing factory on Hull’s dockside.

Yet deep-sea fishing in 1960s Britain was still a man’s world. Men owned and operated the trawlers, and women were banned from stepping foot on a ship lest they curse it with bad luck. It was a superstitious world, and no surprise since hundreds of men lost their lives each year. At its height, the industry employed some 60,000 people in the English city of Hull alone. Yet that city also lost 6,000 fishermen to the freezing Arctic waters.

In early 1968, Lil and her fellow fishwives were thrown into their deepest period of mourning when three ships from Hull sank in the so-called triple trawler tragedy. Fifty-eight men drowned, with just one survivor, after their vessels sailed north in appalling weather. And while ice and stormy conditions at sea contributed to the loss, other factors could not be ignored. Ships were known to head out without experienced crews, sufficient safety equipment or radio operators. Some of those on board were still in their teens – “deckie learners” – picking up the dangerous art of seafaring on the job. The news of the loss of three ships in as many weeks was a huge shock to those back on land, and while many thousands mourned, a few began to question the methods of the ship owners.

A handful of fishwives – the mothers and spouses of trawlermen – began calling for better conditions to protect their men. The campaign was led by Lil, after she rallied other wives in a campaign that would see them present their Fishermen’s Charter to the Prime Minister. Their demands were clear: radio operators for all ships, trained deckhands, better safety equipment, improved weather forecasting, and a “mother ship” with medical support.

As well as taking her demands to parliamentarians, 17-stone Lil also became a formidable sight on the docks, earning her the nickname “Big Lil” in the media. Breaking the no-women rule, she boarded ships with her checklist of safety features before they set sail. Her outspoken nature won her little support, even among those she was fighting to help, who saw her as interfering in men’s affairs. Lil lost her job and was blacklisted in the industry; she never worked in it again until her death at the age of 59. Throughout her campaign, poison-pen letters and harassment did nothing to lessen her appetite for justice and better working conditions, even when the abuse came from within her own community. She kept the threatening letters in a shoebox, hidden from her family: out of sight, out of mind.

Within a month of starting her campaign,  however, her perseverance had paid off. Speaking at the launch of the medical support ship, just one of many improvements for which she successfully campaigned, she told the press: “Never mind them calling us silly women. This is what we have fought for.” Her death in 1988 could have seen her wiped from the pages of history, had her courageous fight not left an indelible mark in the local community. Today she is remembered in her native city with a huge mural which honours both her struggle, and the men she fought to save.

You can read a full account of the events of 1968 in “The Headscarf Revolutionaries”, a book by Dr Brian W Lavery.
Main photo: Lillian Bilocca on the dockside in 1968. © Hull Daily Mail Publications. 

Saalumarada Thimmakka – India’s tree lady

Environmental activism usually stems from people trying to protect and improve their immediate surroundings and ways of life. Yet, the pressure to grab land for commercial development means that the work of environmentalists is often seen as political and, in many parts of the world, they are at risk of abuse or even death. Where people are honoured and recognised for their work to improve the local ecosystem, their efforts can have a lasting positive impact for the environment, the community, and for future generations.


Her honorary name – Saalumarada – means “a row of trees” in her native Kannarda language. It was bestowed on Thimmakka by her fellow villagers in Hulikal, near Bangalore in southwestern India, after she planted and tended a woodland of hundreds of banyan trees. A type of fig, banyans are the national tree of India, but for Thimmakka and her husband, they had a more personal significance.

After 25 years of marriage without being able to conceive a child, Thimmakka began planting trees and nurturing them as if they were her own children. With her husband, a cattle herder, she walked four kilometres of dusty road each day to carry water to the saplings. As the trees grew, the stigma of being a rural childless woman gradually reduced, and her neighbours began to admire her determination.

At over 100 years old, she has lived to see the saplings grow into a mature woodland. Bats and birds feast on the fruit, and travellers on the long road to Bangalore enjoy the deep shade of the dense canopy. Her age has not slowed her determination to improve the local community; she has been involved in efforts to construct a water storage tank, and hopes that international attention will bring in the funds to build a local hospital. Despite numerous awards for her environmental work, Thimmakka still lives in poverty. Yet, alongside her 300 or more banyan “offspring”, she now has an adopted son to carry on her legacy and ensure the woodland is protected for years to come.