Community Craftivism to #EndGunViolence

Chicago is a city plagued by gun violence, earning it the moniker “Chiraq” in many a neighborhood, and for a good reason. The numbers are harrowing; as of August 22, 2016, over 2,743 people have been shot in the City of Chicago. In the first eight months of 2016, we have surpassed both the 2013 and 2014 stats for total number of people shot that year, and are experiencing an overall 50% increase in shootings up from last year. This violence is rocking communities, destroying families and futures with the pull of a trigger. Cycles of desperation, disadvantage, and a criminal justice system in serious need of reform coupled with systemic racism have all been cited as catalysts for the violence.

Two years ago, Shannon Downey picked up cross-stitching, a skill she learned in grade school, as a way to escape the digital world and do something tangible offline. Through the process of cross-stitching, she discovered the joy in making something with her own hands. As a way to document and share her work, and to achieve a harmonious digital/analog balance, Downey began a blog called Badass Cross Stitch. Before long she began a “Year of Stitch” where she taught a new stitch each week on the website. The Year of Stitch took off, and by the end of the year, over 10,000 people were stitching with her.

What started as one woman’s way to create something with a physical presence and regain that connection with materiality that is absent in the digital realm soon developed into a wide-reaching community of eager stitchers. Downey saw the potential in the enthusiastic Badass Cross Stitch community and knew that something would come next; that there would be another bigger chapter after the Year of Stitch ended.

In the two years since Downey began cross-stitching again, Chicago has endured increasing levels of gun violence. All the while, the nation at large has experienced unprecedented levels of gun violence in the form of mass shootings. It was during this time that she began grappling with a way to process these tragedies, turning to art to help funnel her feelings. When she found herself stitching a gun one day she decided to post a photo of the piece to Instagram, not anticipating the response it would receive.

The image of a gun cross-stitched was jarring against a backdrop of national violence and tragedy. People responded to the directness of the image, it resonated with them and encouraged Downey to stitch more guns as a form of art therapy. As she continued to post photos of her work on her blog and across social media, the project took off, getting reblogged and shared across the web. Soon people began asking Downey for the pattern, so that they could stitch a gun too.

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People wanted the pattern and Downey wanted to find a way to make a difference. While her work was making people aware, forcing them to look at the instrument behind the violence, to stare the weapon in the eyes, it was not moving the needle. Downey wanted to do more than just raise awareness, so she teamed up with Project FIRE, a grant-funded local Chicago organization dedicated to helping teens that have experienced violence related trauma.

Project FIRE was developed by master glassblower Pearl Dick and University of Chicago clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach. The life affirming organization helps teens cope & move forward through a combination of art therapy, counseling, and life skills/job training. The group helps teens change their perspective on who they are and who they can be, opening new doors for them while helping close the doors that lead to violence. Through the collaboration with Project FIRE, Downey is giving this now worldwide project a local voice, projecting the stories and lives of youth impacted by Chicago’s gun violence, as well as endowing the project with a change-making purpose.

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Downey announced the collaboration with Project FIRE on Badass Cross Stitch, encouraging her followers to take part in a craftivism project to benefit the organization. Using #EndGunViolence, Downey’s gun cross-stitch project has spread across social media, garnering international attention and participants from near and far. Taking part is simple – you just download Downey’s gun pattern from her website here then stitch or create a gun in any fiber art medium, and mail the finished product to Downey. From there, the pieces will go on display in November as part of show with Project FIRE’s student works, all of which will be auctioned off the benefit the organization.

Ultimately, Downey has found her own way to reclaim the image of a gun, a symbol of violence and rage, by putting it in a different form thereby giving it a different meaning and dismantling the gun as an image of power and domination over people’s lives. The choice of medium is all the more fitting, serving to deconstruct and subvert the fragile masculinity associated with gun wielding gang members through the re-appropriation of a ‘women’s craft’ such as cross stitch, embroidery, and other ‘domestic’ fiber arts to serve a greater social purpose. Through her collaborative approach to craftivism, Downey is not only publicizing an organization that gives those affected by violence the agency to reclaim their lives and stories, but she is also helping to empower people across the globe to reclaim a symbol of violence and oppression by giving them an avenue and vehicle to express their own voice.

People of all ages & abilities can take part in this project. The goal is to reach 100 entries by the Oct. 31 deadline – so download a copy of the template today, and get stitching. If you do not know how or where to start, Shannon Downey will be holding classes at Green Exchange to help get you going (check the calendar to find upcoming dates).

Project FIRE image courtesy of Andrea Bauer, the Chicago Tribune


Shannon Downey is the founder of the marketing company Pivotal Chicago, and is adjunct faculty at both Columbia College & DePaul University teaching business, entrepreneurship, and marketing. She is the woman behind the blog Seriously Badass Women & the not-so-secret fiber artist known as Badass Cross Stitch. She is on a never-ending crusade for digital/analog balance and massive change. Visit Shannon at www.pivotalchicago.com www.SeriouslyBadassWomen.com www.BadassCrossStitch.com