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2022 Spring Debate : Activism - Protest or Advocacy?

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Held at The Sekford, 34 Sekforde St, Clerkenwell, EC1R OHA

Yasmin Shariff words
Chris Dyson & Celeste Bolte photos

The subject of activism and protest in the built environment is gaining much traction with the physical impacts on the built environment from climate change, Covid-19, air quality, misogyny, racism, poverty, and shifting populations seeking refuge from war. Architects are responding to these political, economic, social, and environmental challenges as can be seen by the increasing number of social impact awards and grassroots action groups campaigning for climate change, diversity, affordable housing, and sustainable cities. But is protest or advocacy the way forward?

Preceding the discussions, a poll was taken to assess the mood in the room:

Protest : 10
Advocacy : The rest
Undecided : None

2022 Spring Debate : Activism - Protest or Advocacy?

Representing the motion:

Protest: Tom Bennett, Studio Bark, and Fiona MacDonald, Co-Founder MATT&FIONA, and Head of Learning The Design Museum.

Tara Gbolade, Gbolade Design Studio and Kunle Barker, property expert, writer & broadcaster, presenter & curator at Grand Design Live with Kevin McCloud.

Clare Richards, Footwork Architects Ltd.

For Protest
Protest is open to everyone and a right supported by the UN. It is a diverse tactic with a spectrum from peaceful protest, hunger strikes, smashing windows to candle lit vigils. Protest is the cornerstone of activism. And a catalyst for change. Protest gathers people together and builds momentum for change. Protest is not negative – action against nuclear disarmament and Insulate Britain are propositional examples. Protest has transformed the conversation on climate change. Protest changes society and cannot be ignored. The protest movement in the US overthrew the Jim Crow Laws, protest from the suffragettes resulted in votes for women and anti fracking and the formation of National Parks. Protest is an effective tool for social justice and a catalyst for advocacy. Governments do not alter direction without protest.

Protest is a proposition for transformative change. Protest is uncomfortable it challenges power and breaks rules. Protest does not have to be violent or a mass protest- it can an individual behind the scenes opening up alternatives.

Protest movements makes the change and advocacy follows. Much of the freedom we enjoy today is due to PROTEST.

For Advocacy
Advocacy empowers people to take action without protest. Policy has more impact than protest. The advocacy following Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah’s death won UK citizens the right to clean air. Advocacy enabled sustained and diverse thinking. Advocacy can shift attitudes especially those hardened by protest.

For some protest is not an option - its not ok to get arrested if you are black. Marginalised people are at greater risk of being arrested if they protest but they can participate in advocacy more openly.

The nature of advocacy is that it is about answering questions whilst protest is about asking them. Architects are trained to solve problems - our skills lies in finding solutions.

Advocacy is not as sexy as protest. It does not hit the headlines in the same way or produce the graphic images on the front page but advocacy is more effective than protest. Advocacy is about working with the existing system, the slow burn behind closed doors- shouting (protesting) is not effective

Both advocacy and protest put propositional issues on the map but protest is not an option for many vulnerable or discriminated people. Advocacy is more inclusive and about finding solutions

Final poll

Protest: 17
Advocacy: 17
Undecided: 0


The evening’s debate that was lively, informative and thought-provoking and held in very convivial surroundings - especially thanks to Chris Dyson (Chris Dyson Architects) who refurbished the pub and his client, Dave, and their teams. The audience was swayed by the clarity and robustness of both sides of this perennial political argument - unsurprisingly a draw!

2022 Spring Debate : Activism - Protest or Advocacy?

The conclusion of the debate was that protest and advocacy are interlinked. Protest publicised a problem and advocacy sought support for solutions.

The side arguing for protest recognised that not all people could openly protest and the side arguing for advocacy acknowledged that advocacy often followed change catalysed by protest.

The final vote was a tie 17 votes each way.