Becoming an accidental activist

Emma Parnell
4 min readMay 23, 2022


I’ve never thought of myself as an activist.

I’ve never been the type of person to go to protests and I struggle to engage with elections. I‘ve often felt like my participation wouldn’t have any impact.

I’ve also never really had a cause I felt connected to, maybe that’s why activism hasn’t felt like something I could/should engage with. But that’s starting to change.

I’ve delivered my ‘Let’s talk about sex’ talk about 15 times now. To charities, agencies and public events. Last week I did it for only the second time in person which was lovely. The more I’ve told the story the more I have begun to realise how important gender inclusion is to me.

I have recently started to feel a pull towards it as a cause. When I was speaking to Shelter the other week we had a really great discussion after the talk about some of the challenges they were facing as a charity in a similar space. Giving these people inspiration and encouragement felt really rewarding.

I found myself wondering how I could work more in this space through my design work and how I could begin to champion for change in other ways.

We need to design a world where anyone, regardless of how they identify, can live without fear of harm or discrimination. There are many ways we can push for change in this space.

Firstly we need to change the forms, one by one. The services that ask about sex and gender in a way that is not inclusive. The services that ask when they don’t need to. I recently had a great chat with Hilary Stephenson of Nexar Digital about how we should start building a pattern library around this — in the same way Sarah Drummond and others are maintaining a library of mental health patterns.

Secondly, as I’ve mentioned before, we need to change the underlying systems and data structures that power these forms. Especially at a Government level. That is something that is going to involve a lot of advocacy from a lot of people before there is commitment to put time and money into changing these systems.

And thirdly, we need to fight the prevailing narratives that are raging around this issue. Attitudes that are being fuelled by our Government. It seems so obvious to me that the right thing to do it to include everyone. However there are people in the world, including lots of high profile people with loud voices, that hold fundamentally opposing views. Views about the erasure of women or damaging misconceptions about trans people.

These voices appeared again last week when the Daily Mail wrote another top notch piece on the subject suggesting the NHS Website team had covertly changed their content to erase women and make it harder from them to detect cancers.

Firstly this is an upsetting attack on people who work hard day in, day out to ensure up to date health information is available and inclusive for everyone. Most of these people are fresh off the back of two horrendous years and the last thing they need is accusations like this.

More importantly it’s yet more fuel on the fire of discrimination against people who are really suffering. People who have already fought so hard to be who they want to be and continue to face hatred simply for wanting to live the life that makes them happy — that’s all.

Speaking out in the face of this is not easy. Maybe that’s another reason I’ve shied away from activism in the past. It’s hard.

I also really have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea what being an activist really means. I don’t feel like I know enough about the subject. I don’t know when to speak up and when to not. I don’t really even identify with the term.

I also often feel like I risk upsetting people with the things I say. Which I find really difficult. Last week I highlighted on social media how NHS Digital had published a blog about the subject that made it sound like change was easy. But this piece had been written by a friend. I struggled to find a way to highlight the point I wanted to make without causing harm to someone who was simply caught in the crossfire.

I find this side of activism hard. Because I am someone who really doesn’t like upsetting people. I spend a lot of my time worrying I’ve upset people in my life (often I haven’t) so when I actually have to choose fighting for a cause over relationships I know I will struggle.

But I’m going to give it a go. I accept I will make mistakes. I’ll probably say the wrong thing and upset people along the way but that’s ok. This morning I was listening to Lauren Currie’s latest podcast on being ‘difficult’ and she suggests it’s about being the ‘right amount of difficult’. I like that. She always rightly points out that being difficult is a privilege. So I’m going to go for it.



Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.