The power of walking a mile in someone's shoes
“Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.” – Native American Proverb
The principle behind this quote was the inspiration for starting my blog almost 12 months ago. I lay awake one sleepless December night wondering what sort of stories I wanted to put out there in the public domain, when the idea suddenly struck me that perhaps I could tell the stories of other people - the millions of people that walk the same streets as me, take the same bus as me, breathe the same old smoggy London air as me - the people who I see every single day and yet know nothing about. It was in that moment that A Mile in My Shoes, The Blog was born.
A lot has happened since then and the blog has deviated in one way or another, but it’s that founding principle that still drives my writing forward; the idea of making connections with people and discovering people, and realising that when you remove all preconceptions, remove the judgment, remove the notion of stereotypes and arbitrary beliefs, you can appreciate that before anything else – before we’re lawyers, or mothers, or bin men, or big issue sellers or refugees - we are human first, and if nothing else, we all have that in common.
It was quite a wonderful coincidence to stumble across an exhibition of the same name in Time Out magazine a few weeks ago. The Migration Museum in Lambeth was hosting an immersive story-telling installation about migrants and refugees in the local community, where the stories were recorded on an audio file and could be listened to whilst literally walking a mile in the person’s shoes. I headed down there last Friday to see it for myself.
It was a bitterly cold day, made all the more raw by walking along Embankment gloveless. With my head bowed to batten down against the wind, and one tentative eye on Google maps, I made my way to Lambeth High Street where I found a giant shoe box emblazoned with the words A Mile in My Shoes.
It was a relief to step inside the shoe box and into the warmth, where I was greeted by the friendly faces of Clare, Rachel and James, the creative team behind the project. At the back of the room, there were shelves full of labelled boxes, organised into size order and hosting the names of the shoes’ previous owners. The project, which was started back in 2015 and has been on tour as far afield as Brazil and Australia, collects stories based around a particular theme depending on the community it is representing. The theme for this installation was ‘migration’ and the founders had collected a myriad of different stories - from an eleven year old girl, to a war veteran in his nineties, and everything in between.
Rachel and James soon had me seated with my shoes off, and they debated between themselves whose story would be an interesting one for me to hear. They selected a pair of beige size 8 sneakers, belonging to someone called Kamal. They were tatty and falling apart at the seams, and I wouldn’t normally be so keen to slip on the shoes of a complete stranger, but I figured that anything was justifiable in the name of art. James then gave me an audio device and headphones and instructed me to take a 10 minute stroll wherever I pleased, but recommended a short walk around Old Paradise Gardens which was just down the street.
As I headed back out into the freezing cold, the voice that played into my ears was that of a 49 year old Iraqi Arab. He didn’t sound like I expected an Iraqi migrant would speak; he was clear and composed and articulate, using rich vocabulary and eloquent phrases. Distinctly middle class. Unquestionably British. I had failed the first test and I’d hardly walked 10 yards.
I made it to Old Paradise Gardens and looped around the path, pausing at one point to sit on a bench and admire the shoes whilst listening to this complete stranger reveal deeply private and personal things from his past. The park, once used as a burial ground for the borough of Lambeth and now nestled in the middle of a housing estate, was the perfect place to absorb the details of Kamal’s story. It was quiet and unassuming, and completely void of people, except for one or two other visitors to the exhibition, also on a storytelling journey.
After 10 minutes, I returned Kamal’s shoes and was eager to take another pair, and this time they gave me a heavy pair of brown slip-on Chelsea boots belonging to an Australian woman called Ray. After that, I went back to swap them again and was given some smart brown loafers once belonging to Edin, who had come to London in 1992 having fled the conflict in Bosnia.
Each time, I walked the same loop in the gardens, enjoying the stillness and solitude of the experience, allowing the narrator’s voice to lead me on a journey. As I listened, I focused on the shoes, imagining the steps they’d previously taken and the things they’d seen.
Though the theme of this particular installation was migration, that only made up a very small part of the story people chose to tell. It wasn't simply about narrating harrowing tales of their journey to London or the atrocities they’d seen in some far flung corner of the earth, they had other stories to tell that more accurately represented who they were and what they wanted to say. Their journey here is only one part of their story; throughout their lives they have faced a million different successes and setbacks, established families, learnt lessons, experienced love and loss, they have grown as people.
One of the three stories I listened to was an incredible account of how the narrator had arrived in London with absolutely nothing and had taken a job working 6 days a week in the basement of a kitchen. He’d worked his way up to becoming the area manager of an international coffee shop and later had the idea to open an authentic pizza restaurant. Fast forward to 2016, and he was the proud owner of 17 restaurant sites across London and had recently sold the business for millions of pounds.
Another tale was a very painful account about the narrator’s sexuality and how coming out to his family led to him being homeless on the streets for a year, occasionally using his dole money to go to gay clubs where he knew he’d be guaranteed a bed for the night.
Another person describes his battle with mental illness, and how he narrowly escaped falling into prostitution at a time when he was young and vulnerable and had absolutely nothing. On his recording, he describes being so grateful to the friend who worked in a charity shop at the time and had found nice clothes for him to wear so that he could walk around with a shred of dignity. He later got a tattoo to remind himself of all the people who had helped him at a time when he needed it most.
I’m not going to tell you which story relates to which person - the Bosnian, the Australian or the Iraqi. I’ve used male pronouns deliberately, even though some of the people were women. You can try and guess whose tale is whose, but you’d probably be wrong. This is the beauty of the project – the revelation that human beings are mysterious and multi-layered and complex, and you can’t assume things about them without first listening to their story, or walking for a while in their shoes.
Physically wearing the shoes definitely helped me to empathise with the narrator’s words and the story they chose to tell. I sat there in the park looking down at them, feeling the bitter wind gnawing at my hands and face and I had a sense – a very fleeting sense – of how it would feel to spend days on end outside in the cold, longing for a warm bed and the kindness of a stranger. I imagined how it might feel to be so lonely and so isolated in a country that was not my own, that I struggled every day to leave the house in the morning. I considered how much my bones would ache after working long, relentless shifts six days a week, from dawn until dusk, in the grim belly of a London kitchen, and the drive and determination I would need to get myself out.
The whole experience of the installation was so much more powerful than I imagined it would be. I left the shoe shop feeling humbled and pensive, and deeply connected to three other human beings I wouldn’t recognise if I passed them in the street. All the way home I looked at people in a different light. A workman on Embankment feeding the pigeons with an outstretched hand, a homeless man sat outside Vauxhall station, a woman falling asleep on the tube. I could only imagine the stories they might tell, and how much more human we'd all feel if we listened.
With huge thanks to Clare, Rachel and James from the Empathy Museum for speaking with me about the project and for creating such a powerful and thought-provoking installation.
The installation has now finished in Lambeth, but you might catch the project when it moves to the Empty Shop in Coventry on 23rd-24th March and outside the cathedral in Worcester in May (dates to be confirmed). If you’re not lucky enough to experience it for yourself, you can listen to some of the stories on sound cloud and read more about the work of the Empathy Museum by visiting their website.