Denver Exhibit Proposes Even If The Shoe Doesn't Fit, Empathize With It

Aug 9, 2019

A giant shoe box has popped up on Denver's 16th Street Mall across from Union Station. Inside are more than 30 pairs of shoes — along with recorded stories from those who walked in them.

The project is part of the Biennial of the Americas Festival exhibit "A Mile in My Shoes" where you can literally try on someone else's shoes while listening to their story.

Biennial executive director Erin Trapp knows what you're thinking.

"Some people might be skittish about putting on someone else's shoes, but part of empathy is really, in some cases, feeling uncomfortable," Trapp said. "If you haven't ever worked construction for a living, wearing the footwear of someone who does can really put you in that mindspace and help you understand what they're going through."

The idea is in keeping with the Biennial's theme this year: "Empathy in Action." So I asked Trapp to take off her strappy sandals and put on a scuffed pair of tan men's work boots.

Biennial of the Americas executive director Erin Trapp holds the prosthetic leg of IronMan triathlete Emily Harvey. Trapp is wearing Theo Wilson's work boots and standing in front of Ryan Foo's flip-flops and Dafna Michaelson Jenet's wedge heels. All were part of the 'A Mile in My Shoes' project.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"They feel kind of like blocks of cement," she said, stomping around on the sidewalk in the far-too-big-for-her boots.

These are the boots of Theo Wilson. In his story, Wilson — who is black — recounts a frightening encounter with the police.

"Four police officers swarmed me and stood me up," Wilson said in the recording. "And in the melee of the crowd, I knew that they didn't see this so my last weapon was my voice. I began to yell and scream, 'Police brutality! Police brutality! Police brutality!' And they all began to turn around."

The event was a crossroads for Wilson, who went on to become a spoken word artist.

"The power that I had in the moments before was my voice," Wilson said. "And in my voice, I found my power. And I realized that what I needed to do was use it in order to change my destiny. And that's exactly what I did."

The idea for this exhibit — a traveling part of British artist Clare Patey's Empathy Museum — is that listening to someone's story while putting yourself in their place builds empathy and understanding.

Each story is around 12 minutes long, about the same amount of time it would take someone to walk a mile, Trapp said. There's a wide variety of stories — and shoes — from the glittery spike heels of a drag queen to the sensible wedges of a working mom.

"The ones that really touched me were some of the stories that were people completely different from me, who I literally probably never have interacted with in a significant way," Trapp said. "To hear the story of someone who recovered from a car accident, how that affected their life ... Or to hear how somebody had an encounter with the police that's very different than any encounter I've had with the police. Those were in some cases challenging, but also really important. And there are also some fun stories, too, about people who've overcome amazing barriers and become great athletes. I am not a great athlete so it's fun to walk in those shoes for a mile."

"The ones that really touched me were some of the stories that were people completely different from me." - Erin Trapp, executive director, Biennial of the Americas

Like IronMan triathlete Emily Harvey. Along with her story is the single sneaker she wore to complete an IronMan Triathlon last year. It's attached to a colorful prosthetic leg.

"Growing up I played sports. I played tee-ball, I played volleyball, I played golf, I rode horses," Harvey said in her recording. "We always just found a way to make it work for me and my mom always encouraged me to ask 'how' instead of 'if.'"

And that's exactly what you hear at the end of Emily's story.

"As a person with a disability — a visible disability — I've been given a gift to be able to share with the world my idea that you can do more than you think you can."

And to do that, sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and into someone else's shoes… and see if the shoe fits.

Biennial of the Americas Festival "A Mile in My Shoes" will be open through Sept. 27 on Denver's 16th Street Mall in the Tail Tracks Plaza across from Union Station.