Big Shoes to Fill


By Debora Kodish and Teresa Jaynes

The teaching activity that follows was drawn from a 1999 exhibition created by the Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP) on the Folk Arts of Social Change. Folk arts are seldom seen as progressive or political, and artifacts of political expression are rarely seen as belonging to a tradition of art-making. PFP tried to bridge these gaps with this project. The exhibition considered how struggles for justice, equity, and freedom depend on traditions passed on and developed within communities and out of collective experience. The folk arts of social change are vehicles for challenging oppression, transmitting unofficial history, and for passing on and preserving knowledge that spans generations. Overall, the project was about how we choose to act, about how we learn and transmit ethics and values, and about how community-based arts help make this learning and teaching possible.

The exhibition included sections on: protest buttons called “Freedom is My Badge;” signs, banners and puppets called “The People United will Never Be Defeated;” memories and keepsakes of those who lived through both legendary and little-known struggles for justice and freedom called “Stories to Live By;” and over 100 pairs of shoes and stories from their owners called “Big Shoes to Fill.”

About the Big Shoes to Fill Exhibit

Folk sayings are easily remembered, but not always understood. People talk about “walking the walk” and “following in the footsteps” of others, about “taking a stand,” “standing firm,” and “standing tall.” These sayings, along with many traditional proverbs, are all commonly expressed folk wisdom about social change, and they condense and preserve the experiences of many who have gone before.

Such folklore passes on basic values. When we talk about having “big shoes to fill,” we are remembering larger-than-life heroes and holding ourselves accountable to them. When we praise people for “walking the walk,” we are acknowledging the difficulty of backing up words with deeds. These ways of speaking encourage us to think twice about our own steps; they are reminders that any of us can choose to “walk” in a particular way.

The shoes displayed in our exhibition (and perhaps others around your community) represent the real steps and invisible labor that many different mentors and role models have contributed to movements for freedom, justice, and equity. These shoes belong to a wide range of individuals. Some have national reputations, and others are best known on their neighborhood block. Social change is built one pair of shoes at a time—and every step counts.

How to Do It Yourself

The “shoe card” posted on this page asks three not-so-simple questions:

  • In whose footsteps are you following, and why?
  • When did you “take a stand?” or “walk the walk?”
  • If your shoes could talk, what stories of social change could they tell?

People have a lot to say in response to these prompts, which are drawn from often-used folk sayings. Paging through the notebook of shoe cards that was part of our exhibition, reading peoples’ comments, and looking at hundreds of shoes arrayed on the floor were moving and inspiring experiences. We invite you to try it yourself, and to engage your class or school in building a display, and in thinking together, about the many kinds of steps that it takes to build solid pathways to more justice, more equity, a better world.

To gather the 120+ pairs of shoes covering the floor of part of the exhibition gallery for our “Folk Arts of Social Change” exhibition, we first compiled lists of people we knew as activists, defining that broadly. We asked people to recommend others, and we kept building our lists, thinking about various movements, campaigns, and issues and learning about people who had played many kinds of roles in these efforts. And we also asked people who weren’t identified as activists, hoping to pay attention to the complicated and deep ways in which serious change is accomplished. (You may be surprised by the answers you get on your shoe cards. The exercise in sending them out can be an exercise in getting to know your school staff, parents, students, neighbors, social change movements, and versions of history, in slightly different and sometimes surprising ways.) Like any survey exercise, these cards are just the beginning of a project. You can precede or follow-up this exercise with intensive interviews, focused research on particular movements, struggles, or issues, and additional documentation of the people, places, and policies involved.

The actual shoe card was reproduced on 8.5”x 5.5” cardstock—two on an 8.5” x 11” page. (For a xerox-able template for making your own shoe cards, visit Along with the shoe cards, we wrote prospective participants a cover letter, introducing our project and asking for their participation, explaining that we wanted to make peoples’ footsteps and efforts tangible and visible in a simple and concrete way. (Often we called people before we sent out this mailing. We find that folks often respond better to a conversation than to letters. Also, in phone conversations or visits, we could answer questions, and deepen our relationships with people we respected.) Both in conversations and in our letters, we asked people if they would fill out the shoe card and loan us a pair of their shoes. After people received the cover letter and the shoe card, we called again, to follow up and to encourage participation. Sometimes people preferred just to tell us what they thought, and we were happy to take on the job of transcribing their comments and reflections onto the cards.

When we went to visit people to gather their shoes and shoe cards, we carried a numbered paper bag, wrote participants’ contact information on the bag, and gave them a correspondingly numbered receipt for their shoes. All shoes were tagged with the number of their bag; this became the number visible on both the shoes and the shoe cards in the exhibition. (This is simpler than it sounds. We just recommend a system to keep track of the shoes so that they can be identified in the display, clearly connected to the shoe card that serves as an exhibition label, and safely returned.) Of course, we thanked everyone with a note, and made sure that they were invited to the exhibition.

A Few Well-Worn Shoes

These are just a few of the stories from the Philadelphia Folklore Project exhibit.

Ellen Somekawa

I used to be pretty cynical about trying to change things—thinking that human beings are basically incapable of creating a just society. Then I learned about China and how people there were transforming their society. I also started learning about the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe and South Africa and even in Tupelo, Mississippi. What I learned was that ordinary people are the makers of history. I see myself walking in the shoes of the ordinary folks who have power in their numbers and in their righteousness. Despite the setbacks and the fact that there is no straight line forward towards the society we are trying to build, I am with the people who not only believe in the struggle but also find joy in it.

Eric Joselyn

When I was very little, I would delight in putting my little feet in my dad’s big shoes—small toes swimming in all that space. That’s still my relationship—teeny toes, big boots—that I hold in listing the people whose footsteps I’m following. The great lefty wall workers Diego Rivera and Keith Haring. A man dedicated to popular agitation through art in China, Lu Xun, and my Grandma Sadie, who spent farm nights sewing, stitching, canning, and cooking.

Sonia Sanchez

I follow in the footsteps of Paul Robeson, Margaret Walker, Pablo Neruda, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Nicolás Guillén, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Chuck D., Rakim, Malcolm, MLK, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Lauryn Hill, Ras Baraka, Amiri and Amina Baraka, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, and a host of others who walk a walk of peace, social, racial, sexual justice. I first took a stand in the 1960s for people who are/were oppressed. I am still walking a long walk for liberation. Freedom. These shoes have been on stages in Nicaragua, Cuba, Nigeria, Canada, New York, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, when I spoke for justice in our schools, prisons, cities, country. These shoes say freedom and justice for Mumia, all political prisoners. Continual freedom for Assata. Education for our children. Peace for the world.

David Acosta

This particular pair of shoes are called alpargatas and are used by Indians and peasants in Colombia, the country where I was born. I chose these particular shoes to illustrate the fact that I follow in the footsteps of indigenous leaders who opposed the Spanish conquest. I see them as the founding fathers and mothers of our nations in the Americas. Tupac Amaru, Calarca, La Gaitana, Ismaelillo, Seneca, Black Elk, White Cloud, Yellow Hand, and Crazy Horse.

These shoes are also significant since it was the struggles of native people in the Americas that first caught my attention and where I began my activist work. In later years, I would embrace the plight of other Indigenous Peoples and their struggle to overcome European colonization and exploitation.

I began my first forays into activism through the American Indian Movement and the Pan Indian Movement that rose out of the late sixties and early seventies. Wounded Knee became for me the rallying cry to stand up, and walk the walk.

Throughout the past 25 years I have worked in a wide range of areas, including indigenous rights, civil rights, women’s rights, censorship, and AIDS, among others. Throughout this work, it has been clear to me that oppression and the exploitation of peoples are intrinsically tied to capitalism, and its need to protect the rich, the powerful, and the status quo. I have sworn to fight them at every turn and have been doing so consistently for 25 years.

If these shoes could talk, they would speak to the incredible power, brilliance, and commitment of comrades with whom I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work over the years in the dreaming and construction of a better world. It is this collective vision of a better world that continues to inspire me and informs my work.

Peaches Ramos

I walked to drug corners to tell guys I didn’t want them selling on the corner. I walked to alleys to get them cleaned. I walked through abandoned houses to get them knocked down. I took kids to Great Adventure so they wouldn’t see drugs for one day. I took them to Wildwood. These shoes have seen lots of changes. They’ve seen junkies lying around. They fought to clean up neighborhoods. They see kids now able to play outside. They see abandoned cars moved. They see rats running away through alleys. They have a lot of good and bad stories.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya (1943–2000)

These shoes walked in the following walk: 1962 CORE restaurant sit-ins, Route 40, Aberdeen, Maryland; 1963 Martin Luther King speech, 8/28, Lincoln Memorial, and later to meet King at Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C.; 1965 injured at State Capitol Building, Montgomery Alabama, leading black high school students in voter registration march; 3/13 1965 First homosexual rights demonstration ever—Independence Hall, Philadelphia; 7/4 1967 “Armies of Night” march on Pentagon Building; 1968 Lincoln Park and Conrad Hilton, Chicago, Democratic National Convention riots at Grant Park; 1968 Martin Luther King funeral, Atlanta—cared for Martin Jr. and Dexter week of funeral at King house in Vine City; 1969 Spoke at Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, Temple University, Philadelphia; 1970 “Rebirth of Dionysian Spirit,” National Gay Liberation Conference, Austin, Texas; 1972 First Rainbow Family Gathering, Granby, Colorado; 1974–77 Survived metastatic lung cancer; 1978-83 Traveled worldwide with Buckminster Fuller, collaborated on his last six books, wrote last book posthumously in 1992 (Fuller died in 1983), Philadelphia, California; 1988 First employee of We the People with AIDS and charter member of ACT-UP, Philadelphia; 1992 ACT-UP members injured at demo at Bellevue Stratford Hotel, numerous ACT-UP arrests around the country; 1996 Sat on FDA panel that recommended approval of first potent protease inhibitors; 1997 Critical Path Aids Project—Supreme Court overturns communications decency act on internet censorship; lead litigant in 1999 Kuromiya vs. United States of America—class action suit on medical use of marijuana.

Shafik Asante (1949–1997)

Shafik dedicated his life to the struggle for a society based on principles of justice and equality. Whether he was taking neighborhood youth on an outing, staying up late counseling people in need, organizing people to struggle against privatization of city services, or fighting for the neighborhood fire station, Shafik consistently demonstrated his commitment to people first. He often said that he was not satisfied simply to struggle. He wanted to win! To that end, he focused his attention on challenging popular ways of thinking because he believed that “what people think shapes what they do.” He focused on building alliances because he believed that “together we are better.”

Shafik followed in many people’s footsteps, but he always gave special recognition to his grandmother, Nana, who instilled in him a vision of community. These boots can tell many stories. Stories of marches and rallies; stories of playing basketball and video games with the children, stories of giving comfort to the weary, stories of giving inspiration to the hopeless, stories of struggle, stories of victory, stories of anger and pain, but most of all stories of a life well lived.

Will Gonzalez

These shoes, together with the shoes of other people, helped bring about institutional change in the police dept. For example, they took me to meetings and propped my feet while we prepared policy proposals regarding the need to stop police from using foot-long flashlights that lent themselves too easily for improper use. They also marched in front of the DA’s office to request that it prosecute officers who violate their oath to enforce the law without breaking the law.

We are following in the footsteps of countless people before us who used the right combination of marching and standing firm to bring about change. Social change is not possible w/o the collective work sometimes across generations, and most times working in obscurity, of many people who put their feet on the path to push us all to make our world a better place for everyone.

Copyright © 2004 by Philadelphia Folklore Project

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