Folk Arts of Social Change Exhibition

Big shoes to fill

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.

Tell us: in whose footsteps are you following (and why?) When did you "take a stand"? "walk the walk"? If these shoes could talk, what stories of social change could they tell?


Tell us your stories

shoesKiyoshi Kuromiya: These shoes walked in the following walk: 1962 CORE restaurant sit-ins, Route 40, Aberdeen, MD 1963 Martin Luther King speech, 8/28, Lincoln Memorial, and later to meet King at Willard Hotel, Washington, DC 1965 Injured at State Capital 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, TX 1972 First Rainbow Family Gathering, Granby, CO 1974-77 Survived metastatic lung cancer 1978-83 Traveled worldwide with Buckminster Fuller, collaborated on his last 6 books, wrote last book post-humously 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 1999 Kuromiya vs. United States of America - class action suit on medical use of marijuana.

Shafik Asante (8/11/49 to 9/5/97): 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.

Pro Choice DemoLynn Marks: If these purple pumps could talk, they'd tell stories of many walks throughout the state Capitol in Harrisburg advocating for the rights of rape survivors, battered women, and people who deserve justice through the legal system. Their color and heel size represent compromise, yet holding on to core values and strategies for social change: the unusual purple is radical enough to "fit into" walking the halls of power. And the heel size is small enough for comfort yet high enough to hold their own with the feet of women lawyers who have chosen more traditional paths. These shoes permit fashion with passion.

Gary Kapanowski: I was born in the hills of Pikeville, Kentucky, where my mother and uncles were fighting to bring in the United Mine Workers Union. After a long struggle, they were successful. My mom and I later moved to Detroit, Michigan where I worked in the Briggs plant, represented by United Auto Workers 212. I became chairman of the union at Briggs in 1973 and led a vocal and militant plant-closing fight. We won the best termination agreement in Michigan labor history up to that point.
    I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 and helped organize AFSCME Local 1723 at Temple University. I was the first elected president of the local in 1977 and have been president ever since. As an organizer for the AFSCME union, I have helped in 22 union representation elections, winning 20 of them.
   I walk in the footsteps of my mom and my uncles, who taught me the value of working people united fighting for the common good through the union movement. I have carried this knowledge with me throughout my life and will continue to walk with the working class from which I have learned my love for humanity.

Sonia Sanchez: I follow in the footsteps of Paul Robeson, Margaret Walker, Pablo Neruda, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Nicolas Guillen, 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, NY, 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.

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.

Richard Watson: I walked the 'Wall' (Girard College) from Day 1. In all kinds of weather, rain or shine to the rhythm of the dictates of Cecil B. Moore. He was the 'Lion'of my day. A job had to be done and so I took on the challenge. I am thankful and grateful to have had an opportunity to make a difference. We won! The Struggle Continues! Peace. RJW

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 twenty-five 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 is 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 which continues to inspire me and informs my work.

LaVaughn E. Robinson:
I'm following in my mother's footsteps, because she was a tap dancer and she paid for my first pair of dancing shoes and these are the ones that remind me of my mother.

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.

Queen Mother Falaka Fattah: 1968-1978 Took action against gang violence by inviting gang members to move into home. 1972-1974. Coordinator City-wide gang conferences. Co-founded Black United Front with Rep. David P.Richardson to defeat Charter Change. Charter Board member Mayor’s Commission on Women, Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations, Carroll Park Communty Council. Publisher, Editor UMOJA Magazine (Protest Literature). Contribution to book on Gandhi, Life Mag.

Tom Cronin: These shoes have worn out some soles in their time. They have left leather on pavement walking picket lines with Philadelphia city employees striking for better pay and working conditions. They have marched to demonstrate solidarity with Eastern Airline pilots, Greyhound bus drivers, and members of the United Mine Workers Union. These shoes have hit the bricks on behalf of struggling workers in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Israel's West Bank. They've stood up for women's rights, nuclear disarmament, and against the war in Vietnam. These shoes follow in the footsteps of great Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Eugene V. Debs, John L. Lewis, Paul Robeson, and Martin Luther King, who dedicated their time and energy to improving the lives of their fellows. These shoes have walked a path well worn by millions of C.I.O. sit-down strikers, whose courage and determination in the face of soldiers, strike-breakers, and craven little legislators and judges raised the living standards and changed the quality of life for every working class American. These shoes also walked that path blazed by those who fought to compel recognition of the dignity and legal rights of African Americans. And won that fight. They will wear out a few more soles, with any luck.

Isabel Vazquez: If these shoes could talk they would talk about how important it is to have a safe place to live. They would also talk about the necessity of reliable and affordable child care for our children while mothers, fathers, and legal guardians go to work or school.
    I took a stand in 1992 when the Women's Community Revitalization Project decided that our community needed a child care center. We live in a time where kids need to be in a safe and learning environment. A place where they are not roaming the streets and they are away from harm.
   I walked the walk when we planned a meeting for our city officials and our Senator, but no one showed. I was so disappointed. I felt betrayed, like we weren't important, but knew we had to push on. So we started a mailing. We had everyone in the community send a letter to our senator and our city officials asking them to attend our meeting. I am happy to say it worked; they came to our second meeting. I still remember how nervous I was before it started. After the meeting, we had questions and answers. They talked, we listened; then we talked and they listened. After a couple of hours of discussing pros and cons, they told us we had the money for our child care center. Today, Adolfina Villanueva Head Start and Wrap Around Center stands in the 2800 block of N. 7th Street in Philadelphia, PA.
   If you are wondering whose footsteps I am following, there are many people I could talk about, but there are a few who have really made a difference in my life. First is my mother, Aida Vasquez, one of the strongest individuals I know. Next is my sister Iraida, who taught me that God put me on this earth for a reason. Third are Angelica and Aidalee, my daughters, and Noel, my partner. They are my most prized possessions. They are my support system and the reason why I get up in the morning and do the things I do. Fourth but not least are the many people and the organizations in my community: Nora Lichtash and the Women's Community Revitalization Project, Alba Martinez and Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Rose M. Brandt and my co-workers at the Mayor's Commission on Literacy and everyone else who had enough faith in me and gave me a chance to show them I am reliable and can do the work and get the job done.

Will Gonzalez: These shoes together w/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 w/o breaking the law.
   We are following in the footsteps of countless people b/4 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 acrosss 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.

William Crawford: [I am walking] in the footsteps of my grandfather, Thomas Henry Barnes, who was the son of a runaway slave and he taught me what freedom meant. I learned very early to stand up for what I believed in because there were examples talked about at home. And I often had to take a stand by myself because we were one of the few Black families in town. When I got older, a lot of my political work was done talking on street corners, speaking out at street meetings, or canvassing to get voters out to the polls to vote for Communist candidates, or to get petitions signed to put a Communist candidate on the ballot. And when I ran for Controller in Philadelphia on the Communist Party ticket in 1971, I collected signatures around City Hall and campaigned there.

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How to do it


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 members of your community 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 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 follow-up interviews, focused research on particular movements, struggles or issues, and additional documentation of the people, places and policies involved.

The actual shoe card (pictured below) was reproduced on 8.5"x 5.5" cardstock - two on a 8.5" x 11" page. (For a xerox-able template for making your own shoe cards: View PDF / 1.8 MB) 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.

We hope that this project works well for you, and invite you to tell us about your experiences at

Blank shoe card