TOMS Shoes: Remembering Native Americans
It has been such a pleasure to work with TOMS and to distribute their shoes during the last several months – all of us at NRC have a favorite experience to share! But we are ready to wrap up this series of posts about the shoe distributions.
To do that I want to share a few thoughts about why it has been important to provide these shoes to youth living in Indian country. The first relates to straightforward need, the second to the more subtle but powerful benefit of social enfranchisement.
First, it seems most people are not aware of the very difficult living conditions in many remote reservation communities. One would not think that, right here in this country, there are children wearing just socks to school, wearing shoes that have not fit for a long time, or experiencing preventable diseases of the skin because they do not have proper footwear. We should think about it. Nearly 60 percent of all Native Americans who live outside of metropolitan areas inhabit persistently poor counties and nearly half of all Native American children live in poverty. Being able to afford new shoes, or having a place to shop for shoes, or being able to care for your feet is difficult in remote communities that lack stores, transportation, employment, and sometimes running water at home.
One of our field employees shared this experience that I think illustrates the point:
At a school in Montana one of the young students came up to me and was embarrassed to take his shoes off. We found a more secluded spot and I helped him. I realized once his shoe was off why he might feel embarrassed. The entire sole came off one of his shoes and his socks were in very rough condition. I got him fitted with a new pair of shoes, and he asked “Are these for me?” I said “Yes, they sure are!” He replied “Well, I don’t have any money.” I told him, “They are free and you don’t have to pay me anything.” He said “I really get to keep them?” I said “Yep” and he started crying. Later, we saw this boy again. He ended up helping us reorganize the truck and he seemed so happy to be a helper.
It has been humbling to see the response – from excitement to relief – of many of the students when they receive their new shoes. The need for them is clear.
Along with difficult living conditions, isolation and poverty come with other challenges. Children and students living on remote reservations are largely cut off from mainstream access. This can prompt feelings of being “forgotten” or “overlooked.” This type of disenfranchisement can affect critical parts of life. For example, rural reservation communities lack the same digital access or access to medical care available in most of the rest of the country. It also affects less critical but important aspects of life, like consumer choices.
The Civil Rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois once said: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
The TOMS Shoe distributions challenged this sense of hardship, of feeling disenfranchised from mainstream trends, of feeling “left behind” that is a part of the experience for many of our youth. It has been fantastic to be able to provide our kids with a product most of them would never otherwise have the opportunity to purchase. They have cool shoes, that are practical too, but more importantly they have the experience of participating in something that young people off-reservation care about too – TOMS Shoes.
There was a terrific teacher-volunteer at one of the shoe distributions on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was so excited that the youth at his school were receiving TOMS and kept reinforcing for the kids how cool the shoes are… Our team who attended the same distribution had this to say about him:
There was one teacher-volunteer that stuck out. It was apparent that he was one of the cool teachers, young and from California. He was floored that the kids were getting TOMS. He graduated from a CA university and he kept telling the kids how all his classmates wore TOMS in college. He was so excited and just kept saying, “You got TOMS…do you what these shoes are… everybody at my school wore these… all the athletes wear them… Kobe Bryant wears these!” He had even had a pair, but he finally wore out the sole! He was texting some of his old college friends to tell them that his students were all getting a pair of TOMS. His excitement was contagious and soon all of the kids were able to name a host of celebrities who wear TOMS. The kids felt really special.
It has been great to be a part of distributing to our youth something practical that they need and that many families struggle to provide. It has been very special to see the product help give a needed boost of confidence and a sense of pride because the youth felt they were participating in an important movement that has the attention of trendsetters.