Shoe Snobs and Bad Art

toms

That is 2 of my roomie brothers wearing TOMS shoes. I’ve got six roommates and they all recently received a pair of these as part of TOMS buy one give one method of aid where every time they sell a pair of their shoes to someone with money to spend on a “Band-aid stuck to a piece of cardboard” then they also give one pair to some poor person who needs shoes. This isn’t the first time that my brothers have all received TOMS. In fact, it seems to be an annual giveaway here. Unfortunately they don’t ever drop shoes large enough for poor people with big feet, otherwise my roomies would have even taken a pair for me. And I would have proceeded to paint them and use them as beer coozies.

Although I’m happy my friends have some slippers to wear around the house now on my cold tile floor (laces are such a hassle, after all), it irritates the hell out of me to see so many of those flag logos in my house because of the whole principle that my brothers are not the ones who were supposed to receive those shoes. Or at least they’re not the ones who TOMS claims receives their shoes in their advertising. They’re not the poor people in need of something to put on their feet for health and dignity purposes. In fact, although being far from the wealthiest people in town, my roommates probably have some of the most and coolest shoes in town. Because I always bring them back for them from the States. And I KNOW cool shoes. I believe that it’s one of every human beings’ inalienable rights to own at least one pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. And I make sure that my boys are enjoying that right as human beings. I may even be legitimately accused of shoe spoiling my roommates. But hey, I’m not the one on trial here. Just trying to say that if TOMS actually did their research to find the people that really needed their shoes, and live up to their claims, then my brothers would definitely not make the list.

TOMS allowing their footwear to end up on the feet of shoe snobs that aren’t bad off is one thing, but even worse is when their footwear just gets dumped without discretion and all the shoes end up for sale in the market. Fellow Jacmel import, Gwenn Mangine wrote a great blog post about this phenomenon about a year ago (during the last annual drop apparently). She effectively points out that there’s clearly no shortage of shoes in Haiti, but these charity slippers that are marked “not for resale” end up being sold in the market for 50 gourdes, which is probably what the vendor’s family needs worse than shoes. And since she had done such a good job providing witness to this absurd excuse for charity, I didn’t think that I’d have to write about it any more. (Seriously, if you’re not reading her blog, you should be.) But the more I see those shoes on my roommates’ feet the the more I feel the need to write about it more.

And although it’s no secret that I’ve never been a big fan of TOMS, I bring it up more specifically now because I’ve had some people ask me what I think about one of TOMS latest attempts at relevance which includes Haitian “artists” from Jacmel. I’m not the only or the first to criticize TOMS methods of saving people with shoes but it seems that they’re trying to take steps towards proving that they actually care about the culture and the needs of the people that they claim to help by creating a new line of shoes that are all hand painted by a collective of artists in Jacmel. Rather than just taking a pair of foreign made black canvas shoes and dropping them on some “poor” country for every pair of foreign made designed canvas shoes that some not poor person bought, now TOMS are taking the foreign made shoes, shipping them to Haiti, having artists in Jacmel paint each pair by hand, sending them back to the US, selling them for twice the price of their regular shoes, then still sending one of the plain black foreign made shoes back to Haiti to given to someone that they can call in need. You can read more about their description of the program on their website.

Oh, TOMS, you really are trying hard, aren’t you? I appreciate the effort. And for all of my issues with the company, I never have a problem with their original ideas, some of which I actually find pretty innovative. What I have is a problem with their follow through and their logic for why they do what they do. I have a problem with the fact that those free black scraps of fabric are on my roommates’ feet when if they wanted a pair of TOMS shoes any of them could have given me 40 bucks to buy them any pair they wanted online. When it comes to the Jacmel artists, however, what doesn’t make sense to me is the fact that the company seems to see that what people in this area need more than shoes is a job and income. So instead of keep sending shoes to a place that doesn’t really need them, why not use that extra money to help Haitians set up new businesses, even if they are selling shoes? Why not take that extra money and use it to invest in education programs for children instead of pretending like their shoes are allowing more kids to go to school? Why not take the time to find out what these communities actually need instead of just assuming that because you’re a shoe company, giving everyone shoes is really making a difference?

That’s my two cents as a nonprofit guy in Haiti. But, as an artist living and working in Jacmel who knows most other Jacmel artists closely and have been working with them for the last 6 years to try to help them promote their work and make a living off of it, this initiative by TOMS perplexes me on a whole different level. I’ve seen the shoes they’re selling, I’ve watched their video and walked through the streets that it shows on a weekly basis, I’ve even met some of the “artists” that they feature for the shoes although I don’t know them well because they’re not actually artists. Or at least they never were artists until TOMS plucked them off the street and told them to  paint something on one of their shoes. On behalf of the many artists in the city that I know who have worked hard their whole lives to make good art and support their families from their art, I feel like it’s a misrepresentation of the art of the city. Admittedly, I’m pretty sensitive for my artists, and I can’t be against anyone making an income off of their craft, but once again it just seems like TOMS didn’t do their homework before starting this program. If their goal was to encourage Jacmel artists, there are better ways to do it than to put crappy art on the feet of college students, hipsters, and evangelical Christians in the US. If their goal was to create jobs for Jacmel craftspeople, then they at least need to change some of their marketing language, but probably need to reanalyze how great of an impact they could have on job creation in Haiti if they really wanted to.  No matter what their goal, they’d probably be able to reach it more convincingly if they were to actually assess the needs and resources of their communities beforehand rather than just dropping solutions on them.

But since I don’t imagine that’s going to happen any time soon, I guess I’ll just thank TOMS for sending 7 more identical pairs of shoes into my household. We’ll look forward to another 7 next year. Okay, now I promise I’ll never write a whole post about TOMS again. Doesn’t mean I won’t mention them here and there. They’re just too easy of a target.

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