I wanted to work with immigrant women who had the potential to lead, honing their writing skills in English. Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, wanted to create a small exhibition featuring ‘the shoes that brought me to Canada’. We met at a dinner party. Our two ideas came together with a private sponsor and The Shoe Project was born.
Every Thursday last fall I met with twelve women from 18 to 60 who have come to Toronto from the Ukraine, Columbia, and many places in between. Elizabeth opened the rich storage vaults of the Bata and spoke of the cultural significance of shoes. I brought tea, and various members brought cookies. We talked about writing and we talked about immigration. We laughed over expressions using shoes that are common in many languages: ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ was one that puzzled almost everyone. ‘Filling someone’s shoes’ and ‘walking a mile in his shoes’ seem universal. Shoes are really quite profound: intensely personal, they speak of geography, weather, work, religion, and gender. Actually, there is very little that shoes DON”T speak about.
The women all found that they had a shoe-inspired tale. Writing their stories in 800 words was one thing. Providing a 100 word caption for an item on display in a showcase was even harder. One woman’s story is about being smuggled across the border from Eritrea in a pair of Nikes. Another wrote about her terror donning ski boots to take the ultimate test, sliding down on sticks down a hill in the Canadian Rockies. Another brought the tiny Gerber baby shoes her daughter wore when they first touched down in Canada from Pakistan.
By the end of eight weeks each member had written a personal essay and provided the footwear to match. The ‘snapshot’ exhibition where you can see their writing and their shoes opens Feb 9th. The Shoe Project continues this winter, with its members reaching out to help more women in their shoes.