Solidarity. Empathy. Action.

What does it mean to walk in someone else’s shoes?

I had the opportunity to do this and find solidarity with those who find themselves homeless in Washington, DC (my hometown) this past summer. Let me be clear, this is not something that was easy or that I wanted to do because it was a trendy adventure. It was beyond tough. I panhandled/begged, ate from trashcans, was harassed, spent the night hidden just a few yards from active prostitution, had no idea where my next meal would come from or when, got kicked out of a church, was unrecognizable to acquaintances that passed by, and so much more. I am  sure you may have a million questions and concerns about why I lied about my background, and took resources from those in need… but to that end, I have a million answers and additional stories. However, it cannot be denied that this experience profoundly opened my eyes. Sometimes it’s easy to absentmindedly make assumptions or even harsh judgements, but how often do I stop to hear someone’s story? How often do I assume that it is mental illness or substance abuse that has caused someone’s homelessness? How often do I not even acknowledge someone’s existence because it’s uncomfortable or I’m “too busy”? Never underestimate the power of bestowing dignity.

Walking for hours a day in your own city to find food, to find a way to spend or waste time, to find money, to find basic necessities, and to find shelter will wear you out and will not only humble you, but also humiliate you. This humbling, humiliating solidarity with the homeless transformed rapidly into empathy. But empathy only finds its worth if it leads to action. Action can appear in many forms. It doesn’t have to be moving to Africa to work with orphans. It can take place wherever we are with whatever little we may have. Action certainly can be selling everything you have, sacrificing hours as a mentor, but it can also be simply making it a point to acknowledge people’s humanity and to share a smile or, even better, a story. Those four days in the fortunately beautiful weather of early June that I slept in an alley only 2 miles from my house were just a microscopic glimpse into the harsh realities millions face daily around the globe. Walking in someone else’s shoes provides an inevitable paradigm shift.

I learned in my undergrad studies in International Relations and International Development that poverty is a series of broken relationships. Broken relationships with the economy, with family members, with governments and so forth are what cause the most colossal and complex of social ills. The Atinga Project is a chance to repair broken relationships one shoe at a time. It provides economic reconciliation for Rwandan artisans and awareness and solidarity for the wearers of these sandals. It’s mutual transformation as solidarity=empathy=action. Atinga’s Honor, Dignity and Humility go hand in hand with Solidarity, Empathy and Action. How incredible that buying a pair of sandals does all of these things at once?! We may not all be able or called to the streets of DC or Rwanda, but we are all called to action. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa puts it this way, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Smile at someone, listen to someone’s story, build someone a hut, buy someone groceries, mentor someone, provide a job for someone … because at the end of the day, all of those “someones” have a name and have story. Walk a mile in their shoes; you’ll never regret it.

-Tiffany, on behalf of Atinga Collective

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