Spread the Tread: Humility

Sometimes we need to take some time to deconstruct our preconceived notions and perceptions, lest our motives, behaviors, actions, and beliefs succumb to the tyranny of pretense.

Pretense /ˈprēˌtens,prēˈtens/: an attempt to make something that is not the case appear true.

In the last two blog posts, we discussed dignity and honor. For this blog post, we’re exploring humility from a rather abrupt angle. (What can we say… we’re after all a little *ahem* proud of our approach). Sometimes in life, the most important ingredient in our perspective and posture is humility. And upon reflection, far to often we find that humility is, in fact, a missing ingredient.

Here are five questions to ask yourself and/or topics to ponder if, for instance, you’ve spent years believing that a “One for One” approach dignifies and honors the recipient and actually fights poverty:

1. Are you someone who likes to jump on bandwagons, or are you someone who isn’t afraid to stand out and stand up for what is right?

2. Do you feel you have a firm grasp of paternalism, it’s implications when it comes to relationships, and it’s historical cultural/political impact over time?

3. Do you value recycling? Re-purposing man-made and non-biodegrade materials? Conserving the environment?

4. Have you ever traveled to Africa? Or any country for that matter. Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone long enough to experience someone else’s – their “lack of comfort”? Their income level? Their experience of raw capitalism and the base economies of our world?

5. Empower vs. Denigrate: Have you ever been offended by a gift? Think back to a time when you were struggling or in need, and someone well-intentioned wanted to help you out. Maybe you politely accepted the gift, but felt bad about yourself. Deep down you knew you could overcome your struggle or need by yourself. And you needed someone to recognize that, respectfully support you in the struggle, and not take all the glory in “overcoming” that struggle. Because their solution was superficial and without empathy you felt beneath them. This is the difference between an empowering approach toward helping another person versus a denigrating one.

Bonus question. Have you studied the rigorous, evidenced-backed research done by this this globally recognized non-profit? (See GiveDirectly). They promote a revolutionary model… simply giving donor’s cash directly to those who need it. They have found that not only is this extremely effective and much more efficient than elaborately designed aid programs, but it is also far more dignifying (and humble). Through these cash transfers, individuals discover their ability and bolster their agency by solving their own problems with solutions that are unique to their culture and context.

To be clear, for those who question why we promote a “walk a mile in their shoes” ideology, it is for the sake of truth, empathy, and effective, dignified development (aid). This is why we are in business; leveraging social enterprise to change lives and transform perceptions with an approach that unfortunately doesn’t seem all that common.

Pretense /ˈprēˌtens,prēˈtens/: an attempt to make something that is not the case appear true. Too often we fall victim to popular approaches or schemes that on the surface really look and feel great. But when dissected, the true motives are usually disguised with a veil of pretense. Handouts and those who promote them are experts in making us proud to give away our materialistic glut… be we really should consider those on the receiving end. This takes that elusive posture of heart, mind, and soul: humility.

This posture is brilliantly conveyed in Poverty Inc. In it, Michael Fairbanks is quoted explaining, “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard… but having a mind for the poor? Now that’s the challenge.” Our hearts are easily swayed and influenced emotionally. But it is our minds that can help us see through superficial approaches to alleviate poverty. When we think about it, the simple humble decision of patiently listening can reveal a lot to us in this life.

So, before jumping on the next bandwagon trend that aims to solve everything for the poor while making you feel exceptionally great about yourself, take a moment. Slow down. Think about someone on the receiving end of this trend or scheme. Better yet, find them. Go to them. Listen to them. No one has all the answers; but together, we can get much closer.

Join us. Walk a mile in their shoes. And let’s all work at being more humble, together.

~Authored by Jackson, of the Atinga Collective

Spread the Tread: Honor

Recently we’ve been talking about what it means to “walk a mile in their shoes.” This is the second in our series of blog posts that explore our core vales of dignity, honor, and humility and how they intersect in our society and globally.

At The Atinga Project, we believe walking a mile in their shoes is the most powerful way to fight prejudice. While there are a lot of important components to this, we’ve been taking the time to unpack the word “Atinga” — which connotes dignity, honor, and humility towards others — in order to better understand how these values relate to “walking a mile in others’ shoes” in our daily lives.

To honor a person means “to regard or treat (someone) with respect and admiration; to show admiration for (someone or something) in a public way” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary).

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about honor is royalty. If someone with this background invited us to dinner with them, we would likely put a lot of thought into the evening. We would wear our nicest clothes, be on our best behavior, and prepare some of the things that we would say. Why put forth so much effort? If we believe that someone deserves honor, we want to make sure they feel, well… honored.

It isn’t every day, though, that a king or a queen invites you to spend time with them. However, this doesn’t mean that honor shouldn’t be a part of the way we live. In our last post, we talked about treating others with dignity. Honoring the people around us looks a lot like treating them with dignity. It means letting people know that you appreciate them, doing things that make them feel valued.

The AP takes honor seriously. As a social enterprise that aims to use business as a force for good, we want to do our best to show honor and dignity to every person we come into contact with. This past summer we rented retail space on the West Side of Buffalo and met a lot of people from many walks of life.  Whether a customer is from the other side of the globe or has lived in Buffalo all of his or her life, we’ve heard some incredible stories! It is our hope that each person walks away from our retail space feeling appreciated and valued.

Similarly, it has been our goal all along that the artisans with whom we partner are honored as well. After all, the footwear that they craft is the basis for our business, and we are representing them here in the U.S. From the very beginning, we sought to put Kigali’s best and (in their own words, most dishonored) artisan-shoemakers at the front and center of our activities. Why? Because our purpose is to show consumers in our society that helping others is not to be confined to just giving to charity. Helping others has to do with our collective actions in the marketplace too. It has to do not only with a corporate responsibility, but with a consumer responsibility — because companies ultimately respond to consumers, their customers have the daunting task of holding them accountable! If customers do not demand transparency alongside a product, there is no way to know if producers are being treated with dignity and thus honored in the production process.

We exist to educate our customers, through an incredibly unique product, that helping others is truly effective when the beneficiaries are honored for who they are as individuals, not just for the products they make. When a company does this, they are “good” — this posture is a major ingredient in the recipe for a “good” company, many of which we have increasingly witnessed grow and thrive in recent years. The “bad” industry process that pays low-wages to workers in economies with lower standards of living is a cycle driven by ill-informed corporate and consumer preference, among other blatant injustices such as prejudice and greed. But when consumers and companies choose to honor the entirety of their supply chain, they together turn that formerly desperate and damaging cycle around.

This can only occur if we start honoring the producers as much as we honor ourselves, the consumers. We will only have an effective impact when we take the time to research a brand before we buy. When our understanding precedes our action. When relating to the people who make our products change us. We want this to be loud and clear in our generation’s marketplace today: the products we buy are from companies that either honor their products’ producers and treat them with dignity, or… they don’t! There is no gray area here.

In addition to paying each artisan a fair wage for the atingas they make, our company’s model generates what we call a Dividend for Development.

We base this D4D model off of Give Directly‘s foundation-shaking work in the field of development studies and program effectiveness. Their work serves as a benchmark for both for-profit and non-profits alike, challenging organizations to measure the effectiveness of their work relative to cash — which means asking the questions, “does our work generate more impact than if we were to just donate cash directly to our beneficiaries? Do our costs to implement a program outweigh the outcomes their benefits created?” Their work not only supports the development of well thought-out initiatives to lift the poor out of poverty, but conveniently, also promotes the essential values of dignity and honor towards the poor.

This past year, 30% of our customers’ purchases went directly back into the hands of each artisan-shoemaker and their families, to be used however they choose.

Showing people that they’re valued, respected, and honored can be a challenge. It takes time that, in our fast paced lives, isn’t always easy to find. But when it’s as simple as our informing ourselves before we spend, that extra mile is worth it. So before you buy this holiday season, take a step back to consider what impact your dollar will have on the other end. Don’t be afraid to ask a company to go that mile, in the shoes of their producers. Tread for change by promoting honor.

~Co-authored by Emily and Chris, on behalf of the Atinga Collective

Spread the Tread: Dignity

At The Atinga Project, we believe walking a mile in their shoes is the most powerful way to fight prejudice. But what exactly does walking a mile in someone’s shoes require? This is the first in a series of blog posts that explore our core vales of dignity, honor, and humility and how they intersect in our work both at home and abroad.

The Atinga Team sees dignity, honor, and humility as essential characteristics for anyone who chooses to walk a mile in the shoes of anyone different than or foreign to them. Much can be said about these values, and as we tread, we want to dig deeper. A dictionary definition of dignity… “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed” (Merriam-Webster). How we understand dignity has a direct impact on how we interact with others. We often find ourselves moving so quickly through life that we don’t take the time to think about how our actions may impact someone else. “In every encounter, we give life or we diminish it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity or we drain it” (Brennan Manning, author and speaker). In other words, our interactions are likely to leave someone feeling better or worse about who they are in some way.

This is a big deal! In our own lives, we have an obligation to treat others with dignity. Our actions should communicate that people are valuable and worthy of respect. On a daily basis, in our own homes and cities, dignity might drive us to ask someone how their day was, and truly listen, rather than dividing our attention. It could mean that we ask our waiter at a restaurant how they are and actually mean it. This can look like a lot of things in a wide variety of places. In its most basic form though, dignity follows when we treat people with respect. It compels us to treat people like they matter.

When we emphasize dignity, the way we live our lives on a daily basis could be radically transformed. The truth is, dignity must extend beyond our locality — even to people that we may never meet. It needs to be a global phenomenon. Every person, regardless of where they come from, should be shown respect and treated with value.

At The Atinga Project, we recognize that, in many cases, it’s difficult to find accurate depictions of individuals who live around the world without excessive associations and ingrained stereotypes. Far too often, our media portrays places like Africa as far away lands that are full of war, disease, and poverty. These representations affect our attitudes, opinions, and actions. They prevent us from treating others with the dignity that they deserve. People the world throughout are different than each other, but there is a common thread of humanity shared by all.

What, again, does all of this have to do with the AP? As you probably know, every pair of atingas are handmade in Rwanda. All you have to do is pick up a pair to see the artistry, resourcefulness, and skill that was required to make each shoe. We ourselves in the West don’t take an ounce of credit for that. Rather, we’re trying to change the story that so often permeates our culture. The culture that says the “other” is not only different, but also deficient. That it’s not good enough. Western culture has a way of comparing all others to itself, labeling whatever doesn’t fit into its worldview, often doing whatever it takes to make other things, even other people, fit. Whatever doesn’t measure up to our standard… well, isn’t worth our time.

Each time we look at the shoes in our booth at the West Side Bazaar, we are reminded that the artisan-shoemakers (our partners and stakeholders) are creative and talented individuals. They have rich histories and vibrant, beautiful families. They have challenges just like we have challenges. Dignity compels us to bring these things to the forefront. It asks us to take stock of these things. It challenges us to reevaluate our perceptions. It prompts us to recognize that while people might live differently, they also have a lot to teach us. Dignity demands that we look people in the eyes and see them not as “other” but instead as individuals with inherent worth.

Treating people with dignity—respecting them, knowing them, appreciating them—is not easy. It often takes us far outside of our comfort zones… But is that really such a bad thing?

The Atinga Team would like to challenge you to continue to tread with us on this journey. We’re intentional about promoting the dignity of others in our lives. Are you? Take time for people. Ask hard questions. Start conversations. Seek to understand. I once heard a quote that said, “You don’t give people dignity, you affirm it” (Perkins). So whatever it might look like… walk a mile in their shoes by looking to affirm the dignity of others—both at home and around the world, wherever you tread.

~Emily, on behalf of the Atinga Collective

Tread for Change.

At The Atinga Project, we want to be completely honest and transparent in what we’re about, what we struggle through, what we overcome, and what we learn in failures. This simply reflects our core values.

We’ve been learning much about just how hard it is to “walk a mile in their shoes” throughout the throes of a social enterprise start-up in the footwear industry. It’s been quite a learning curve with regards to what is involved in manufacturing shoes… From the start, our values have set us at odds against the typical path to profits and operational norms!  But alas… this is part of the adventure, part of the purpose… and part of the goal.

Walking a mile in their shoes… is perhaps the most powerful revelation that Western institutions, charities, and modern-day consumers need at this time

Atinga exists to challenge stereotypes – the status quo – and fight both poverty and the prejudices that continue to perpetuate it across the globe. We see it locally in Buffalo, as well as in Rwanda where Atinga’s artisan-shoemakers (our partners and chief stakeholders) reside.

You may have seen our #treadforchange hashtag. Everything expressed above and in our mission is summarized with those three words; conveniently, also it relates to the three words that best describe the deep meaning of “atinga”: dignity, honor, and humility.

Recently, we’ve been faced with tough decisions. Jean, our supply chain manager in Rwanda, recovered (thankfully) last week from malaria. One of Atinga’s artisans had to move, is unreachable at this time by phone, and is likely struggling financially. Another artisan’s child has been suffering with hydrocephalus for over two years, and he has not been able to afford the medical procedure necessary to save his life.

So in the midst of making well-calculated business decisions, we are faced with the harsh realities and obstacles as described above, while running a social business internationally, without many resources at our disposal. I know now what the artisans meant in November when (at the close of this video) they cheered “turi kumwe!” in Kinyarwanda. Translated, this means “we are one”. We are certainly in this together.

And that is right where we, as a small organization promoting an audacious ideology, need to be. It’s what The Atinga Project is founded on. The simple value and conviction that we do not have all the answers. We as Westerners can come up with answers, sure. Just ask Google. Easy. …But the right answers? Not so easy. 

Big businesses and corporations continue to promote socially conscious spending and attractive marketing ploys with a focus, ultimately, on the experience and empowerment of… the consumer. Ultimately benefiting who? …the company and their bottom line. The perception is that the recipients of products or services in the developing world are the ultimate beneficiaries.

We ourselves at Atinga are not so quick to jump on or perpetuate that bandwagon without seeing data, company financials, and ultimately, the overwhelmingly affirmative word from the beneficiaries/recipients themselves. That is why our D4D business model is based on the statistics and practices of the non-profit Give Directly. We share many beliefs about the global and local poor, as well as aspiring to a methodology of measurements in order to give our customers the best form of media: the chance to hear directly from beneficiaries. Honest, transparent PR. Because our company and our suppliers are one. Without Atinga artisans, there is no business in the West. And without the West’s willingness to buck trends and walk a mile in their shoes, there is only meager local business for artisan-shoemakers and little opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

We’ve seen first hand that Western programs and answers are often ineffective or fail completely because there is no credible, authentic walk with the recipients of aid or learning from the beneficiaries of an initiative. Ownership in their hands (or shoes) and walking together as one transforms lives and restores communities.

Walking a mile in their shoes – taking the time to selflessly and peacefully understand the perspective of “the other” – is perhaps the most powerful revelation that Western institutions, charities, and modern-day consumers need at this time in our globalized nation and world. The AP challenges you to truly take a step toward permanently implementing this revelation in your life, whatever that looks like. Take action. Tread for change.

-Chris, on behalf of the Atinga Collective

What does it mean to walk a mile in another person’s shoes?

To me, the word that describes all the feelings that come to mind is probably humility. Because when I think about it, I like my own shoes. Sure they might be a little dirty and have some scuff marks on the heels, but they just fit so nice with the curves of my feet, worn in in all the right places. I know them, just like my life, and I am comfortable and safe with what I know in my own little world.  Trying on someone else’s shoes could be dirty, messy, sweaty.  It could make me uncomfortable. It could make my life less easy, even challenging.

To step into someone else’s shoes means I need to step out of the ones I’m already in, out of my comfort zone.  It means admitting how much I don’t know, and that there is more to life than the one I am living.  It’s realizing this life is not meant to be lived for me; it is about so much more than me and how I fit into it.

As I leave my shoes behind, it makes me a bit unsure. I feel awkward, not knowing what to do. But when I step into the shoes of someone else, I look up and see thankfulness. Thankfulness that someone cares enough to want to get to know them. To understand their life and where they are coming from.

I have traveled to and spent time in a handful of countries all over the world, and instead of finding how different we all are I actually think our hearts are very much the same in this way.  I’ve realized there are ties that unite us all.  I think that people everywhere just want to know that someone sees them where they are.  To know that someone cares. That they aren’t alone or forgotten. That someone wants them and for someone to tell them there is hope.

So back to the question. What does walking in someone else’s shoes look like?

Maybe just to stop living life walking past people as if they don’t exist, hurrying to get on to the next thing we must check off our “to do” list. To not simply feel bad for a few minutes when we see or hear about other people who are hurting or poor or in need and go on living unchanged. If we actually started walking with others and stopped fighting so hard to keep our lives perfect and separated from the ones who are trudging through a harder path than us, I think we’d find the that there is real purpose in that journey.

I don’t think starting to walk in someone else’s shoes, stepping into their world, is as complicated as it may seem, either. A smile. An encouraging word. Taking time out of your day to just talk with someone, really talk, about how they are doing. And listening. Because everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a part in this story of life to play. We all have things to teach each other, something to bring and something to receive. Things that we would never know unless we traded our shoes to walk a mile in someone else’s.

-Christine, on behalf of Atinga Collective

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

Jump in. Feet first. Tread, foot, n’tire.

The imprint of a natural foot. The artificial tread marks of a tire. What is symbolic about treads, feet, and tires?

  • Each go places. 
  • Each stop somewhere, sometimes frequently. Sometimes for a long time.
  • Each turn around entirely, at some point.
  • Each of them leave a distinct, sometimes permanent, mark.

The ultimate thing that treads and feet and tires have in common is perspective. Each mode of transport, of ‘going’ places, affords us an opportunity to relate to different cultures, places, and most importantly, to people. Sometimes what we need most, in order to effect the most meaningful change in this world, is simply a right or renewed perspective from other peoples’ point of view.

Doing good is not a one-time purchase of a shoe void of character, story, and impact but rather a one-time decision that can change your character, your story, and your impact.

Tires carry us over great distances, feet tread slowly upon the ground; and if you are fortunate enough to have a pair of atingas, you can do both at the same time. Wherever you are in the world, wherever you tread, you can walk in humble footwear that has already been to the ends of the earth. When you walk in a pair of atingas, you walk on a story, on the history of the tires beneath your feet. But most of all, walking in a pair of atingas is walking with renewed eyes to see the ever-unfolding story of where you are, the people that surround you, and the prejudices you once had melt away.

Tires just sit and don’t benefit anyone. Actually, rotting tires tend to do harm to all creation (much like prejudice). They often breed mosquitoes and diseases, and cause an array of environmental problems. Most people have recognized tires as a “one-way” product because there really is nothing to do with them after their treads wear down. Just like old, rotting tires, our own worn, stubborn perspectives and inaccurate perceptions of people and places also beg a similar redemption.

But add a pair of hands (the creative human touch) and feet to a pile of discarded tires and what was once a useless thing becomes a new thing, stronger and perhaps even more useful than before. Redeemed.

Creative people throughout the world, and Atinga artisans in Africa, have for decades learned how to take something hopeless and turned it into something new, something powerful, something that can not only last, but have lasting impact for good. I’m not only talking about tires here – I’m referring to an attitude, a spirit. Somehow, these people possess a resilient, even joyful perspective on life despite the most dire or impoverished circumstances. …The way I have discovered it is by walking in their shoes.

Africa’s most humble footwear, atingas, symbolize the reality of those who live life in these very circumstances. The word “atinga” itself (historically Ghanaian), refers to these people that make up the working classes and peasantry of Africa. So, just like an Atinga’s attitude and surprisingly joyful spirit, atinga footwear last. They take you places. They give you perspective: a much needed perspective that fights both prejudice and poverty. Good [economic] impact for those who make them, good [social] impact for those who wear them, and good [environmental] impact for our green earth… for which we are mutually responsible.

Something so astounding as the life of an “Atinga” requires us (in the West) to throw aside plenty of meaningless things that weigh us down and jump in feet first, tenaciously chasing after a new perspective, and preparing to become effective for good – no matter where we find ourselves, no matter where we go, and even while we go.

Doing good is not a one-time purchase of a shoe void of character, story, and impact but rather a one-time decision that can change your character, your story, and your impact. It’s the shoes that keep on giving, that give back mile after mile. Atingas give us in the West a chance to step into a new and overdue perspective, all simply from walking a mile in their shoes.

-Chris, on behalf of the Atinga Collective