An Empathy Museum exhibit asks you walk in someone else’s shoes, literally and figuratively

5 min. read
The Empathy Museum’s traveling “A Mile in My Shoes” exhibit is ready to open downtown, an early installation of this year’s Biennial of the Americas, Aug. 8, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Biennial of the Americas, the festival meant to link all Americans northern, southern and central, returns to Denver this September, but you don't have to wait to get a taste of their theme this year: empathy.

On Friday, the Empathy Museum's traveling exhibit, "A Mile in My Shoes," opens off the 16th Street Mall at Tail Tracks Plaza between Wynkoop and Wewatta Streets. It's a pop-up shoe store where visitors can try on footwear from 30 local storytellers and grab some headphones to literally walk around in their shoes while you hear them telling personal tales. It will be on the Mall through Sept. 27, after which it will move to Civic Center Park for the full Biennial celebration.

Erin Trapp, the Biennial's executive director, said she and her team have been planning the empathy-centric gathering for two years. But in the last few weeks, she said, the theme has become significantly more relevant.

As political divisions, outright racism and the "ongoing national nightmare of mass shootings" have become daily topics of discussion, Trapp said it's time we start thinking about how to care for each other a little more.

"There's a whole range of things we need to do, and empathy is at the root of a lot of them," she said. "How could it hurt if everyone, everywhere, took a moment to think about someone else's experience?"

An array of shoes you'll find at the installation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Erin Trapp, executive director of the Biennial of the Americas, introduces the exhibit. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The installation fits in nicely with the Biennial's mission to "connect people from North and South America," Trapp said. That takes place in conversations about economics, travel, identity and art. But it's also about connecting people within our local community.

Suzi Q. Smith, a writer and poet, is one of the local voices you'll hear inside. Her story centers around her childhood, the difficulties, traumas and shifts that we experience at a young age. She chose an old, uncomfortable pair of sneakers to donate to the installation.

"I felt like that was the best representation of the story," she said, "something you might anticipate being comfortable and you put them on and you're like, 'Oh, these are stiff and they're hard and they're not really that easy to walk in.'"

Another is Emily Harvey, a triathlete who's used a prosthetic since her leg was amputated when she was very young. She tells the story of completing the Boulder IRONMAN last year, when her bike got stuck in a tough gear early into the 112-mile ride. She finished just 48 seconds shy of the 17-hour limit.

"I really just wanted to share my story to help people see that, sometimes when we think things are too hard, if we just keep going we can get through them," she said.

People can transcend the limits they put on themselves or those we allow others to put on us, but she said it can be hard. She hopes someone wearing her cycling shoes or seeing her prosthetic inside the shoe shop might realize their own barriers can be overcome with the right mindset.

Emily Harvey smiles for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Emily Harvey's prosthetic leg and foot and a pair of sneakers checked out from the installation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Trapp said she doesn't think the installation will "solve the world's problems," but she also doesn't think it's a futile or meaningless effort. One of their Biennial-wide goals this year is to show that "empathy is a muscle," something people can learn and be taught to strengthen. Even small efforts can help people broaden their worldviews.

Smith, who deals in stories and empathy in her everyday work, said any effort to touch peoples' hearts can be a radical statement.

"When we are battling so much disconnection from our humanity and our fellow human beings, creating anything that allows us to take a moment and feel is its own form of movement, its own form of activism," she said. "It's a really critical component to social justice movements because if it's not rooted in the heart, if it's not engaged in the heart, then it's not going to endure."

She said hearing people's voices and, yes, actually wearing their shoes transforms these stories into experiences that will stick with visitors.

Chef shoes, work boots and glittery pumps (once owned by a drag queen) are among the pairs you'll find at the exhibit. When its stint in Denver is over, all 30 pairs and recorded stories will travel around the globe as "A Mile in My Shoes" travels to its next destinations.

Shoe clerks inside the exhibit. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Artist Jonathan Saiz checks out a pair of sneakers. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Inside the shoe store. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Suzi Q. Smith makes young Ming Zen smile. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
A woman wears a pair of sparkling pumps once owned by a drag queen. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Empathy Museum's traveling "A Mile in My Shoes" exhibit is ready to open downtown. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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