TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.
There are days that change your life. May 31st of 2011 was mine.
And what’s crazy is that I had been preparing for that day for over 10 years. I mean leading up to it I had read books, seen psychologists, meditated, prayed, talked to people that had gone through it, you name it, I tried to prepare.
May 31st of 2011 was the day my father passed away after a brutal 10-year battle with cancer.
My father, who went to law school at 50 years old, was bright and bold. But more importantly, he was my best friend. We had the most special bond I’ve ever experienced.
And we all know the Kubler Ross five stages of grief, I studied that too. Well that day in 2011, I came face to face with that model, not as a concept but as a real-life application. And as much as I prepared and I knew the stages, how do you get through them? How do you navigate through to the other side?
Well one night, honestly out of sheer desperation, I had a wild idea: to create a project. Collect one pair of shoes for each life lost to violence.
Now I’m from Puerto Rico, and I have this burning love for my island so much so that I do start most conversations with “I’m from Puerto Rico.” But my island was and is going through a crisis, and it’s rampant violence. The murder rate there is five times higher than in any city in the United States, and seeing my island be so ill just led me to start the project there.
The idea was to paint each pair of shoes gold in workshops and then find a public forum to display them together as an installation. Golden Shoes Puerto Rico consisted of 1,136 pairs of shoes, one pair for each life lost to violence in the island in 2011.
That led to LA, where I ran a smaller project to honor the Mexican community affected by the 43 students from Iguala, Mexico that were kidnapped and ultimately never found; to Chicago, where we showed 435 pairs of shoes at the Daley Center last October; and the latest project showed just a couple of weeks ago in the murder capital of Florida, Jacksonville, with 119 pairs of shoes.
My vehicle for getting through the stages of grief was creating something.
Now as part of the project, I invite family members that have lost a loved one to violence to come and paint a pair of their loved ones’ shoes themselves any way they see fit.
In Chicago, I met a mother. Her name is Diana. And she had confessed to me that she’d been crying in the car before coming in because she wasn’t sure if she was ready to paint her son’s shoes.
But she came in anyway. And after she painted her son’s shoes meticulously, she smiled, she hugged me, and she said, “Thank you so much for doing this.” The very next day, she showed up to another workshop, this one across town, to volunteer and paint more of his shoes.
Now after the installation, I invite people to take a pair of shoes and place it somewhere else in the city with the promise that they will take a photo and share it on social media. Diana still takes her son DeColbie’s shoes to different places in the city.
Actually, this past March, she posted this: “Second stop on Good Friday. Back to the scene of the crime. Posting flyers, making our presence known without saying a mumbling word. #goldenshoesproject”
See, these workshops where we were painting shoes ended up becoming this space where these really moving experiences occur. Where victims and perpetrators had these profound realizations. Where people get to tell their loved ones stories: that they had just finished high school, that they would never miss a Chicago Bears game. But more importantly, where they get to continue their loved one’s legacy.
By redesigning a pair of the loved one’s shoes, they’re creating and simultaneously creating a narrative for positive change in their community, something that is so necessary for people experiencing this type of grief.
Now, Stefano was only 17 when he was gunned down in a carjacking in Puerto Rico. And since that horrific event, so many people have just continued to create as a form of healing. I met Zorimar, Stefano’s mother, a couple of years ago when she became an advocate for the project, and this woman, she is such a light. Her grace and her ability to smile after such a devastating event has inspired thousands of people. She created a jewelry line in his name and then she got into action on a grander scale by creating the Stefano Steenbakkers Foundation, which has increased organ donations in Puerto Rico.
A family friend painted shoes and Stefano’s name in Chicago, and after the Chicago installation I got an email from a 10th grader. His name is Jack, and he said that he was friends with Stefano. He didn’t want me to bring the project to his city. He wanted to lead it in the city where he now lives: Jacksonville. And his reason? He was not able to go to Stefano’s funeral and he felt that, by doing the project, he was honoring his friend and giving him a proper goodbye.
See, regardless of income, background, or ethnicity, the more that I speak to people, the more I discover that we all know loss in some way, shape, or form. And it comes in so many forms. Divorce, childhood trauma, an illness. Most of us have experienced loss.
And we’re all walking around with these wounds instead of utilizing it to ascend us to our higher selves. In so many ways, this project is what got me through the stages of grief. The mechanism to getting through the stages is creating something.
You know, when I first started the project, I had no idea what I was doing or how I was going to make it happen. But I also didn’t know that every time that I would do one of these challenging projects that I would heal a little bit more. I didn’t know this extraordinary journey would take me on that would stretch me beyond my wildest imagination.
But the most beautiful happenstance is that I get to honor my pops and my island every single golden step of the way. Golden Shoes Project was born from the most difficult time in my life. I drowned, and then I chose to create.
My hope for you today is that you think of your grief, your biggest heartbreak, as your most important tool in creating a lighter and more bearable world.
Use it. Create something. I promise it will heal you in the process. Thank you.