This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.

Leave it to Canada to make “nice kicks” even nicer. Jamal Burger and Christian Epistola (and their core group of friends) are the minds behind The Kickback, a Toronto-based charity using new and gently worn sneakers to empower “adolescents who would make the most out of them,” according to the group’s website. But this isn’t just a shoe drive.

What makes The Kickback different is its embrace of sneaker culture. Every shoe given away is tied to an event designed to encourage creativity in underprivileged youth. During the program – for example, a DIY workshop - mentors from The Kickback connect with the young attendees, using sneakers as a conversation starter. (Think Big Brothers, Big Sisters with better shoes.)

At the end of the program, each attendee goes home with support, encouragement, and a pair of sneakers. This is where the sneaker culture gets real – and real impactful.

“We wouldn’t give away a pair of sneakers unless we’d wear them ourselves,” states Burger. “A lot of others talk up their donation numbers, but would you wear every single one of those 20,000 pairs they gave out with your freshest outfit? I’m not sure.”

Burger, Epistola, and their team hand-select every one of the shoes The Kickback… well, kicks back. By giving kids in the communities they serve high-quality (and stylish) shoes, they fight the stigma of taking charity while encouraging personal growth in the process.

The Kickback has given over 2500 pairs of curated sneakers since starting just three years ago. Memorable donations include Cement 3’s, Varsity Red 6’s, and many other pairs of Jordans and Yeezys.

Last fall, the organization partnered with resale platform Grailed to host a charity sale featuring donated pairs from athletes including Victor Cruz and Toronto’s own Kyle Lowry. Proceeds from the sale were used to buy shoe grails for underprivileged youth - like Christian, a 15-year-old from Cruz’ hometown of Patterson, NJ who wanted “Cap and Gown” Jordan 11’s to celebrate an upcoming graduation.

“Sneakers aren’t just a tool for safe walking,” says Epistola. “They build confidence. They build identity.”

It's something The Kickback duo knows the importance of first-hand. “I grew up in a neighborhood where I didn’t look like anyone else in my community,” Epistola continues. “I was a lost youth.”

Both Burger and Espisola grew up in adjacent parts of Toronto’s immigrant neighborhoods - the former in Regent Park, the latter in The Esplanade. “You don’t necessarily associate with kids from different communities,” Epistola explains. “You acknowledge them. You know who they are and what they’re good at.” Although they both knew of each other, they wouldn’t connect until college.

By then, Burger had gotten a start in photography. A childhood interest led to a full-time job which led to an outreach that would change his life.

“The sneaker store Livestock asked me if I would work for them, and I told them I would if they bought me a better camera,” tells Burger. “I asked the manager: ‘If I worked for a year for free, would you buy me a camera?’ That fast-forwarded everything.”

Armed with a better camera, Burger’s photography career took off. The impact of that act of generosity - coupled with Burger’s own desire to do good in his community - catalyzed The Kickback.

The organization began with a Toronto-area shoe drive in the summer of 2017. Since then, The Kickback has hosted basketball tournaments in New York, Sneaker Week seminars in Portland, and countless other community events. A basketball tournament in the Dominican Republic and charity run in Puerto Rico are planned for later this year.

“The owner of Livestock told me: ‘once you can give back, give back.’ I had no idea what that would look like, but here we are. He gave me an opportunity.”

Now, The Kickback works to provide opportunities for kids just like Burger and Epistola - young people, both in Toronto and all over the world, who might harbor creative passions but not have the role models, resources, or educational opportunities to make the most of them.

Sneakers provide the cross-generational, cross-cultural conversation starter. The Kickback team does the rest.

“I was once one of those kids that dreams and ideas surrounding the creative arts, but never felt encouraged to pursue anything,” Burger recalls. “The whole idea of this comes from learning what it looks like to make a living doing what you love. It’s something they don’t tell inner city kids is possible. Society is more concerned with making sure they don’t get in trouble. When they’re concerned with that, the kids don’t have the time or the energy to figure out what they love doing.”

“It’s all about encouraging opportunity. We start that conversation with sneakers.”

For more information on The Kickback, visit their website.

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