a group of young people from the Kickback program holding shoes

Photography Courtesy of The Kickback

The Kickback turns shoes into opportunities for Toronto youth

Photographer Jamal Burger’s passion project mentors inner-city kids and helps make their futures brighter

It all started with a pair of sneakers—and a sudden growth spurt.

Jamal Burger was a kid in Toronto’s Regent Park, whose mother was raising him on her own. “I remember going from a kid’s size to an adult size,” he says. “Growing up with a single mom, I didn’t want to ask her to buy me a $200 pair of shoes, so I thought, ‘What am I going to do to get them myself?’” At around age 12, Burger says he started stealing and reselling things in order to afford new sneakers. “I know kids in these communities [who are like I was]; they have good intentions but don’t have the guidance to make the right decisions sometimes. They think, ‘This is all I can do.’”

Now 26, Burger is a hard-working photographer and the co-founder of The Kickback, a youth organization that collects gently used shoes and puts them to creative use. Through his work, Burger is able to serve his community the best way he knows how: through art, outreach and creating the spaces he didn’t have access to growing up. The Kickback’s programs aim to strike the perfect balance between offering access to things that matter to youth and giving them the mentorship they need.

The Kickback founder Jamal Burger in back of car

The organization’s sneaker drives collect gently used shoes and provide them to youth from low-income communities. They also often pass along extra pairs for youth to gift to others in need—which Burger says is an opportunity to teach the importance of paying it forward. “It’s their job to give the shoes away creatively and provide positive messaging on the shoeboxes,” he explains. “I want them to surpass me in every way and give more back to the community as a result.”

“[Shoes are] like this mode of conversation,” explains Burger. “If I give [a youth] a pair they actually like, they just understand that we speak the same language,” he says, adding that he doesn’t give participants any pair of shoes that he himself wouldn’t wear. “They go back to school with a fresh pair that they feel confident about. And when you’re confident, everything becomes a little bit easier. We try to address all of those needs and social circumstances that no kid wants to be in.”

Young people make shoes as part of the Kickback program

Before founding The Kickback in 2017 with friend Christian Epistola, Burger was shooting photos for brands like Nike, VitaminWater, LG and the NBA after leaving a kinesiology program at the University of Toronto to pursue photography full-time. He also runs a production company, Tier Zero, with a group of close friends, so the leap to community organization was a natural one. “I got to a certain point where people were paying me to travel and make a living,” he explains. “It was something that was never presented to me as an opportunity growing up, so I needed to share that information to let kids know that it’s possible.”

So while shoe drives are a central part of The Kickback’s mission, they aren’t its sole focus. Rooted in a deep understanding of the communities the organization serves and Burger’s desire to introduce youth to new ideas and opportunities, The Kickback offers an array of free youth-focused programming, including workshops on sneaker design and music history, fundraising, summer camp programming and group discussions about unique career paths. Youth may attend a session on how to DJ or participate in a workshop where everyone takes a shoe apart—right down to the last seam—to see how it all goes together. “Our kids learn how to deconstruct the Nike Air Force and hear about the careers that are associated with sneaker design,” Burger explains. “There’s an opportunity for them to explore design, and know that the drawings they do in class are actually worth something.”

A display of many basketball shoes from the Kickback program

During the summer, the organization also offers camp programming, such as basketball and other fitness activities, as well as workshops and deep-dive conversations that shed light on questions some youth may not get to ask in their day-to day-lives. “We’re talking about things like, ‘What do you do and when you’re the only one in your group of friends who wants to be positive?’” says Burger.

He often prompts youth to think creatively and set personal goals that go beyond expectations placed on them by parents, school, society and, ultimately, themselves. He offers up an example of a young participant who wanted to become a dental hygienist but felt that their desire to travel the world conflicted with that professional goal. “I’ll say something like, ‘Open clinics in different countries and figure out how you can make people smile all over the world’” says Burger. “It’s about getting them to think bigger so that they’re working harder and waking up with a more driven mentality.”

Burger is taking his own advice and expanding his vision for the organization itself: It recently held a sneaker drive in Panama and raised funds for much-needed repairs to a school there. Now he’s planning to take The Kickback to Chicago, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic later this year.

A group of Kickback program participants seated outside on rocks

But as his vision expands, Burger is finding he also wants to put down roots. The Kickback currently runs out of a handful of spaces, such as community centres and partners’ facilities, but the five-year plan is to create a special, permanent place for the program to grow. “The dream is to have a space [in Toronto] where kids can come and feel safe,” he says. “We want to be able to do our programs, which are very mobile, while still having a home base.”

While Burger welcomes monetary donations via the organization’s website, he says the most important form of help the public can offer to The Kickback is community and resource support, as well as shoe donations for upcoming drives. “People can donate new or lightly worn sneakers, and they can also join our run club,” says Burger. The collective’s weekly running meetups are ultra-casual and offer members—who range in age from 12 to 30 and come from all over the city—the opportunity to empower and learn from one another. The laid-back atmosphere means the runs are the perfect place for discussions about self- and community improvement. “I want people to realize they need to invest more in the community,” says Burger. “Everything you invest into the city contributes to its growth, so helping us run our program means you’re helping build Toronto.”

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