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When Jamal Burger, Christian Epistola, and Mac Madrigal were growing up in and around downtown Toronto, sneakers meant a lot. For Madrigal they were what his older brother wore, and whatever his older brother wore, he thought must be dope. For Epistola they were a status symbol, a way to establish an identity among kids who didn’t look like him. For Burger they were everything: the be-all end-all—what he had to have, by any means necessary. “Each of us came at sneakers in very different ways, from different realities and different access points,” Burger told me recently, in an interview over Zoom. But for all of these guys, in childhood, one point resonated: sneakers were never just shoes.
These days, Burger, Epistola, and Madrigal have transformed that passion for sneakers into a force for positive social change: They’re the guys behind The Kickback, a charitable organization and series of youth programs founded and based in Toronto. It started in 2017 as a shoe drive with a mission to connect adolescents from around the city with new or gently used pairs of streetwear-adjacent sneakers, bringing a serious flair for street style and an intimate knowledge of the culture to the basic task of hooking up various kids in need with footwear. “I was thinking about all the trouble I used to get into just to try to get sneakers,” Burger says of the original idea. “Imagine if instead, you could just give kids sneakers for free. These kids are going to find a way to get them either way. Maybe this will keep them out of trouble.”
“When we give out sneakers we want to say: we understand. We’ve lived through the same experiences as you.”
It would take a true sneakerhead to appreciate the scope of what these guys have managed to do here. To date, they’ve handed out more than 6000 pairs of sneakers, but it goes beyond numbers: it’s what they’ve given out that is so remarkable. “We’ve had OVO 8s. Five or six pairs of Off-Whites. Jordan 3s, 4s, 5s, 12s. Some Dunks. Rock-A-Fella Air Force Ones,” Madrigal rattles off when I ask about some of the highlights. “We’ve always emphasized quality over quantity, and we know what kids will and won’t like,” Burger adds. “When we give out sneakers we want to say: we understand. We’ve lived through the same experiences as you. And choosing the right sneakers is our way of demonstrating that understanding.”
But true to form, for Burger, Epistola, and Madrigal, The Kickback is about so much more than handing out sneakers. “After we did our first shoe drive event we felt it was this great moment in time. We did another, and again it was a beautiful moment—but we didn’t want the moment to pass,” Madrigal recalls. “We realized we could be doing so much more.” Madrigal had experience as a barber, so he called some friends in the business, and they started doing free cuts in the neighborhood. “A haircut is a haircut. It’s something a lot of kids in the community can’t afford,” he says. “But it comes with so much power and confidence.”
“If the city can’t do it, we have to show them that we can do it—that we can change the way things work because the world is different today.”
After the haircut drive—they called it Confident Cuts—the guys were on a roll. So they swiftly moved onto the next thing. Madrigal liked to run. Why not create a run club? They started meeting up on Wednesdays and Sundays to run with kids. And that, too, became a hit with the community. “There was no real foresight except saying let’s just commit to this idea,” he says. “But the consistency is what drove it to be another successful program. It’s a really fun way to spend your Sunday.” Again, sneakers are at the heart of the program, but it’s blossomed into so much more. “The sneaker conversation is there and it’s the starting point. But it’s opened up into so many different languages. It’s grown into something incredible.”
Epistola’s first job out of university was working with the City of Toronto in the field of youth programs. But he noticed something bleak: kids weren’t coming. “Kids would only come out to these youth programs if there was free food or if there was something they could take away, like some money,” he explains. He could hardly blame them. “We did these programs as kids ourselves. And the events I was facilitating—they were the exact same programs. Nothing had changed since we were youth.” Epistola envisioned The Kickback as a way to connect with these same youth, for the same reasons, on updated terms—terms today’s youth would relate to and understand. “It became about reinventing youth programming,” he says.
Burger feels similarly about the vision. “My sister goes to the same summer camp now that I went to 20 years ago,” he points out. “The world is changing and has changed, but they don’t have the resources to do more. If the city can’t do it, we have to show them that we can do it—that we can change the way things work because the world is different today.” As The Kickback grows and continues to evolve, Burger is excited about what’s on the horizon. But he is keen to point out that they won’t forget their roots, either. “Some charities grow and grow and grow but then forget where they started,” he says. “COVID has really grounded us. We’re keeping sneakers a part of it, but there are so many qualities of the sneaker that allow us to be so creative in our approach.”
So, look out for these guys in 2021. “Expect some big ideas,” Burger says. “Expect some really cool stuff.”