Stroll Brixton as you listen to a story from the 81 Uprising

man with shoes in box
Victor Sarpong shows some original 80s shoes with colleague Tofunmi inside the shoe box on Windrsuh Square

Until Thursday 27 April, Brixton’s Windrush Square is the scene of an unusual “creative intervention” marking the anniversary of the 1981 Uprisings in Brixton and other British cities.

A giant shoebox created from a shipping container, will offer anyone who wants to try them a pair of shoes from someone who was there in 1981 and a brief audio story about the events at that time that can be listened to on headphones from the shoebox while walking around Brixton.

A Mile in My Shoes: ’81 Uprisings asks people to take a moment out of their day and step into the life of a stranger who lived through the events of 1981.

Supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the installation invites them to walk a mile in the shoes of one of 35 storytellers and listen to their words through headphones, heading out on a physical and empathic journey “that might change how you see the world,” say the organisers from the Brixton-based Empathy Museum.

The shoebox is open from noon to 6pm daily. Participation is free and open to all.

urban street scene with giant shoebox installation
The giant shoebox in front of the Bovril wall on Brixton’s Windrush Square

A Mile in My Shoes: ’81 Uprisings builds on Empathy Museum’s acclaimed participatory public art events which began in 2015.

It worked with Brixton-based 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance and The Ubele Initiative to produce a bespoke version of A Mile in My Shoes to “commemorate and reclaim” the events of 1981.

Empathy Museum invited 35 people from Brixton, Handsworth in Birmingham, Moss Side in Manchester, Toxteth in Liverpool and St Pauls in Bristol to share their “tender, surprising, and nuanced stories” of how the happenings of the 1980s reverberated throughout homes, streets, and communities. 

Tales of childhood, love, art-making, coming-of-age, sexuality, family, activism, conflict, community, music, dancing, and more, can be heard.

“The result is an expansive and intimate portrait of a Black British generation who shaped Britain in ways we all still live with today,” says the museum.

man trying on shoes
Leo Shire helps a customer get the right fit for his temporary shoes

Each story has been professionally produced by award-winning audio producers who have worked across the BBC, Netflix, CBC, Somerset House, Serpentine Gallery, and many other places.

Olivia Douglass, story producer at the museum, said: “It has been a privilege and a joy to produce these stories which vibrate with such urgency, reckoning and vitality.

“Connecting with each storyteller’s personal history, and how they want it to be told, has been at the heart of this project and in turn, has enriched my own sense of Black British identity and belonging.”

Leroy Cooper, who shares his experience of the Toxteth uprisings in Liverpool, said: “Against all the odds something magical, beautiful and exemplary has been achieved and you have recorded my humanity and spirit for posterity.”

writing on wall
Inside the shoebox

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, project director at the Ubele Initiative, said many voices were missing from the Scarman Report that followed the 1981 events,

“More than 40 years later, Reclaiming Community Heritage and Empathy Museum will bring some of those voices back into the heart of Brixton. Our intervention will amplify the experiences of folx who lived through the Uprisings but are yet to be heard.

“Come to Brixton and find out why – as British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson put it – 1981 is “the most significant date in the history of black experience in Britain.

“You will learn – and not just about Black lived experience in the eighties. You will learn about our shared heritage. Because the Uprisings of 1981 are a heritage that we all, every one of us in Britain, inherit.”

The Empathy Museum was established in 2015 by philosopher Roman Krznaric and is led by artist Clare Patey.

notes pinned to a board
You can leave a review of your experience

It uses storytelling and dialogue to explore how empathy can not only transform personal relationships, but also help to tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.

A Mile in My Shoes’ shipping container shoebox has popped up in parks and public squares in 15 countries across four continents, sharing more than 500 stories and inviting over 100,000 people to walk a mile in the shoes of a stranger.

The Ubele Initiative, an African diaspora-led social enterprise, partnered people behind the pioneering Brixton-based 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance, to strengthen its National Lottery Heritage Fund backed project: Reclaiming Community Heritage.

81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance, a grassroots strategy for social change around the legacy of the 1981 uprisings, grew from community-led conversations in Brixton beginning in 2016.

The project is backed by Friends of Windrush Square and Lambeth council.