Not unlike Elwood Blues and Joliet Jake, Dan Fowler is on a mission from God
Whereas Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s seminal Blues Brothers characters wanted to save the orphanage in which they were raised, Dan Fowler aims to ameliorate the harsh realities of homelessness in New Orleans, one amazing pair of sneakers at a time. Through Reunion Shoe Company, Fowler has created an apparel brand that provides meaningful work for individuals struggling with the transition from homelessness to wholeness.
Globally, the footwear market is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Carve out just athletic shoes and sneakers, and that number is still astronomical. Millennials are the top consumer of athletic shoes, produced mostly by Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour; and we haven’t even touched on the secondary market for sneakers, which is also a billion-dollar business. None of these facts is news to Dan Fowler, executive director of Reunion Shoe Company, which falls under the nonprofit umbrella of The Restoration Initiative for Culture and Community (or The RICC, as it is commonly called) in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. While the broader mission of The RICC is “to create environments and solutions that build reconciled relationships, instill character, and expand possibilities,” Reunion Shoe Company hones in on those individuals transitioning out of homelessness by providing meaningful work. Beyond the real-world skills of applying for and holding down a regular job, Fowler sees his work as more holistic: establishing a safe space where his team can seek solace and emotional support, while taking refuge from the traumas of a life they are desperate to escape.
So, how does a Tampa boy become a Bywater citizen, intent on facilitating lifelong change for the homeless demographic in New Orleans?
It started with just one blanket.
“My story is one of progressively seeing more and more needs” in the homeless community. Fowler continues: “In high school, I had a cousin who had the problems of homelessness on her heart, and she began collecting blankets to distribute as her way to help. I have been helping her with that mission for about a decade, but that was my first foray into the world of homelessness and addressing the myriad needs of this community. There are so many other aspects to address.”
A passion for the music industry took Fowler to New Orleans where he attended Loyola University, majoring in music industry studies, intent upon pursuing a career in music production and recording music. There is a breadth and depth to the curriculum for this major with classes in “everything from music history to music law to marketing and entrepreneurship to audio recording. I also earned a business minor. While I may not use music or copyright law very often, the hustle and the grind I learned a lot from.” From there, his desire to create art through music and film manifested itself as passion for connection.
As part of his work with Ninth Hour Ministries, he began filming video vignettes with people who are homeless in his adopted city. “I began to create relationships with systems of care and with folks on the streets through donations of supplies. When I got somewhat secure in those relationships, I would be able to ask these people living on the streets if they would be open to being interviewed on camera.” His aim was to humanize and provide an identity to a group of people mostly thought of as nameless and faceless. “We literally just asked each person: Who are you and why are you here? We wanted to learn something from these stories and share them and respond positively.”
It is safe to say that those interactions changed the course of Fowler’s work.
“What I didn’t know would happen was that people really like to talk about themselves, especially people who have been relegated to a life behind a cardboard sign. They don’t get the opportunity to tell that story often. What happened was a two-fold result: we got to learn something, and they got to share something.” Beyond needing more than toiletries and housing, these people needed what we all need: to be seen and heard. Fowler adds, “We went from collecting and providing blankets to discovering that people are more than just cold—they have emotional needs beyond their physical needs. We wanted these videos to be their platform.”
Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 is familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—the concept that every human has five distinct layers of needs that must be met to feel complete and perhaps whole. At the very base of this pyramid are the physical needs of food, water, warmth, and rest, while level two addresses the needs for security and safety. What Dan discovered from his work with the homeless population of New Orleans is that once these basic needs are met—perhaps from a municipal level—they are able to address their psychological needs. Dan discovered that through the Housing First initiative, only the physical needs were being met: “The idea is to get people housed and their safety will improve. The reason it gained such widespread acceptance is that studies were done whereby it showed it made fiscal sense for cities to pay for people’s housing, to spend less than if that same person were on the street and municipalities were covering the expense of EMS bills and higher cleaning costs. While it is great to have these individuals housed—what comes next?”
Removing people who are homeless from the unsafe city streets had the intended consequence of separating them from the only community they knew: “They are removed from the community they had on the street, and the systems of care that were checking in on them frequently are absent. The churches and ministries doing outreach within the homeless community are no longer connected to these individuals. And then there is the obvious problem of finding secure employment in a supportive environment—places that require a little more grace and a little more empathy.”
Enter Reunion Shoe Company, which became a way to address those needs of stable employment in a supportive and understanding environment.
But the obvious question is, Why shoes? Fowler stifles a wry laugh and offers up the backstory.
Around this time, Dan says, “I got involved with Vieux Carre Baptist Church in the French Quarter whose congregation is almost totally made up of folks experiencing homelessness. One of their outreach programs is providing showers and clean clothes for those in need. The pastor, Tom Bilderback, and I were working in that clothing closet together one day, and he pointed to a huge box filled with 1,800+ pairs of bright orange slip-on shoes that had been donated.”
While shoes are one of the most requested and sought-after clothing items the homeless population need, these orange shoes had been produced by and were originally intended for prison inmates—hardly emblematic of the forward trajectory the recipients most desperately want and need. He adds, “Not only were they prison-orange, but they were not very well made or physically supportive for individuals who spend a lot of time on their feet. We literally couldn’t give them away.” But as is often the case, God was more than a few steps ahead, showing Fowler the path he needed to take. “This was about the same time that the wheels had been turning in our heads about some sort of social enterprise endeavor. We (at the RICC) took the shoes with the idea that we could decorate them and perhaps use them in a way to raise awareness for the homeless situation in New Orleans. But honestly, there were really too many problems with those particular shoes, but we realized that shoes were universal—both in their market appeal but also in the appeal to our potential employees.”
Sneakers really are the perfect metaphor for the change Dan and his team envision for the homeless population of New Orleans—an accessible means for moving forward, one step at a time. Each pair of sneakers is hand-decorated with paint and embellishments that speak to the joie de vivre the Crescent City is known for: there are rain boots with the familiar purple, green, and yellow colors, splashed on Jackson Pollock-style. A nod to the New Orleans Saints NFL team is apparent in the Shoe Dat! sneaker with black and gold paint. The high-water high top style, reminds us that this city below sea level often sees its share of rain water clear up the neutral ground of the avenues. Customers can choose to have their Reunion Shoe Company shoes customized to reflect their own distinct personality, while leather patches with the company logo offer instant street cred.
For the population crafting each pair of shoes, the work is more than a creative outlet. Dan and his team ensure work is done in a safe space with emotional support to spare. Fowler notes, “What we have learned about people who have experienced large amounts of trauma (something that can be a precursor to homelessness) is that having a space that is calming, welcoming, and inviting of course, but that is also where they can use their hands to work through, is very meditative—time and again we’d hear, “I need to come to work because I need to calm myself and stay busy.” We thought the creative work would be appealing but soon discovered that the tactile aspect of the work is really invaluable for our employees.”
When asked about his best day running Reunion Shoe Company, Dan sighs heavily and lets loose a small smile. It is easy to see that the tough days often outweigh the good days, as the work he does is extremely challenging. But the story he shares tells you that the balance is tilting in his favor: “I think back to one of the first times that I had two employees here at the same time. I was sitting at my desk and watching them interact with one another and commiserate a little bit—that sounds weird to hear people complaining as a good thing—but I finally felt like I was creating a space that was not about me. The culture was becoming more and more about the people who work here. They were relating to one another in a way that I never could. You know, I can sympathize with that, but I cannot empathize with that. And so they were just talking and relating—on the surface they had nothing in common, except for this one part of their story. I sat there at my desk and started tearing up, thinking, ‘This is what we made this place for.’”
Shoes can be ordered online through the company’s website or at these local retailers:
629 N. Carrollton Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70119
44 West 1st St.
Waconia, MN 55387
To raise awareness for the plight of people who are homeless in New Orleans, Dan would love to get a pair of Reunion Shoe Company sneakers on the feet of some of the city’s best ambassadors: Drew Brees, Harry Connick, Jr., the Preservation Hall band, and many more. Until then, if you would like to support the mission he and his team are powering in New Orleans, please consider donating via their website.