Noticed a slimmer selection of women's shoes on shelves around town? Local men have been snagging them up so that on Saturday, April 24, they can strap on high heels and raise awareness about sexual assault.
"A lot of people think that sexual assault is just a women's issue, but it's not," says Robin Payne, development and marketing consultant with Our VOICE, a nonprofit serving those affected by sexual violence and the organization behind the upcoming Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event. The walk's main goal, Payne notes, is to bring men to the table and open their eyes. "Every man has a woman in his life. This is a chance for them to hear about a topic that's not on their radar screen everyday," she says.
Last year, more than 350 Walk a Mile in Her Shoes events were held in cities across the country, including Hendersonville. This year’s local walk, which takes place during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, is the first for Asheville. So far, Payne says, response has been amazing. "We're so blessed to live here, where people are really open to ideas like this."
On the list of those open-minded supporters, you'll find many well-known area men: Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt, Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan, Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell, and Mix 96.5 Morning Show host Ken Ulmer, to name a few. These Ashevilleans have already donned high heels for press photos. But just moments into the experience, it was clear that the men were good-natured but perhaps anxious about actually walking in the footwear.
"Standing in heels confirmed my belief that if I were named King, I would ban them entirely," Bothwell says, confessing that his strategy for the walk is to find a pair that fits his size-12 foot closely, making completing the mile slightly less of a "very dim possibility."
Police Chief Hogan echoes Bothwell's sentiment and says that although his wife is getting a kick out of the whole thing, she recognizes the difficulty of the task ahead and is helping him hunt for a manageably heeled pair.
Both Hogan and Bothwell are longtime supporters of Our VOICE, and both are honored to be walking. "I've had lots of people come up to me, particularly women, telling me they really appreciate me standing up and supporting this cause," Hogan notes, adding, "I'm very much proud to be able to do that."
Men interested in participating this Saturday can do so as individuals, or they can walk with a team. All participants can be sponsored and set up First Giving pages through the event's Web site (walkamileasheville.org) to raise funds for Our VOICE. To date, Top Floor Studio, Marcos Pizzeria and Earth Fare have put together teams. Local high schools are looking to do the same.
But don't feel left out, ladies. "The focus is, of course, primarily to have the men out there and in heels," Payne says. "We know that some men will come out and won't wear heels, and that's okay: We still want them to walk. And it's the same with women and children, especially if they're there supporting the men in their life. … We don't want to turn anybody away. It's a community event and a community issue."
Payne acknowledges those who balk at the approach but states clearly, "This is not to make fun of anyone, and we're not promoting any stereotypes at all. The concept of men wearing high heels is meant to make a commentary on gender roles in our society; it provides an opportunity for men to dispute the harmful attitudes and behaviors that condone sexual violence in our community."
The event will kick off at Pritchard Park in downtown Asheville, with registration and shoe fittings at 9 am. Payne recommends those interested in walking bring their own shoes, but some donated pairs from Goodwill will be available. After everyone is well heeled, there will be time for team and individual photos and a quick warm-up by Mark Strazzer, a personal trainer at the Asheville YWCA. After the walk, awards will be bestowed and massages offered.
While the participants' feet may need Band-Aids come Sunday, Payne is excited that Our VOICE is now going beyond bandaging wounds and catering to crisis. "We're moving away from just treating the problem," she adds. "We're [also] doing prevention." And Payne sees that step — along with the fact that more people are willing to discuss a tough issue and go outside of their comfort zones to take a stand — as a big victory against sexual violence in our area.
For more information and to register, visit walkamileasheville.org or ourvoicenc.org.