“As a kid, I had to steal to afford the sneakers I wanted. Now, I run an organization that gives them out for free”

“As a kid, I had to steal to afford the sneakers I wanted. Now, I run an organization that gives them out for free”

Jamal Burger used his childhood love of shoes as a launching pad for a successful photography career. Then he built Kickback, an organization that’s distributed over 8,000 sneakers to youth around the world

Jamal Burger, photographer in black and white, looking straight at the camera
Photos courtesy of Jamal Burger

My mom had me when she was 16, and I grew up in housing provided by Jessie’s Centre for Young Women, a non-profit organization for teen mothers. It’s right between Regent Park and Moss Park, and for a time, my mom had a job as a receptionist there. I would go to school, come home and sit on the couch playing my Game Boy while my mom worked downstairs. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I wasn’t able to join any extracurricular activities.

I needed to fill my time, so when I was 11, in 2004, I started looking for ways to earn some money. I saw an ad on a streetlight pole for a job selling chocolate almonds. I earned a dollar for each box I sold, and most weekends I could sell 50 of them. I’d use the money to help with groceries, or sometimes I’d give $30 to my mom and save $20 for myself.

As I started growing into adult shoe sizes, I really wanted a pair of Air Jordan 19 sneakers—but my mom said we only had enough money for either new shoes or groceries. To get the kind of money it would take to buy new Air Jordans, it felt like the only option my friends and I had was to steal. We would take a Nintendo DS or Bose headphones from a store and sell them ourselves. I’d take a $200 pair of headphones, head to the shoe store and offer to sell them to the retail workers for $120. If they couldn’t meet my price, I’d cut them a deal: I’d sell for less if I could use their staff discount to buy new shoes for half price. Then I could get sneakers for me and my sister. I got myself a pair of Black Cat Jordan 3s that way.

Around this time, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Slam magazine. The mixture of sports and art in Slam, which is mostly dedicated to basketball, caught my attention. I’d grown up without a father, and seeing successful Black men in the magazine was really inspiring to me. I’d daydream about cover ideas, but when I brought it to read in class, my teacher took it away. She said it wasn’t “literature.”

Related: Ten amazing pictures by Jamal Burger, the Toronto photographer who shot DeMar DeRozan for the cover of Slam magazine

So, when I saw a novel with a basketball on the cover at Indigo one weekend, I was intrigued. I’d never seen basketball represented in a book before. I thought, Do I go to school on Monday with my magazine and get in trouble again? Or do I try to take this basketball novel? I decided to steal the book, but as I was leaving the store, an undercover security guard grabbed my arm. They detained me and then sent me home in a cop car. In a way, I was lucky—I learned my lesson then and there, and I stopped stealing. Some of my peers weren’t so fortunate. A few have since wound up in prison.

My love of sneakers persisted, and by the time I started my kinesiology degree at the University of Toronto, I had about 75 pairs. I started taking pictures of my collection with my phone and posting them to Instagram. I didn’t think of it as a potential job—I just really enjoyed it. Eventually, I borrowed a camera from a friend to try more professional shoots. I would photograph my shoes from different angles, sometimes even dangling them from skyscrapers. I continued posting on Instagram, and eventually, Livestock, a sneaker store, reached out. They asked if I could take product shots for them. So I made them an offer: if they bought me a camera, I’d do work for them for a year, free of charge. They agreed.

Jamal Burger, with his back to the camera, shooting a stack of shoes

Once I had a camera, I started studying the work of sports photographers like Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer as well as photographers from the 1940s and ’50s who shot in black and white. I learned a lot about composition and timing. I kept growing my following on Instagram, which eventually reached over 100,000 people. Suddenly, brands like Nike started sending me free sneakers, hoping I would promote them on my page. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were sending them to the wrong person, though. I’d spent my whole life trying to afford sneakers, but now I was getting them for free. I wondered if there was a way to pass them on to kids who actually needed them.

So, in September 2016, when I was 23, I organized a shoe drive. I needed a name for my organization, so I came up with Kickback. Livestock, the store that bought me my first camera, helped me collect 150 pairs of sneakers for me to give out to kids in my neighbourhood. I’d drop by every few days, pull boxes from their selection and take them back to my apartment. An old mentor of mine at the Regent Park community centre helped me pair the shoes with kids who needed them, and I’d tape up the boxes and label them with the name of the person they were going to. It was very DIY.

Jamal Burger crouching on the street in front of a stack of shoe boxes

At the drive, some of the kids were shocked when I gave them the shoes. They were like, Whoa, I get these Air Jordans? I get to keep these Nikes? I was surprised by how much I was able to connect with them just through the act of handing them these boxes. The shoes became a signal that I’d been where they were and I knew how expensive and inaccessible sneakers can be. When the kids put them on, it gave them a little pep in their step, some extra confidence. It was incredible.

We did another sneaker drive the next year, when we gave away 300 pairs of shoes. We also travelled to do one in Panama, bringing almost 150 pairs with us. Meanwhile, my photography career was taking off. In 2017, I went to six countries in Africa with Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa program. I shot Kobe Bryant, first when he was in Toronto for All-Star weekend and again for his jersey retirement. I did a Nike project where I followed LeBron James around before his games, photographing him in different pairs of sneakers that hadn’t even come out yet. I even ended up shooting DeMar DeRozan for the cover of Slam magazine in 2018. My younger self would have been over the moon.

Related: “I started my popcorn business from behind bars. It gave me a second chance at life”

Through it all, I stayed committed to growing Kickback. In 2018, I decided I would do one small event a month. As I did, the organization started to grow naturally. These days we have six ongoing programs: an elite basketball program, a run club, a sports photography program, a film program, One on One (which takes youth from underserved communities on outdoor excursions) and our Youth Ambassadors program, a 12-week partnership with the Raptors that helps 10 kids start their own community initiatives in the city. A lot of the kids we serve face serious financial barriers, so there are grants they can apply for to participate.

I try to use Kickback to let kids know that, whatever their passion is, it could become their profession. If I see a kid braiding hair, I tell them they could have a chain of barbershops. We just started an alumni program that connects youth with mentors in the professions they’re interested in. To date, we’ve distributed close to 8,000 shoes to kids around the world, and in 2023, we worked with 888 young people in Toronto. We now have an office at Broadview and Queen and wonderful full- and part-time staff members.

Jamal Burger speaking with two kids on a basketball court

Of course, running a non-profit has its challenges. It’s difficult to get enough funding to pay our staff as much as we’d like. According to the Foundation for Black Communities, Black-led organizations get as little as seven cents per 100 dollars donated to charities in this country. It’s an uphill climb, but there are always people in our corner. For example, Puma helped us build a community basketball court in Moss Park designed by and for neighbourhood youth. I walk by it every morning when I drop my little sisters off at school. I’m very proud of it.

The kids that participate in Kickback are often from neighbourhoods where they have limited opportunities, so it’s been amazing to see them thrive. One kid, Trevaun Douglas, came to our run club and was surprised to see how many people of colour were there. He was inspired, and the next week he came back with two 45-pound weights to carry while he ran. After that, he ran a marathon as a fundraiser, using the money to buy Christmas presents for kids who wouldn’t get them otherwise. Seeing Kickback inspire kids to not only succeed but to give back to their communities—to me, that’s the real success.