Today, the internet noticed that Blake Mycoskie, the founder of the philanthropic slip-on shoe company TOMS, which donates a pair of shoes for every one bought (and has expanded greatly and now includes a wedding collection), has been working closely with Focus on the Family, which does not exactly work with the brand’s totally chill image. Focus on the Family is an evangelical non-profit and the things that come along with that — hating gay people, evolution, abortion — clash mightily with the beliefs of most hippie, hipster, bearded, crunchy, countercultural(-ish), what-have-you types that have embraced the feel-good mission of TOMS and what everyone thought they stood for. We might have another Whole Foods on our hands!
Mycoskie’s face is plastered plainly on the Focus website (as seen above) alongside the organization’s president, Jim Daly, in association with the Feet on the Ground campaign.
Christian Today magazine has an article — though it took over a week for most heathen bloggers to find — about the conservative organization that mentions the unlikely partnership:
As this issue of Christianity Today goes to press, the ministry is scheduled to highlight the work of Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, a company that donates shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold.
“A year ago, they were like, ‘Who’s that?’,” Fleece laughs. Now the company is working to become a TOMS international distributor in Africa. “We’re making slow strides here.”
In many ways, Focus represents a larger struggle in evangelicalism over political and cultural engagement and the issues it prioritizes.
The rest of the piece centers on Focus’s rebranding as a less hatable group for people like us, working its way out of the shadow of its bigoted, questionably associated founder, whose successor realizes that, “Christianity must transcend politics in order to change culture and politics,” and has therefore backed off on the icky anti-gay stuff and will even “sit down with pro-choice organizations.” Of course, the key is still Christianity.
It’s clear that it’s not a complete transformation or political 180, though, which could still leave progressive TOMS-wearers weary:
“The media is having a tough time figuring us out,” says Tom Minnery, senior vice president of public policy for CitizenLink, Focus’s legally independent political arm. “They say we’re changing in tone and say, ‘Aha! They’re in a Rick Warren or Joel Hunter cubbyhole.’ Then we are active in the defense of traditional marriage, which is seen by the media as hateful and homophobic, so they scratch their heads and say, ‘Wait, I thought they were changing their tone.'”
As Jezebel writes, “There’s nothing inherently political about distributing shoes to African children, of course,” but you are the company you keep. And in Mycoskie’s case, though he’s been mum so far on the internet outrage, it will be interesting to see whether he’s more interested in spreading his charity by partnering with a huge group like Focus, no matter the damage to TOMS’ hip image, or if the bottom line will prevail. Expect a statement from Mycoskie on the issue soon.
Whether or not political anger could catch on enough to touch them remains to be seen, but remember, TOMS — for all of its good — is in the business of making money.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 8, 2011