Taking Listening to the Street

City sidewalk listening stations are helping people feel connected.

Taking Listening to the Street | City sidewalk listening stations are helping people feel connected.

When did you have a really deep conversation where you felt truly heard? These types of connections are essential for people but they are not always easy to find. That’s why one woman decided to take listening to the streets.

Traci Ruble, a psychotherapist, was concerned that people today were experiencing loneliness and lacked personal connections, according to SFGATE. She understood that with busy lives and demanding jobs, people were unable to make these connections.

Sidewalk Talk
So on a spring day in 2015, Ruble and a handful of volunteers set up chairs on sidewalks in 12 locations around San Francisco, California and invited people passing by to sit for a few minutes and chat. This was the beginning of the nonprofit Sidewalk Talk.

The mission is to create public spaces of connections where the people are. In this case, on city streets.

Today, the organization has more than 4,000 volunteers in 40 cities. Around 25 percent of the volunteers are licensed therapists. They come from a variety of backgrounds and are a diverse group. Volunteers receive training from the organization.

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Listening sessions are held several times a month in conjunction with other organizations. In San Francisco, Sidewalk Talk partners with Lava Mae, an NGO that brings mobile showers to homeless people

Listening Sessions
Sidewalk Talk gives people a chance to speak and be listened to but it is not therapy, according to Ruble. “I’m not interacting as a therapist out there. I’m not there to solve someone’s problems,” she told SFGATE. “I’m there to practice being human.”

Ruble stressed that therapy is one-sided and that therapists are taught to avoid self-disclosure but by “being human” she could approach interactions with interjections about her own life and by showing empathy with the people she talks with. 

She cited one example of a listening session that really stands out in an interview with Emerge, a nonprofit media platform.  “A man I listened to some years back, I think of most often. He is a man who sat on a park bench near our chairs as we were packing up for the day. He easily had ten other benches he could have chosen. So as I was packing up I walked by and said, ‘How is your day going?’

“He said, ‘It could be better.’ I scooted in right next to him on the park bench, my shoulder touching his shoulder and I smiled and said, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’”

Ruble said that he shared that he was on parole and what it was like to be a black man in America. He spoke for more than 10 minutes. Afterwards she told him that she could hear that he was a good man and he began to cry. The experience has never left her.

Today, there is an epidemic of loneliness, especially due to the coronavirus lockdowns, according to a report from Harvard University. In fact, 31 percent of all Americans feel serious loneliness including 61 percent of young adults. To counteract that, restoring community relationships is vitally important.

While listening sessions will not solve the loneliness crisis, these chats could help someone have a brighter day. Knowing that there are empathetic people who are willing to fully listen and share your feelings, could make all the difference to a lonely person.

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