“We quite simply take two chairs, one for us and one for you, out on city streets, sit down and offer to listen to anyone about anything.”
That’s the essence of “Sidewalk Talk,” a nonprofit community project that wants to help people “feel a little more connected, a little more belonging, and a little more well.” The listeners are psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, or listeners trained by therapists. They are not offering formal therapy; they are just there to listen. They are all volunteers.
The listeners know about local mental health services that are affordable or free and can refer people who are interested or in crisis. Some of the people who have pulled up a chair across from a listener have thought about therapy but were reluctant to seek professional help; after their time with a Sidewalk Talk volunteer, they feel less anxious about doing so.
The Sidewalk Talk listeners are not just there for people who may need more formal help. As they say, they will listen to anyone about anything. Some of the people who talk to the listeners are just feeling a little lonely, and appreciate the opportunity to talk to someone who really hears them. (If you are someone who loves your time alone and you rarely feel lonely, you may want to check out Alone: The badass psychology of people who like being alone.)
Many years ago, when I was first starting out as a graduate student in social psychology and then a new assistant professor, I did some research on help-seeking and reactions to receiving help. Some people have trouble asking for help. For example, they may have difficulty with the status difference between the person who provides the help and the person who receives it. Or they may feel indebted after receiving help, and find that uncomfortable. Sidewalk Talk is structured in a way that mitigates some of those concerns. People who talk to one of the listeners and express an interest in staying connected are offered the opportunity to be trained to become a volunteer listener, or to start a Sidewalk Talk chapter in their own city. That way, they get to be the people giving the help and not just receiving it.
Sometimes inspiring new social movements trace their origins to a place of great pain. Sidewalk Talk was started by a psychotherapist, Traci Ruble, after the Sandy Hook shooting of 20 schoolchildren and six adults. According to Atlantic magazine’s City Talk, Ruble wanted to rebuild communities, and her collaborator, Lily Sloane, was interested in raising awareness about issues of mental health.
Since 2015, Sidewalk Talk events have been created in 29 cities in the U.S. and in 10 countries, including Malaysia, South Africa, and England. More than 10,000 people have accepted the offer to sit across from a listener on a city street and just talk. It will be interesting to see if Sidewalk Talk continues to gather momentum into the future.