Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Meet the group combating social isolation through cups of tea.
Crumbs and stripes of jam are left behind on plates, sitting on a polka-dot tablecloth. Clusters of people lounge and chat on sofas and armchairs sprayed with floral patterns or stripes. The space “probably looks a lot like your grandma’s house,” says Maff Potts. “I don’t know if that’s a compliment.” It’s cozy and unpretentious; it invites plopping down and staying put for a while.
Last spring, in cooperation with the local city council, Potts launched the space he calls the Living Room in a public library in Blackpool, England; another location opened last month in the town of Rotherham. Now, the campaign is expanding across the ocean. Two locations are slated to open in New York City this winter: one in Manhattan, and one in Brooklyn. Potts calls the spots a “hub of kindness,” pivotal places to fend off loneliness and build community around shared struggles.
The Living Rooms are a project of Potts’s organization, Camerados, which derived its moniker from a line in the Walt Whitman poem “Song of the Open Road,” in which the speaker hails a buddy to join him on a journey. The nonprofit is committed to ending social isolation, which can sink and settle, rippling out to exacerbate other issues in someone’s life, Potts says.
Potts spent decades working in social services, and noticed a common denominator underlying the push to connect folks with concrete services: a cloud of loneliness and a harried pace. People struggling with homelessness, addiction, or health problems often feel hustled through the process of filling out forms or rushed through medical appointments, Potts says. The Living Rooms offer another model: “You can come sit all day,” he adds. “It’s up to you to engage with it as much as you want.”
Looking for solace from strangers can be a tricky thing to navigate in public spaces: it can be hard to figure out how much empathy to dole out, and to gauge when you’re overstepping boundaries. Potts hopes the Living Rooms will be neutral spaces to seek and receive support. There are conversation prompts, he says, but no pressure and no to-do list. But if you’re going to hang out, you’ve got to pitch in. Potts believes in fostering empathy and agency through mutual aid; people buckling under their own stresses might find a bit of relief from helping others. “We’ll also put an apron on you and ask you to make a coffee for someone else and talk to them,” Potts says.
One regular who spent most of his time sequestered indoors used to dial 999—an emergency hotline—multiple times a day just to hear a human voice, Potts says. Another frequent Living Room visitor sunk into a depression after getting sober; for a long stretch, he rarely ventured out of his apartment. Visiting the Living Room helped him re-acclimate to social settings, because he could duck out whenever he felt overwhelmed, he told the Washington Post.
To bring the Living Room concept to New York, Camerados is teaming up with Kindness.org, a platform dedicated to encouraging people to do nice things for each other. This site, which launched this fall, invites users to tackle some easy challenges: leaving a sketch or hand-drawn card for someone to find, or dropping a copy of a favorite book, hoping that a stranger will connect with the story held in its pages.
Intuitively, kindness seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a bit nebulous. Kindness has been shown to cement relationships, predicting marital satisfaction—but on a broader scale, its benefits are more difficult to quantify. The Kindness.org founder Jaclyn Lindsey says the group is setting itself to the task of gauging exactly what kindness can accomplish. To tease out the effects of kindness, Lindsey’s organization partnered with Oliver Scott Curry, director of the Oxford Morals Project at University of Oxford. Curry and collaborators recently conducted a literature review of 21 studies examining kindness—many of which didn’t stand up well to scrutiny. “Our research suggests performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction,” Curry said in a statement. Lindsey says she’s hoping to conduct more research in the future, in an effort to tease out how kindness might have long-term reverberations.
Acts of kindness aren’t an alternative to interventions that aim to curb homelessness and other issues. In fact, Potts thinks they can operate in concert with more granular policy. In England, he collaborated with hospital emergency departments, encouraging medical staff to spread the word that discharged patients could stop in and talk about their stresses.
Small gestures, Lindsey adds, might not repair a person’s life, but they can shift the course of someone’s day and—for a moment, at least—“tie us together across our differences” over a cup of tea.