Juli Fraga is a San Francisco-based psychologist and health writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Quartz.
“Often, lonely people long to be noticed by another person who says, ‘I see you.’” That’s where Sidewalk Talk comes in.
On a recent morning in Atlanta, Georgia, Marian Davis and four volunteers set up folding chairs along a busy stretch of the Atlanta Beltline where people come to exercise, sightsee, and shop. Next to them, a sign advertised their services: “Free Listening.”
Davis and her “listening team” are volunteers with a nonprofit called Sidewalk Talk, a community project that aims to dismantle loneliness, a growing public health crisis in American cities. By gathering on the street, they aim to use public spaces to foster meaningful human connections. For two hours, they sat there, eager to lend an ear to anyone with a story to tell.
In the United States, loneliness—the “state of solitude” caused by a real or perceived lack of intimate connections—is pervasive, affecting nearly 40 million adults. Studies reveal it’s more dangerous than smoking, and deadlier than obesity, making us more vulnerable to illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. Prolonged solitude can also trigger the body’s “fight or flight” response, spiking cortisol levels, which can cause inflammation and physical pain.
Loneliness is particularly acute for people living in cities. In a crowded metropolis, heavy traffic, commute times, and longer work hours can disrupt one’s ability to build a community. For some urbanites, finding human connection has become so challenging that they’re turning to Tinder-like apps to help them turn strangers into friends.
“Globally, people are hurting, which is why our volunteers offer individuals non-judgmental listening,” Davis says. “It’s an opportunity to feel heard.”
After the Sandy Hook shooting, psychotherapist Traci Ruble wanted to help rebuild communities. Her colleague Lily Sloane sought to raise awareness about mental illness. Together, the San Francisco women founded Sidewalk Talk, hoping to encourage human interaction by offering strangers the kind act of listening.
“I wanted to create an empathy movement that extended beyond the walls of my office,” Ruble says.
In May 2015, Sidewalk Talk volunteers set up listening stations in several San Francisco neighborhoods, including the Castro, Soma, and the Financial District. Now events take place weekly in 29 U.S. cities and 10 countries, including South Africa, Malaysia, and England. In less than three years, volunteers have listened to over 10,000 people. City leaders choose safe, well-trafficked areas to set up their stations; events are listed on the Sidewalk Talk website and Eventbrite.
At each listening station, two chairs face each other. It might resemble a DIY therapy office, but Sidewalk Talk isn’t a substitute for professional counseling. However, all chapter leaders are trained by mental health professionals and are able to recognize the signs of a psychiatric crisis. When needed, these leaders serve as a wellness bridge, connecting participants with affordable and low-fee therapy services in their local areas. Since the project began, they’ve helped around 500 people find mental health care. Participants often tell volunteers that they’ve considered therapy, but were too afraid to contact anyone. After attending a listening event, many say they’re more comfortable reaching out for professional help.
Even though she’s treated hundreds of patients in her therapy practice, Ruble says listening to strangers has deepened her understanding of humanity.
“At one of our first events, I saw a man passing out fliers, advertising a local restaurant. As we spoke, he admitted it gave him an excuse to interact with others, because he felt lonesome,” she says. “Often, lonely people long to be noticed by another person who says, ‘I see you.’”
Ruble teaches her volunteers that empathizing with people’s suffering doesn’t require them to say or do the right thing. In fact, the opposite is true; active listening operates under the premise that a quiet presence can heal.
Over the years, Ruble and her team have witnessed the sorrow of grieving parents, bereaved widows, and those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide and addiction. While each person’s story differs, their collective experiences highlight one common thread: loss leaves us feeling lonely.
Volunteers like Davis also join the Sidewalk Talk community because they’re looking to interact with others in meaningful ways.
“I had recently left my corporate job of 16 years when I heard about Sidewalk Talk. I felt inspired to help out,” she says.
Davis launched the Atlanta chapter in December 2016. And, in less than a year, she’s organized 11 listening events.
“People often tell me they don’t know what to talk about,” Davis says. “However, once they feel comfortable, most are eager to share.”
Recently, she listened to a young mother, new to the Atlanta area. The woman had recently left a toxic relationship. But instead of telling Davis about her suffering, she talked about her accomplishments. She had started a new job and felt proud for making it on her own.
“At the end of our conversation, she expressed gratitude for being able to share what was on her mind. She appreciated being validated,” Davis says.
Unfortunately, this type of face-to-face human interaction is fading away, being replaced by texts, email, and Facebook. But relying on social media for connection can be precarious. Because when praise comes from “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, people can feel lonesome, even when surrounded by virtual friends.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, creator of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs," social belonging is an essential requirement for healthy psychological development. People who don’t feel a sense of inclusion and acceptance from others, such as family members, church groups, and friends, are more likely to become anxious, depressed, and lonely.
To cultivate inclusion, Sidewalk Talk offers participants the opportunity to stay connected after each event. Attendees are invited to become volunteer listeners, or start a chapter in their city. In San Francisco, Ruble is also hosting mixers where volunteers and listeners can reunite. Project participants can also join Sidewalk Talk communities on Facebook and Instagram.
Sidewalk Talk is one of several organizations tackling the loneliness epidemic. In New York City, Project Petals relies on volunteer members to help develop community gardens in underserved neighborhoods. And in Toms River, New Jersey, a pet therapy project Caregiver Canines pairs homebound seniors with furry friends. Research shows these cooperative activities can help fend off social isolation.
“Belonging is as important to our survival and well-being as breathing. It’s a connection you can’t always get from a text message,” Ruble says. “As humans, we need eye contact, touch, and personal interaction. It’s important not to forget how vital this is.”