On a Sunday morning in early June, Lisa Mer stood in the middle of Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis, holding a sign as she greeted a steady stream of passersby.
Her T-shirt read, “Sidewalk Talk: You Talk, We Listen.” Her sign offered further explanation and reassurance: “Community Listening Project! NO CATCH!” A cluster of portable chairs waited to be filled, and several volunteers stood by, ears at the ready.
“Hi, I’m Lisa,” she said to the next person who walked past. “What’s on your mind?”
Mer, a retired middle school teacher, leads the Twin Cities chapter of Sidewalk Talk, a nonprofit organization that engages volunteers to practice “heart-centered listening” in public places. The group was started by a San Francisco psychotherapist in 2015 and has spread to nearly 50 cities in 12 countries.
Sidewalk Talk’s local chapter, which has about a dozen active members and can be reached at www.facebook.com/SidewalkTalkTwinCities, launched last summer and hosts a couple of listening sessions each month. Its volunteers have repeatedly set up chairs at Minnehaha Falls and Minneapolis Central Library as well as farmers markets and other community events around the Twin Cities.
At Lyndale Avenue’s Open Streets celebration, which is essentially a 4-mile block party, most attendees were full of momentum. “This is awesome,” a woman biking past said to Mer, before chasing after a young cyclist wearing a watermelon helmet.
But every now and then, someone paused to chat. One “speaker,” as participants are called, used his session to rant. He was “sick and tired of taxes,” he shouted.
The listener seated across from him nodded and chimed in periodically. When it was time to move on, the two shook hands.
More often than not, a stranger stopping you on the street wants something: money, directions, religious conversion, an endorsement, an opinion.
But Mer and her group are simply offering to hear whatever story people would like to share. Sidewalk Talk participants speak on topics as light as the weather, travel or pets, and as difficult as racial discrimination, mental illness and fraught family dynamics. People frequently bring up polarizing topics such as politics, immigration, abortion, faith.
“It’s every conceivable topic,” Mer said, mentioning a guy who sat down because he’d arrived for a date a few minutes early and wanted to share his excitement.
“It doesn’t have to be a deep probing story,” Mer said. “It could just be a lighthearted exchange — it’s connection.”
Sidewalk Talk isn’t therapy. There’s no religious affiliation or political agenda. In fact, it’s not a conversation in the traditional back-and-forth sense.
While the volunteers will share information about themselves, they keep it brief. Instead, they focus on using reflective listening techniques to give speakers cues that they’re being heard and encourage them to talk. The listeners don’t judge, share their perspective or give advice.
The group’s hope is that the opportunity to be heard, and to hear other people’s stories, creates a sense of greater community belonging and human connection — feelings that are essential to mental health.
Theoretically, modern communication and social media have made humans more connected. Instead, rates of loneliness are rising. We’ve replaced ear-burning phone calls with emoji-laden text messages. And smartphones now fill the spare minutes that once allowed for brief exchanges with strangers encountered on public transit or in lengthy queues.
Sidewalk Talk volunteers believe that no number of “likes” can replicate one-on-one, human-to-human interactions. Often, after a few minutes in a Sidewalk Talk chair, speakers express a sense of relief from having had someone listen to whatever was on their mind.
“Sometimes the stranger is the perfect person to tell something to,” Mer said.
The sessions also benefit the listeners, who appreciate the chance to hear about so many people’s lives, especially those with experiences very different from their own.
Mer says a few speakers have talked to her about crimes they’ve committed; learning more about the circumstances that influenced their choices increased her empathy and compassion.
“We’re not helpers, we’re not saviors,” she said.
“It’s about our own practice of how to meet people without judgment.”