As rush hour traffic thundered down Bardstown Road on Wednesday, a few cars slowed down passing Bonnycastle Avenue. There, perched precariously close to the curb, were several chairs set up in pairs. Volunteers wearing pink shirts held signs with a simple message: “free listening.”
This is Sidewalk Talk, a San Francisco-based non-profit formed on a basic premise: Sometimes people need someone to talk to.
“I think most people think we might be selling something or something like that,” Margaret Byrne said, as a passerby waved her off. “I’d probably do the same thing if I was walking by and didn’t know what it was.”
Byrne is a volunteer from Atlanta, and contrary to what some people think, she’s not selling anything. Sidewalk Talk isn’t affiliated with any religion or political party. It’s a group of volunteers who want to listen to strangers.
Traci Ruble is a psychotherapist by trade and one of Sidewalk Talk’s founders.
“Our communities traditionally don’t do some of the things that us therapists do, which is to really listen to people,” she said.
Sidewalk Talk formed in 2015 in San Francisco. But Ruble said after November’s presidential election, the group decided to hit the road.
“Because it felt like people were feeling so disconnected from one another, no matter what your politics were, people really wanted to feel heard on both sides,” she said.
The group is now in the middle of a bus tour. They set up for two hours in the Highlands on Wednesday.
Julie Foster was walking by on the way home from work when she decided to take a volunteer up on her offer of free listening.
Afterward, Foster said she was having a pretty good day and didn’t really need to talk to anyone — though she enjoyed it. But she said she sees the value in what Sidewalk Talk is doing.
“If I was having a bad day and I was walking down the street and I saw this, that would have been perfect,” Foster said. “I would have gone up there and said, ‘let me just tell you, sob sob … life story.’ I think it’s a really good thing that’s going on, because so many people don’t get heard or don’t even let people know that they’re not being heard.”
Traci Ruble said her volunteers hear all kinds of stories. They’re trained in some basic risk assessment, and sometimes they refer people to mental health professionals. Sometimes, people share heavy stuff. But she said there are plenty of light moments, too.
“Anger doesn’t last forever, sadness doesn’t last forever, we’re happy to hear whatever,” she said. “But we’ve also heard some of the greatest love stories we’ve ever heard, we’ve heard about job promotions.”
Ruble said Sidewalk Talk’s purpose isn’t exactly to help people. Rather, her volunteers approach listening as equals.
“We’re actually out here to listen, because we believe when we listen as a human, with just basic good listening skills, that in and of itself helps the whole community.”
The group finished up in Louisville Wednesday night and headed to Nashville. Today, they’re in Birmingham. Ruble said she’d love to have a permanent chapter start here — if there are enough volunteers who want to hear it.