Four women sat outside Gunn High School last Thursday with a simple goal: to listen.
The four women, who all work in the mental health field, are part of Sidewalk Talk, a San Francisco organization founded by two psychotherapists who believe that taking the simple act of listening to the streets can both improve mental health and build community.
Sidewalk Talk first launched in San Francisco in May. Co-founders Lily Sloane and Traci Ruble, along with 28 trained volunteers, set up chairs and "free listening" signs in various public spaces throughout the city, offering to listen to anyone passing by. Their goal is not to act like a professional offering solutions, but instead empathizing and "trying to relate from a place of purely being in it with them."
"It's all the things that you would want if you were having a bad day," Ruble explained.
Ruble said some people in San Francisco stopped to talk because they might have just received an upsetting text message. Others shared that they had existing depression or other mental illness and were seeking treatment for it.
"I think that sometimes when you think about mental health, there's a reaction to what that actually means and even when we say 'destigmatize mental health issues,' I don't know that people actually understand what that means," Ruble said in an interview. "But when you actually sit down and listen to people's stories and you get that we are all people, we all have a story to tell … that really helps raise the bar of consciousness of people."
Ruble said she was compelled to do something in Palo Alto in the wake of several teenage deaths by suicide during the last school year. So last week, Ruble, Palo Alto therapist and resident Gabriela Breton, life coach Bertita Graebner and McKenzie Foundation Project Manager Gee Roman sat in chairs outside Gunn for two hours with signs advertising "free listening here." It was the first Sidewalk Talk on the Peninsula.
Ruble said not many students stopped to talk, but many thanked them for being there. Gunn senior Grace Park, who serves as the school's student school board representative, said she saw the volunteers and then brought up Sidewalk Talk up at a student government meeting as a potential organization to bring into their Not In Our Schools week efforts.
Many parents picking up their children from school also saw the four listeners, and Ruble hopes that that planted the seed in their minds to go home and talk with their children.
"For us, success isn't just getting as many talkers as we can. Success is, 'Can we be visible in the community?'" Ruble said. "You think about all the cars driving by that day in front of Gunn High School and all the parents picking their kids up. ... How many parents are going to go home and be a little bit of a better listener that day to their kid?"
Since its launch this spring, Sidewalk Talk has continued every other week in San Francisco and also expanded to Los Angeles. Ruble hopes they'll move into Palo Alto, but the organization needs a "city coordinator" to oversee the efforts. This person must be a licensed mental health professional, Ruble said.
Though so far, Sidewalk Talk's volunteer listeners are primarily trained therapists, anyone can apply to be a sidewalk listener adults and youth alike. Ruble stressed the importance of "working from the bottom up rather than top down" when it comes to teenagers in particular, so having young people serve as listeners is critical.
Listening to and connecting with others can also improve one's own mental health, she noted.
"If I had a dream of where Sidewalk Talk could go inside these Palo Alto high schools, it would be to create an environment of listening between kids," Ruble said.
People who are interested in volunteering must apply and then complete a 30-minute training session on listening and safety skills and how to encourage people to self-report if they might be in need of professional support services. The organization is also developing "Sidewalk Talk DIY kits" so people in any city can create their own Sidewalk Talk.
"How many of these kids who saw us out there are going to be a better listener to their friend?" Ruble said. "The impact really rolls out … and it's so simple. It takes two chairs."