Traci Ruble is a psychotherapist and the founder of Sidewalk Talk, a community listening project that has turned into a global movement. Traci and Sidewalk Talk volunteers all over the world seek to create public spaces of connection and belonging.
Traci Ruble is a psychotherapist and the founder of an extremely successful community listening project – Sidewalk Talk. One day, in the fall of 2015, Traci and 27 other listeners took their therapists’ chairs out into the streets of San Francisco, offering the gift of listening to anyone who wanted it. There seems to have been a huge need for that offering of sympathetic, non-judgmental attention, and for being witnessed. Traci’s initiative has resonated with so many people that it has turned into a global movement. Since the launch of the project, thousands of volunteers have been trained who sit on sidewalks and listen to strangers. They listen as equals, equipped with skills to intervene in a crisis, and are supported by a background-checked leader. All over the world, Traci and the Sidewalk Talk volunteers seek to create communities of listeners who return to the same public spaces to practice heart-centered listening. Their mission is to create public spaces of connection and belonging. Listening to people’s stories, they seek to offer an antidote to the current tide of loneliness, fragmentation and disconnection. Traci talked to Anna Katharina Schaffner.
Anna: Traci, one of the many reasons I am really excited about interviewing you for Emerge is that you have managed to bridge this perceived gap between inner work and socially transformative activism so powerfully in your Sidewalk Talk initiative. Can you tell us a bit more about Sidewalk Talk? What gave you the idea to take psychoanalytical listening out into the streets? And how does it help build community?
Traci: Thanks for seeing me and giving me the space to share more and explore more deeply. At the root of Sidewalk Talk was not “my idea” but something that came through me. Some years ago, I had a bizarre spiritual experience in my therapist’s office. It freaked me out. I was not a seeker of mystical spiritual experiences. It happened to me quite accidentally. A big fireball of love took over my body and I spoke from that love the entire session. In that office I met my essential self: a self connected to all beings. I tapped into a very intense universal love. When I opened my eyes, my therapist had tears streaming down her face. She said to me through her tear-streaked face “There is no charge for session today”. Fast forward to today, I am doing some deep Jungian archetypal work. I am probably due to sit with that experience again.
In 2014 I was therefore primed for the dream that I had and that invoked Sidewalk Talk. My dream was about fitting my therapist’s chair in an elevator and putting it on a sidewalk. At the same time, I was moved by Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” and Jan Gehl’s urban design work on how we use public spaces to allow for our humanity to come through.
Coinciding with this dream we had incident after incident of mass shootings and police murdering Black and Brown folks in the US. I was lost. Confused. Heart-broken. But also annoyed by the “woke Olympics” a lot of my white colleagues were engaged in. To me, that stuff is white shame or white supremacy in social justice drag. I wanted to get my body out there on the street and quit hanging out in the ivory tower of my therapy office and my psychological theory. I don’t know whether I was taking psychoanalytic listening out to the street. I was maybe unconsciously protesting ALL theories and advocating for our humanity and healing with curiosity rather than preaching anything. And then there was the very personal lonely and unwanted part of me I was reclaiming. Oddly, sitting out on the sidewalk has led me to question some elements of psychotherapy more deeply than ever.
Anna: Do you think that people are lonelier now than they have been in the past? As a cultural historian, I tend to be a little suspicious about the idea that we are experiencing emotions and mental states more intensely or at a completely unprecedented degree of intensity compared to our ancestors. But at the same time, very dramatic and fast-paced social and technological transformations have taken place in the last decades, and I am sure they have impacted on our inner lives, too. What is your impression, out there on the sidewalk, and also in your practice more generally?
Traci: I don’t know whether we are lonelier now compared to the past. There is actually contradicting science. I believe it is getting more attention because Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research shows there are real healthcare costs associated with loneliness. It makes us physically and mentally sick. The mental health crisis is amassing huge costs for industrialized nations and that makes us pay more attention. Loneliness is expensive.
So while I don’t know if we are lonelier than in the past, I do know there are new causes for our loneliness that are totally novel to our current time. We have always been busy. While we feel busy now, I cannot imagine running a farm or working 16 hours a day in a factory felt “less busy”.
Faye Bound Alberti, in your neck of the woods, came on the Sidewalk Talk podcast. She studies the history of emotions and medicine. She discussed changes in the way we relate to our bodies as machines. Fixing our machines through medicine stripped our connection to soulfulness and even a perceived sense of meaning from our lives. That is a new cause of loneliness.
A hero of mine, Niobe Way, talks about how mental health, as we define it, is based on stoic hyper-individualistic intellectualism. Our therapeutic manual that tells us if someone is sick is based on the ideal temperament for a white male. And to be tender towards men, this was based on the ideal temperament of a certain class of white male worker. We may be valorizing stoicism, productivity, intellectualism and individualism but these are the very things that can make us lonely if that is all that we are.
Finally, connecting over technology allows us to get further away from our bodies, from the earth, and from each other. You just can’t create any tech app, VR or AI to have the magic of the human soul. Never. And I really really like technology. I’m not a luddite. I used to sell software. Thank God for Zoom during this pandemic but give me a face to face meeting any day. I love tech and simultaneously I have some shadowy aggression towards it these days.
Anna: Is your sense that we have lost the knack for the art of connecting? Has our capacity to relate to others diminished in the past decades? If so, why might this be the case?
Traci: For me to answer this question I would have to have the audacity to believe I can speak for all people. I am an upper-class white woman from the Silicon Valley. You want to know who knows how to connect, and who I have met. Seriously? The weirdos, the misfits, and the marginalized. I have learned more about generosity from folks living on the streets. I have learned more about curiosity from artists. I have learned more about having someone’s back ferociously and consistently from my Black friends. What I do bear witness to from my limited perspective and from the folks I learn from, like you, Niobe, Faye and others, is that we are now baking disconnection into the very systems we live, work and play in.
If you don’t give parents parental leave how are they connecting with their children? If healthcare is so expensive you are living your life terrified or bubble-wrapped because you don’t want to get sick, you are in protection mode. Protection mode limits our ability to be in connection mode. And ask my sons. They are quite smart and smart-assed little kids. But they are smart enough to see that the schools they have attended are more interested in socializing them rather than truly equipping them to connect.
Anna: Truly listening is an art form. It entails staying in the present and letting go of our solutionist, fixer-mindset. How do you counteract this impulse?
Traci: Ah delicious. I have fallen in love with listening. First to all those reading who may roll their eyes I want to raise my hand and say “I suck at listening and I love fixing too.” How could I not? Everything I learned from church, school, the economy, and the culture in which I was raised taught me to treat myself and people as fixable objects, sinners who must atone, or machines that must achieve and do.
Now I am going to be a little vulnerable. After I got over my need to fix, the personal thing I had to work on to get better at listening is letting go of my need to be liked. I had to learn to love myself so honestly and profoundly, that the part of me that needs to be liked is not the one doing the listening. Why? Because that is about me, not the other person.
So I have a little trick… I like to make things easy and non-pretentious. Ready for my listening trick? It is quite simply to delight. Spend your entire time being with another person as an exercise in delighting in their humanity in as many ways as you possibly can. Don’t worry about getting active listening right. So I counteract the fixing impulse and the need to be liked stuff with the act of delighting.
Anna: What is the most precious thing listening on the sidewalk has taught you?
Traci: People are really really good. I mean so good. They are beautiful and wonderful and magical and lovely. And when we hold space for someone with delight in our eyes, guess what? We call forward the lovely in one another.
A man I listened to some years back I think of most often. He is a man who sat on a park bench near our chairs as we were packing up for the day. He easily had ten other benches he could have chosen. So as I was packing up I walked by and said “How is your day going?”
He said, “It could be better.”
I scooted in right next to him on the park bench, my shoulder touching his shoulder and I smiled and said “Do you want to talk about it?”
He shared with me he was on parole. He shared what it was like to be a Black man in America. He shared with me how hard it is in the area he lives to not get caught up in drugs. I felt no white saviorism. My listening was different that day. Partly because I had heard so many folks. Partly because some you just like more than others. He and I had an easy rapport. My heart was really still and quiet.
He went on for ten minutes. And all I heard as I heard this man was how good and honorable he was.
So I told him. I said, “Gosh as I hear your story what I hear is what a good man you are.”
He began to cry. His chest heaving, he let me enfold him in my arms. When we came apart, I had his tears all over my shirt. And then that thing happens, the act of taking delight in others. What poured out of this guy was his vision for his life beyond being a Black man in America. He was him in all his glory. All his hope, his dreams, his promise came forward. And I know it came forward not because I helped him but because of how I chose to show up as an equal.
Some days I still wish I could call him on the phone. As it was time for me to head to the airport I said to him, “Hey, I have a question for you.”
“Sure Traci, what is it?” he said.
“If you ever see me sitting on a park bench needing someone to listen, will you come sit with me and listen for awhile?”
We both were silent. We just looked at each other. And he said slowly, and steadily, “Absolutely, Traci. Absolutely.”
I never saw him again. And maybe that conversation meant absolutely nothing to him. But it meant everything to me and he changed me.
Anna: You used to work in tech in Silicon Valley. But then you became a psychotherapist. What made you choose that path?
Traci: I had spent 7 years in my own therapy. My mother was a teen mom who tried to abort me. When I got in trouble as a kid she would say things like “Traci, you are lucky you are alive.” Sounds horrible, I know, but I know parents get pushed to the edge. She was also married six times and that, I think, screwed up my perspective more than “not being wanted”. I was special and connected to her until she had a new man, and then, like an old shoe, I was tossed aside for a few years. Mental Health treatment wanted me to be stoic, rational, and suck it up. And I did, until I couldn’t. Hustling for wealth was a turn-off. It felt soulless to me. So I left not because I hated tech. I left to reclaim my soul somehow.
Anna: What kind of therapy do you practice?
Traci: Hah. Changing all the time. At the root I define myself as a feminist therapist. What that means is we are co-creating in the room. My work is not about wanting you to be “healthy” according to the DSM but wanting you to be healthy according to YOU. My spiel to clients is there are four legs to the healing stool: thinking, the body, our relating patterns, and the context all of that is happening in. That context includes injustice, current policies, social norms, income, the unconscious, and our relationship as client and therapist. I am not the perfect reparent. I am a flawed human with you who is wise as fuck, who can own my mistakes, so people feel so damn safe with me they are able to go places they just can’t quite outside our work. And eventually they do. Anna, that is the realest answer I have ever given.
Anna: I’d be really interested to hear a bit more about your relationship to human darkness, our shadows. In one of your interviews you referred to yourself as a “bottom dweller.” I was really intrigued by that. How does that shape your practice and your relationships?
Traci: For me, because of my religious upbringing, I want to get off my floating cloud and really feel all the feelings. I just had a conversation today with a young woman and she said “I don’t like to hang out in negative emotions.” I don’t call emotions negative or positive in that way. They are all messengers and I happen to like the muddier, murkier emotions that are less “Leave It To Beaver” and more “American Horror Story” with the intent of not being morbid but being real.
Anna: What can Emerge learn from Sidewalk Talk? One of the most central questions we are grappling with is how we can become a bigger, more cohesive kind of “we.” We often talk unthinkingly about “we” in social change circles. But it is in lots of ways a problematic word, we just assume it exists as a meaningful unit of agency. Who is this “we” we are talking about? How can we cohere at scale?
Traci: Scaling community is masterful work and I am in awe of people who can do it. I know, for me, I felt like I, alone, had to do the holding of the “we”. I also didn’t know how to cope when people would join that felt like they were disruptive to the “we” or doing a lot of acting out with “me”.
I used to have an eye roll about mission statements and values but now I see their point. We know people are more drawn to overlook their differences and work together when they know what they are working toward. And the values define the feeling of the metaphorical house and garden we are operating our organization from. Once those values and the mission are clear, you can have many community builders you give a lot of permission to bring their own genius to the house and garden. My favourite thing is to build enough of a structure where I trust you, you trust me, and then I watch what you create. 90% of the chapter leaders here at Sidewalk Talk are better community organizers than me. They are just brilliant, so I learn from them. What I bring to them is courage. They may have brilliant ideas and I give the courage to launch.
For me, early days, I held too tightly onto things because I didn’t know how to embody my values or even feel entitled to what I value and build that into this project. Sometimes I held too tightly onto pleasing others and wore myself out and then I was the disruptive entity. I have a lot of tender-heartedness that I was casting into the shadow and I didn’t know how to incorporate tender-heartedness into an operational structure in a way that didn’t have me “over-giving” on one extreme or being “too rigid” on the other.
Scaling “we” takes heart-centred deliberation. It takes a clearly defined set of values you live by while on your mission together. And it takes the capacity to ensure that the model sustains the well-being of all involved so no one burns out because burnout leads to disconnection.
Words by Anna Katharina Schaffner
Anna is a writer, coach, Professor of Cultural History and Director of Emerge.
Traci Ruble is a psychotherapist and the founder of Sidewalk Talk