Just listening

Sidewalk Talk seeking open spaces for Tallahassee to express concerns

Attendees at the recent Soul of the Southside Arts and Humanities Festival were encouraged to participate in Sidewalk Talk.
Photo submitted
Listening is a focal part of Sidewalk Talk.
Photo submitted

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

With the exception of one person whose conversation Catherine Keen vividly recalled, her focus on the day that Sidewalk Talk debuted in Tallahassee was to observe.

The individual began talking and Keen listened. What she heard was someone looking for answers to fix the things that separate the country.

“He really wanted to talk about the divided country and was really upset because he couldn’t see how it was going to get better,” she said. “He couldn’t see how there is going to be common ground.

“He gave an example of his son and some of the common ground they have. So I said, ‘tell me more about that’ and he started to talk about the actual common ground between him and his family instead of the things that were different.”

There were many other listening sessions on that day when the Tallahassee chapter of Sidewalk Talk made its first public appearance at the Soul of the Southside Arts and Humanities Festival last month. Sidewalk Talk is an organization that was formed seven years ago in an attempt to create a sounding board.

Keen said she felt an urge to have a Tallahassee affiliate of Sidewalk Talk because she sees a need for listeners throughout the city. They use public spaces to begin connections they believe could resolve some problems.

While the Tallahassee group is slowly finding the appropriate public spaces where strangers could listen to the concerns of others, Sidewalk Talk is growing nationwide and in at least 10 other countries that include England and South Africa.

The objective locally is the same as it is in every city where there is a Sidewalk Talk group of volunteers. The goal is never to be judgmental or use information from a conversation for any kind of study, Keen said.

It’s just about listening, she said.

“I’ve found’; and I believe that when people feel heard they’re more able to engage in some of that deeper stuff,” she said. “This is about connecting and feeling heard.”

Rich Day, pastor at Lakeview Baptist Church, was one of the first local recruits. When Keen called on him, he didn’t hesitate. The two had done volunteer work when they were students at FSU, Day said.

Being a pastor who has done a lot of counseling also made the decision easy.

“I felt Sidewalk Talk would be a wonderful way to help people just be able to have a release,” Day said.

Loneliness is one of the biggest issues that the group is addressing across the country. According to a report in Forbes, the “state of solitude” affects nearly 40 million adults. The group has also heard hundreds of instances of suicide attempts and cases of mental illness.

Taking the open space grassroots approach is an important starting point for Sidewalk Talk listeners, Day said.

“It’s extremely important because when people have crisis; you think maybe I can call a pastor or I can call 211,” he said. “Most often they need someone to meet them where they’re at and what they are dealing with.”

Josie Fliger, CEO of Elder Care Services, is one of the volunteer listeners who brings a lot of experience to the sidewalk. She is a former crisis counselor and a victim advocate.

“Listening to people is one of the greatest gifts you can give them,” Fliger said. “Most people don’t need anything more than for somebody to just listen to them.”

Based on some of her experiences, Fliger has found that there are people who seem to be living wholesome lives but could be toting worries on their chest and want to talk with someone. Another observation that she’s made that led her to Sidewalk Talk is the huge gap between the haves and the have nots in the city.

The satisfaction she finds is “being able to empathize with people and listen to them and their stories, humanize people who maybe aren’t like us,” she said. “It gives people a better understanding of one another but also promotes empathy towards one another.”

Values like those are what drove Keen to begin working on establishing a local membership after reading about Sidewalk Talk in an edition of Oprah Magazine. She went through a background check, followed by the leadership training. She also paid an affiliate fee of $250.

Now she is telling anyone who would listen that they could join Sidewalk Talk by going online to https://www.sidewalk-talk.org/become-a-listener or contact her by email: catherinemarykeen@gmail.com.

“We need more people to say, ‘come listen in my community, come listen at my event, come listen at my church.

“My hope is that Sidewalk Talk will be what Tallahassee needs.”

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