Debra Kocher and Mark Pendergrast taking a talking break on the BeltLine.

Debra Kocher and Mark Pendergrast taking a talking break on the BeltLine.

“I don’t know what to tell my parents.”
“I hate him.”
“I want to celebrate my new job.”

You never know what you’ll hear at a Sidewalk Talk Atlanta listening event. Our tag line is You Talk, We Listen and that’s what happens when we put out our chairs on the BeltLine and other locations around metro Atlanta. We give people an opportunity to be truly seen and heard in all their humanity. Sidewalk Talk is a community listening project, practicing compassionate and empathetic listening for the sake of connection with any and all who want to take a minute to be listened to. We believe that listening opens hearts and creates compassion – both for the talkers, and the listeners!

Sidewalk Talk Atlanta got started in the Fall of 2016, when Marian told Debra about this very cool listening project she’d come across in Austin, Texas. Within a few short months, we had held our first live training session for about 10 volunteers, ordered our t-shirts, created home-made signs, and set the date for our first listening event – the Grant Park food truck festival!

All of our listeners are volunteers, with day jobs that range from school therapists, to midwives, to software engineers, to life coaches. We sit and listen because we believe in the power of human connection. What we experience is that by witnessing people, and doing something as simple as giving them a non-judgmental ear for just ten minutes, we can make a person feel connected and valued, shift their perspective, support their dreams, diminish their insecurities, and give them a sense of belonging.

We’ve put on twelve listening events around Atlanta, including Grant Park, Piedmont Park, the BeltLine, and most recently on the campus of Georgia Tech, where student stress levels were high as they prepared for exam week. All kinds of people stop to talk to us, even if they don’t actually take a seat in our chairs. We’ve listened to a young couple just starting a family, a cook who wanted to become a chef, a woman from Toronto who was visiting the BeltLine for the first time, a food truck owner, a police officer in Grant Park, and a young gay man who comes to Atlanta because he feels safe being ‘out’ here with his partner – something he feels he cannot do in his own hometown.

We occasionally collaborate with other Atlanta-based projects and non-profits. One of our most interesting collaborations involved listening on the BeltLine with CITY ON THE VERGE author Mark Pendergrast, who had reached out to connect and discuss how Sidewalk Talk and the BeltLine could align and support the local Atlanta community, and build on the communal public health aspects of this urban project. In the book, Mark wrote about the BeltLine’s “social capital benefits… In other words, simply getting people out on the trail, where they could get to know one another, might improve health (p. 152).” He realized that what Sidewalk Talk does is an extension of that idea.  So we spent a morning connecting with Beltline visitors and brainstorming on how intentional listening and connection can improve people’s outlook on life and create health benefits. Mark is now a volunteer at Sidewalk Talk Atlanta and wears our shirt proudly.

A couple of things we’ve noticed when people sit in our chairs:  when they say they don’t really have anything to talk about, they often have a lot to talk about; when we ask them at the end how it felt to be listened to, they ask when we will be back to listen again; and many of the people who sit down to talk end up volunteering to be listeners at future events!

As we expand our community of listeners in Atlanta, and spread awareness for this heartfelt listening project, we’ve also noticed how grateful we the listeners are every time someone sits down to talk to us. It makes us feel connected to them, to ourselves, to our community.  What a gift it is to just be with someone, hear their story, and open yourself to them in all their humanness. Thank you Atlanta for sharing yourselves with us!

To learn more visit sidewalk-talk.org.

Debra Kocher is a certified Professional Coach, Leadership trainer, former Vice President at CNN International, and the Co-City Leader for Sidewalk Talk Atlanta, a community listening project. She also speaks on Leadership, Coaching, and Personal Transformation to various Atlanta based organizations. Debra has an undergrad degree from Tufts University in Russian Area Studies, and a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International Affairs where she majored in Communications, and minored in Business. Debra’s other community based activities include pro-bono coaching for students and young adults to support them in finding their True North. 

Marian Davis is a Personal and Professional Coach. Her life’s purpose is to inspire and empower aliveness in others. She received her Certified Professional Co-Active Coach® (CPCC) designation from the Coaches Training Institute. She also has an A.B. degree in Economics from Smith College and an MBA from the J. Mack Robinson College of Business Executive MBA program at Georgia State University.

Sidewalk Talkers in listening mode.

Sidewalk Talkers in listening mode.

Sidewalk Talkers in listening mode.

Sidewalk Talkers in listening mode.

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