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I Talked to Strangers at Strangers Meeting Strangers’ ‘Talk to Me Day’

The community-building event at Loring Park was worth attending, even for the less-than-outgoing.

Beatrice Ogeh

“One part of me knew that I could not be wrong,” says Liban Kano, the creator and host of the community initiative Strangers Meeting Strangers. Then, he reconsiders. “Actually, all of me.”

Kano was right to be confident. For over a year, SMS has been forging connections between strangers and, well, strangers. The first gathering, which took place last summer, set the format for those to come: “two strangers, one audience.” A pair of willing, unacquainted attendees are randomly selected to have a conversation up on stage before an audience of friends and not-yet-friends. Then a new set of strangers takes their place. And so on.

A simple yet innovative concept, SMS aims to encourage public engagement and combat the loneliness that has ballooned to epidemic proportions in our society. So far, the project has united over 800 strangers at free events including parties at Minneapolis’s First Draft + Burnt Chicken, a salon on “all things femme,” and outdoor hangs at Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

The idea to start SMS came to Kano toward the end of his time in the Air Force. Returning to Minnesota after 10 years in the military, he felt estranged from the friends and family he'd left behind. SMS was born of what he calls a “selfish” desire to find community.

And find community he has, with a small-but-mighty team forming organically to support the project, as community members were quick to reach out and offer their skills. Awa Mally, a Twin Cities photographer and artist, came aboard as a producer after encountering SMS pop-ups at Northeast’s Intro to Success Fest and Open Streets Minneapolis a few years ago. What drew her to SMS? “It’s hard to meet new people,” she explains. She appreciates that “there’s no need to perform or act a certain way” at an SMS gathering.

Earlier this year, Taylor Schreiber was vending at an SMS event when she heard Kano’s call for volunteers. “‘SMS is very community driven, come get involved,’” she recalls him saying. After the event, she exchanged contact information with him; a few months later, he reached out to her with an idea for something called "Talk to Me Day." An all-day gathering devoted to genuinely connecting with the members of one’s community, "Talk to Me Day" would take place in Loring Park, where visitors could participate in activities meant to spark interaction. The slogan of the event would be “Everybody Needs You.” 

“'Talk to Me' is a DIY day,” Kano says. This means that the day’s “success” is dependent on its participants' willingness to try: The more you put in, the more you get out.

And in that spirit, I decided to give "Talk to Me" a shot, not only to better understand the event but also as a challenge to myself. Strangers talking to me isn’t my strong suit, and I figure that as baptisms by fire go, this will be a friendly one.

On the morning of "Talk to Me Day," the Minneapolis skies are hazy with wildfire smoke and the forecast calls for rain. Regardless, determined volunteers trickle into the Loring Community Arts Center early on September 23.

The more extroverted folks get the introductions going, and we exchange pleasantries while standing around waiting for instructions. When Kano walks in, we get them.

Loring Park is to be split into five sections. Connection/Speaker’s Corner is a space dedicated to open communication, complete with a handmade podium for public address. Community Corner is where local vendors will lead wellness activities such as yoga, sound baths, and guided meditation. Walk and Talk is a walking path flanked by lawn signs featuring conversation prompts that range from playful to profound. There's also a picnic area with food trucks and a music zone with rotating DJs.

Throughout the morning, volunteers place signs around the park, set up chairs and tables, and prepare to distribute stickers and flyers to park visitors. Though there is a plan and structure to the event, "Talk to Me Day" was put together in just three months, and many decisions occur on the spot. This is characteristic of SMS, which employs a figure-it-out-as-we-go approach that allows all involved—attendees, volunteers, and even vendors—to “show up authentically as they are,” says Taylor Schreiber, the coordinator of Community Corner. She adds: “You don’t have to engage … If you want to just spend a day in the park and take in humanity, it’s all there for you.”

Many people who come to the park are unaware of "Talk to Me Day," but most are open to participating. Alongside them, I explore the different sections, starting with Speaker’s Corner. Nancy Lee, a volunteer and longtime figure in collaborative community development, spoke about a workplace situation in which she offered feedback to some white colleagues that was received as hostile, likely because it was delivered by a Black woman. Instead of bringing their concerns to her, they whispered about it behind her back. She concluded by imploring us all to make an effort to communicate honestly.

In Community Corner, Natasha from 612 Jungle, Minneapolis’s first and only hip-hop yoga studio, guides me through a brief standing meditation. Later, I attend the much-anticipated cacao ceremony. It draws a large crowd—the largest that Shani, the ceremony facilitator, has ever led. While distributing cups of warm, brown liquid, she sings a blessing song called “Cacaosita” (“little cacao” in Spanish), then encourages us to thank our ancestors and/or spirit guides and ask them for any help we might need.

Cacao, it turns out, tastes like watered-down Swiss Miss, but it does give me the energy to continue to wander, striking up conversations with whomever I feel brave enough to approach. A young woman and I discuss childhood events that foreshadowed who we have become. She reveals that when she was in elementary school, her class hamster died in her care. Now she has been considering becoming an end-of-life doula. A warmly extroverted vendor named Janine asks me about my passions, a question I feel unprepared to answer but appreciate being asked. I run into an old friend of mine by Connection Corner, and we make plans to go see a movie sometime. I discover that I share friends with more than one of the volunteers, a reminder that our world is smaller than it often seems.

My conversations are sometimes deep, sometimes awkward, and often pleasant. At first, I feel uncomfortable being put on the spot, but the feeling quickly fades. "Talk to Me Day" (to be made annual if all goes to plan) is an opportunity to disassociate strangers from danger and get to know the people with whom you share the streets—even if, like me, you’d rather stay home and talk to the cat.

Strangers Meeting Strangers is hosting "Tiny SMS" gatherings every Thursday this October. For more information, visit them on Instagram.

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