listening to the city: trading soundwalks to build empathy

during the listening to the city conference last week, i was introduced to jennifer stoever’s work on the binghamton historical soundwalk project. the project is amazing for a ton of reasons, but the one that grabbed me the most was about soundwalks can help us see how others experience the same space.

i’m not sure if this is the main assignment or not, but one part of the experience for participants is to record a soundwalk and mark out the path. i think the participants do a writeup as well. then, the participants trade (anonymized) recordings and writeups. they go on the soundwalk of their anonymous partner and also get to read and listen to how that person experiences the walk.

just that simple methodology created tons of opportunity for experiencing life as the other. this one specific example jennifer shared makes it really clear, though: two people walk past the same bus stop. one them got called the n-word and the other walks past that bus stop on the way out of their house everyday. the bus stop holds two totally different meanings for those two people.

i could go on about this project for a while (and i’m hoping to connect with jennifer about it sometime), but i’ll leave it here for with this thought: this is such a compelling way to get people to experience life as someone else and build empathy across experiences. i don’t think replicating this exactly in other places is necessarily the right way to go, but the core characteristic of exploring how you experience something and then trading experiences with someone else seems key. maybe this is one of the ways that it’s possible to scale empathy? it’s got to be participatory on both sides of the equation. showing non-oppressed people the experience of oppressed people isn’t enough (as most projects that try to get at this do).

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