What’s your story?
Teresa Thompson and I stood silently side by side reading handwritten personal stories hanging from a piece of twine inside Philly’s Fashion District.
One story was from a teen who just went into foster care. Another was from someone who’d just gotten sober, another from someone who’d overheard the words “I can’t be black and sorry” and realized how often we apologize for the best parts of ourselves.
Thompson sighed. “Deep,” said the 60-year-old city worker.
We agreed then, and when we met again a few days later: We all just yearn to be heard.
That’s the premise behind “The Strangers Project,” a traveling pop-up created by Brandon Doman. Doman, who lives in New York City, has collected stories across the country since 2009. The idea came to him when he was sitting in a coffee shop, curious about the strangers around him. He didn’t have a grand plan, just a notebook that read: “Hi, I’m collecting your stories. Please stop and share.”
In the spirit of PostSecret and Humans of New York, Doman has now traveled to more than 100 cities and collected more than 50,000 stories that only need be true, anonymous, and kept to one page. There’s a book and an Instagram account, and if you’re lucky, a pop-up near you where Doman creates a space for people to better understand themselves and one another. “We’re living in a time where the differences between us are magnified,” Doman says. Through these snapshots written on the spot, he hopes we realize that there is a lot more that connects us than divides us.
He’ll be in Philadelphia, tucked in a space on the concourse near Burlington Coat Factory, until Sunday. His idea is deceptively simple: some clipboards, a stack of paper, and an inviting space where twinkling lights glow between the letters.
Curious, people stop. Some grab a piece of paper and write. Others linger, or like Thompson, the city worker, find themselves repeatedly coming back.
Some stories are fun or funny, like the woman who shared how a precocious little girl had broken through the daily grind by suddenly exclaiming on the subway: “I farted! Can I have some gum?”
Others are heartwarming and heartbreaking.
“My little brother died from a drug overdose this year. I wish I could tell him I love him. I wish I could tell him he was enough …”
This one stuck with me: “I am 16, and if god is real, I think he hates me. I am a female, queer, person of color and I had no say in any of that …”
During one of my visits, two teenagers were sitting at a table, writing. One teen, Jayhad Morse, said he’d previously shared his story only with the friend sitting next to him.
At another table, Aviana Islam, 16, said she’d just gotten her heart broken. “Today!” she cried, pushing the piece of paper with her story toward me, a completely relatable confessional of young love gone wrong. Doman told me that the space was meant to be therapeutic, not therapy. But I couldn’t help myself. Soon, I conspiratorially promised, while Aviana’s older sister wiped away her tears, she wouldn’t even remember the boy’s name.
This is why Doman keeps his distance and a box of Kleenex out when people are writing, reading the stories later in the day.
It’s hard to hear and read these stories and not want to act.
Earlier, he’d posted on Instagram stories from a mother and her three children who had stopped in.
From one of three children: “Hello stranger. I’m only 10 and I’m going through a lot and I’m trying to make my mom feel better but no matter how hard I try it gets harder and harder.”
From the mom: “I just became homeless with my children. There are times when I just feel like throwing in the towel and just give up…But then I remember that I have these wonderful blessings looking up at me to care for them, for me to love them, for me to make sure they are safe…”
People who read the post wanted to help. Someone offered to start a GoFundMe.
Doman assured his followers that if he saw the family again, he’d make sure they knew their story had been heard.
But he also offered this reminder.