For two years local poet Kate Schapira has been setting up a small booth all over Rhode Island. Most recently, Schapira set up in Kennedy Plaza. The sign on the booth reads, in yellow writing, “Climate anxiety counseling, 5 cents. The doctor is in.” Schapira says when people approach the booth, they usually ask what climate anxiety counseling is.
“I explain to them that I’m interested in hearing about people’s anxieties, that mine are climate change-based, and I’m interested in hearing about that, but if they have other kinds of anxieties, I will also listen to those,” Schapira said.
“And then if they want to talk to me I will listen, and ask questions, and sometimes make a statement, or offer a suggestion of some sort.“
Schapira is not a licensed physician, or a trained therapist. But behind her green doctor’s sign, Schapira helps strangers wrangle with issues that are often very personal.
“One person who spoke to me was a Quahoger, and so he spoke to me about the ways that there are many fewer clams out on the clam beds than there were ten years ago or fifteen years ago, and the ways that that’s affected how people earn their living out there, including him,” Schapira said.
Schapira takes notes as she listens, surrounded by the buzz of Kennedy Plaza. She listens to anyone who approaches the booth for as long as they need, even if it’s only for a few minutes before they have to catch the bus.
After Schapira packs up for the day, she writes short stories about the people who stopped by the booth. As she writes, Schapira envisions a future where these people resolve their own anxieties. There are about 70 of these stories. She calls them alternate histories, and posts them on her website.
In one alternate history, one of Schapira’s visitors follows his dream and harvests medicinal plants on a farm. In another, a flood displaces people, and those living on high ground open their homes with generosity.
Even though these stories are accessible on the web, Schapira doesn’t know if her visitors read them.
But people in Rhode Island and across the country have noticed her project, the only of its kind in Rhode Island. Schapira has received requests to set up her booth in other states, even outside U.S. borders. Someone in England asked her to bring the booth there.
It’s hard to say whether other communities around the world will adopt Schapira’s method to address the local effects of global climate change. But for now, Schapira is focused on her own cardboard booth and the Rhode Islanders who come by.
This story was reported and produced by Andrea Zhu.