In Kennedy Plaza, a small booth for a big problem

The (Rising) Ocean State
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 15, 2014

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"I AM ON DUTY" Schapira.

It is a crisp Tuesday afternoon in May at Burnside Park in downtown Providence. Pedestrians amble down the path from the Bajnotti Memorial Fountain toward the RIPTA bus stops in Kennedy Plaza. Bikers whiz by on the street. Pigeons strut and coo on the sidewalk.

A few minutes after 2:30 pm, Kate Schapira arrives at the south entrance of the park, pulling a bright red metal hand truck. Over the next few minutes, she unpacks and arranges items from the truck: a small wooden desk; a wooden stool; a rainbow-colored beach umbrella with a white plastic stand; a box containing a stack of homemade cardboard “RI IS MY HOME” cards, each with its own labeled sketch of local flora and fauna (“Eastern Chipmunk/Tamias Striatus,” “House Sparrow/Passer Domesticus”); a glass jar labeled “DONATIONS OF 5¢ FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE LEAGUE OF RI”; a pad of poster-sized paper with a hand drawn map of the state of Rhode Island under the words “PUT YOUR WORRIES ON THE MAP”; and two cardboard signs to be affixed to front of the table that read “CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELING 5¢” and “THE DOCTOR IS IN.” Shortly after the items have been arranged to her liking, Schapira looks at her phone and sits on the stool. “It is 3:01,” she says. “I am on duty.”

Today is the first day of Schapira’s Climate Anxiety Counseling. Over the next four weeks, the 35-year-old poet and Brown University creative writing instructor will report to this spot, five days a week, for three hours per shift (two on Saturdays), to talk with passersby about the Earth’s changing climate. She is not a licensed doctor or psychologist. She is not a climate scientist. She is just someone who is “Feeling pretty scared and sad about the possible effects of climate change and wanting to talk to other people about that instead of sitting by myself on the couch and crying,” she says. And, yes, she was inspired by Lucy from Peanuts’ “PSYCHIATRIC HELP 5¢” booth.

Climate change, Schapira says, is her biggest worry. She’s quick to add that she is fortunate to be mostly free of smaller worries. She has no kids, she’s not in danger of losing her home or job, she and her family are all in good health. “But it’s also the biggest thing,” she says. “We don’t know what the changes are gonna be, but they’re going to be very big and they’re going to demand a lot from us. “

But this doesn’t mean droughts and crumbling glaciers are the only things she’ll talk about while on-duty. Part of the project is to simply ask people what they’re worried about, climate-related or otherwise, and follow the conversation where it goes.

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