Ironically, in an age where we seem to be more connected than ever, research shows that we are lonelier than ever. Inspired by the writings of Thoreau, Steinbeck, and the teamwork of his community garden, David Levins decided to break down the barriers of isolation, one conversation at a time. In 2012, he initiated A Kind Voice, a nationwide, volunteer-run phone line where people call in anytime for one-on-one conversation. Simply for the sake of sharing and being kind to one another.
In this Awakin Call conversation with Bela Shah, we had the privilege of hearing David’s insights and stories from sowing seeds of down-to-earth, human-to-human connection.
Bela Shah: Could you could share a bit about your background, particularly growing up in New York, the family and community that you grew up in? What was your upbringing like?
David Levins: Growing up, a lot of the way I connected with people was through playing sports and talking about sports. It was just natural. I was a very quiet person in other areas, but sports I totally got. And as I was growing up, I would feel a little isolated at times. I never wanted to share my personal issues, but I would have a quick conversation about sports. And whenever I did, it put me in a better place to deal with whatever personal situation was upsetting me at the time a little bit. I felt connected with somebody. And that always stayed with me, as I’ve grown up.
BS: And you’re also an avid reader, particularly with Steinbeck and Thoreau. In what ways did these authors inspire your understanding of human nature and how we relate to one another? Especially growing up, as you describe feeling isolated at times?
DL: With books, you read and enjoy brilliant thinking by these brilliant people. It’s almost like having a conversation with them. From the books, I write my own essays. So I pick a situation that Steinbeck wrote about and apply it to my life. Just turn around the situation from the book into a situation that’s actually happening to me. Steinbeck’s kind of caught these true things. True stories. A true story doesn’t actually have to happen. But it’s something that can be relieved in many shapes and sizes, and generate other stories.
So I think A Kind Voice is a child of a lot of the reading I’ve done. And these authors who I really admire, they search for truth. It’s very much a journey. A Kind Voice is very much a journey to get from one place to the next. We want to make the world a kind of more connected place, one conversation at a time. So each time we have a good conversation, we win and we kind of fulfill our mission.
BS: How does A Kind Voice work?
DL: First, we recruit volunteers, and we ask them, “What are you passionate about talking about? What do you enjoy talking about?”
So we have topics on books, movies, sports, music, travel, big ideas and philosophy. And we get volunteers who are interested in talking about them. And these people send in the most beautiful applications you can imagine! They’re just very beautiful people who want to share this kindness. We’ve gotten about 300 applications in total, and it’s just a wonderful thing.
Then when a caller calls the line, the first question they get is, “Are you experiencing a crises?” If they are, the call gets mapped to the suicide or abuse hotline. About half our calls are from people experiencing a crisis, but for whatever reason, they don’t want to call a crisis hotline. They didn’t know the number. But they select the crisis option, which is great, because we’re getting those people where they need to be.
If they select A Kind Voice, first, we make it very clear to them that we’re not professional counselors. We’re just kind voices, and we don’t provide advice or guidance, but we listen. We’re active listeners. Then, the call gets mapped to a volunteer. So, if someone volunteers to talk about books, and we get a call about books during the time they volunteer, that call gets mapped to everybody’s house. And the first one to pick it up takes the call. They have a conversation on books.
BS: Can you share a couple of stories about some of your volunteers? What brought them to A Kind Voice, and things like that?
DL: Sure, we have journalists and teachers, a chaplain, a stand-up comedian, filmmakers, all kinds of people. One of them, a journalist, just said it so eloquently in her application:
“I enjoy reading books and would enjoy hearing others’ ideas on books. Not only do we enjoy books for pleasure, but they help us add to our knowledge and understanding, and they can improve our competence, memory, and abilities. When we discuss books, it helps confirm our understanding, and by extension, our self-worth. What we’re personally reading, whether it’s done for pleasure or to learn something new, is done in a vacuum, and can lead to isolation.
I am interested in getting people to discuss their books, so they can avoid the loneliness of absorbing new ideas without an outlet to share them. I would like to help others communicate their ideas about books in order to give them an outlet for self-expression, greater confidence, and a sense of value.”
So just providing an outlet for someone to share what they saw, what they read, and just sharing their experience—and giving somebody a gift of a conversation with them—is something that A Kind Voice volunteers offer. And they also receive, because the person is usually so grateful that they’re giving them a gift and the giver is also the receiver.
BS: I feel that sometimes people have these great ideas. But after a day or week or month, they might dismiss it, saying, “Oh, it’s never going to work.” When you had the idea of A Kind Voice, how did you think it’d get started? And how did you begin recruiting volunteers?
DL: I used VolunteerMatch.Org and Craigslist to recruit volunteers. Of course, you get a lot of volunteers who aren’t serious. But in some of those, there’s gold. And even the people who aren’t serious, they wrote these beautiful applications. Even though they were not available to take a call about volunteering, they wanted to state their kindness for somebody to be a witness to it. So there’s kindness in all shapes and sizes and each one has to be appreciated.
But if you’re persistent enough, you get a good group of volunteers. That’s something I truly believe is necessary. I look at the horrible mass shootings we see, and the people who perpetrated them. And think somewhere upstream, these people weren’t so angry. And maybe if a kind voice is there, we can make a difference. Even if we can’t, it kind of gives people a positive way to respond to all the tragedies in the news.
I can be a kind voice to you and you can be a kind voice to me. It may not solve all the problems in the world, but it just gives us a positive way to respond to these things.
BS: I know you’ve had many conversations through A Kind Voice. Could you share one of your most inspiring or funny conversations? Or just a conversation that really stands out?
DL: A meaningful conversation that I had was with a fellow who wanted to know if he should drop out of school. His parents didn’t think he’d do well in his chosen career. And a lot of times, for students, it’s hard to reach out to parents or friends, so A Kind Voice is a great person to reach out to.
He asked me, “Should I drop out of school? What do you think?”
I said, “Well, lets say you finish school and your chosen career didn’t work out. How would you feel? Versus if you dropped out of school and didn’t have a chance to pursue your chosen career?”
So rather than give them answers, you help the see their alternatives and walk them through it. Cause they’re kind of looking at that tree. And not being in their shoes, you have a greater perspective on it, and can kind of help them navigate themselves around that tree.
Gayathri: Is there a difference between isolation that happens because of technology versus isolation that happens because of lack of connection with oneself?
DL: I think isolation happens when we’re not connected to ourselves. Technology puts it on steroids. There’s just so much data and email and Facebook posts coming at us, that if we have this isolation, it kind of makes it grow in all sorts of directions, and you can’t get traction in any one thing as easily as before we had this technology.
On the flip side, lots of people find their spouses online. So technology can also make connections. It kind of does both.
Kanchan: How has this project changed or transformed you internally?
DL: I’m certainly a better conversationalist. Of course, as with all of us, we connect with like-minded people and with people with the same kind of energy as us. But I get calls from people of all walks of life, so I’ve really learned to slow down a little bit and engage others—to hear what they have to share first, before I tell them about A Kind Voice.
In a garden, if things grow quickly, they die. But if they grow slowly, they last a lot longer. So not only do I have the one conversation with them, but after they sign on, I call them fairly regularly to build a relationship. Because it’s important that we all can talk and they enjoy the program.
Also, I’m a quiet person myself. But this pushes me to be a little less quiet and just connect better.
Bela: Speaking of connecting, in certain parts of the world, more and more intentional communities are forming. Whether they’re around meditation, community gardening, gift economy, etc. I know that you also have started a community garden, which is partly what led to A Kind Voice. Can you talk about the community garden that you started? And also your thoughts on intentional communities?
DL: The beautiful thing about the garden is it’s an incredible amalgamation of so much good energy. We have a sit-in area carved out of log chairs that one person made. We have a water tank that another person made, and these beautiful trellises. Everyone’s positive comes to the garden.
The flowers and the fruit—they’re such positive and beautiful things that are created by watering and doing our part in the evolution to make these seeds grow. These aren’t theoretical seeds, they’re actual seeds, and you get to see them flower. These little seeds that grow into these big sunflowers the size of Frisbees—just the miracle of nature that inspires. It'd be great if we could somehow copy nature to create our own processes based off of it, because nature really knows what it’s doing. It’s been around a long time. So it’s an inspiration to me.
And planned communities are, I think, definitely part of the mix. People move to a planned community that has things and people they want to share with. But also, I think tolerance—which might not be the right word, but—tolerating people that are different than you, who are in your community, and embracing your difference. And being glad that you’re different, because you don’t want to speak to clones of yourself. When you speak to people who are different, you learn new things and see the world in ways you never thought of looking. I always try to interact with people who are very different for myself. It’s just more fun, there’s just more synergy. It’s like a 1+1=3 kind of thing.