Wall of empathy at 16th BART station. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Amidst the morning rush, commuters are stopping at the 16th and Mission BART plaza to leave messages of empathy and mutual support for each other in the wake of a turbulent election season that saw Donald Trump clinch the presidency.

Muriel MacDonald is one of the organizers of the “Wall of Empathy,” a participatory art project at 16th Street, 24th Street and Montgomery Street stations mirroring the “Subway therapy” message wall in New York City’s 14th Street station.

Notes of support in the 14th St. subway station in New York City. Photo by Evalynn Rosado

The Bay Area group is calling itself Dumbledore’s Army, or DAGuerrillas on social media. MacDonald and co-organizer Tamilla Mir decided to name the project the “wall of empathy” in part as a play on words with the wall that Trump has promised to build between the United States and Mexico. Their wall would unite instead of separate people. MacDonald says she expects to be taking the notes down at the end of the day to prevent them from becoming litter. 

Not everyone, MacDonald said, was quite ready for empathy. On social media, some saw the project as a call for the marginalized to develop empathy toward supporters of a candidate who had promised policies that would be damaging to them. They called instead for pushback against the president-elect’s policies. But for MacDonald and many others who left messages of empathy on Monday morning, the project is about healing.

“This is real grief, psychological grief, and you have to treat that grief before you go to battle,” MacDonald said. “This is also a place to process that anger. You don’t have to be ready to feel empathy for everyone…many of your neighbors you ride BART with are also reeling with shock. This can help get ready for the very hard work that is coming.”

For many who left sticky notes of their own on Monday morning, the notes were a welcome reminder of a supportive community.

Notes left at 16th Street. Photo by Laura Wenus

Shida Bonakdar, who works at a group home, said many of her friends who are people of color, LGBT, or disabled had to take time off after the election to absorb the shock. She said she worries about backlash directed at her parents, who live in Tennessee, though friends in her hometown have already reached out asking how they can support her family.

“There’s a lot of hate right now and it doesn’t feel like there’s much hope, but seeing things like this is a reminder that there are real allies out there… It’s hard to love ourselves when we’re being told we’re not worth it.” Nonetheless, Bonakdar added, “I’m proud to be a person of color, to be LGBT, to work in mental health. I’m not going to stay silent. I’m not going to back down.”

Nisha Ajmani said seeing the wall and adding her note felt like it was helping people band together who were alarmed by Trump’s divisive statements on the campaign trail.

“People still voted for him in spite of everything he had said and done to minority groups and women,” Ajmani said. “Little things like this are helping me to actually take action.”

Commuters read notes left at the Wall of Empathy. Photo by Laura Wenus

Andresha Oson liked that the piece made commuters stop and look.

“People who are writing there are our neighbors who we live next to, who are on BART with us,” she said. “We like to think we’re different out here…but we’re not as isolated as we think. These are our neighbors saying that they love us.”

“We are all pretty upset and shocked. This is just a small way we can show solidarity with the groups most at risk.” said Zachary Kazzaz after leaving a note. “I will, and my friends will, continue to stand up and fight…when people’s civil liberties are at risk.”

Another commuter, Al Nelson, called the project a “good ray of positivity on this Monday morning.”

“I know a lot of people have been feeling kind of hopeless,” Nelson said, adding that the results could be an impetus for further participation in local politics. “There are people right here in our homes hat need help as well.”

Wall of empathy at 16th BART station. Photo by Lola M. Chavez
Wall of empathy at 16th BART station. Photo by Lola M. Chavez
Wall of empathy at 16th BART station. Photo by Lola M. Chavez
At 24th Street BART. A BART rider takes a look and moves on. Photo by Lydia Chávez

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