At Washington Square Park, you never know what you’ll encounter – whether it’s hula hooping, opera, tarot readings, bagpipes, Red-tailed hawks, and more — now, there’s something new to add to the list, of particular value when you’re grappling with how to pay the rent, the guy or gal who just doesn’t call, the boss who is giving you grief …
For the last two months, Lisa Podell, aka Free Advice Girl, has plunked herself and her sign down at varying locations throughout the park offering just that – free advice. What originally began as a “one day thing” – she wondered if anyone would sit down – has now turned into a regular occurrence; she has fans, is never lacking for people to talk to, and a Facebook page.
I spoke to her recently about some of the people she’s encountered, why she chose Washington Square Park, ways the idea could expand into other NYC public spaces, and more.
How did the idea come about?
I’ve grown up at this park. I’ve always had this [idea] in the back of my mind but I was scared I’d be judged and thought no one would talk to me. I’m a mentor and work with students and adults with behavioral issues. I wanted to do something with my free time that could help people. I originally was going to do it for one day to show myself I could do it. As soon as I put up the sign, two or three people were there ready to talk.
What do you give advice about?
It’s a diverse community — there’s homeless, college students, tourists, people who work around there… I’m having substantial, challenging, thought-provoking conversations with strangers. I’ve talked to a father whose daughter won’t talk to him and suggested some strategies how to get back in her life. Sometimes someone is looking for good place to eat. People sometimes come up to me with substantial issues that I’m not qualified to address so I started keeping a list of resources – shelters, food kitchens. There are young people who stop by who just moved here [to NYC] with no money, no place to live. I suggest places to look for jobs, apply for scholarships.
What has the experience been like?
I’m not telling [the person] what to do. What I do really well is I listen, ask questions… break you out of your point of view, see what you’re dealing with with new eyes. They’re [the people who sit down] choosing to come to me and they’re ready and open to whatever the discussion becomes. It becomes a powerful experience with a playful element to it.
I was speaking to a man who is a musician who performs in subways and parks and he told me “You need to know more about opportunities for people who are struggling, not the shelters but places like the Bowery Mission. You don’t know what to tell them because you don’t live on the streets.” I respect what everyone brings to me. It teaches me how to respond to different people.
Do you move around in the park?
Yes. The new benches get really hot in the sun, and, fortunately for me, they’re empty so I put a blanket down and usually switch to different benches. Ownership still happens in the park… there’s a culture in the park.
What is your background?
I went to college and graduate school at NYU. I studied drama at Tisch. I didn’t want to be an actor so I went back to (graduate) school for education studying educational theater which finds ways to integrate theater into education. I received a dual masters in educational theater, grades K-12 and English education, grades 7-12. [Now,] I teach in public and private schools and work for small businesses. I do adolescent mentoring where I travel to students’ homes. [The issue is] usually not an inability to learn the content but [schools] don’t teach how to study for a test, teach them how to manage their time, and manage procrastination.
I really love one-on-one [interactions]. I’ve always wanted to be a therapist; it’s a role I’ve played in my life.
How often do you set up Free Advice Girl at the park?
Did this meet or exceed your expectation?
It completely exceeded my expectations. I’ve always been very shy; I’d rather not be noticed. And I took a big risk. The most effective conversations take 10 minutes. It’s amazing saying stuff out loud… I’m here for whatever experience happens. It pulls people out of their every day. For people walking by, it’s something they don’t see. They stop and smile, take a picture. The ability to create that in people’s every day makes me feel alive.
There’s a wealth of information and interactions and weird stories. Doing this brought up the question – what if there was an opportunity to talk to someone in public spaces in New York? At Port Authority? [As a resource] for homeless people, rich people to go to… The more I do it, hopefully the more opportunities there will be to keep creating and keep growing whatever this is.
Why did you choose Washington Square Park?
I chose the park because I thought people would be receptive to it. Something about Union Square Park doesn’t feel as friendly or open. The park has always been a creative source for me.