In the emotional days following the November 2016 election that put President Donald Trump in power, no one had any idea they might find a shred of solace in words scribbled on a mundane office supply. But underground, in the depths of a New York City subway station, a powerfully expressive initiative fueled by thousands of Post-it Notes was underway.
In the weeks that followed, thousands of people in search of catharsis paused their commutes to write down rejuvenating messages of hope, solidarity, and reassurance and stick them to the walls for all to read. Soon a colorful mosaic of an estimated 50,000 Post-its, now known as the Subway Therapy project, spanned the walls of Manhattan’s Union Square station.
It was a simple act during an especially dark time, but the colorful collection of Post-its helped the country’s outlook seem a little bit brighter.
For nearly 40 years, Post-its have been a go-to resource for annotating documents, writing to-do lists, and leaving reminders. But somewhere along the line people around the world realized just how multi-functional the sticky squares could be.
In pop culture, Post-its have been used for infamous break ups and vow writing, and in the real world, people use them to , make , create art, and even like Apple’s Steve Jobs. In the past few years, sticky notes have also been used to aid in something far more impactful: peaceful protest.
The power of post-election Post-its
I first spotted the Subway Therapy Wall on Thursday, Nov. 10, my first day back in the Union Square station since the Nov. 8 election.
Happening upon the words of complete strangers — simple messages like, “Your emotions are valid,” and “We need each other,” — was a reminder that goodness still existed. And after talking to others who contributed to or encountered the wall, it’s clear I wasn’t alone.
“I was in a state of shock,” said 23-year-old Chelsea from Yakima, Washington (who preferred not to share her last name,) recalling how she felt in the days after the election. “It felt as if the floor had been pulled from underneath me — like I was going through the five stages of grief simultaneously.”
“I could write anything I wanted and not have to worry about feeling alone.”
In an attempt to do something productive with her negative feelings, Chelsea traveled New York City for the first time.
“I actually stumbled upon the wall without even knowing it existed,” she said. “That moment when I looked up from what I was doing and I saw that wall filled with those colorful bits of paper was indescribable. It was as if I could see the strings connecting everybody in their need for change. It was a therapy session that was free and I could write anything I wanted and not have to worry about feeling alone.”
Chelsea read as many notes as she could, absorbed the messages, and says she finally felt like things might be alright. “Those pieces of paper were tiny messages to us as humans that we can be change. If we try hard enough.”
“To see it manifested in one place was viscerally powerful.”
“It was a coming together of strangers across the country who wanted to make a simple statement that this is wrong and not normal, and we don’t need to accept it,” Sarah Flourance, a 31-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia said.
Flourance, who traveled to New York to visit a friend after the election in hopes that it would lift her mood, said she spoke with a few strangers at the wall, some of whom were in tears. “Right after the election, the isolation is what got to me and a lot of other people,” she said. She felt the display helped ease her feelings of hopelessness.
Kevin Nadal, psychologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center at City University of New York says he also contributed a Post-it to the wall.
He wrote a message of solidarity to “the most marginalized populations whose rights would be threatened” by Trump’s rise to the presidency, and said the expansive unity of strangers helped restore hope for him.
“I wanted people to know they weren’t alone,” Nadal said. “I definitely felt scared, betrayed, and angry. The Post-it wall was validating.”
And while he knew others in New York City would share his post-election sentiments, Nadal said seeing seeing all those emotions “manifested in one place was viscerally powerful.”
So why Post-its?
In early 2016, well before the November election, “Subway Therapy” creator Matthew “Levee” Chavez set up a table, two chairs, and a sign that read “Secret Keeper” in a New York City subway station.
His setup included a blank book in the hope that passerby might decide to unload some internal stress by writing their secrets down on paper. Despite this, he often found that people preferred face-to-face conversations.
“For the next eight months or so, I had individual conversations with people that would stop by to sit and talk…About whatever they wanted to talk about.”
After the election, he said things changed.
Chavez says he believes that “during crisis, writing can be a more effective and accessible form of expression than conversation.” It’s what inspired him to bring sticky notes and writing materials into the subway that November. The Post-its helped him reach a wider audience, since several people could write their thoughts down simultaneously, rather than waiting to chat with him one-on-one.
“The wall took a form that was fun, beautiful, and expressive,” Chavez recalled. “In mass, sticky notes are incredibly inviting and they definitely helped people to open up.”
A history of Post-it protests
Though it’s been nearly two years since Chavez’s Subway Therapy project, many of the notes have since been archived online and in several books, and memories of the wall remain for those who contributed or passed by. Though Chavez helped create one of the most memorable Post-it Note protests in recent history, his was far from the first.
In 2011, Wisconsin residents used the tactic when they protested policies by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that would weaken in-state unions. In addition to months of marches and other organizing efforts, protesters left hundreds of Post-it Notes at the Wisconsin State Capitol entrance in an attempt to share their concerns. Despite the protests, Walker’s proposal ended up passing.
Later that year, Post-its made their way to London to serve as a beacon of light in the wake of a divisive act of violence. In August 2011, riots broke out across London in protest of a deadly police shooting that killed local resident Mark Duggan. In Peckham, London, thousands of community members responded to the tragedy with a “Love Wall” covered in notes with messages of hope and unity. The sentiment was so powerful that it spread to walls in Manchester and in other areas of London.
The people of Hong Kong also used Post-it Notes to show support for the pro-democracy movement of 2014, when many called for the resignation of leader Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. During what’s since come to be known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” activists and protesters wrote words of encouragement and their reasons for demonstrating on Post-its, creating a colorful display outside government offices. People in Sydney even covered the walls of Australia’s Hong Kong House in solidarity.
The benefits of sticky note self-expression
While expressing oneself via Post-it Note has shown to be a therapeutic and unifying response to large-scale events, these notes can also provide comfort to individuals on a day-to-day basis.
“Self-affirmations are really helpful in helping to negate any harmful self-doubts or cognitive distortions,” Nadal said, explaining that writing positive, reassuring messages on Post-it Notes “can help in increasing one’s self esteem and decreasing any cognitive distortions.”
A 2007 study by Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at California’s Dominican University, found that the act of writing one’s goals down seems to make a person significantly more likely to accomplish those goals. The study also found that writing reminders or to-do lists before bedtime may help people fall asleep faster.