Torstar News Service/Bernard Weil Angel Chen started the Candid Call Centre. Part art project, part public service, the hotline takes toll-free calls from people who want to talk about the economy.

The sharp trill of a ringing telephone — then another, then another — cuts through the silence in a tiny makeshift office in a Chinatown art gallery one recent sunny afternoon.

The Candid Call Centre has just opened for the day, but already calls are trickling in from people wanting to talk about the federal budget, discuss the cost of subway expansion in Toronto, or ask whether to put their savings into a credit union or a bank.

Ever since this art project/public service/hotline launched last month, conversations have been wide-ranging and diverse, just the way 24-year-old graphic designer Angel Chen wants them.

“They all come back to the economy in their own ways,” she said.

At a time when we spew our thoughts in 140 characters, post opinions on Facebook and tap out text messages, Chen thinks we’re not talking enough, specifically about divisive economic issues.

That is, actually talking.

So Chen set up a 1-888 number, tracked down used office supplies, and cobbled together the Candid Call Centre, a three-phone office in Whippersnapper Gallery on Dundas St. W. — all in an effort to kick start conversations between perfect strangers.

“We live in bubbles,” she said. “We don’t really hear the perspectives of people who live in a different income bracket, who live in a different geographic location, who come from a different background.”

The aim to promote discussion about the economy — a blanket term she uses to describe everything from minimum wage to TTC fares to the recession — is intended to foster understanding of heated topics that affect everyone in different ways.

Chen cites her own views about Toronto’s last municipal election as an example. She says she doesn’t understand how people voted for Rob Ford, probably because she is not regularly exposed to their viewpoints.

Chen chose the phone for its “extremely private” nature and opportunity for one-on-one dialogue. While acknowledging there are countless ways to communicate, especially online, Chen doesn’t think those are the best places to get a diversity of views.

Too many people curate their online lives so they’re only exposed to opinions that reflect their own, she said — Google searches, for instance, are catered to the user.

“You don’t have the blank slate perspective you get with a taxi driver, or when you’re talking to someone while you’re waiting for your laundry in the Laundromat,” she said.

During hours of operation, anyone in North America can call the 1-888 number, toll free. At the other end of the line will be a Candid Call Centre volunteer, equally eager to speak to a stranger about the economy.

The person in the call centre has either signed up ahead of time, or walked in from the street.

If no calls are coming in, participants in the office dial out to people who have requested a call, either online or in person. Chen has been actively promoting the project, taking out classified ads and handing out sign-up forms.

Participation has not been overwhelming, but it’s picking up — Chen has logged over one hundred conversations since the project started, the majority from Toronto and Montreal numbers, with a few coming from as far away as San Diego and New Mexico.

She also offers weekly noon-hour call-ins with Torontonians who volunteer to share their expertise in economic matters. For one hour, callers can have a private chat with people ranging from a bank employee to a workers’ rights lawyer.

“I think it’s important to have an honest conversation — important to make things transparent,” said Alison Snowball, a 30-year-old former stock trader who was an expert one recent noon hour.

The exhibit closes this Friday, but Chen intends to keep the hotline operating. She’s also applied for an arts grant; so far, the project has been self-funded, combined with support from Whippersnapper Gallery, which provided the gallery space for free.

All conversations have been recorded (unless a caller has asked otherwise), so Chen also plans to transcribe them and prepare a report.

“But what’s really important to me is the interaction that’s happening between individuals. Hopefully it goes somewhere in their lives,” she said.

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