Who’s In Your “Human Library”?

In her TEDx Talk “What Does My Headscarf Mean To You?“, mechanical engineer, writer and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied notes that people are often surprised to learn that she designed race cars and ran her university’s racing team. They’re equally surprised to learn that she trained as a boxer for five years. Both break the stereotype of a hijab-wearing woman. How often have you felt judged by someone you barely know? How often have you formed an opinion of someone based on first impressions, only to be surprised later on as you spend more time with them and get to know them on a deeper level? Perhaps you’ve even had the experience of becoming good friends with someone you never would have imagined being close with following your early interactions. It’s likely that your relationships with colleagues and neighbors have changed over time, but of course, most people we meet are only in our life for a brief interaction. As a result, we form subconscious opinions – judgements – of countless people we never get to know better, and if we don’t know others in their same identity groups, our judgements of those individuals can spill over to become a biased view of their entire identity group.

The Human Library Organization, founded in Denmark in 2000, was created with this in mind, to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through intentional conversations. In their first event, fifty “human books” could be ‘borrowed’ for 30-minute conversations. Each human book was chosen to highlight a particular life experience: Deafblind, HIV+, Homeless, Refugee, and dozens more. The setting created “a safe framework for personal conversations that can help to challenge prejudice, help rid discrimination, prevent conflicts and contribute to greater human cohesion across social, religious and ethnic divisions.” The event drew a huge amount of interest, and resulted in more, which led to ongoing infrastructure and initiatives. The Human Library now operates in more than 80 countries; even as I write this, I have been surprised to learn how many of the libraries in my area have either held Human Library events or have ongoing structures in place to ‘check out’ human books. If you’re not familiar with the concept, learn more at humanlibrary.org, and search online to see if your local library has any Human Library initiatives.

Whether or not you connect with the organization, however, it’s worth wondering about your own Human Library. Who are the people you ‘check out’? What personal life experiences are you hearing about and learning from? Whose stories are intersecting with your own? Whose life experiences would help you to “unjudge someone”? And what experiences have you had that might help others to challenge their own stereotypes? How could you be a human book for others in the workplace or in other communities this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Consider the human books you have in your own human library: 

  1. Take a look at the Human Library Organization’s website, and their range of human booksWhat kinds of experiences shown have you either a) had experience of yourself, or b) known someone well who has had that experience? Which ones have you not?
  2. Think about which human books you have ‘re-read’ multiple times. As with printed books, it can be wonderful to revisit a favorite every now and then, but if you find yourself hearing the same life experiences over and over again, it might be helpful to be aware of that, and to consider how you could hear other experiences to challenge the stereotypes you hold.
  3. Consider the human books you have in your communities. It’s likely that in the workplace and elsewhere in your life, you know people with life experiences you’ve never had and/or have some preconceived notions about. Consider asking if you could sit down and have a conversation about their experiences. This should be a request they are free to turn down, and a request for the future rather than a spontaneous in-the-moment conversation.
  4. Ask what experiences you have that others might want to ask you about. Challenge yourself to share a little more about those experiences this week, and be open to people asking you more about them. You might be surprised where that leads.
  5. Ask your local library about opportunities for Human Library experiences. They might already have some opportunities in place, in which case it’ll be a great chance to connect. If not, you might be able to support them in bringing something together. If nothing else, you’re registering your interest, which greatly helps local libraries in planning their programming.

Try these out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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