I recently checked out my first book from the Human Library: Homelessness. I read it in an open courtyard next to the Impact Hub in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was likely the most honest and direct conversation I’ve had with a fellow human who has experienced homelessness.
Confused? So was I, until Turisaina (Turis) Tukiman clued me in.
Turis is the Operations Lead at Human Library in Malaysia. Originally created by a group of young activists in Copenhagen, the Human Library is now a global movement. It’s purpose is to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices.
The Human Library: A Collection of Human Experiences
In the Human Library, the “books” are actually people with a story to share of a time they faced prejudice or stigma. The “readers” are people willing to listen, hear the story of a “book”, and challenge their own pre-existing stereotypes.
During Human Library events, a group of books and readers come together in-person. A reader can check out a book of their choice. In doing so, they’re able to sit down one-on-one and face-to-face with a person, hear about their experience with stigma and prejudice, and ask questions.
The Human Library contains “books”, or people, with stories to share on many different topics, like homelessness, abortion, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, miscarriage, obesity, addiction, physical disability, mental illness, bankruptcy, rape and molestation. The list goes on and on. But each topic, or book, is an opportunity for two humans to better understand one another.
The conversations typically end positively for both book and reader. It is much harder for a “reader” to be hateful or unkind to someone sitting right in front of them. That’s especially true when the “book” is sharing such vulnerable parts of their life and perspective.
Just in case, the Human Library always prioritizes the physical and emotional security of the books. Sessions are ended by a Library coordinator if the conversation begins to feel unsafe, discriminatory, or otherwise negative for the person in the role of a “book”.
Setting up the Human Library in Malaysia
In a place like Kuala Lumpur where different races, cultures, and religions constantly collide and intermingle, there’s particular value in something like the Human Library. Since launch of the Human Library Malaysia in 2013, Kuala Lumpur has played host to many Library sessions and identified numerous books. Turis told me that they’ve never had to end a session early because of rude, unkind, or discriminatory behavior towards someone in the “book” role.
One reason for Human Library’s rapid global expansion is the cost-effectiveness of the model. Both books and readers participate on a volunteer basis, and sessions can take place in a public space. Time to organize an event is all that is really required. For that reason, Human Library is successfully operating in regions all over the world.
15 Minutes with Homelessness
After my chat with Turis, I got to reading that book on homelessness. The man I met was a pleasure to talk with. He was articulate, optimistic and notably sincere in telling his story.
This man was employed and driving to the airport when another car collided with his. He broke his hip, and spent time in the hospital. He was not able to work while recovering from his injury, and had little choice but to rely on his savings. The hospital bills were expensive. Eventually, he lost his job, and his housing. He had to rely on friends for a place to stay. When friends could no longer support him, the man found himself living on the streets.
I asked the man if he found any solace or community with others living on the street. That’s something I’ve always wondered about. For the most part, he didn’t. He explained that so many people are just trying to survive, and often there’s little emotional capacity for anything else.
What I remember most prominently from our conversation was his insistent reminder: No one wants to live on the streets. The streets are unsafe, dirty and loud. I suppose that is ultimately the moral of this particular story: remember that people on the streets don’t want to be there, and many of them didn’t do anything critically wrong before ending up there. Come from a position of love and carry your compassion with you when you see people experiencing homelessness.
If you’re curious, the man was in a much better place when I spoke with him. He was working again, and on a path towards reestablishing life without a serious risk of homelessness.
Words for the World: Take Action
It’s the holiday season for many people around the world, and 2017 is fast approaching. Take some time to challenge your stereotypes: Make it your goal to connect with one person, ask about a prejudice they face, and listen without passing judgment.
- There are Human Library collections all over the world. Find an event near you: http://humanlibrary.org/events/list/.
- Ready to go the extra mile? Become a Human Library organizer in your area: http://humanlibrary.org/human-library-organizers/.