Humility and courage power-up at the Human Library

Sophia Cheng / 7 min read / Big Ideas, Newbie Activist Life
2 May 2019
Breaking My Echo Chamber

In these times of hyper-social media, anonymity, clickbait headlines and Twitter rants, The Human Library is a distinctly offline experience. It is refreshing, radical and utterly necessary.

I believe everyone would benefit from attending at least one Human Library. Let me share with you my story.

What is the Human Library?

Human Library is an interaction with a fellow human being, who falls out of the ‘norm’ or mainstream and often faced stigma or prejudice. Human book titles can include; Transgender, Traffic Warden, Muslim Convert, Facial Disfigurement, Sexual Abuse Survivor, Bipolar and Tory Councillor. After judging the book titles (and yes the pun is intended), you take out a book via the librarian, who introduces you to your book and you have a conversation with them. They tell you their story and you ask questions. That’s it. No follow up. No technology. Just one person speaking to another.

My Own Personal Bubble

Sat in Mexico City in November 2016 watching the US Presidential results come in I had a familiar feeling creep up on me, it was the same feeling I’d had a few months earlier – the date of the Brexit vote. I do not understand. I do not know my own country. My echo chamber was resolutely blue and remain that it seemed impossible that there would be any other outcome. My echo chamber had kept me safe, my algorithms had shielded me from vastly different opinions or shrugged them off as nonsense. And my bubble was not only confined to the digital realm – it was IRL as well. I realised I had surrounded myself with, on the whole, a bunch of people that agreed with me. Kind but congratulatory, well-meaning but adamant. And I was just the same. The outcome of both votes stumped me.

Bleary-eyed the next morning I sought solace on social media and thankfully found something genuinely useful. A personal hero of mine, Brene Brown, posted on Facebook in reaction to the hostility bursting from both sides of the political fence – and one sentence has stayed with me ever since; “It’s hard to hate close up.”

It’s hard to hate close up.

On reflection, I didn’t really know any reds or Be-Leavers, or ‘others’ for that matter and perhaps if I did, I would begin to stretch my perspective and understand. The haze lifted: I realised then that my echo chamber needed a serious overhaul. I needed to burst my own bubble. And it was a moral imperative to do so.

But how?

Holding my mug of piping hot black coffee, spacing out as I watched the steam rise an old conversation wafted from the recesses of my memory. In Malaysia, the year before I met Ralph Mpofu, of the Impact Hub in Kuala Lumpur who introduced me to the Human Library concept. My synapses fired. Immediately I saw how experiences like this would allow me to burst my echo chamber. In just a few hours, I would be able to challenge my assumptions on a number of issues and learn directly from people with lived experience. All at very little inconvenience to me, all I had to do was turn up.

Human Library has been going on for 19 years and takes place in more than 70 countries around the world. But here’s where being a digital nomad hindered more than it helped, being on the move meant I was never in the right place at the right time. It wasn’t until June 2018 when the stars aligned and I attended my first one. It’s not something you forget. And since then I’ve been to 4 more in Manchester, London and Colchester in the UK and in Denmark.

I have read Niqabi, Satanist, Former Homeless, Sexual Abuse Survivor, Ex-Offender, Refugee, Anxiety and Polyamorous.

And what have I learned?

Firstly, the art of listening. Human Library, if nothing else, is a powerful exercise in listening. Not listening with the intention to respond with something witty but an active listening. You are not there to fix, refute or defend. You are there to listen, learn. Oh I laughed and cried. I’ve started extremely nervous (Can I hold the weight of this person’s story? Where do I look? Will I sound patronising? Will I cause offence?) but by the end felt I’d known a book all my life. I’ve felt confused, and then sought clarity, because you can do that with a human being, unlike Twitter.

From Ex-Offender I learned about reformation and the challenges of re-integrating with society. It took me a good 10 minutes to build up the courage to ask him what he’d been incarcerated for. He said that being good with his hands led him to bulk up and box to deter people starting a fight with him. What do you do with your hands now, I asked him, after more than a decade in prison? His answer after a short pause stays with me so vividly; “I like to bake. I make a great vegan cupcake and I’m learning to crochet too.” It immediately short-circuited our differences as we talked about crafting.

I learnt about choice and free-will from Niqabi and she highlighted paradoxes in Western culture I had not considered before. I noticed how much eye contact was made in 15 minutes and how comparatively I would shy away from it that when speaking to someone new. What should I do with this conversation we’ve just had, I asked her. She replied; “Just acknowledge us. When you’re next at the bus stop, just acknowledge us”. I felt humbled by the warmth of this woman, a complete stranger, knowing that I had made snap judgements over something I really didn’t understand.

I learnt about the hidden homeless, people with jobs even but no stable place to sleep. I learnt how we (many of us) are all just a few bad life turns away from being in a similar situation, how we tend to shift blame to the individual and ignore the systemic inequalities. I was encouraged to question the entrenched social construct of monogamy and how trust trumps everything. I learnt the consequences of being abused as a child, how that trauma skews how you see the world. What it’s like to hold so much pain an a world that (for the most part) just doesn’t want to know (except in bleak detective shows). She gave me courage, courage and permission to speak about these taboo topics with other people I know and other survivors I know.

I learnt a lot about myself. I don’t consider myself racist but I don’t actually know many people of colour. I consider myself open-minded but realise I only have a few people I know who fall outside of cis hetero bracket. I don’t know that many disabled people, nor that many people that fall out of my socioeconomic status. I know very little about the main religions. And the list goes on. I have a lot to learn and so many people to speak to. And boy does it beat reading a real book. These stories stay with you.

That’s why I keep going back to Human Library.

London’s next flagship Human Library will be on June 22nd – hosted by Nova New Opportunities

You can find the global event listings here.

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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