I had a great time being a “book” in the Human Library this Saturday. This was the first time a Human Library has been organized in Ottawa on this scale. It came about as a unique partnership between CBC Ottawa, the Ottawa Public Library, and the Canadian War Museum.
So, What is a Human Library? According to the Human Library Website:
The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.The main characteristics of the project are to be found in its simplicity and positive approach.
In its initial form the Human Library is a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to a Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with“people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background.
The Human Library enables groups to break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner. It is a concrete, easily transferable and affordable way of promoting tolerance and understanding.
It is a “keep it simple”,“no-nonsense” contribution to social cohesion in multicultural societies.
The idea for the Human Library was developped as a way of resisting hatred and violence in society. According to the Human Library Website:
Once upon a time in Copenhagen, Denmark. There was a young and idealistic youth organisation called “Stop The Violence”. This non-governmental youth movement was self initiated by the five youngsters Dany Abergel, Asma Mouna, Christoffer Erichsen, Thomas Bertelsen and Ronni Abergel from Copenhagen after a mutual friend was stabbed in the nightlife (1993). The brutal attack on their friend, who luckily survived, made the five youngsters decide to try and do something about the problem. To raise awareness and use peer group education to mobilise danish youngsters against violence. In a few years the organisation had 30.000 members all over the country.
In 2000 Stop The Violence was encouraged by then festival director, Mr. Leif Skov, to organise activities for Roskilde Festival. Events that would put focus on anti-violence, encourage dialogue and build relations among the festival visitors. And the Human Library was born, as a challenge to the crowds of Northern Europe’s biggest summer festival.
The Human Library in Ottawa was set up simply. According to CBC Ottawa’s Human Library Website:
The concept is simple. Instead of taking a book off a shelf to learn something new, you spend some time with a person-a human book. Ask that person some questions and learn more about his or her life.
On Saturday January 28th 2012, from 11 a.m. to 3p.m., you can take a book off the shelf right here in Ottawa. Sixty people will be available for short term loans (20 minutes each) at six locations around the city. You’ll find them at five branches of the Ottawa Public Library-Cumberland, Greenboro, Nepean, Stittsville, and Main Branch-as well as at the Canadian War Museum.
Here is what my book description was:
Chelby Daigle was raised by her single mom and grew up in a white family, but the colour of Chelby’s skin was a daily reminder of her black father, who was deported back to Nigeria when she was just a baby. When Chelby was eight, she discovered and clung to a photograph of her dad that she found tucked inside an old typewriter. As a young adult, Chelby had a chance encounter at the Embassy of Nigeria in Ottawa that helped launch her search for her absent father.
I was glad to have the opportunity to meet several of my fellow books during our orientation, an interview on CBC TV and on the day of the event itself. Each person’s story was interesting but I found the following people particularly fascinating.
Ted Itani is a retired soldier and a Humanitarian Advisor for the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. During his diverse UN missions in such places as Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, he has seen the human cost of conflict, but still believes that we change the world “one person at a time.”
I had an opportunity to meet Ted Itani during our interview about the event for CBC. He is the husband of the well-known Canadian author Frances Itani. Ted Itani is Japanese-Canadian. During World War II he was interned with his family, along with the over 22, 000 Japanese-Canadians who were seen as threats to national security. Itani didn’t discuss any of this with me when I met him. Instead, we discussed his military career-he joined the Canadian Military back in 1957- and his current work with the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Although retired, Itani is still busy acting as an advisor to Canadian and American agencies working in conflict zones and areas that are experiencing humanitarian crisis. In 2010, Itani was sent to Pakistan to coordinate the Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team as it oversaw flood relief efforts. Itani was no stranger to Pakistan as he had first been sent there in 1988 to work with the UN as it supported an influx of Afghan refugees.
William Lau’s parents always hoped he would study engineering. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in dance instead. William specializes in an ancient Chinese art form called Peking Opera. He plays the lead female characters known as the “Dan.” In fact, he’s the only person in Canada trained in all four Dan styles.
Another fascinating “book” was Chinese-Canadian William Lau. Lau is a Chinese Opera singer. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Montreal, Lau studied for his Masters in Fine Arts at York University. He is trained in both Chinese Tradition Dance and Western Ballet. He studied Peking Opera in Beijing, specializing performing the lead female roles or “the Dan”, which are traditionally played by men. In 1994, he founded the Little Pear Garden Collective which aims to keep traditional Chinese arts alive in Canada. Lau has pushed the boundaries of traditional Peking/Beijing Opera by collaborating with artists from other cultural backgrounds. I hope to see one of Lau’s productions when he performs again in Ottawa. His last Ottawa performance was Peking Opera Soiree at the NAC in 2011. Lau was the “book” who could speak the most languages: Cantonese, English, French and Mandarin.
Lindsay does indoor sex work. She specializes in clients with disabilities. She’s also a member of the local sex worker advocacy group P.O.W.E.R.
Lindsay was probably considered the most controversial book at the Human Library but I found her to be laid back and easy to talk to. Lindsay is currently working on her second undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies (her first was in Classical History and Archeology). Lindsay moved to Ottawa to be with her current partner back in 2006. Lindsay works as an escort and is a vocal advocate for the rights of sex workers and likes to challenge stereotypes about the world’s oldest profession. She doesn’t see what she’s doing as a contradiction to her feminism. Lindsay is a member of P.O.W.E.R. Here’s a description of the organization from their website:
POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist) is a non-profit, voluntary organization founded on February 17th, 2008. Membership is open to individuals of all genders who self-identify as former or current sex workers, regardless of the industry sector in which they work(ed) (i.e. dancers, street level workers, in and out call workers, phone sex, etc.) and to allies who share our vision. We envision a society in which sex workers are able to practice their professions free of legal and social discrimination, victimization, harassment and violence and in which sex work is valued as legitimate and fulfilling work making an important contribution to society.
Definitely one of the highlights of the day was missing a chance to speak to George Stromboulopoulous. He was standing right beside me! But I didn’t realize because I had taken my glasses off for an interview. He was in town for the All Star Game and decided to check out the Human Library. If you want proof here’s a picture he took. That’s me in the grey hijab!
The Human Library
Check out a CBC Ottawa Interview with me and a few other great “books”
CBC’s Website the Human Library in Ottawa
Coverage of Ottawa’s Human Library in the National Post
Photo Gallery from Ottawa’s Human Library
The Human Library Website
Video Interview (2010) available online
Interview (2011) available online
Interview available online
Interview (2012) available online