Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cultural Understanding, Serendipity and the Human Library

The international Human Library Project aims to break down prejudices and stereotypes through one-on-one interactions with diverse people. Project coordinators offer a setting, time, and materials -- so-called "human books" with whom "human readers" can interact.  This past month, we ran our 2nd annual Human Library at my high school to offer students a chance meet professionals and learn about the diversity of people in varied careers. Students learn about varied paths to success, stereotyping encountered along the way that had to be overcome, a wide-breadth of lifestyles, and backgrounds of professionals. We want to show students they can be whatever they want to be regardless of their own circumstances. The program builds community and cultural understanding, with room for serendipitous discovery built in. The human library can be a particularly valuable tool/program to help museums and libraries fulfill their missions. 

Human books spoke with my students about their careers and challenges.
Our human books included people in fields such as engineering, finance, videography, military, aviation, journalism, fitness, entomology, construction, health and wellness, law enforcement, psychiatry, animal sciences, museums, space science, and chiropractic. More importantly, books shared information about how they overcame stereotyping because of their sex; how they overcame disabilities; how they moved beyond what was expected of them to create the lives they wanted.

Students speak with a human book. Some teens felt more comfortable talking to the adults
with a  friend rather than sticking to the one-to-one format.

A particularly wonderful thing about working in a place that has a mission to preserve human stories, educate, or exhibit ideas, is that we never know what doors we may open for people. Our opportunities for changing lives is broader than the mission we might see right in front of us.

Students had the opportunity to speak with their books for 15 minutes, sometimes more. In between sessions, I talked to them about the experience. One conversation in particular stood out for me and I want to share it with you. It is an example of the unexpected opportunities that cultural heritage institutions can provide when we arrange creative programs. ..

A student entered the room. He had participated in our Human Library last year and enjoyed the experience. However, this year he is an eleventh grader and his ideas about what he wants to do with his life are a little clearer than his sophomore year.

Me: "May I help you find someone to talk to today?"
Student: "I want to be a history teacher, but you don't have anyone in that field."
Me: "Hmmm....well, I have two museum people here today. One of them worked in a history museum before moving to a science museum. She might be a good fit for you."

He was willing to give it a go and came back to me after his session.

Student: "She was awesome! I thought we were going to talk about history, but she told me about her life. She told me about how she got into college and her struggle. I never thought about all of that!" Looking around the room he said, "Who else can I talk to, Ms. Mannon?" 

The Human Library has made a great impression on many young people in my town. They learn the value of communication, listening to new ideas, and being open to diversity. I look forward to running it again next year.

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