Dozens volunteered to share their stories and break down stereotypes and barriers during a Human Library event April 9 at the University of Central Arkansas.
The Human Library event is a worldwide project that was started in 2000 in Copehagen by the Stop the Violence youth organization.
The design is focused on establishing frameworks for positive conversations to challenge stereotypes and prejudices.
Those who volunteered — more than 50 students, faculty and staff signed up — as the human books at UCA wrote up blurbs for readers to consider when “checking them out” for 20-minute conversations.
During those 20 minutes, readers can ask questions about the book and learn more about who that person is, their life experiences and what molded them into who they are now.
The event at UCA stemmed from one that the Faulkner County Library held last year.
Chrissy Karafit, with the UCA library, told the Log Cabin Democrat that the idea was to have people come in and share their stories about how they’re representing their communities, talk about moments of discrimination they’ve experienced and create that opportunity to have those conversations with a variety of people with the goal to break down barriers, increase respect and reduce stigmas, which she said there is a big need for today.
“I just think in society in general it seems like there’s a lot more divisiveness here lately,” Joanna Ewing, a librarian with UCA, said. “I think the more that we can understand each other, the better. Opening up dialogue even with people that are from completely different backgrounds or lifestyles than you, I think that’s good.”
She said people don’t have to agree but it’s good to just have those honest conversations with each other to understand perspectives.
“The Human Library experience affords us rich opportunities to learn about the lived experiences of individuals in our community with whom we may have little to no interaction,” Angela Webster, associate vice president for institutional diversity and inclusion, said in a news release about the event.
Two of those volunteers were UCA grad students Conner Miller and John Gilbreath.
Miller’s blurb was about being the happy person and the responsibilities that come from that.
He said that happy-person role is part of being a Miller, the persona running in his family.
Miller said he’s felt that way his whole life — he recalled a phrase his dad used to say when he was little, “we put the fun in funeral,” — and being happy was something that was always encouraged in his house.
The big thing he wanted to be able to talk about with readers who checked him out was the weight that can form on the shoulders of people who choose to be that way, often putting others first.
Miller acknowledged the suicide of Hollywood actor and comedian Robin Williams and how as the funny man, him being sad or unhappy wasn’t something anybody assumed, the balance between the resonsiblity of making people laugh and taking care of one’s self hard to find.
The Log Cabin Democrat asked Miller if he’d found that balance.
“You would think that but no I [haven’t],” he said. “I still focus on other people.”
Miller said his first reaction isn’t to tell people his problems but instead, to focus on others and helping them through theirs.
“For me, if I wake up everyday and I make one person smile, ir one person giggle, just get a laugh, I did a good thing,” he said.
For Gilbreath, growing up was much different, his blurb challenging the fact that as a white man, he didn’t grow up with the privilege most would think by looking at him.
The UCA student said he was beaten by his stepdad his grandparents were in a cult and both of his parents were felons, constant run-ins with the law and in and out of prison.
Despite his circumstances and many along the way telling him he couldn’t — Gilbreath said there were plenty that chalked him up to no more than a statistic — there he stood, a graduate student at the university.
“I beat the odds,” he said.
The duo, who were checked out multiple times back-to-back, said it’s events like the human library that help people understand — and care — about each other, which Gilbreath says is lacking today.
“I feel like not very many people have empathy anymore,” he said.
Miller said he enjoyed the opportunity to have those conversations and looks forward to more human libraries held in the future.
“It’s been fun, it’s good to talk about,” he said. “I feel like more people need to talk about things they are unfamiliar with and hear people’s stories. We take it for granted all the time.”
More so, Miller said, it’s important to not only care about others, but make sure people know that they are cared for.
“I highly recommend it,” he said. “There are ‘stories’ out there you need to ‘read.”