Human Library opens up the dialogue on difficult topics

By Terris Harned, Contributing Writer

Have you ever been reading a book or news article, or watching a documentary and found yourself wanting to ask a question of your own? Have you ever really wanted to know what was going on inside someone else’s head, but were afraid to ask? Well, that’s what Librarian Alison Kastner was hoping to help alleviate when she decided to coordinate Multnomah County Library’s adaptation of the Human Library project, “A Mile In Their Shoes.”

The idea is to take one curious audience, one person with a lifetime of experience to share, one host, and create a recipe for communication and understanding. Each session will involve a Q&A session with the host, Emily Harris of OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” and also an opportunity for questions from the crowd. People are encouraged to check out other human beings.

“It’s an opportunity for people to exercise their curiosity in a safe place, and to challenge stereotypes,” Kastner said. “Perhaps (people are) worried that they will be viewed as ignorant, or racist, or any other number of things that prevent a conversation getting started. The Human Library project offers a safe place to overcome those barriers.” Overcoming barriers is something Street Roots is intimately familiar with.

When I asked Kastner and Harris how this compares to formal interviews or lectures, they offered the following: “We hope this is a lot more interactive than just a speaker in front of an audience. We’re hoping for some discourse and dialogue,” Kastner said. “We welcome everyone to the conversation.” Harris compared the project to her radio show: “There’s a lot of similarities, in that, one thing we try to do is talk to people about their firsthand experience …”

One obvious difference is that it’s a live audience,  Harris said. “So people can see as well as hear each other. Also, on “Think Out Loud” we usually invite several guests who talk with each other and bring different experience or perspective to a conversation. This will feature one person with a unique experience; we hope the audience will help create a dialogue.”

When Kastner first approached me in February with an offer to participate, I was flattered. I saw in this a chance to advocate for myself and my friends who sleep outside, to educate and inform.

Also speaking will be Muna Abshir Mohamud is a Muslim woman, originally from Somalia; and Jessica Richardson, a victim of human trafficking.

As for me, I have been homeless off and on for about 9 years. I have to admit, next to those two, I feel almost intimidated; I don’t think my story is quite as impressive as theirs, but as anyone who has met me while I sell Street Roots will testify, I have the gift of gab, and love to share that story with others. It will also help answer people’s question about what it’s like to live outside, and hopefully some of the why.

While I was speaking with her, Harris shared her enthusiasm for the project.

“It gives a chance for people to talk to the guests. I hope it’s going to be a forum where people can ask questions that they really want to know, that they haven’t felt they had another place to ask them.” I couldn’t agree more.

Kastner says that if attendance is high, and feedback is positive, she would like to see the program continued in the future. I look forward to seeing you all there!

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