Borrow a Muslim? A 'living library' to prick stereotypes
In 12 countries, people check out people for a 30-minute conversation to challenge their own prejudices.
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Now he has his eyes on America.Skip to next paragraph
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"The next big move in the fall here is to start a tour in the States," he says. "We are looking to go to interested colleges in the States." One date in Fort Wayne, Ind., is inked in and others are interested, says Abergel.
"We also want to take it into businesses. Why not go to large corporations and have their workers come down and have half an hour to have their horizons expanded a little bit?"
Abergel traces the origins of the concept back to a Friday night in Copenhagen, 15 years ago. A friend, just 19, was stabbed six times for no apparent reason. Still a teenager himself, Abergel and three friends responded by setting up Stop the Violence, a group aimed at doing just that.
Seven years later, the group was invited to put on a "happening" at the annual Roskilde rock music festival. The idea of Living Library was born in a brainstorming session in January 2000. But it took several years to get it properly off the ground. Initially, the library had outings at festivals in Denmark, Hungary, and Norway. But three years ago, it started to "franchise" the concept, and now dozens of Living Libraries are held in Europe every year.
"We see it as an important tool to promote democracy and human rights," says Silje Bergum Kinsten of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which sponsors the concept.
For the "books," the event can be a rare opportunity to express their side of the story. Kerry Whybrow, a transgender person, says her readers were interested in why she made the change. She says it was a chance to do a little PR for the 15,000 transsexuals in Britain.
"I'm making my journey and I want people to understand that," she says. "If only 10 of your readers pick up on that and change their attitudes, that's 10 fewer people that are going to be bigoted in their attitude towards some poor old transgender person."
Stephen Fisher, a school inspector, says he learned as much from other "books" as he did from telling readers about the complexities of assessing schools. "Many of our prejudices are just things you don't know and once you explain to people they understand," he says. "I've learned so much about witches that I didn't know."
Abergel admits that the people who could most use a little dialogue, tolerance, and understanding are unlikely to use his library. "People who are extremely prejudiced will never come to a Living Library," he says. "The criticism that we have is we are preaching to the congregation – we're getting people who are open minded.
"But people who are open-minded still need confirmation that they are on the right track," he says.
Another criticism is that not all readers will overcome their prejudice during a 30-minute conversation. Reader David Semple says he found sessions with a funeral director and a police officer most illuminating. But the transgender "book" enlightened him less.
"The conversation was lovely but I'm afraid I still have the prejudice," he says. "I still find it hard to comprehend why you change your gender."