Headwaters Human Library Books
For people who serve as “books” in the Headwaters Human Library, the courage to talk openly about the differences among us is second nature.
Headwaters Human Library Books: Some of our 2014 Local Heroes
Everyone Has a Story
Over five years, the free annual event has attracted nearly 50 books, that is, individuals willing to share the story of their particular niche in the diverse local community. They do this in half-hour one-on-one conversations with “readers” who are members of the general public.
The goal of the Human Library is to demonstrate the wide spectrum of humanity who reside in Headwaters and encourage dialogue and understanding among them. Book titles have ranged from “Born in the Wrong Body” to “Atheist,” from “Don’t Call Me Retard” to “Filipino Immigrant,” from “Transvestite” to “Aboriginal Woman.”
Jacob Dixon, Kristine Stanway and Khwaja Ajib are longtime bestsellers who have participated in both the main Human Library events and satellite events that have been held in each of Dufferin’s high schools. Jacob not only serves as a book titled “Beyond the Freak,” he has also appeared as the pierced poster boy in the program’s advertising.
For Kristine, a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police whose title is “Gay Female Police Officer,” participation is both personal and professional. And for Khwaja, owner of Dufferin Glen Golf Club, his book “About Islam” provides a chance to dispel myths and prejudice about the Muslim faith. Khwaja also appeared in an autumn 2009 article in this magazine about the Human Library.
For each of the books, there was some initial apprehension. Khwaja says, “I was nervous at first. For the first 10 minutes I felt very alone. But after 15 minutes I felt very comfortable. I was surprised by the warm welcome I got. Everyone has been very kind, and no one came with an agenda. I started to really enjoy it.”
Jacob describes his experience with the Human Library as therapeutic. “When I was first approached, I was more in a shell. I thought, What do I have to offer? Meeting everybody, I was blown away that there were so many amazing books. Then people wanted to read me. And every conversation is so different.”
Jacob’s readers have ranged from the man who asked if he got his piercings to pick up women, to a little girl who demanded to know what he plans to do when he grows up, because with a face like that he obviously couldn’t be an astronaut or a firefighter. “I really like the younger minds,” Jacob says. “They’re more open, they ask questions.”
One of Jacob’s most difficult readers also proved to be one of his most meaningful. Opening the conversation with “No offence, but I want my kid to never look like you,” the woman went on to explain how difficult it is for parents to send their children off to high school. “With your style,” she said, “I’d be worried about depression and drugs and bullying.” When Jacob told his own mother about the conversation, he was surprised by her response. “My mom said ‘Yes, I was scared every day. But I believed in you.’ My parents were always very supportive,” he adds, “but I wasn’t thinking from their side.”
Kristine made news in January this year when her police cruiser became the filling in a transport truck sandwich on County Road 109 near Grand Valley. The accident happened during a state of emergency that had been called due to winter weather.
At the Human Library, Kristine sees her experience as a two-way street. While sharing her own story, she is also learning about everyone else. She says her readers had a lot of common questions, such as, “When did you know you were gay?” “How did your parents take it?” and “How did it play out with your co-workers?”
“For me,” she says, “all of those things were positive. It was good to be able to tell people that.” The coworker question often serves as a bridge to another set of oft-asked questions about policing: “How did you get into it?” “How long have you been doing it?” and “What has been your most exciting call?”
In fact, all the books say that during their sessions with readers the questions flow in both directions. In effect, the book and reader are reading each other. One of Kristine’s most intense experiences came about in just that way. “I had one girl, maybe 17 years old. It was a very bizarre conversation. I think she may have been high.” As the conversation unfolded, Kristine says, “It turned out she had been moved from group home to group home. At one point she started crying.”
Kristine says many of her readers are there to seek personal advice, and she has been impressed with the overall attitude. “There’s been no negativity at all. It’s always very positive.”
Khwaja agrees, noting there has been “a lot of enlightenment.” As a Muslim imam, in the early Human Libraries he fielded a lot of questions about 9/11 and terrorism. Over the years that has shifted more to questions about being an immigrant and the treatment of women in Islamic culture. “There has also been more looking at comparable ways of life and comparing cultures,” he says.
One of his most memorable exchanges was when a mother brought in her 14-year-old son. The boy was from Israel, and Khwaja recalls, “He had questions about the conflict in the Middle East. So we had a conversation about what the similarities between our religions are.” Employing one of his trademark lines, Khwaja says, “I told him if we all just take the Ten Commandments and run with it, everyone’s good.”
One impact of the Human Library has been the ripple effect in the wider community. For example, after one of their parishioners read Khwaja at a Human Library event, St. John’s Anglican Church, east of Orangeville, invited him to deliver a 45-minute talk about Islam at one of their gatherings. Both Jacob and Khwaja, along with fellow longtime book Gerelyn Tabsing, have presented panel discussions to community groups. Kristine, too, has had discussions with several people considering policing as a career, some of whom may well have gone on to enter the force.
Khwaja concludes, “If we spent a bit more time talking to each other, we could sort out a lot of things.”