MU Human Library event gives volunteers chance to share life stories

Friday, November 2, 2012 | 11:44 a.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Friday, November 2, 2012
Amina Simmons, center, shares her personal story with Ashley Lucas, left, Ellen Thiene and Anthony Brown as a volunteer "human book" Tuesday at Memorial Union. The MU Human Library Project invited students to "smash stereotypes" by listening and conversing with more than a dozen human books.

COLUMBIA — When Ahmed Alawadhi said he had been a victim of a hate crime, his seriousness in participating in the MU Human Library project came through.

As Alawadhi tells it, a stranger driving by yelled at him, suggesting Alawadhi was hiding a bomb under his jacket.

It's these kind of actions that create internal wounds, Alawadhi said.

"It's my duty as an individual from overseas to try and educate people more about us," he said, referring to Muslims and Arabs.

Alawadhi, a graduate student from Kuwait in the Department of Architectural Studies, is one of more than a dozen students, faculty and staff who volunteered to be a living book at the recent MizzouDiversity Summit.

"It's really easy to have misconceptions and to stereotype people when you don't know someone," said Niki Stanley, multimedia specialist with the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative. "I think some of those misconceptions are broken down when you actually sit down and talk with someone one on one."

The Human Library project started 12 years ago in Denmark as a way for people to have an informal dialogue with others to break stereotypes.

Stanley read about it and wanted to have a dialogue like that at MU. The first one was held Tuesday at the summit and was intended to be a positive way for people from different backgrounds to come together.

The human books sat in a room at Memorial Union and talked with visitors about their lives.

Victoria Chance, fellowship program coordinator in the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, volunteered to be a book in the Human Library with the hope of leaving an imprint on the people she talked to that day. 

Chance had a daughter at age 15 and did not go through high school with her peers. She grew up relatively poor and went to 28 schools by the time she was in eighth grade. None of these things stopped her from becoming the person she is today, she said. 

"My story was interesting for the book project because, statistically, I should not have been a successful outcome," Chance said. 

Chance is also a Wiccan high priestess who helps in her church and the community through volunteer services. 

"You can't really judge a book by where it started," Chance said. "It's the ending that matters and the journey to get there."

Feedback from the "readers" and the books involved were positive, Stanley said.

"Many of our readers ended up staying longer than they expected," she said. "Once they met with one book, they wanted to go around the room to meet with each of the other books."

For Alawadhi, participating was great and also a learning experience.

"Being a participant has showed me the people's interest in uncovering the stereotypes of both Arabic culture and Muslims," he said. "It was comforting to touch their passion in knowing more about us."

Requests for more from the Human Library have already come in, Stanley said. "We'll definitely be planning more events in the future." 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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