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The Human Library: ‘an inclusive world’ with founder Ronni Abergel

Kizzy Bray and Raine Beckford talk to Ronni Abergel, the founder of The Human Library to discuss the organisations collaboration with Heineken, challenging prejudices and the importance of conversation to stop violence

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Having lived in Manchester for two years, with embarrassment I admit I haven’t ventured too much farther than the delights of Piccadilly Station. The morning myself and Raine caught a train into Urmston we didn’t particularly know what to expect. What we found, in a tiny pub amongst housing estates and leafy lanes was an adventure in itself.

The Human Library, hosted by Heineken is a project that asks you to delve deep into your own prejudices, challenge learned stereotypes and boundaries to break taboo in the most wonderful way- by simply asking questions and listening to the “books” in front of you. We spoke to Ronni Abergel, the founder of The Human Library to understand where the idea came from and what good it is doing for the world.

The Human Library boasts a plethora of individual “books”. Raine and I sat at our table where we were given half an hour to “check-out” a “book”. In fact what we were doing was being given the opportunity to meet people of all kinds of backgrounds, appearances and experiences, to listen to them and to (within reason) ask them whatever we wanted.

Photo: The Human Library

Photo: The Human Library

The idea started in Copenhagen in 2000, where Ronni and some colleagues started the project for Roskilde Festival. “It all came from the simple thought that good relations to other groups in the community would be a benefit for all and it would help reduce violence” Ronni tells us.

“Myself and my colleagues hoped that readers would have the courage to take advantage of the situation we created. The courage to ask all the questions we would never dare ask down in the local Sainsburys or at the bus stop.”

We’ve all done it, even though many of us would hate to admit it. Perhaps shying away from sitting next to the man covered head to toe in tattoos and piercings on the train. Perhaps a stare, two seconds too long at the girl with tourettes on the tube. Most of our own ignorance one would hope doesn’t come from a place of hatred, but perhaps a softer sense of curiosity. The Human Library aims to tackle both these issues and more, in opening up the conversation with no room for shame and no tolerance of disgust.

As we sipped our free beers from the open bar after being shown Heineken’s 2017 promotional video ‘World’s Apart’ it was obvious why the company had paired with the not-for-profit Danish organisation. The video depicts people with extremely opposing views or beliefs coming together to build flat pack furniture and being given the option to stay and have a beer after finding out about their differences. The Human Library is in a similar vein; to promote understanding and conversation for positive change.

“Heineken is a brand that stands for openness” Ronni explains. “By joining forces, we aim to help extend their incredible work across the UK and enable more people to connect and find common ground – no matter what their background, experiences or views.”

With the internet age creating echo-chambers of our own views, it’s easy to get lost in what we think is right and believe that everyone else agrees with us. More and more diverse voices are being heard now than ever before, and Ronni wants this to be safe for everyone involved. “It’s more important than ever that we recognise our blind spots and break down our barriers so we can find common ground and open up our world. We want an open, inclusive world.

“Whilst we may never all agree on everything, we can always choose to be open; to find the common ground. Because being open lets you get more out of life.”

Just like real books, the human books are captivating, heart-breaking, heart-warming and sincere. As a reader I found myself completely immersed in the real life stories of the people in front of me, which seems to be the typical response to the library wherever they go. “A recent mind blowing session involved a married couple in their 50´s coming to borrow our victim of Incest to ask advice in regards to a situation in their own family” Ronni recalls, “it was a very personal reading where the readers somehow also became open books.”

So what is the future for the Human Library? Ronni is positive that there is a lot more to come. “Our tour will reach 100 nations soon. We are going to take our book depots around the world online.” There’s even a new TV-show ready to hit the US which everyone involved is extremely excited for, the good work is never finished. “This is only the beginning of the full potential of the Human Library. There will be more dialogue leading to more understanding, insight, empathy and again building blocks to a future with cohesion, tolerance and peace among people.”

Photo: The Human Library

Photo: The Human Library

This poignant, beautiful project is one you should try and catch if it stumbles across your city. There are many ways you can become part of this global movement for social change, as Ronni himself urges you to do so. “All you have to do is go to our website and tell us where you are and how you can help. We will then see if we can connect you with local Human Library organizers or a local book depot for the Human Library.”

To find out more about The Human Library, follow this link to their website.