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The Journal Gazette

  • Ellen Sauer, left, and Nicole King brought The Human Library project to Fort Wayne in 2018. (Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette)

  • Anna Deabenstot stops to talk to Libby Smith, left, at The Human Library during Taste of the Arts in August. (Photos by Katie Fyfe | The Journal Gazette)

  • The Human Library “books” deliver their stories in 20- to 30-minute sessions.

  • The Human Library had books available during Taste of the Arts in August.

Thursday, October 03, 2019 1:00 am

Real stories, in the flesh

Local people share their tales to turn page on prejudice

Blake Sebring | For The Journal Gazette

Though she's been losing her sight since 2008, Ruth Roth entertains herself with books on tape. Then she was introduced to an entirely new form of book catalog during a visit to The Human Library on Aug. 1 at Trinity English Lutheran Church.

Roth, 76, explored the stories of a 28-year-old man who was brought to the United States from Mexico at 2 months old and is unable to acquire citizenship. She also sat with a woman who was forced by her family to marry at age 15 with no rights.

“It was phenomenal,” Roth says. “I was just in awe of these people. They were so open and so honest, and they didn't mind answering questions. It's a remarkable thing for them to do.”

Started in Denmark in 2000 as a way of building a framework to challenge stereotypes and prejudices, the format utilizes people who tell their stories in 20- to 30-minute oral segments instead of in printed books. The Fort Wayne edition started in 2018 thanks to Nicole King and Ellen Sauer.

The group will present 50 “human books” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 12 at the downtown Allen County Public Library. It is free, but donations are accepted, including at www.humanlibraryfw.com.

All the stories represent aspects of the Fort Wayne community and people who detail their experiences dealing with bias, stereotypes and prejudice.

The human books range in age from 14 to 90s, and the topics are challenging, such as transgender issues, homosexuality, immigration, addiction, religion, disabilities, piercings and mental illness. The goal is not to confront but to educate through personal connections.

“The Human Library does a great job of allowing that human encounter,” King says. “All those diversity courses and seminars that they put you through at work, these are those in motion.

“This is you sitting across from someone who you otherwise would never have a conversation with and having that conversation. It's quiet, and this person is prepared to tell their story so you aren't catching them off-guard. It gives you a real opportunity to know your neighbor beyond ZIP code and culture.”

King and Sauer were part of the diversity group Hands Across Fort Wayne when they suggested the idea of The Human Library. When the idea was initially rejected, they believed in it and met for six months over coffee at a kitchen counter to discover themselves and each other before starting presentations.

“Every event we learn something new,” Sauer says. “It's been one of the most humbling experiences of my life to meet these 45, 50 books and hear their stories first-hand when we sit down with them.”

A mother of three, King, 42, is a professional grant writer and president of the Indiana Democratic African-American Caucus. Sauer, 55, also a mother of three, is an artist, writer and community organizer who teaches a class on racism and white supremacy.

But with such controversial topics, how do they avoid the topics becoming strictly political?

“It's not about politics, but we get that it factors in,” King says. “It is honestly about how you live your life. The democracy of politics is why we are able to gather. This is very bipartisan.

“I'm a Democrat, but one of our books discusses reverse racism. That is not a term I would use, but I welcome him with open arms into our Human Library because that is his perspective, and he's probably not the only person who holds that perspective. That's part of his journey.”

Before each session, readers go through a five-minute orientation that instructs them on protocol and what is expected of them. Books do not have to answer every question and have the right to end a session. Recordings are prohibited and no first names are used, though they are available on the website.

Sometimes the events can be very purifying or emotional for the books.

“It's the chance to be cathartic with my story and the ever-growing hope that I'm awakening an idea in other people's minds that knowing your neighbor is not that much different than you and that's OK,” says Sonya Flores, 35, who talks about growing up on the south Texas border as a Mexican-American and not fitting into either society.

“The Human Library can make such an impact and difference on this community,” she says. “I've seen that this community wants to grow and learn.”

Though they've been married 44 years, Linda and Pompia Durril speak about the differences they experienced growing up. She's from Grambling, Louisiana, where her parents were professors, and he's from Danville, Illinois. They met while attending Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“It's basically storytelling,” he said. “You are telling a story about you and how you came to where you are today. What was the past you traveled to get to where you are?”

What has surprised his wife, she said, is “That other people are fascinated with our stories.”

Holding five or six events each year, the Fort Wayne version of The Human Library has proven to be popular, with bookings through 2021.

Roth plans on going back frequently.

“The excitement carried over, and I just wanted to tell everyone about it,” she says. “I recommend it for everyone. We don't know how the other half lives, we have no clue what is going on in our country, and I learned many things.”