People designated as 'books' will tell their stories to combat biases

Typically known for its drama, music and dance productions, the Lincoln Theatre will be transformed into a library on Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30. Patrons will be able to check out books on topics ranging from human trafficking and divorce to activism and immigration. Three of the stories begin with, “I killed a man.”

But the books are all people.

“The mission behind the Human Library is to get stories that are either not often told, where people have been, perhaps, disempowered in telling their story, or where there's a stigma that comes with that identity,” said social justice advocate Kimberly Brazwell. “You have to give people voice, especially to tell their survival stories so that we can transition from surviving to thriving.”

Founded nearly 20 years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Human Library Organization works to challenge stereotypes and create more inclusive opportunities. A select group of people designated as “books” can be “checked out” by patrons. The books tell their stories and engage in dialogue with the “readers” in a safe space.

The exercise has been adopted by institutions in 80 countries. This weekend, Brazwell will bring the concept to Columbus in a public forum.

“I just made a list of all potential kinds of stigmas and the kinds of people where, when you see them, you have an idea in your head of what the story is but you don't know,” Brazwell said. “We actually exceeded our goal for our recruiting.”

Each day will feature approximately 17 “books.” Saturday’s stories will be geared toward an adult audience, while Sunday will be more family friendly.

“[It’s an] opportunity for people to share their story, but also [for] other people who've gone through similar things to be able to hear the stories of overcoming,” said La’Mier Dennis, one of the participating storytellers. “I just think that everyone who has the opportunity should come out.”

Dennis’ story opens during his childhood, when he experienced the unimaginable.

“When I was 12 years old, I was the key witness in a murder trial,” he said. “My father shot and killed my mother, and he also shot her boyfriend at the time.”

Dennis said it took him several years before he began opening up about what he endured. But once he did, he found it cathartic.

“There was no doubt that I had long periods of crying and hurt and frustration and ‘Why me’ and ‘I can't believe this.’ But once I was able to cry, then I could dry my tears,” he said. “I don't think that people as a whole cry enough.”

He also decided he had to make a choice, though the process was far from easy: Allow his past to prevent him from moving forward, or use it to make him stronger.

“The beauty of it all is that I'm a survivor,” he said. “I'm not just hanging on by the skin of my teeth. I'm not strung out. I'm actually doing well mentally, physically, spiritually and financially in spite of all of those things. So I am definitely not the victim, but I'm the victor.”

Brazwell, who owns her own consulting firm, Kimistry LLC, recently discovered the power in telling her own story. In 2017, she wrote Browning Pleasantville, a book about a traumatic experience she had as a diversity practitioner.

“Being brown and female and doing social justice advocacy in predominantly white systems is volatile,” she said. “And I think a lot of us who maybe share some of those identity lenses have had these kinds of experiences. And oftentimes, if we survived them intact, we don't tell the story. We're just so glad we survived it or we just move on. And I'm like, ‘This has to be other people's stories. … I just don't want anyone to feel like how I felt when I went through that.’”

Given the traumatic nature of many of the stories, the Human Library will have a designated space for participants to decompress, if needed. There will be additional activities, including an opportunity to add to a quote/autograph wall, or anonymously write down a secret to be placed in a lockbox. There will also be a table of resources related to topics discussed.

Brazwell hopes the event will have an impact at both the individual and city level.

“I think there are a lot of people who are in positions of power to effect change in the city who are not building the change based on the people who are living these experiences,” she said. “You're going to develop a food system, but you've never been hungry. You're going to develop a housing system and you've never been homeless or housing-insecure. How can you do that? You're going to figure out a system to give resources to people who are disenfranchised economically and you've always had money.”

Brazwell wants people to be moved to help in a “sustainable way,” or, at the very least, support others through their pain.

“It creates the opportunity for people to put themselves aside for a second and just sit with somebody in their story,” she said. “Let them know, ‘You don't have to do this by yourself.’”