October 24, 2020

BY JOY STRUTHERS

At Conestoga’s fifth annual Human Library, “human books” talked about their experiences and answered questions from their “readers.”

This unique event was founded in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.

At Conestoga, this interactive form of storytelling was held by the Student Life department on Feb. 14 in the Library Resource Centre.

Six people volunteered to be human books and speak with students who signed up to talk to them.

Each human book was seated at a table with a timer, brochures and even a suggested list of questions for them. A book cover was designed with their picture and name on it and put on a hard-cover book which stood on their table.

Staff and volunteers encouraged students to reach out to the human books in order to learn from their unique experiences.

Student Life programmer Chrissy Orlowski said, “It can be very impactful to meet with someone face to face and learn from them.”

The books ranged from survivors of sexual assault to an international student who struggled with feelings of isolation. There was a student with learning disabilities, one who overcame addiction, and a person who identifies with a gender and sexuality that varies from the norm.

Lyn McGinnis is a gender-variant bisexual, but also likes the term gender-queer.

“I’m not in the binary,” McGinnis said. “I’m somewhere in between.”

McGinnis, 61, said they are bisexual because it is a term people understand, but really feels more polysexual, which means they are potentially attracted to either gender, or people who are also gender-variant.

“Just for me, if you’ve got skin on, I’m good,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis added, “I was born this way, and this is who I am. I feel fully like all aspects of who I am are on the table. It took a long time to get to that point.

McGinnis took part in the Human Library because “it is vitally important that LGBTQ people are visible and that people get to know them and talk to them and learn.”

All of the books at the Human Library wanted to share their stories. Sometimes sharing is what got them through their own rough periods.

Jake Reay, a Conestoga social service worker student, came back to school after many years of struggling with addiction.

“I told anyone who would listen that I was an addict and I was in recovery,” Reay said.

“This is my fourth Human Library I believe,” he added.

Reay was 17 when he dropped out of high school and had been doing drugs for some time.

“I was using drugs heavily and really it wasn’t anything more than daily excessive marijuana use and compressed pills (such as ecstasy) on the weekend,” he said.

His drug habit worsened and he worked just to feed his addiction. He was using cocaine and alcohol regularly.

He became very unhappy with the state of his life and realized he wanted more. He didn’t want to self-medicate for his depression.

“I would much rather deal with it in a proactive sense then try to mask it with drugs and alcohol,” Reay said.

When he came back to school he also tried to repair his personal relationships. He found that people were willing to listen to him and accept him.

“Owning it is a huge part of it,” he said. “It’s a part of who you were but it’s not who you are. You don’t have to be stuck in that place in your life if you don’t want to be.”

For some, they have no choice. Conestoga recreation and leisure services student Andrew Dron can’t escape his situation.

Dron has a learning disability called processing speed disorder.

“Think of a highway,” he said. “The highway is my brain, but this highway is different from any other. It has a few roadblocks and traffic jams.”

It takes Dron a bit longer to think, read and process information. It’s an invisible learning disability but it sometimes becomes evident when he speaks.

“It takes me longer to talk and get the information out. Sometimes I think what I’m saying sounds right but it actually isn’t,” he said.

Dron works part time as a child and youth worker and goes to school only part time due to his disability.

He also struggles with personal relationships in his life and his daily interactions with his father.

“He is still trying to grasp how I learn differently,” said Dron.

Sometimes they argue and don’t talk for a few days.

“It’s hard to tell people,” he said. “I don’t know how they are going to react and I don’t know if they are going to tell anybody.”

He was bullied a lot when he was younger, not just by his peers, but by teachers as well.

“I’ve been bullied since Grade 7,” he said. “I was getting beat up once and the teacher laughed. It was definitely rough growing up.”

Now when Dron sees people being bullied he steps in. He wants to make a difference.

“If I could be a human book for the rest of my life and get people to know and understand me better I definitely would,” he said. “I would like to help people get through struggles.”

Dron dreams of being an entertainer and making people laugh.

Orlowski smiles when she talks about the Respect Campaign. Events like the Human Library are a part of this campaign and can make a real difference in people’s perceptions of others.

“It’s also a really good experience for the human books themselves, to be able to … share their story in a respectful and safe environment, because some of them might still be working through some of the challenges they face,” she said.

“It’s a really powerful event with a lot of emotional acceptance and understanding,” Orlowski said.

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