Born in Denmark to a Danish mother and a Moroccan Jewish father, Ronni Abergel discovered early on the power of prejudice to shape people’s lives. “I was born in 1973, in a pretty rough inner city area, and as a young kid I was made aware that some people felt there shouldn’t be a place for me in this country. It always puzzled my mind and it got me thinking, ‘How do we make space at the table for everyone?’”
The concept of The Human Library began as an event at the Roskilde Festival near Copenhagen in 2000, the intention being to promote dialogue among people from different, even diametrically opposed backgrounds. The ‘books’ are people who have been stigmatized in some way by society, say a refugee, or Roma, or schizophrenic, while the ‘readers’ are any members of the public who want to learn more about what life is like for these people.
They are free to ask the books anything about their lives without the usual social taboos applying. It was this honesty in communication that led to The Human Library to team up with Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld campaign, where two strangers with different beliefs met for the first time.
In retrospect, given Ronni’s own experiences as a child, it’s easy to see why this concept would appeal, but the truth is he could have followed a very different path. “When I was 12 or 13, I was becoming a bit of a juvenile delinquent,” he says. “I was growing up in the inner city with just my mother, and my friends started doing stupid stuff and I just followed suit. I also looked at the older kids who were getting into more serious trouble and realized that I could end up like them. I could become a criminal.”
With remarkable self-awareness and determination for his age, Ronni reached out, getting in contact with his father, who lived abroad and worked as a journalist. “I called my dad and said, ‘Listen, I think I need to get away from here or the next call you get from me might be from jail.’ So he shipped over some money and I got enrolled in a high school program in the United States.”
At 15, Ronni made his way to Connecticut on the east coast and was taken in by an American family for a year. “I learned something very important in the States, which I think enabled me to think about the idea for The Human Library later on. Being adopted by this incredibly decent and generous family who were volunteers in the community ambulance, who taught me to respect people who were different, the real backbone of America type of people you don’t hear about in the press. They had a huge impact. They mellowed me, civilized me. They got me back on track. To this day, they’re like my family.”
When Ronni returned to Denmark in 1990, he saw the wisdom in his decision. The gang he’d previously hung out with had moved on from delinquent behavior to more serious crimes, and he kept well away. Instead he knuckled down at school, going on to study business at college. It was during this time that another life-changing event was to take place: a close friend was stabbed six times and nearly killed in a random attack outside a nightclub. It prompted Ronni and some friends to set up Stop the Violence, an organization that came out of the hip hop scene of which they were a part.
“Stop the Violence ran for seven years,” says Ronni. “We did very well although we worked ourselves to death. But it really made a difference at the time. I had kids coming up to me and handing over weapons – pepper spray, switch blades, that kind of thing. Most of them had these weapons because they were afraid of being attacked themselves.”
Stop the Violence had 30,000 members at one point, and the scale of the movement taught Ronni to think about violence and the reasons why it took place. “Why are people willing to commit acts of violence against people they don’t know? One of the reasons is that they don’t have a previous relationship with that person. This is when we came up with the concept of The Human Library. If you could build relationships between groups in the community that think they don’t like each other, that think they don’t have anything in common, then we might be able to change that attitude.”
When The Human Library’s debut at the Roskilde Festival proved to be a huge success, Ronni saw the potential to expand it. “The event had been open for about 20 minutes, and I was standing there exhausted. But seeing these people come together and getting along, I was close to tears. I thought, ‘why can’t any society in the world make use of this idea?’”
Ronni decided to find out. He partnered with the Nordic Council, then the Council of Europe, and began to take the concept of The Human Library to other places in Scandinavia, then Eastern Europe, Western Europe and into other continents entirely. “The Human Library has now been presented in over 80 countries,” he says. “We check to make sure they’re using the methodology properly, but then they develop under their own steam, it’s sort of a viral concept in that way.”
In the UK, they’ve partnered with Heineken, who are so enthusiastic about the project they’ve already decided to expand the scope of the partnership, providing more funding in order to triple the number of events taking place here, including at Wilderness Festival in August.
Although The Human Library has been running for 17 years now, it has taken a shift in the cultural and political atmosphere to make more people aware of its value as a concept, as well as a growing recognition of the negative effects social media can have. “People have tuned in a lot more,” says Ronni. “It’s easy to sit at home behind your screen and think that someone who’s different is a piece of garbage, but before you get angry with a group, why not try meeting them first. Some of our books are actually victims of hate crimes, or refugees or immigrants, so come and look them in the eye and hear what they’ve got to say.”
When you come to The Human Library, the degree of intimacy can feel a little strange at first, but it’s remarkable how effective it is at breaking down barriers and revealing how alike people really are, how much they have in common. The books want to talk, to be understood, and the readers are given a space in which to ask questions they’d otherwise be afraid to. As Ronni says, “It’s a win-win.”
So what’s the future for The Human Library? “Heineken are interested in talking to us about taking things online. Obviously it’s not as powerful as being in the same physical space, but not everyone can come to an event, so there might be a way we can use video over the internet, so you can talk to a transgender in Japan, or a Jew in Saudi Arabia or a disabled person in Morocco to understand what life is like for them. After all, part of the original dream of the internet was to get the world talking and listening to each other.”
The Human Library is currently working with Heineken in the UK to inspire everyone to celebrate diversity. As part of that, a series of events this summer will give people the chance to loan out one of The Human Library’s unique books for the evening. Sign up here.