Dancing with diversity: Human Library event spurs an ongoing conversation about inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are big topics these days with a growing list of definitions, classifications and hot button issues at times.

But at the core, diversity and inclusion aren’t that complicated and a new project by several inclusion-minded organizations aims to change that.

If we think about the topic in simple terms, an analogy from Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks helps shape the difference between the two.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

What can you learn from someone else's story? (Credit: Human Library Organization / Elin Tabitha Hansen)

With that example in mind, diversity is the range of all human differences and inclusion is the active, intentional and ongoing engagement with others recognizing those differences.

The Midland Inclusion Council along with several local organizations have helped to celebrate and bring those differences to the table in a series of Human Library events.

The Human Library is a project by the Human Library Organization, headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Human Library Organization works towards the global implementation of the Human Library as a learning platform, operating events on six continents and more than 85 countries around the world, spreading knowledge about diversity and inclusion. The organization asks participants to do one simple thing: Unjudge someone.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” (Credit: Human Library Organization / Elin Tabitha Hansen)

Started in 2000, the Human Library was founded by bothers Ronni and Dany Abergel and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen to challenge stereotypes, spur discussion and create learning opportunities.

The library is not comprised of books, but of regular people, just like you and I, and their stories.

Set up so that participants can learn from another’s experience, often at least one aspect of each focal point’s story is much different. The events are intended to expose the prejudice or discrimination the person has experienced throughout their life because of their differences. All Human Library events are a safe space for all participants as ‘readers’ to sit down with someone different than them, listen and most importantly, ask questions.

Featured 'books' are people who have faced discrimination or prejudice and share their story.

Those questions often bring up the difficult truth others have had to live with on a daily basis.

Topics ranged from a broad set of experiences and included discussions around living as a minority in Midland, life as a disabled veteran, domestic and childhood sexual abuse survivors, those that identify as non-binary, people dealing with mental health issues and more.

Bart Maxon spoke about his experiences growing up as a 4’6’’ achondroplasia dwarf and equated living as a little person to being the main attraction in a three-ring circus every day.

Human Library events have taken place in more than 85 countries. (Credit: Human Library Organization / Elin Tabitha Hansen)

Maxon, who works at Dow as the global technology leader for the Johnson & Johnson and Estee Lauder companies, attributes his ability to adapt to his parents, who encouraged him to do things just as his average-height siblings did growing up.

“They let me do anything I wanted and always treated me just the same as my siblings,” says Maxon. “So, I didn’t really even notice anything was different about me until about the fourth grade when I wasn’t as tall as everyone else. I was brought up never to assume I couldn’t do something.”Think before you speak. Read before you think.

Maxon, who now serves as the co-chairperson of Dow’s Disability Network, is on the board of the Disability Network of Mid-Michigan and is the recipient of 17 patents, talked about some of the difficulties of life, especially dealing with the prejudices of others.

“I had a good resume and bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but I would get to the interview and faced so many assumptions about what I could or could not do,” says Maxon. “I received rejection after rejection, and so many people blatantly told me I shouldn’t pursue chemistry as a career path and that I would never be able to work in a lab, offering unsolicited suggestions for other options that didn’t utilize my education.”

Maxon talked about some of the difficulties facing judgement and harsh treatment from others. “I’ve had people take pictures or videos of me and my family in public places, like the grocery store, so situations like that can be hard, especially when they don’t ask,” he says. “And I’ve had people comment horrible things in passing like ‘I can’t believe he would have kids,’ so it has definitely taught me though certain experiences that there is a time and a place that you need to stand up for yourself when people are unkind.”

Some of the topics at October's Human Library event. (Midland Inclusion Council Facebook)For Maria Allen, a production engineer at Dow, coming to Midland was a big change from the community she grew up in Akron, Ohio, which was more diverse.

Allen described her experience at Michigan State University and how that helped prepare her to live and work in a region smaller than Akron. As the only black female student in her Chemical Engineering program, Allen noted that she had to work to find community in minority-focused organizations. She supports and remains a member of the National Society of Black Engineers to find community and fellowship.

On the personal side, Allen described some of the little things that sometimes get overlooked.

“There are things that most people wouldn’t think of as an issue, but for minorities it can be something that makes the difference in the openness and welcome feeling in a community,” says Allen. “As a black woman, I also have to think about where do I go to get my hair done, buy hair products or if I want to eat out somewhere, where might there be good ethnic options.”

Some of the team members that helped put together Midland's Human Library event. (Midland Inclusion Council Facebook.)

Allen described a boss who took the time to make sure she was adjusting well to her new environment and relocation.

“It was helpful and comforting to have someone ask how the move was going for me personally,” says Allen. “So, if you know a minority resident, or especially one that has just relocated, take the time to ask them how they are doing, and make sure they feel included because it goes a long way.”

The fall event hosted a total of eleven ‘books’ of people from all walks of life who had experienced some sort of prejudice. The event hopes to continue advancing a conversation between people of all backgrounds, reinforcing that we all have something to learn from one another, and creating a safe space to have that conversation. So, the next time your path crosses a person who may be different than you, ask yourself what you can learn from hearing their story, because the answer just might surprise you.

The organization asks participants to do one simple thing: Unjudge someone. (Credit: Human Library Organization / Elin Tabitha Hansen)

Midland’s Human Library was hosted by the Midland Inclusion Council, Northwood University, The Legacy Center, Midland Kids First, Midland Area Community Foundation, Women of Michigan Action Network (W.O.M.A.N.), Dow, Our Community Listens, Family and Children's Services of Mid-Michigan, and the Cultural Awareness Coalition.

The event was the second Human Library learning session to take place in Midland and another is planned for later in 2020. Human Library events are free and open to the public with the mission of promoting understanding, celebrate differences and spurring conversation between people who come from different lifestyle or cultural backgrounds.

For more about the Human Library Organization visit https://humanlibrary.org/ and for more on diversity and inclusion events in Midland visit the Midland Inclusion Council and the Midland Area Community Foundation’s Cultural Awareness Coalition.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.