Human Library Tulsa puts empathy on loan at Gilcrease Museum
“Finding Refuge: Escape from Cambodia” by Sky Taing was one of several human “books” available for check-out at the most recent Human Library Tulsa event
Sky Taing was only seven years old when, at the height of the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge stormed his village, separated him from his parents, blindfolded him, and drove them to the countryside where they were forced into slave labor. There he planted rice and cut trees with his brother and other children five to 10 years old. At night he would sneak out to where his mother was being held—when he was caught, the soldiers would whip his hands with sticks. He was eight the last time he saw his father.
“He and some other men tried to escape,” Taing remembered. “I don’t think they ever made it because I tried to find him after.”
His father’s attempt turned his family into “the enemy,” and they were taken to the killing fields, Taing said. “The day they intended to kill us, the Vietnamese army took over our camp and we were set free.” The journey to refuge was long and treacherous, taking them back to their home village and through ghost towns where war had either driven people out or left them dead.
“We began to find comfort in dead bodies because we knew the Vietnamese had already been there,” Taing said.
Taing and his family eventually made it to a refugee camp in Thailand and were later sponsored by a Christian group in San Diego and brought to the United States. Of Chinese descent but born in Cambodia, Taing was 11 when he came to America and in fourth grade when he started school for the first time. As an adult, he studied seminary in Dallas and, after marrying his wife, moved to China to aid persecuted Christians.
Now living in Tulsa, Taing was one of the human “books” available for check-out at the most recent Human Library Tulsa event on Jan. 20 at Gilcrease Museum.
Human Library Tulsa was founded by Steve Denton and Lily Owens, who met as classmates of Thrive Tulsa, a program of Leadership Tulsa that aims to improve participants’ leadership skills while also helping them hone and develop a social change project they can implement in Tulsa.
Owens is a stay-at-home mom and writer. She has written a series of children’s books based on 90s hip hop hits and volunteers with Poetic Justice, which uses poetry to help incarcerated women find their voice and tell their stories. Owens was looking for an opportunity to bring the concept of Poetic Justice to a broader, public audience.
Denton, Director of New Student Programs and Services at the University of Tulsa, wanted to find a way to make Tulsa a more empathetic city. “Empathizing with someone doesn’t mean you have to give up something like your convictions, your ideas, or beliefs,” he said. “It simply means that you are seeking to understand what it is like to be in their shoes or understand their perspective or view of reality whether or not you agree with them.”
Denton has seen the power of connection to change your opinion of something, someplace, or someone—most notably by developing a relationship with a homeless man he met through charity work. Now that person has become like a grandfather to his daughter, Denton said.
Denton found the Human Library online, and thought it could be a vehicle for empathy. Owens loved that it did that by encouraging people to tell their stories.
Founded in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000 at the Roskilde Festival, the Human Library offered 50 different human “books,” available eight hours a day for four days straight. To check out the books, readers simply approach one and begin asking questions.
“The idea is to bring people together to hear other people’s stories—people who are potentially different from you,” Owens said. “So you have human books, which are the people, and they tell their stories. They pick their own titles, and that’s typically what they want to talk about. You have them all in one room, and people go in and say, ‘I want to check out that book.’ And you would sit with them for 15 minutes and ask questions.
“But for 15 minutes you’re able to have conversations and break down barriers and presumptions you may have had. That’s the concept—building community and a better understanding between people you might think you know, but have never actually sat down and had a conversation with.”
The first Human Library Tulsa event was last September during 918 Day, a citywide scavenger hunt hosted by the Mayor’s Office. Different books were stationed at locations throughout Tulsa, each with a diverse story that represented their own unique culture, as well as the part of the city they represented.
Most recently, Human Library Tulsa had a selection of books available at Gilcrease Museum’s Funday Sunday, a monthly free event for families. The January event was inspired by the museum’s ongoing exhibition, “Americans All!,” which draws from its permanent collection to showcase works by American immigrants and their contributions to the country.
In addition to Taing, whose title was “Finding Refuge: Escape from Cambodia,” other books included: “Kyrgyzstan: Communist by Upbringing but Capitalist by Heart” by Nasiba Chaboya; “A New Identity: Indian, Tswana, or Tulsan?” By Ipe Paramel; “More than Undocumented” by Valeria Linares Gomez; and “Living the American Dream: A Venezuelan in the USA” by Frank Kiulkaitis.
Human Library Tulsa provided readers with a list of titles as well as suggested questions intended to help readers and their books break the ice and gain a better understanding of one another.
“Most people feel like they’re empathetic or feel like they’re understanding, but until they’ve actually met somebody who deals with that issue that they’ve been charitable about, like my story working with the homeless—here I show up thinking I’m doing a good thing, passing out food, and suddenly I’m in a relationship—and my daughter’s in a relationship—with this guy,” Denton said. “It’s like, I had no idea. I just had my own perceptions when I saw a homeless person.
“We’re so quick to make judgments; this is about, how can we create a pause? When you sit in front of another person, it creates a pause.”
Owens and Denton say they’re working with local art galleries and nonprofits to schedule more Human Library Tulsa events, and they’re also in talks with Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences to create a Human Library at their school with a focus on breaking down stereotypes in order to stop bullying.
“We want to create space where people can grow in empathy,” Denton said.