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‘Books’ share their life story at ISU’s first Human Library

Students at ISU's Human Library

First-year students attend Illinois State's first Human Library on September 16, 2014, featuring "Books" (speakers) who have experienced prejudices or discrimination in their lives.

As Eniola Orenuga spoke to a small group of freshmen about her experiences as a Nigerian growing up and attending school in the U.S., she could see her story begin to resonate.

The senior Illinois State student met some confused faces as she described what it was like for her in kindergarten, feeling excluded by the other black kids in her class. It was an eye-opening moment for some of the white freshmen in her group, unaware there could be conflict within one racial group.

“That was pretty interesting, to see them thinking about it and trying to sort through that,” Orenuga said.

It was exactly the kind of awakening that organizers planned when they asked Orenuga to serve as a “book” for Illinois State’s first Human Library event. During the pilot program September 16, around 50 different “books” (real people who have experienced prejudices or discrimination in their life) met with 500 first-year students. The freshmen could pick which “genres” they wanted to visit.

Those genres stretched beyond just racial diversity. “Books” included sexual assault survivors, military veterans, LGBT victims of bullying, and those who were adopted and have adopted children.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” said Orenuga, an interpersonal communication studies major with a French minor. “It’s one thing to be in a classroom and learn there are these different people and perspectives that are out there. But it’s another thing to put a face to that perspective, and to be able to ask them questions.”

Illinois State’s Human Library was only for freshmen enrolled in Learning in Communities (LinC) seminars, which are courses designed to assist incoming freshmen in their transition to the University. It was organized by University College, which helps new students make that transition.

Diversity is one of Illinois State’s core values, and University College aims to ensure that all first-year students experience diverse ideas, worldviews, and cultures. Human Library started with Wendi Whitman ’98, M.S. ’00, an associate director in University College who brought the idea back from an American Democracy Project conference.

“We’re trying to get incoming first-year students excited, and learning about things they may not have learned about in their first month on campus if we hadn’t done the Human Library,” said Corey Burgess, M.S. ’11, coordinator in University College and an organizer of the Human Library program.

One of the speakers who turned her life story into a “book” was Barb Dallinger, ’81, M.S.E. ’01. The Illinois State staff member was a “best seller,” meaning she got a larger audience for her candid story about the discrimination and prejudice she faced as a member of the LGBT community.

Dallinger recounted her difficult path during and after college, facing bullies, difficult conversations with family, and even workplace discrimination. But she also shared how things have improved for LGBT students today, also highlighting her work as a former advisor to ISU’s Pride student organization.

She then opened it up for questions—and that’s where the Human Library shines.

“Nothing is off the table,” Dallinger told the freshmen. “You can ask anything.”

See more photos from Illinois State’s Human Library:

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Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.