Human Libraries in the Czech Republic

*Based on an interview with Natalie Nelligan, Coordinator of Human Libraries Amnesty International Czech Republic

Human Libraries – tackling negative stereotypes, discrimination and xenophobia through direct interactions with minorities.

It’s a generations old proverb we are all too familiar with, don’t judge a book by its cover. Amnesty Czech Republic have found a tangible way to teach this through the human libraries project. The project was initiated by Amnesty International Czech Republic in 2013 and is now in its 6th year. It primarily targets youth within schools, but also runs sessions at festivals and events. Just in the past one year, the project has engaged over 900 participants and worked with 254 ‘human books’.

Discrimination against minorities is an important human rights issue in the Czech Republic. Systematic discrimination against those from Roma groups, including children, is a significant issue. Other minorities also face discrimination. For example, while more liberal attitudes towards LGBTQI+ communities may be common in major cities, LGBTQI+ individuals are likely to face prejudice and discrimination in other parts of the country. As in other European countries, refugees face both systematic discrimination as well as prejudice and social marginalisation.

The Human Library approach creates opportunities for participants to hear the life stories of, and engage directly with, ‘human books’: individuals from minorities, or members of marginalised or excluded groups such as Roma, refugees, LGBTQI+ community, and people who are homeless.

The approach creates a very different learning environment compared with traditional lectures and classes, one lecturer explains, “I first experienced the Human Library as a reader and it was amazing. However, when I looked at it as an organiser, it was even more incredible. You can see people changing right before your eyes. You are sitting there during the evaluation and the children start talking about a Human Book as if they are a family member. I was almost brought to tears when I was observing it”.

A human library consists of around 5 trained ‘human books’ who are prepared to tell their story and are supported by a lecturer. The class or groups divide into 5-6 small groups and they have 20 minutes to talk with one of the human books. This is usually 10 minutes for the human book to tell their story, and other 10 minutes for students to ask their own questions.

The groups then rotate 2 or three times to have the chance to ‘read’ another book. At the end of the session, the class have the opportunity to leave messages for the human books. The session is underpinned by a set of ground rules for the class, as well as training and mentoring for the human books. “The written student feedback makes me terrifically cheerful. They understood what I was talking about. They explained that we taught them how to understand people as well as that others should not be condemned because of the colour of their skin”, explains one of the human books. These messages are often very powerful and show the evidence of changes in opinions and/or attitudes.

The project reaches a diverse cross-section of society. Many students come with little knowledge of human rights and sometimes even hold negative stereotypes or perceptions about minorities. For the students it is generally a one-off engagement, though a very powerful one.

 The sessions have a profound effect on many by building awareness and opportunities for individuals to engage further. One student shares her experience, “The first was the story of Kája, who had helped in a refugee camp. She showed us what it is like there and it completely changed my opinions about refugees. I thought they were fanatic Mus­lims, but I don’t think that anymore. They are just people who are really running away because of war and they are trying to start over. What they had to go through in Europe had to be terrible”.

Human libraries work mainly with young people (13-17 years old) in schools. Some human libraries are organised at festivals, events and happenings though this is less of a priority than classroom-based sessions which engage a cross-section of young people, Natalie Nelligan, Coordinator of Human Libraries Amnesty International Czech Republic explains, ‘If we do it at Pride, for example, people are already on our side. In schools we get more variety… people from different backgrounds [and we feel] we get the biggest impact here”.

Out of a sample of 136 questionnaires that asked participants about changes in their thinking about minorities as a result of the human library, it is notable that attitude change is cited more often – 8 out of 10 students report feeling more empathy to people different from themselves – than specific knowledge about minorities. It is also encouraging that nearly two thirds report they want to change and do something, while just under half then know what they can do.

One student who participated in a human library in 2016 shared, “I know a homeless man who has cancer. I first met him in the church. I didn’t have the best opinion of him at first. Once he asked me if I could lend him some euros for medicine. I gave him the money and the next time we met he told me he is grateful for any help. Later I got him some toiletries that he needed. Many people condemn home-less. I think it’s not good to condemn people because many times it’s not their fault. Before the start of the project I would probably not talk with homeless people.”

These stories showcase how changes in attitude translate into changes in behaviour, particularly in encouraging more interaction between participants and groups that they were previously fearful or held negative perceptions about. Furthermore, the changes can be seen not only by the participants, but the human books themselves. One human book explains, “there is one more change that happened to me. I’ve always been tolerant towards minorities, but I used to not get along with Romani people quite well, especially in my hometown. Veronika [a Romani singer and another Human Book] helped me a lot with that. Thanks to her I found out that there are great Romani people among us. She helped me establish my belief that Rom­ani people work, develop and do what they enjoy, just like anyone else”.

The Human Books are selected by Amnesty staff. They must be okay with sharing their life story, their past and have come to terms with whatever happened to them. They need to also be aligned with Amnesty’s education goals and feel like they want to participate in them. The human books undergo an assessment and are provided support through a one-day training to ensure they are ready to tell their stories and participate in the project. While there are ground rules for the sessions, and human books can request intervention from lecturers if they feel uncomfortable, these are almost never needed because the students themselves meet and interact with the human books respectfully.

Since 2017, Amnesty Czech Republic has been training Human Library Organisers to run human library sessions independently of Amnesty to ensure the project continues even without funding. This has been met with considerable enthusiasm among the 20 or so trained, and there are now human library sessions being organised and run entirely independently of Amnesty, enabling greater reach.

“Our trained organisers have brought human libraries into regions and places where it could be hard for the HRE office to get to (funding, places too far away from Prague or Brno etc). They have even started debating partnerships with similar groups abroad to create a bigger network of activists, or about creating a human library festival”, Explains Nelligan, “We have definitely seen a bigger inter-linking in the community of organisers as they are able to advocate and voice the philosophy of human rights for everyone without much support of the office”.