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U of T's "human library" offers new narratives

"Human book" Chizoba Imoka talks about her life and experiences at Hart House's "Human Library" (photo by Johnny Guatto)

A former ballet dancer turned social worker. A founder of an organization that provides a platform for civic engagement, political advocacy and community service.  A filmmaker often found shooting in conflict zones. 

These are just a few of the “human books” that were “on loan” at the Human Library held at Hart House last week. U of T students, employees and faculty were able to chat with participants who shared their stories in one-on-one sessions.  

“It’s an important event that challenges us to listen to each other’s stories and experiences with empathy and open minds,” says Trish Starling, community engagement facilitator at Hart House and the human library’s organizer. 

The focus of Friday’s event was Canada’s complex history of colonization and immigration.

“Not all narratives, identities or stories are given equal airtime, and it is integral that we provide avenues to hear experiences that may counter dominant narratives,” she says. “Our human books breathe life and shed light onto what are often unheard stories.”

The opportunity to offer a different narrative drew Terry Gardiner to participate as a human book in the event. 

Gardiner moved from Canada to the U.S. to pursue ballet, then moved back. He came to U of T nine years ago to pursue his master's at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. After completing his studies, he worked as an equity advisor at Factor-Inwentash. Currently, he's on secondment as an assistant manager of co-curricular diversity & equity at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. 

“A big part of my experience at the university both as student and as a staff member is that U of T fulfills a lot of what home means to people,” Gardiner says. “This is a place where I can come and be challenged by ideas, but I can also make connections and find fellowships in places I might have never anticipated.”

For Gardiner, who has lived in different countries and environments, the event is an opportunity to bring people together and share “authentic, lived experience,” he says.

“It’s a two-way conversation,” he says. “As a person of colour, I hope to be able to, by my presence, if not shatter, at least shift some stereotypes and expectations. And also to show that racialized individuals, people of colour, are here at U of T, and we can and are flourishing in this place.”

Chizoba Imoka, a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is founder of an organization called Unveiling Africa. She took part in the human library because she believes in everyone’s participation to work towards a more just world. 

Imoka started Unveiling Africa in 2006 when she was 19 years old. She sees the work as part of her journey of mobilizing communities for action.

“I’ve seen the results of bringing young people together to solve problems,” she says. “That we have to make the world a just place is not a utopic idea – it is only just, and it is only logical.”

She said one of the ways to do that is by sharing stories and providing an opportunity to reflect on what it means when people say “Canada is historically unjust.”

“The role of stories is to move us into a new reality,” she said. 

Read more about Chizoba Imoka 

Imoka and Gardiner were just two of the 18 participants Friday. Writer and educator Suzanne Methot, filmmaker Azfar Rizvi, U of T student Elise St. Germain and Seán Kinsella, coordinator of the residential transition programs at U of T Mississauga, also participated as “human books.”

“It’s really exciting for me that this space and opportunity for dialogue is being created here at the university because I think it’s easy to get sidetracked by the reading and writing aspects of academia,” Gardiner says. 

“This is an opportunity to learn in a real, concrete way so many aspects of university life that we hear about, and at the same time make an actual connection with another human being.”