This person gave of their time to help me understand their culture, traditions, gender roles, stereotypes and prejudices.
I wonder what you think when you read these words. Have you ever developed a mental image? Did words arise spontaneously in your brain?
Maybe because of the media or some of the other biases inherited from the people around us. My conversation was like being taken to a foreign land by a guide – an unvarnished and sometimes painful conversation about the good and the not so good.
Recently, I spoke with colleagues in Denmark where there are libraries where you can “borrow a person” rather than a book, and listen to their life story for 30 minutes. The intention is to fight prejudice.
Each person has a label: Traveler, refugee, depressed, Muslim, “recovering” and so on, and the result is trying not to “judge the book by its cover”. It is called “The Human Library”.
It’s not just prejudice that he can overcome. So many people live and die in a square mile. Lives limited by countless factors: poverty, family responsibilities, opportunities and more.
Prejudice against Scottish ethnic minority ‘persists’, study finds
The chance to explore the rich picture of the human experience can be limited, not only the chance to see the phenomenal beauty of this planet, but also the diversity of its people and cultures. We fear what we don’t know. Fear can become hate. And hatred can find refuge in ignorance.
Meeting Indigenous and First Nations peoples in Australia and Canada left me surprised and amazed at the ways of life. I had the opportunity to spend some time in Canada talking to a group of people about prevention and working in partnership.
I spoke to a nurse about the weather. It was minus 40°C, a bit cold in my opinion! She explained that she lived above the treeline and wore extreme weather outerwear to keep her alive, as the wind chill meant it could be minus 60C.
She was one of the Cree First Nation people. She spoke about medicine wheels and the forced removal of First Nations children who were placed in residential schools run by churches and the government. Her conversations about the disproportionate number of First Nations people in the justice system, alcoholism and the disappearance of young First Nations women would make for a news story all on their own. I felt like my horizons expanded with this little interaction and I left wanting to know more.
I like the idea of a human library, to meet, to be inspired and intrigued by the lives of others. Be free to ask questions. To perhaps explore our own biases and thereby experience cognitive dissonance, where taking in new information about someone or a group of people makes us feel ashamed, embarrassed, or upset. anxiety about how we have behaved or thought in the past.
Of course, people can double down and refuse to accept that things they’ve long believed might not be true. Changing our belief systems is a challenge, but it is the basis for thriving in harmony in these extraordinary times.
Karyn McCluskey is Chief Executive of Community Justice Scotland