A Push to Fight Discrimination through Living Libraries

27 June, 2018

Father Mick Ngundu has survived waves of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today the Roman Catholic clergyman is actively working for poor people. He is a critic of corruption that he claims poisons chances of democracy.

Recently, he described how many people in his homeland are too poor to pay for electricity. He spoke on the grounds of housing once used by Catholic religious workers in Normandy, France.

Among the listeners was Veronique Couque, a retired worker. She has never been to an African country south of the Sahara desert.

The French woman may have never had a chance to hear Ngundu if not for a growing citizen movement called Living Libraries. It was created to end widely held, but oversimplified ideas about groups of people through discussion.

"It allows you to discover what it's like to be that person. It's an opportunity to break barriers," said former French diplomat Natacha Waksman. She helped to launch a Living Library gathering this month in the French city of Caen.

The movement comes at a time when a new report shows rising levels of xenophobia and hate speech across Europe. It said this has been partly driven by populism, terrorist attacks and large numbers of non-Europeans migrating to the continent.

The 47-member Council of Europe prepared the report. It listed Africans and Arabs as the newer targets of discrimination. It also noted older prejudices against Jews, Roma and members of the LGBT community.

Changing people's opinions

Zeynep Usal-Kanzier is a lawyer at the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance in Strasbourg. He said, "It's not that there is no will to change things, but it shows we need to make more efforts."

Supporters of living libraries say they offer people a chance to meet those they might otherwise avoid and ask them hard questions. These people are called "living books."

Tina Mulcahy is head of the European Youth Centre. She says, "The living books are often people who have personal experiences of discrimination or social exclusion that they are willing to share with the readers."

She adds that instead of books, the "readers" can explore subjects that interest them, "borrowing" human books for one-on-one meetings.

A Danish non-governmental organization set up the first Living Library nearly 20 years ago. The movement has since spread to more than 60 countries, including the United States.

The recent event in Caen was crowded, as visitors sat down to talk with immigrants like Mick Ngundu.

The clergyman said, "Since I experienced war, I can offer ideas for how to end it."

Former diplomat Natacha Waksman, right, helped to launch the Caen library.
Former diplomat Natacha Waksman, right, helped to launch the Caen library. "It's an opportunity to break barriers," she said.

Moving forward

Veronique Couque said her meeting with Ngundu taught her a lot about politics and development.

Natacha Waksman is already thinking about how the Living Libraries model could bring Europeans together.

"That would give people another image of Germans, for example," she said. She added that perhaps Britons would not have voted against leaving the European Union had they been more in contact with other EU nationals.

In Normandy, some have asked Waksman about starting an online library — but that is one idea that she disagrees with.

She said, "I believe it's great that people actually get to meet, shake hands, look into each others' eyes. This creates an intimacy that's helpful in today's society."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Lisa Bryant wrote this story for VOA News. Phil Dierking adapted her story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Have you ever met someone who was completely different than you? How was that experience? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

exclusion - n. to prevent (someone) from doing something or being a part of a group

intimacy - n. a quality that suggests informal warmth or closeness

library - n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow

LGBT - n. is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

online - adj. connected to a computer, a computer network, or the Internet

opportunity - n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done

prejudice - n. an unfair feeling of dislike for a person or group because of race, sex, religion, etc.

xenophobia - n. fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners