The WelcomeHomeTO team are proud to announce their partnership with the
Institute of Canadian Archives to digitalise and develop the
A Living Library is very similar to a public library full of books. However, a ‘Book’ is actually a person. Much like any book you’d check out from a library, Books contain a universe of experience and narrative. This digital collection will record the testimony of newcomers and service providers to hear firsthand the success, challenges and opportunities within Canada’s settlement system and hear the everyday stories to break barriers between neighbors.
Azfar Rizvi and Kitty Shephard, project leads told us more about how the Hearts and Minds Living Library was created and what’s on the horizon for the project.
Founder of the Institute of Canadian Archives
WelcomeHomeTO project lead
How was the Hearts and Minds Living Library created?
Azfar: I owe a debt of gratitude to safe storytelling spaces emerging out of programs similar to the Hearts & Mind Living Library (H&MLL). Over the past few years, I have been invited as a ‘Living Book’ across the world to share my experiences, and I would be remiss if I did not admit that it has come to my rescue in some of the most difficult moments of my life.
As a new immigrant, being a ‘Living Book’ made me feel I belonged, despite what I looked like and how I spoke. Over the past few years, It became clearer to me that we needed a more mainstream Living Library project. So in 2014, we brought together a team of experienced Books and Readers from various Living Libraries across the country. After some consultations, the H&MLL emerged in 2015 with an acknowledgement that Hearts & Minds are changed by a compassionate understanding of the ‘other’.
We continued to learn from initiatives lead by WSIC, WHTO and CAI around our last Canadian elections and the Syrian refugee debate. The toxicity of some of the narratives was disturbing, prompting us to reach out to potential partners. ‘Create, Curate and Celebrate’ – that is the mission our parent agency, the Institute of Canadian Archives , was working with.
ICA helped us pilot a series ‘Our Stories: A Living Library Project’ with Koffer Centre for Arts. This event was designed to bring together Grade 5 and 6 students from a Jewish Day School and a Public School in a storytelling celebration. We engaged them around themes of diversity and cultural identity, as human ‘books’ and ‘readers’ of one another’s stories. The project was a massive success and since then, we have facilitated Hearts & Minds Living Library sessions in Canada, Pakistan and United States.
Why do you believe that sharing narratives is an essential part of creating a more compassionate community?
Azfar: Humans have consciously or subconsciously told stories for thousands of years. A casual chat, each piece of oral or written narrative, every homework ever eaten by a dog, or any artistic and cultural expression – all of these represent our desire and ability to tell stories. These snippets of exchange inform us about society, norms and paradigms that we originally may not be exposed to. They allow us to peek into someone’s conscience to see how they think and feel. And while this may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, we often get challenged.
How do you think storytelling helps to break stereotypes and encourage conversation?
Azfar: As a documentary filmmaker, there was a time I felt video was the best medium to tell stories. I was wrong as I realized the importance of accessibility.
Storytelling has the potential to facilitate an organic reconfiguration of our perceptions, and we develop the ability to genuinely see the narrator through their story. We may identify in their stories the same struggles that we go through on a daily basis. This helps us break stereotypes, and the empathy thus developed ignites a compassionate reaction. Instead of seeing ‘them’, we see ‘one’ – the foundation of a compassionate community.
Today, we come across a myriad of storytelling mediums. All these platforms are helping humanity mine a new meaning of life and what it means to all of us. This narrative evolution sheds light on how each of us would like to be treated and what words comfort us. The way we express a story, the words we use, and the way we represent our past is what tells others about our needs as a human on a deeper and more personal level. As a new immigrant in Canada, I found that stories allowed me to view people as compassionate human beings with relatable stories. It helped me break down the societal constructs of race, gender and class into humble snippets that informed me that we all are one.
Our most recent event, the Hearts & Minds Living Library – Compassion Catalogue was hosted at the Toronto City Hall and was attended by over 120 people. With our partners University of Toronto and the CJDT, we managed to showcase over 25 books from diverse backgrounds. In fact, WHTO’s Craig Carter-Edwards was also a very well received book on the day!
What has been the most powerful moment for you, whilst developing the project?
Azfar: All readings between Books and Readers, every story that emerges from the H&MLL catalogues, and all interactions fascinate me. One of the most poignant moments I experienced was a heart-to-heart conversation with the mother of a 10-year old. Her son had participated in one of our ethnically diverse Hearts & Minds Living Library events both as a Book and a Reader. She came to meet us at the Toronto city Hall during one of our events, and shared her delight at how the program had help changed her son’s overall performance. She reported an increase in his social interaction skills, that he started taking active interest in after-school arts classes. The most heartening feedback was that her son ended up befriending the Book he had borrowed and that they choose to stay friends after the event. This last detail was what brought me to tears and it validated our learnings that people learn to respect, appreciate and even befriend each other under the right circumstances.
Why did you want to partner with WelcomeHomeTO on this project?
Azfar: The H&MLL project is committed to building partnerships and increase learning about storytelling. The team behind WelcomeHomeTO has been involved in creating safe spaces to have important conversations around refugees and newcomers. We’re building an accessible repository of narratives that might help inform anyone with stakes in the sector. To me personally, this is a great way to continue to build ‘create, curate and celebrate’ stories around compassion!
Why did WHTO want to collaborate on this project?
Kitty: At WelcomeHomeTO we hear about opportunities and challenges in the settlement sector every single day. We hear stories from newcomers, frontline service providers, grassroots initiatives, and government advisors continuously. These testimonies tell us what is and what is not working to help newcomers integrate and make Canadian society more inclusive. When the Institute of Canadian Achives approached us to partner on the Hearts and Minds Living Library project we jumped at the opportunity!
The Hearts and Mind Living Library is one way WHTO and the Canadian Achieves Institute aims to provide an outlet for testimony to be available for all to hear the stories of newcomers. By sharing individuals stories we can help breakdown collective characterizations neighbors have of each other and increase compassion.
In the world today empathy and compassion are needed more than ever and we hope to make this more accessible.
Why are projects like this important for making our society more inclusive?
Kitty: This digital catalogue provides a wealth of testimony from newcomers who are engaging with the settlement system day in and day out. Our decision to partner on the project was also encouraged by the Auditor General report and recommendations which highlighted the lack of feedback mechanisms for 40,000 Syrian newcomers to state what is and what is not working in the Canadian settlement sector. To make sure our settlement sector adequately equips newcomers with the resources and knowledge to integrate properly, we need to listen and learn from their experience.
Is it just testimony that will be included in the WelcomeHomeTO collection for the Hearts and Minds Living Library?
Kitty: Lived experiences are essential to creating real-life change in the settlement system. However, we believe that analysis and insight from academics, specialists and policy makers can make testimony even more powerful and informative. Included in the library will be analysis from academics, social entrepreneurs and policy advisors analyzing concerns voiced by settlement system users. By including this material we hope to provide a more holistic understanding of these challenges and the social innovators that are working on innovative solutions to remedy them.