Long Beach’s first human library puts phrase ‘I’m an open book’ to the test

Photo by Tracie Rodriguez Donna Marykwas serves as a “book
Photo by Tracie Rodriguez

Donna Marykwas serves as a “book” during the May 31 human library at the main branch downtown. The tenured associate professor of microbiology at California State University, Long Beach resigned in 2010 to start a nonprofit organization that advocates for food security through urban agriculture.
Cory Bilicko
Managing Editor

After reading the books’ card-catalog descriptions, checking them out and being given an alloted time to read them, library patrons could touch them— to some degree and only if appropriately handled— but emotional damage was actually more of a concern than physical harm.
Seventeen local people from strikingly diverse backgrounds agreed to become the first-edition “books” in Long Beach’s inaugural human library last Saturday, allowing anyone off the street to sit with them for 15 minutes and ask them questions to learn from their life experiences.

The event had been in the works for several years, and it took an ensemble of community leaders to finally get it off the ground.
Rachael Rifkin, who serves as leader organizer for the Long Beach Free School, had heard of human libraries and really just wanted to attend one. She looked around for one, but the closest of its kind had already taken place in 2008 in Santa Monica.
“So, I thought, why not do one in Long Beach?” Rifkin said. “I reached out to different branches of the library for a year or two and was told it was a good idea but they didn’t have the staff to put it on.”
At the end of 2013, Rifkin was finally connected to the right person— Darla Wegener, the manager at the main branch of the Long Beach Library. It turns out that Wegener had been wanting to do a human library too.
“At that point, I didn’t want staff issues be a reason not to do it,” Rifkin said. “So I reached out to a couple organizations to see if we could team up to organize the event and get volunteers from them.”
So the library, Catalyst Network of Communities (which runs the Free School), Long Beach Time Exchange and the youth organization Eayikes joined together to make it happen.
Sharon Moiseiff, who, through the Catalyst Network of Communities, founded the Long Beach Free Store, was one of those who lent a hand in launching the library of humans.
“We had a great foundation with Rachael [Rifkin] of the Long Beach Free School and Darla Wegener of the Long Beach Main Library to set the tone for planning this event,” Moiseiff said. “[Rifkin] brought the team up to speed with information about the history of human library events and shared the inspiration she took from such events that occurred in other cities. It was fun talking about the possibilities and setting a plan to secure the human library books for this event.”
However, Moiseiff indicated that planning for the event involved more than just acquiring the books and the space.

Photo by Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune Lynda Stow of Long Beach reads through the various cards representing the 17 different “books
Photo by Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune

Lynda Stow of Long Beach reads through the various cards representing the 17 different “books” available during the human library last Saturday.
“We tried to imagine what it would be like to be a human library book, as well as a ‘reader’ of one, to help us plan out details that would make it the most fulfilling and enjoyable experience for everyone,” she said. “Doing a walk-through of the event space at the main library helped us see it come to life before the actual event, where we were able to visualize the experience and how people might move about in the space.
The concept of the human library is so positive and appealing, planning for it was a pleasure.”

Each “book” was given a title, summary and subjects, which were printed onto card-catalog type placards to help readers decide on which to “check out.” These cards were featured on large displays in a side room of the library, right outside the space where the “books” were seated at tables with one extra chair for each reader.
The human books included: a woman born into an abused and poverty-stricken family but grew up to cultivate love, compassion and a sense of empowerment and enlightenment; a female-to-male transgender individual who also transitioned from a blue-collar to white-collar career path; a high-school student who went from being kicked out of school to serving as student-body president; a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis of Education at CSULB who writes, researches, and speaks about feminism and women’s experiences in cities; a woman who rose from poverty, incest, and a teenage pregnancy in Harlem, New York to a successful career in her 70s as a minister and counselor; the current executive director for the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach who is openly gender-non-conforming; a woman who spent her entire life hiding her PTSD and dissociative identity disorder; a formerly incarcerated woman who now helps other women like her transition back into society through her nonprofit; an award-winning writer, director and producer who creates educational projects depicting positive multiracial/ethnic images in English/Spanish for the Latino community; an atypical fraternity member; a breastfeeding advocate; a tenured associate professor of microbiology who advocates for food security through urban agriculture; a published author, musician, community leader and nonprofit executive director who strives to be a black male role model; a newspaper publisher with celiac disease learning to live a gluten-free life; a high-school soccer player who is unable to travel back to Mexico to see his parents; a cartoonist who created a show airing on the Hub network with a gender-bending superhero; and an early volleyball competitor who now leads the Friends of the Long Beach Public Library in its advocacy efforts.


Photo by Tracie Rodriguez Cartoonist Obie Scott Wade gets “read
Photo by Tracie Rodriguez

Cartoonist Obie Scott Wade gets “read” by patrons at the human library on Saturday afternoon.
Obie Scott Wade is the cartoonist who’s “bending the rules” with his gender-bending superhero. Growing up, his favorite cartoons were Jonny Quest and The Looney Tunes. (In fact, later in life, he got to co-write eight episodes of Baby Looney Tunes.) But his two current favorites are Adventuretime on the Cartoon Network and his own creation, SheZow, which features 12-year-old Guy Hamdon, who inherits the power ring of his deceased aunt— the female superhero SheZow.
“It’s about a little boy who accidentally becomes a superhero, but the ring that gives him his powers was only meant to be worn by a girl,” Wade said. “So, whenever he turns into the superhero, automatically when danger’s around, it’s girl clothes— a girl costume, girl powers.”
Wade cites the early 1970s shows Shazam! and Isis as the inspirations behind his cartoon.
“I often wondered, ‘Wow, what would have happened if I’d found that amulet that she wore, and I put it on instead of her, would it have worked on me, and, if so, would I be wearing that costume? And would I care?’ I’d have all these amazing powers, so it’s worth it. So that’s the whole premise— that this boy doesn’t want to be a girl superhero, but he’s an amazing superhero, period. So he learns to accept it, learns a lot about himself, and about responsibility and about his family lineage and takes on the mantle of this female superhero.”
Porter Gilberg has been a Long Beach resident for 10 years and is one of the only openly gender-non-conforming executive directors of an LGBTQ center in the United States. Born female, Gilberg, though not identifying now as being either male or female, prefers that people use masculine pronouns when referring to him.
Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune Porter Gilberg, the gender-nonconforming executive director of the LGBTQ center in Long Beach, was among the 17 “books
Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune

Porter Gilberg, the gender-nonconforming executive director of the LGBTQ center in Long Beach, was among the 17 “books” at the human library.
Gilberg said he had no hesitation in participating in the human library as a “book” since his job involves educating the public, including young people, about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community.
“Working for the LGBTQ Center, it’s fairly common for all of us that work there to go out and speak to classrooms and social-service providers and answer various questions by phone and email,” he said. “So I’m fairly comfortable at this point sharing very intimate details of my life, as that’s something we do on a daily basis— trying to get the larger community to get to know the LGBTQ broadly and some of the more nuanced subgroups as well.”
Gilberg described the LGBTQ community as one that is conducive to allowing individuals who don’t fit neatly into a particular group to find their identity.
“One of the most beautiful things about the LGBTQ community is that we’re constantly finding new terms, new identities to redefine ourselves and find places where we feel most at home,” he said. “There’s absolutely been an evolution of language. In the ’60s and ’70s, people were ‘homosexual’ and, to a lesser extent, they were ‘gay,’ and, once we got into the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of people were identifying as ‘queer.’ And if we’re talking about gender, everybody was ‘transexual,’ until the late ’80s, early ’90s, until the phrase ‘transgender’ was coined. And now a lot of people identify as ‘gender-queer’ or ‘gender-fluid’ or, like me, ‘gender-noncomforming.’ So, there’s an evolution to our language and to our identity that I think is just really beautiful and really fascinating and really challenges everyone in our community and outside our community to constantly be on our toes and really listen to people’s personal lived experiences so we can really get to know one another.”
Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune Juan Cardena, a high-school soccer player who is unable to visit his parents in Mexico, serves as a “book
Cory Bilicko/Signal Tribune

Juan Cardena, a high-school soccer player who is unable to visit his parents in Mexico, serves as a “book” that human-library patrons can read.
Juan Cardena is living in Long Beach with his grandparents, and he is rarely able to see his parents, who live in Mexico.
When his mother was pregnant with him, she was still living in Mexico but had a plane ticket ready to travel to California when it was closer to the time for her to give birth. However, Juan was born prematurely; his mother’s ticket was for the following month.
He and his parents eventually came to the U.S., but, after his father got deported and then became ill with cardiac problems, his mother had to return to Mexico to care for him.
Cardena, however, has a plan to get back to his home country, and it involves his number-one passion.
“My family plays soccer, so I grew up with a family that plays soccer,” he said. “I grew up playing since I was small.”
He recently made the varsity soccer team at Poly High School, where he’ll spend his senior year after attending a continuation school this year.
“Next year I plan to try out for Chivas USA,” he said. “That’s my dream. If I don’t make it on Chivas USA, then I plan to go to college and keep playing soccer.”
After a troublesome freshman year, Cardena had to attend a continutation school, but he said he’s learned from his mistakes and ready to succeed in academics and life.
“I can say that freshman year was not my best year, so I’m at Beach [Continuation High School], caught up with my credits, and now I’m going to be attending Poly [High School] again,” he said. “I’m doing better. I’m mentally focused, and I already know where I’m going.”

After the event, the “readers” and “books” were abuzz, sharing the numerous lessons they had learned from the human-library experience, but they weren’t the only ones who’d found it educational and eye-opening.
Ray Ricafort, who founded the youth organization Eayikes, was another local community leader that Rifkin had sought out to help coordinate Saturday’s event.
“I learned, of course, about the power of the Long Beach community and its ability to come together to put on such a positive and connecting event,” Ricafort said.
He described the human library as representative of the exemplary individuals who make up the city.
“I think it showed the collective power of the Long Beach community,” Ricafort said. “From the books, to the readers, to the volunteers, to the organizing crew, everyone who was a part of the human library cultivated an open, inquisitive, genuine and sincere community vibe that emanated during the afternoon and showed exactly the kind of wonderful people that are here in Long Beach.”
Another organizer, Eric Leocadio, who is the founder and executive director of Catalyst, said that his take-away from the event was that relationships can benefit from people attempting to truly understand each other.
“As organizers of the event, we assembled a diverse collection of human books,” Leocadio said. “Knowing that certain social issues can sometimes lead to tension between those who disagree, we tried to anticipate the possibility of conflict by continually encouraging a respectful climate. We didn’t have any problems. I learned that people who approach each other with a stance of seeking understanding leads to a much more positive and productive connection than those who simply seek to debate, defend or convert perspectives.”

  1. I find that approaching things I don’t understand with curiosity instead of judgement leads to healthy discussion and as stated in the last paragraph, productive connection. This event seems to have embodied that philosophy. I’m sorry I missed it.

  2. I wish I had known about this before the event. I live in Long Beach and would like to participate next year as one of the human books.

  3. What a wonderful idea! And that the library worked it out without using the tired old reason that they didn’t have the staff. Because staff may be receptive and volunteers are amazing people! I love this story and the idea of a human library. Kudos to Darla Wegener, the manager of the main branch library in Long Beach, for taking this on and helping to make it happen.

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