On Wednesday, in collaboration with Hart House, UTM welcomed 14 “Human Books” to the IB Café to be loaned to students for 25-minute one-on-one sessions as they shared their unique stories.

The event, part of the Living Library Project, is the first of a promised many to be held at UTM. The Living Library Project collects individuals with stories of achievement, struggle, and determination who have inspired social change in their community and personal change in themselves. With speakers as diverse as their stories, the event is intended to stimulate conversation that explores issues of social equality to promote understanding and reduce prejudice.

The speakers included Kim Crosby, a mixed-race artist and activist working to cultivate community-driven relief for the oppressed and sexually abused. Also participating was Hal Johnson, the producer and co-creator of Body Break, a set of TV programs and commercials that encouraged Canadians to get off the couch and try a few leg exercises or a recipe for low-fat lasagna. The show challenged the status quo in the late ’80s by featuring mixed-race co-hosts Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod.

I went to see Demetra Dimokopoulos and Wendy Chung, both UTM graduates and women with two very different career paths. Seven years ago, Dimokopoulos, a psychology and professional writing double major, took the “Making a Book” course taught by Guy Allen. She was one of the few who chose to publish a non-fiction novel. Her book, Exposed, recounts the history of a small Montana mining town where—at a time when one generation of miners was inching towards retirement—a journalistic investigation discovered that the miners and indeed the entire town had been inhaling asbestos fibres at lethal levels every day.

As our 25 minutes swept by, Dimokopoulos recalled the challenges of receiving permission to publish copyrighted photos, convincing the town’s residents to share their personal accounts, and making high-quality yet cost-effective choices of the paper stock and cover design. After graduating, Dimokopoulos worked for a year at The Medium as an associate editor before taking a paid internship for the publishing powerhouse Penguin Group.

Her advice for today’s writers? Write everywhere and as much as you can. These days, writing a blog, writing for the newspaper, or self-publishing your own book can put you a step ahead in terms of the job experience so coveted by publishers.

In my second session, I met Wendy Chung, a certified management accountant whose work with corporate giants Pepsi and Wal-Mart enabled her to obtain her designation in five years and set the foundation for a secure career. However, even though her goal was fulfilled, Chung wasn’t. “That excitement and reward lasted probably only six months. It was like, ‘Great, now I’m a CMA. The world is my oyster.’ The problem is, I still didn’t quite know what I wanted to do.” So she did what every young person seeking answers does: she negotiated two months off work, and backpacked solo around the world.

“I think the conventional wisdom people tell you, even in university, is ‘You choose your major, and this is pretty much it.’ I think the reason I’m participating in the Living Library is to share the story of an unconventional path,” she said.

Unconventional indeed. In what was supposed to be only a two-day stop in the time-preserved Chinese town of Dali, Chung bonded with locals in their kitchens as they cooked their traditional dishes for her. As she took in the uncommon opportunity, Chung got to see how unfamiliar ingredients were prepared and hear the history of the recipes.

“It was one of those things that are life-changing in some ways but not drastic enough to be an eye-opener on the day of,” she said. “After that trip, that journey, I came back to Canada thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this trip?’ Like many people, it just becomes a photo album. And for the longest time it was that.” After a few months, she came up with the idea of Culture.licious, a Toronto-based cooking class where cooks of different backgrounds teach their native recipes and explain their cultural role. Students cook and eat a meal in class with their instructors and receive a recipe book so the experience can be shared.

After we had talked for well over the meagre time limit, Chung finished with a message of encouragement. “What this trip has done for me is it has made me challenge my comfort zone. It made me realize there are a lot of things we find ourselves in and we think those are boundaries, but if you just try and step out it may bring you to another place,” she said. “I think that’s where having a good education counts a lot. I realize over the years that having a good foundation with education, strong circles of networks and friends and family, is what’s really important. Because even if you do make a mistake one day, it’s okay. Just pick up and go again.”

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