January 17, 2019

Awards underscore professor's work in raising awareness about inhumanity and encouraging action on social justice issues

Arizona State University Professor Neal A. Lester agrees with poet Maya Angelou’s words: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” But that doesn't mean that he sees no value in our differences. So he challenges people to recognize, celebrate and embrace those differences.

For his work supporting that approach, he will be recognized over the next few days with two awards named after civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

“It’s validating and it’s also a challenge,” said Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities and an ASU Foundation Professor of English. “The challenge is staying committed to doing social justice work — the work of humanity — when I am tired, frustrated, disappointed and in need of rejuvenation.

“The struggles for justice continue, but it is inspiring to know that I am not alone in this work and that Dr. King has provided a road map to achieving greater civility and greater service to others and to causes bigger than ourselves.”

Lester will receive an MLK “Living the Dream” Award at the city of Phoenix Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Friday. A few days later on Jan. 21, he will accept the Paradise Valley MLK 2019 Diversity Award and deliver the keynote address at a luncheon ceremony.

Already a recipient of the Diversity Leadership Alliance of Arizona Award, Lester believes these new awards underscore his life’s work in raising awareness on social justice issues and encouraging action to combat various forms of inhumanity. Lester said he wants people to better understand and then challenge systems of privilege and unconscious bias that exclude and deny another’s basic humanity. He said his work addresses the –isms in a way that moves beyond the often dismissive “political correctness” and “identity politics.”

Preacher’s kid

Lester said growing up in a rural northeast Georgia community during the civil rights era helped to inform his life’s work. He was mentored by people in his church and school; both communities prepared him to integrate to an all-white elementary school and a life outside the Deep South.

“Neal was an extremely bright young man who was a good writer and had exceptional penmanship,” said 84-year-old Doris Brown, Lester’s fifth-grade science teacher. “He worked well with his classmates. We had no discipline problems with him.”

That’s most likely due to the fact that Lester’s father was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a preacher’s kid was expected to be a good example. Lester says he approaches his classroom and the ASU Project Humanities initiative in much the same way his father successfully pastored his churches — by being welcoming, encouraging and informative.

“My small black church was very much the training ground for the work I do today, but I didn’t realize that until much later,” Lester said. “My church family modeled for me the value of education and provided a multitude of opportunities for me to excel and demonstrate leadership.”

Talking, listening, connecting

That early leadership has been transferred to Project Humanities, a multiple-award-winning initiative that brings together individuals and communities from across Arizona and beyond to instill knowledge of humanities study, public programs and humanist thought. The initiative facilitates critical conversations across diverse communities, building understanding through “talking, listening and connecting.”

Lester formed Project Humanities in 2010 when the economy took a downturn and students were fleeing humanities majors and disciplines. ASU President Michael Crow turned to Lester, then the dean of humanities, with the express charge to make the humanities more robust and enticing. Lester accepted that challenge and set out to create, celebrate and promote public humanities.

“The first order of business was to demystify the humanities and talk about why it’s good for our society,” said Lester, who first put together a weeklong series of events that involved panel discussions and symposia that integrated a cross-section of scholars, professionals and national figures. It went over so well that the following year, the series of humanities-focused programming became monthlong. Today, Project Humanities offers impactful programming year-round.

The second order of business, Lester said, was taking the humanities out of the sometimes-believed-to-be exclusive university setting and going into the various communities. It was a move that endeared him to Valley residents and community leaders alike, and it helped the initiative to develop a strong following.

“Part of the reason for our success is that we don’t come to people as a savior. We say, ‘We want you to be a part of what we’re doing. We want your voices to be vital, and we want to learn from and with you,’” Lester said. “We also don’t want people always coming to us — we go to where they are.”

Project Humanities holds events in community centers, churches, movie theaters, parks, lawns, theaters, restaurants and other civic and art spaces. Topics have included love, romance, autism, death, caregiving, menstrual equity, environmental justice and sustainability, humor, truth, arranged marriages in India, body positivity and the story of historically black colleges and universities.  

And if you go to a Project Humanities program, be prepared to learn something new about yourself and others.

“I don’t want to host a program on something we already know because there has to be an element of discovery we always want attendees to experience,” Lester said. “I’m willing to take a chance on subjects that society doesn’t talk about or necessarily like to talk about.”

That sort of thinking greatly appealed to Scottsdale resident Jackie Rifkin.

“Whether Neal is talking to college students, community leaders or people experiencing homelessness, he encourages dialogue,” said Rifkin, who has volunteered for Project Humanities events for four years and attends many of Lester’s lectures throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes at ASU. “His great strength is that he can relate to anybody regardless of their color (and age). In all his programs, his is constantly questioning: Is there a better way?”

Lester has also inspired John Skinner, vice president and chief of staff for ASU Enterprise Partners, which has sponsored several Project Humanities events.

“I’ve been a fan of Neal Lester’s since the day I met him several years ago,” Skinner said. “He has inspired me and so many others to grow beyond our current worldviews and preconceived notions. Dr. Lester, through his work at ASU and beyond, is a gift to humanity.”

New gift for the humanities

The Come Rain or Shine Foundation also recognizes Lester's impact. The group recently donated $25,000 to Project Humanities to put into action a new parenting and humanity initiative in 2019.

“Observing Dr. Lester in action within the community sparked our interest in Project Humanities,” said James D. Tuton, who heads up the Come Rain or Shine Foundation along with Michelle Mace. “Dr. Lester has the unique ability to instantaneously create an emotionally safe place for people to connect and share their differing worldviews.”

Mace and Tuton originally connected with Lester through Mace's son Andrew, who invited Lester to dinner. It was there where he asked Lester to give the induction keynote to the Desert Vista High School Rho Kappa Honor Society. Mace and Tuton joined Project Humanity's ongoing homeless outreach and then became intrigued about the annual Hacks for Humanity, a 36-hour “hackathon” for the social good.

What makes this hackathon unique is that it invites and attracts coders and non-coders, artists, humanists, futurists, designers and visionaries who work in teams to create technologies around Humanity 101 values: respect, integrity, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, kindness and self-reflection.

Mace and Tuton have served as opening hackathon keynoters and as mentors for the hackathon for the past two years. In addition to their positive experience with the hackathon, both Mace and Tuton say they never fail to learn something new from Lester every time they interact with him.

“Dr. Lester teaches us to listen for human experiences and understands that the energy required for learning comes from tapping into our own feelings and recognizing the feelings of others,” said Mace, referring to Project Humanities’ Service Saturdays, a homeless outreach started in 2014 in downtown Phoenix.

Every other Saturday, Lester coordinates anywhere from 20 to 60 volunteers in downtown Phoenix to distribute to the homeless various items, including clothes, toiletries, shoes, sandals, backpacks, books and magazines. Lester said this outreach keeps him grounded as he navigate spaces that can often leave him disillusioned, disappointed, discouraged and even too self-focused.

“Stepping out of my personal comfort zone to support others — particularly this very vulnerable community of 150 to 200 adults — is healing,” Lester said. “It also follows the model of Dr. Martin Luther King, who reminds us in his life work of the value of being of service to others.”

Top photo: Neal A. Lester, Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, poses for a portrait on the balcony of the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus on Jan. 14. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now

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