By KJ Philp, November 2016 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2016 here.
Arizona State University’s Project Humanities was conceptualized in 2010 when Neal Lester, Ph.D., served as Arizona State University’s dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Lester’s university-level initiative engaged those within ASU and beyond in critical conversations about humanities research as well as about what’s happening in the world.
What was initially slated to be a “Year of the Humanities” with intense humanities programming across disciplines has, with president Michael M. Crow’s support, become a year-round offering of diverse programming that continues to bring individuals and communities together to “talk, listen, and connect.”
Echo: As the founding director of ASU Project Humanities, can you tell us a little about your process of realizing this was a need wishing the community and what it was like to bring this effort to life? 2010?
Lester: … The idea then was to “make humanities more robust” when there was the economic downturn and parents and students were fleeing from humanities majors to STEM and other areas. To combat this alleged “crisis in humanities,” I proposed that we within the academy work deliberately to “demystify” humanities such that humanities is not something that remains solely in an academic classroom but could and would also involve the larger and broader public …
Our programs target all audiences from elementary and high school students to retirees and everyone in between. This diversity of audiences and programming has become a hallmark of our Project Humanities brand as has the hand graphic that we have on buttons and T-shirts and pens really isn’t a Thanksgiving turkey many of us drew with our hands as kids, but rather a representation that, as Booker T. Washington said after the American emancipation of slaves, “We can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in matters of progress.” Our vision is that Project Humanities will continue to be a leader in these important local, regional, national, and even international conversations about how we live as humans connected with others and all of us trying to make sense of our lives and experiences.
A sign of our growth and expanse is not just in the number of programs we sponsor or co-sponsor each semester and during the summer and our media coverage footprint, but also in terms of our increased number of community volunteers, summer high school interns, distinguished visiting scholars, community and industry partners, and event sponsors. We continue to welcome partnerships that underscore our success as fundamentally connected to our collaborations internally and beyond the fours Arizona State University campuses. Project Humanities-branded programs take place across the state of Arizona, in Chicago, and we continue to welcome opportunities to speak formally about the Project as a model for community and civic engagement at scholarly conferences and in media interviews.
Echo: One goal of ASU Project Humanities is spreading awareness about racial, gender and sexual inequality. How do you achieve this?
Lester: In our efforts to bring individuals and communities together across disciplines, professions and generations, we are fundamentally committed to critically exploring issues of “difference.” That means that we talk about race, gender, sexuality, class and such as we do programming on systems of privilege and unconscious bias. Acknowledging “difference” with respect is precisely what we see as a way to acknowledging our shared humanity. Each of us has unconscious bias and privilege. Each of us is “othered” in some way. This knowledge and this reality should make us more empathetic and more compassionate in our interactions with each other. Particularly through our Humanity 101 Movement with its emphasis on these seven principles – respect, integrity, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness and self-reflection – can we acknowledge and respect “difference” without threat or fear.
Some of our programs around issues of “difference” include these: film screenings and discussions on transgender, “gay best friends,” boys and constructions of masculinities; systems of privilege and unconscious bias; cultural appropriation; Native Americans and two-spirit identities American Indian mascots; constructions of “whiteness’ in art, the N-word, the American Indian Movement and Humanity 101; humor and race, humor and gender; the Black Panther Party, the “Polynesian Pipeline,” intersections of –isms; and autistic adults and intimacy.
Echo: With all your experience and expertise, how would you personally describe humanities, and the importance of having a space for it, in academia as well as the surrounding community?
Lester: Our focus on “talking, listening, connecting” is an effort to demystify humanities. Too often, humanities registers “too academic” for those outside the academy. When we think about humanities, too often we turn to listing disciplines … [which] are not nearly as neatly defined and distinct as we might imagine. Hence, rather than resorting to listing disciplines, we like to “do humanities” and demonstrate “humanities in action” particularly in the public sphere. We are less interested in the question of “What makes us human?” than “How are we human?” Our goal is to make humanities work accessible and exciting, not something that separates us into “town and gown.”
Echo: You’ve been a professor of English at ASU since 1997; was there a defining moment when you knew that was YOUR home/community?
Lester: I was born and raised in the Deep South – in a small town in northeast Georgia close to Athens. I went to undergraduate school in Georgia and then went to graduate school in Nashville. My first academic job was at a small liberal arts school in Montevallo, Ala., and then I was recruited to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was there for seven years before coming here. Coming to AZ in 1997 was a bit of culture shock in the classroom as I met so many students who proclaimed such things as they enrolled in my African American literature courses: “I don’t know how I will do in your class, Professor Lester, because I haven’t been around black people.” This was very telling on so many levels, not the least of which is the fact that teaching here is more challenging because there are so few African Americans as compared to Alabama. No white students in Alabama would be able to make a claim about not being around any black folks, and no black folks I know can say they haven’t been around whites. Here and in AL, folks seem surprised that whites take my courses. I have had never had a class of all black students; I have certainly had classes of mostly females.
As I have said many times, my small town church community established the very foundation of what I am doing today. My elementary school teachers were also my teachers in Sunday School. I was expected to go to college and to value education. My early training as a teacher came when I taught my Sunday School class with my peers as my students and when I did Saturday tutoring at my church. I sang in the youth and young adult choirs, participated in seasonal pageants, said Easter speeches, and was always encouraged to reach for the stars. I continue to reach for those stars and have been very fortunate to grab one or two along the way.
Echo: We last spoke in February 2015 as you were being presented with the Invisible Heroes Umoja (unity) award by United Gay Informed Men of African Descent (UGIMA). How has your life changed in just over two short years? What did that award mean to you and what have you been up to since?
Lester: The UGIMA Award was a very nice affirmation that the work I am doing personally as a scholar and as the leader of this university initiative matters. The gentlemen who honored me with this award have continued to support our programs, and I have talked more with the membership about our programs to create more collaboration opportunities. That this specific group has appreciated the work I do to challenge systems of privilege is necessary and important in everyone’s responsibility to grant each and every one respect and human dignity, despite our backgrounds, values, perspectives, and beliefs.
Echo: In your words, describe intersectionality and its importance within any marginalized community (including, but not limited to the LGBTQ community).
Lester: Too often, people gravitate toward one axle when we talk about and think about our individual identities. We choose to focus on one aspect of our identity rather than realizing that we are all many things at once. Everyone is raced, gendered, abled in some way, classed, aged, etc. We all have sexual identities at the same time we have other parts of our identities. The intersections of these parts make us who we are, however socially constructed these identities may be. This is one of the reasons I am always concerned when I hear folks reduce black folks to “the black community.” Is there a “white community”? We are members of different communities simultaneously. Talking about intersectionalty is essential to understanding systems of privilege and unconscious bias.
Echo: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing the LGBTQ community today? How about LGBTQ people of color?
Lester: I can’t speak about challenges within the LGBTQ community except to say that being LGBTQ doesn’t mean that those within the LGBTQ communities are without race, class, or other biases – conscious and unconscious. Being oppressed in one group certainly doesn’t exempt us from oppressing another group, or being sensitive and aware of the realities of one group doesn’t always transfer to sensitivity and awareness about other groups.
Echo: Your study of heteronormativity in children’s texts appeared in the summer 2007 issue of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education: An International Quarterly Devoted to Research, Policy and Practice. What prompted that study and what were some of your biggest discoveries as a result of it?
Lester: I have always been interested in issues of “difference,” raising questions not just about race and representations, but about class as well. Since one of my areas of expertise is African American children’s literature, I was interested in seeing how issues of sexual identity play out in “traditional” texts like The Real Mother Goose and the Dick and Jane readers. As I became more aware of what was missing from the syllabi I created to teach and the texts I selected, I was continually asking myself “What’s missing”? I continue to ask that as I look at texts that are not just in English and texts and representations of those who are differently abled.
The article you reference was also connected to a class I created and taught, and what I discovered were other patterns of representation even with these texts that challenged heteronormativity. The characters were always white and young, and even the same-sex pairings assumed stereotyped gender roles in the illustrations. Children’s texts can be at the forefront of these efforts to introduce and talk about “difference.” Characters of color came about much later in these “alternative” texts and we are still looking for texts about elderly populations where the story is not about their age and stories that don’t privilege thinness.
Echo: So many of the efforts and lectures you’re involved with boil down to the ways in which we connect, listen and talk to one another. Why is the power of this trifecta overlooked or underestimated so often?
Lester: “Talking, listening, connecting” as a deliberate practice seems so simple and overlooked until there’s a crisis of some sort. Too many of us don’t talk to others near and around us because we prefer to communicate with those via a handheld. We also prefer not to be challenged in our assumptions about things and only talk and listen to those to look like us and think as we do. Rarely do we seek out opportunities to step outside our various comfort zones. And if we do talk, we are often not listening to understand but rather listening to reply. I am convinced that conflict can be resolved if we focus on “talking, listening, connecting” more intentionally in the same way that I believe that being more deliberate about our seven Humanity 101 principles in our own lives will allow us to get along better with others, even when we disagree.
Echo: Of all your accomplishments and accolades, which one meant the most to you and why?
Lester: I am grateful for any and all accolades and recognitions and don’t take these recognitions for granted. I don’t do the work for the accolades, but it is gratifying to see that others see and value what I do.
Echo: Do you consider yourself a role model? Why/why not?
Lester: I don’t invest much time and energy in the notion of having or being a role model. Folks don’t ask to be role models. I hope that I am modeling compassionate and effective leadership both as a teacher, administrator, citizen and decency as a human being.
Echo: What would you consider your greatest feat?
Lester: One of my proudest accomplishments is the work that I am doing with an adult homeless population in downtown Phoenix. Project Humanities started a Clothing Corner that collects and distributes gently used and new clothes, shoes and hygiene products every other Saturday from 6:30 to 8:15 a.m. We have been doing this for the past two and a half years. What is so exciting is how I have grown so in understanding homelessness, not as an identity but as a circumstance that any one of us could experience at any moment though absolutely no design of our own. The fact that we have had upwards of 30 volunteers from across the Valley on a given Saturday participating in this outreach effort is exciting. We have had Boy Scouts, retirees, visiting Pakistani faculty, high school students, families, couples and others join us for this bimonthly service. We now have warehouse and corporate entities helping us with our efforts. This is such gratifying work, and it becomes a way of demonstrating “Humanity 101 in action.” I continue to be amazed when I invite others to assist and too many say “It’s too early to get up on Saturday.” That’s a lesson in Privilege 101. The connections we volunteers make with this population are real and important. I am very proud of this work and especially to see that we are growing and expanding in meeting this social need.
I am also proud to be a leading local and national voice in conversations about American race relations. Being able to work with police locally and elsewhere at this particular moment in our nation’s history is important and meaningful.
That I have created the only college-level course on the infamous N-word is also something that I am pleased to have done. From this work have come publications, numerous workshops, op-ed pieces, media interviews, lectures and keynotes. My presentations and talks on the N-word are not about telling audiences what to say but rather to encourage everyone to think about the words we use in every given situation. Words matter, and when we don’t think about words and language, then the words and language are controlling us and we not them. And poet Maya Angelou says, “words are things.”
Echo: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Lester: I am personally less concerned with these 3-, 5- and 10-year predictions. I am merely looking at tomorrow to see that I am a better and more informed person today than I was yesterday. It’s a bit futile to imagine a world and life so far off rather than doing what we can all do today to make our lives and those of others’ better to the extent that we can. This is not to say that I don’t think about the future and make plans. These projections though, I am not preoccupied with or invest much energy in trying to map out what I cannot foresee or control. This perspective for me is quite liberating.