Ahwatukee Professor Neal Lester will be honored in two separate celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr., but he’s more than a little wistful about all the memorials that will be taking place in advance of and on the slain civil rights leader’s birthday Monday.
“There’s a part of me wishing we thought of his legacy all year around,” said Lester, former associate vice president of arts and humanities at Arizona State University and founding director of its award-winning Project Humanities program.
“When you start talking about issues like peace and injustice, they shouldn’t be relegated to a seasonal topic.”
Lester will receive the Arizona Living the Dream Award on Friday during the 33rd annual Arizona Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Breakfast sponsored by the Arizona Opportunities Industrialization Center and the Arizona Interfaith Movement.
That breakfast is aimed at “promoting cultural diversity, awareness and unity as it seeks to involve all Arizonans in recognizing the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the contributions he left to the world in his quest for equality for all people.”
The Phoenix Human Relations Commission in collaboration with the Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department helps select honorees for their “impact on the quality of life of Phoenix residents and contributed significantly to creating a compassionate and socially just community.”
On Monday, Lester, who is also Foundation Professor of English at ASU, will receive the Paradise Valley MLK 2019 Diversity Award “for dedicating his life trying to change people’s unconscious as well as conscious attitudes toward race and class by looking inward and discovering how a sense of privilege ‘may inform our decisions and control our actions,’” the organizing committee said.
In announcing its selection, award committee chair Kana Chinasamy praised Lester for “helping others embrace their shared humanity through programming and events” and said his “work in race relations, empathy and workplace training has created a more welcoming and inclusive environment not only in ASU but also in our communities in Arizona.”
“A common theme running through Dr. Lester’s work, pervasive in everything he does, is his belief that culture and difference should be acknowledged, valued, and celebrated as elements of our shared humanity,” Chinasamy said, adding:
“He connects his literary studies with world events, emphasizing the power of seeing the world and each other as a textbook with myriad and endless lessons learned through talking, listening, and connecting. Through talking, listening, and sharing personal narratives, he has connected with his audiences in profound ways that underscore the fact that despite individual differences in appearance, perspectives and even values, human beings are, as poet Maya Angelou posits, ‘more alike than we are unalike.’”
Lester said that as he prepared his acceptance speech, he turned to one of his revered artists, African-American poet-playwright Ntozake Shange, who died last year at age 70.
Author of the 1975 Tony Award-nominated play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” Shange “was asked to write about justice and thought it was a joke. She was a colored woman born in 1948 and said she had never seen justice,” Lester said.
Likewise, he noted, King himself “never said there’d be a day when we’d realize it.”
What King did say, Lester added, is “you don’t give up on the dream of justice.”
To that end, Lester has made a point of doing what he can to make more of that dream a reality.
Now working on a book that pulls together essays from people around the world who are involved in a diverse array of projects aimed at achieving justice, Lester also continues to lead ASU’s Project Humanities.
He describes it as an effort to discover and exploit the “interconnectedness of humanities within and across disciplines and to create positive change in people and communities across political, socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural boundaries, and in our daily lives.”
The program’s mantra is bringing people together to “talk, listen, and connect” across disciplines, communities, generations and professions.
One way of the program’s manifestations is the biweekly Service Saturdays, which enlists volunteers – many from Ahwatukee – to gather in downtown Phoenix from 6:30 to 8:15 a.m. to distribute clothing, shoes, water and toiletries to 150-200 adults experiencing various stages of homelessness. The next session is this Saturday, Jan. 26.
There are weekly collection and packaging sessions for those outreach events, with many items collected by Angie Christopher at AZ Spine Disc Sport in Ahwatukee. Clothes, shoes and toiletry items are all needed for the effort.
The outreach has encountered some criticism, with some saying it is merely an ineffective handout that doesn’t address the roots of homelessness.
“People don’t want us down there,” he said, but stressed, “not one person of all the 3,000 people we’ve supported who come down there come down just to get toothpaste.”
“Homelessness is a circumstance, not an identity,” Lester said, noting that both recipients and volunteers benefit from a chance to connect with each other.
Too many people display “a lack of empathy, lack of respect and an unwillingness to connect with a reality that is not their own,” he said, adding that Service Saturdays enables the volunteers to appreciate the humanity of individuals who have fallen on hard times for any number of reasons.
“There’s such an unwillingness to pick up the empathy wreath and extend it to other people,” he said. “It’s time to remind people we can reclaim, demonstrate and promote not what makes us human but what makes us more humane.”
Lester also has pioneered “Hacks for Humanity,” an intensive weekend-long gathering of people of all ages from all kinds of occupations who work together and in groups to brainstorm projects with practical applications that address a societal ill.
Last fall, his fifth hackathon included the University of Dallas, which conducted its own hack session simultaneously on its campus and connected with the ASU group via video conferences.
Participants were encouraged to select one issue from a list of themes that included parenting, mobility and social justice. Their projects also had to incorporate at least three of Project Humanities’ seven principles – kindness, compassion, integrity, respect, empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection.
The participants, guided by facilitators, also could win awards and prizes that Lester assembled by developing relationships with companies like State Farm Insurance as well as individual donors. The ultimate goal was to identify projects that could actually be implemented.
For his next Hackathon this fall, a university in Indiana and another in Illinois are joining – marking another small step toward Lester’s dream of connecting multiple universities across the country for these events to maximize brain power and energy and aim it at specific social problems.
Lester seems neither surprised not particularly alarmed by the incidents like the Charlottesville riot two years ago that was instigated by racists and Nazis. Nor is he particularly surprised by the divisiveness that immigration and immigrants have generated here and abroad.
It’s not that he doesn’t care.
It’s that he is realistic.
“Human behavior hasn’t changed,” he said. “The very nature of this country and the world was founded on violence and one group suppressing another group.”
Moreover, he said, social media has amplified racial and economic strife so that “we have access to all kinds of information” that people a generation ago could more easily ignore.
“I’m always a little disturbed when people say they think our world has gotten worse,” Lester added. “The way the ‘isms’ manifest themselves have taken on less nuanced ways. Policies against groups – there is an evolution, but it’s not new stuff, just less nuanced.”
Yet, in the face of that reality, Lester remains relentlessly optimistic.
“Violence has always part of our American history and world history” and “there has always been two Americas,” Lester said.
“The struggle continues,” he added. “That should not and cannot keep us from doing better and being better.”