Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee and Rachel Sondgeroth show off the Cataluyst Award they received at Arizona State University for Project Humanities, for which Lestder is founding director and Sondergoth is coordinator. She began six years ago as a high sch...

Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee and Rachel Sondgeroth show off the Cataluyst Award they received at Arizona State University for Project Humanities, for which Lestder is founding director and Sondergoth is coordinator. She began six years ago as a high school intern with Project Humanities while she was in Texas, then was a student worker through ASU undergraduate education and has been a full time staff member for past two years.

 Ahwatukee university professor Dr. Neal Lester has spent 2021 partly in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Project Humanities, a program of which he is the founding director at Arizona State University.

After beginning the year with a City of Tempe MLK Diversity Award in Education, Project Humanities ended it with receiving the Catalyst Award by the ASU Committee for Campus Inclusion for its ongoing work in diversity, equity and inclusion: “for inspiring and igniting transformation and inclusion.”

 When Project Humanities began 10 years ago, the idea was to get undergraduate students interested in humanities as a major. Lester, ASU Foundation Professor of English, was Dean of Humanities at the time and saw this as an opportunity to “demystify humanities” for those non-academics and even those in other majors.

“Conversations had to move beyond the unimaginative ‘what makes us human’ and ‘learning to think critically’ – which, by the way, are not unique to humanities study,” Lester  said.

The call to create programs and activities to attract students to this study immediately became an effort to make humanities research and study more accessible to everyone across various disciplinary communities.

“What began as a week of focused programming and activities has become year-round programming that attracts hundreds of students, faculty, staff, administrators, volunteers from Arizona State University and other high schools and universities across the country,” Lester said.

With its popular tagline of “talking, listening, connecting,” Project Humanities is a recognized local and national leader in critical public conversations that center diversity, humanity and justice.

It includes ongoing series like “Vital Voices” – which invites attendees to bring something to share that relates to a specific topic – and “Dispelling the Myths,” looks at current ideas that polarize, such as “critical race theory” and “transgender athletes in sports.

 Project Humanities has hosted hundreds of programs over 10 years on diverse topics –Indigenous mascots, menstrual equity, modern-day voter suppression, parenting across cultures, cultural appropriation, rural healthcare, Indigenous rock music, and others.

The programs match the diversity of the audiences who attend these events as facilitators, panelists, volunteers, interns, and keynotes.

 “The work of Project Humanities continues to speak to the question of ‘Are we losing our humanity?,’” Lester noted. T

hat topic has been broached with such Project Humanities luminaries as poets Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove, feminist critic bell hooks, singer Ruth Pointer, Indigenous activist Clyde Bellecourt, Mexican humorist and columnist Gustavo Arellano, and most recently with Dr. Bernice A. King, daughter of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King.

Between the annual “Hacks for Humanity: Hacking for the Social Good,” which draws hundreds of participants as competing teams, volunteers, mentors, and corporate sponsors in “a multidisciplinary 36-hour burst of creative innovation via technology and business entrepreneurship” to the biweekly Service Saturdays homeless outreach to hundeds of unsheltered adults in downtown Phoenix, Project Humanities “continues to bring individuals and communities together to do better and to be better,” Lester said.

That record and history of doing impactful and far-reaching work earned Lester a November 2021 accolade from the Phi Iota Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated as Citizen of the Year for “outstanding contribution to humanity and to the welfare of mankind.” 

He and Project Humanities also have been honored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Association of Departments of English (an affiliate of the Modern Language Association), the City of Tempe, the City of Paradise Valley, the City of Phoenix, East Valley NAACP, United Gay Informed Men of African Descent, Ion Arizona, Echo Magazine, Diversity Leadership Alliance, Holy Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African American community trio: Jack and Jill of America, the Boule, and Links.

And next month, Lester will receive the inaugural ASU Faculty MLK Award for his “many years of service and work in academia, for teaching excellence, for university wide Project Humanities initiative, and work with LGBTQ and homeless populations” – in short, for his “commitment and passion for community.”

 To connect with and get involved with Project Humanities:  projecthumaniteis.asu.edu, email us at projecthumanities@asu.edu, or call 4807277030.

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