Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee

Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee, foundation professor of English at ASU and founder of its Project Humanities program, will be discussing Martin Luther King Jr. on two programs.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorations next Monday likely will be different, with many community service projects normally held that day either canceled or curtailed because of the need to maintain social distance.

But that doesn’t mean the day will be ignored in Ahwatukee and the East Valley.

And Ahwatukee resident Dr. Neal Lester, foundation professor of English at Arizona State University, will be playing a pivotal role.

The Tempe Human Relations Commission is awarding one of its MLK Diversity Awards to ASU’s Project Humanities program, which Lester founded 10 years ago to be “a leader in local, national, international conversations about the breadth, depth and value of humanities study and humanist practice and understanding across disciplines and communities.”

In announcing the award, the commission said Project Humanities “is creating virtual and real spaces where all voices are vital. A multiple award-winning initiative that extends widely within and far beyond the four campuses of ASU, Project Humanities invites people to see diversity, inclusion and equity through the lens of individual and shared humanity.

“Project Humanities offers a virtual and real toolbox that promotes and celebrates compassion, integrity, forgiveness, kindness, empathy and self-reflection,” it said. 

“From lectures with known celebrities and leaders to hackathons for social good and volunteering, this program is dedicated to showing the interconnectedness of humanity, justice and equality,” it added.

The award ceremony will be broadcast live at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 15, on the City of Tempe Facebook page.

Additionally, there are two programs on different platforms that Lester is part of.

AZPBS’ Arizona Horizon will present on TV and azpbs.org at 5 p.m. Jan. 18 segments on past, present and future aspects of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Lester will be a featured guest.

 “How the Dream Came to Be” will examine the speech’s content and historical context in the 1960s, as well as King’s inspiration for writing it and its social impact on the Civil Rights movement.

The second segment will present the different perspectives of individuals who represent three different generations as they describe how MLK and his speech has impacted their lives. It also will explore changes within their communities that are helping to achieve racial equality.        

“Our hope is through this program, we continue to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King and encourage all people to actively work towards achieving the promise of freedom and justice for all,” said Ebonye Delaney, Arizona PBS digital director and executive producer of the presentation.

This project will be part of a broader MLK Day observance and is a joint effort with the municipalities of Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Chandler, Phoenix and Gilbert and the East Valley Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee.

Lester also is co-facilitator of a webcast 6-8 p.m. Monday on “The King We Don’t Know,” a 2018 NPR interview assessing the King’s legacy led by Dr. Charles McKinney, professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis. People can register for it at projecthumanities.asu.edu/events. 

Lester explained he orchestrated that webcast because “I decided that we could do something a little more critically productive” on a day commemorating the late civil rights leader.

“Service is fine,” he said, but since those events are conducted in the daytime, Lester felt some critical discussion on King and his seminal speeches like “I Have a Dream” would deepen people’s understanding of King’s beliefs and mission.

Since George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police last May, Lester said, people have been “pulling out King quotes and I’m always kind of amazed at the way in which we want to romanticize King and see him as being sort of ‘We Are the World’ or ‘Let’s Sing the Coke Song.’”

“He was actually quite radical,” Lester said, stressing “I’m using ‘radical’ in quotation marks.” 

Lester said that in the “Dream” speech and 1967 “The Other America” speech, King “calls out police brutality, where he calls out injustices and where he talks very specifically about divided America, the haves and the have nots.”

He said the latter program on Monday “won’t be a lecture, won’t be a panel discussion” but a series of “vital voices” represented by various individuals who share poems, parts of speeches or other observations moderated by him and McKinney.

McKinney is an expert on King, Lester explained, and “his take is that we have too often – and this is across the racial-ethnic-cultural spectrum – looked at Dr. King as a kind of black Santa Claus and then we sort of sugarcoat the image of him when it comes to his sort of radical perspective on change and addressing militarism but also economic injustice.”

Lester pointed to King’s own words in his 1967 address at Stanford University to explain the romanticized image of King.

“He says large segments of the population are content with tranquility and the status quo and he says the only way to make change is to disrupt that and recognize that humanity, justice and equality are interconnected. I don’t think we’ve moved to that point yet. We want to see King as being this kneel-down-and-pray, non-violent Gandhi because that also suits us.”

He suggested people read the “I Have A Dream” speech “because it is not particularly sugarcoated in terms of the circumstances of America” and that “in fact, it talks with a certain kind of urgency about that injustice and discrimination, specifically racial and economic issues that have persisted for way too long.”

Meanwhile, Lester said the pandemic has not thwarted his mission to extend the dialogue about society through Project Humanities’ lens of “empathy, compassion, respect, integrity, forgiveness, kindness and self-reflection.”

He had to go virtual last fall with his annual Hackathon for Humanity – in which a diverse array of volunteers of all ages and from all segments of society work on one of several specific efforts to address a social issue.

Because it was virtual, the three-day event drew people from around the world and the group’s prize-winning effort was an app to help victims of domestic violence.

Called “Whole Heart,” the app helps victims determine if their relationship is abusive, connects them to services, provides ongoing support and helps record incidents of abuse in a digital journal.

The app also has built-in “camouflaging” features that make it appear as a yoga or cooking app, should the abuser snatch the victim’s phone.

The pandemic also inspired Lester to start regular podcasts that cover a broad range of topics. Last year’s topics ranged from untested rape kits to “whupping and African-American parenting.”

Project Humanities also has slated a series of web-based discussions on topics such as “rhetorical listening.”

That session “invites listeners to move from a dysfunctional silence to an open stance wherein people willingly position themselves to recognize that a problem exists for someone.”

Also planned are film screenings on a movement in the early 1970s by a group of Boston secretaries for better pay and working conditions, a public television host called Mr. Soul and his celebration of Black literature and music, and another on “coded bias.”

There also are digital workshops slated on topics such as anti-racist parenting, “toxic positivity” and “religion and rape culture.”

Details on all those presentations are at projecthumanities.asu.edu.

Project Humanities also is partnering with a nonprofit to deliver toiletries and other necessities to homeless people in downtown Phoenix. 

Until the pandemic required social distancing, volunteers every other Saturday morning went downtown to distribute donated necessities like clothing and toiletries.

Volunteers, who now only sort donations, now are limited in number because of the pandemic, as are the amount of donations that can be accepted.

Because of the need for social distancing, people who want to donate or help sort donations must make arrangements with Project Humanities by calling 480-727-7030 or emailing projecthumanities@asu.edu.

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