It’s been 53 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the societal change he fought and prayed for seems as much a dream now as it did in 1969.
But as his birthday is commemorated this Monday, the countless individuals who have continued his legacy haven’t given up his fight – people like Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee.
Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University and founder director of its Project Humanities, will be recognized for his work Jan. 20 as the first recipient of ASU’s new MLK Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership Award.
That inaugural award will cap a busy time for Lester, who participated last week in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the prestigious Modern Language Association on cultivating relationships between the media and university. He also will be participating tomorrow and Friday in the King Center’s virtual Beloved Community Global Summit, titled this year “It Starts With Me: Shifting Priorities to Create the Beloved Community.”
As ASU noted in announcing the award, “Lester’s work not only connects communities, but gives a voice to those who feel marginalized.”
He told ASU he was gratified and humbled by the award, which was announced late last year in what was a big 10th anniversary year for his Project Humanities, whose mission is to “bring together individuals and communities, within and around Arizona State University, to instill passion and knowledge of humanities study, research, and humanist thought.
“By exploring shared ideas and experiences, Project Humanities facilitates conversations across diverse communities to build understanding through talking, listening, and connecting.”
In 2021, Project Humanities received the MLK Diversity Award in Education from the City of Tempe in January and the ASU Committee for Campus Inclusion Catalyst Award for “inspiring and igniting transformation and inclusion.” The culminating anniversary event was a conversation between Lester and King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, about her family’s legacy and her and the King Center’s global effort for nonviolent social change.
“This all feels cosmically connected,” Lester told ASU.
Lester has been as busy as the cosmos in making connections as he strives to apply the principles that Project Humanities terms “Humanity 101”: compassion, integrity, respect, kindness, forgiveness, empathy and self-reflection.
Those principles, he said, “challenge us to do better and be better people.”
Lester has built a wide variety of programs and activities around his conviction that “culture and difference must be acknowledged, valued and celebrated as elements of our shared humanity.”
“While I get great joy witnessing my students’ 'aha!' moments in class…I experience another level of joy when – sometimes years later – they express to me that they see connections between texts we’ve explored and their own lives, and particularly the world around them,” he told ASU.
Often it doesn’t take years.
For example, last month a Desert Vista student and member of Boys Team Charity Ahwatukee told his family he wanted to celebrate his 16th birthday as a family at the Human Servicers Campus in downtown Phoenix Dec. 11 and participate in Project Humanities’ biweekly Service Saturdays.
There, people who are experiencing homelessness have a chance to pick out clothing and hygiene items that Project Humanities volunteers have neatly laid out so that recipients can pick and choose what they want – almost as they would in a department store.
Nuanced actions like that make the recipients feel valued as human beings, and, as Lester noted, “so much of homelessness is about people being denied their humanity.”
And they reflect Lester’s feelings about “poverty porn” – images, for example, of impoverished people often used by organizations to pull the heart strings of donors so they open their wallets.
“While it may be well-intentioned,” Lester said, “it denies other people their dignity and their humanity. …It does nothing to make you see these individuals as human and worthy of something that feels like quality. You’re always above them and they always need your help. And it brings up something we used to call – we still call – that sort of white savior mentality.”
It explains why he bristles when people without a home are referred to as “the homeless” rather than “people who are experiencing homelessness.”
“It’s a way of thinking and if you care about language and you care about people’s humanity and you know something about this population, then you know that it’s not an identity that you’re born into, that homelessness is something that can change, depending on your circumstances,” Lester explained.
With part of the nation preparing to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr., it’s only natural to ask Lester if society is more divided or less so today.
“I think our society has always been divided,” Lester replied, explaining that what has changed is people’s access to that division through the 24/7 news cycle and “different ways of communicating” – particularly social media.”
“We’ve always had sex discrimination. And we’ve always had homophobia. We’ve always had racism,” he said, “and the interesting thing is how technology has allowed us to witness that on multiple sides very quickly.”
He refers to his conversations with Bernice King about how some people say her father advocated color-blindness.
“Well, that’s not true. There’s nothing in the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that says we shouldn’t see difference. In fact, he calls difference out. He says there are some people who live in this nation who are not getting the rights that everybody else is getting. And another instance he talks about there’s a group of folks who have the opportunity and those who don’t.”
“There is a way in which he did acknowledge difference,” Lester said. “Acknowledging difference doesn’t mean you have to deny people their humanity. So, I think every year, we get an opportunity to renew our commitment to what that dream was. But we got to look at the dream as not sugar-coated.”