Founding director of Project Humanities honored with 2022 ASU MLK Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership Award

An influential professor at Arizona State University since 1997, Neal Lester has been selected as the 2022 ASU Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership awardee, as a part of the university's annual MLK Jr. celebration.

Lester is the founder and director of ASU’s awarding-winning Project Humanities initiative, which seeks to connect the university and local communities through “talking, listening and connecting.” He has previously been a professor of English at the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo, having received his BA in English at the State University of West Georgia, where he was valedictorian of his graduating class. He then become the first African American to receive a doctorate degree in English at Vanderbilt University.  

Lester’s work not only connects communities, but gives a voice to those who feel marginalized. In this Q&A, Lester discusses this work and his experiences serving others.  

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: You’ve been honored with the inaugural 2022 ASU MLK Jr. Faculty Servant-Leadership Award. Describe how you felt when you heard the news. 

Answer: Any time my name is spoken or written in the same sentence that lauds the servant-leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am excited and humbled. It was a very pleasant surprise getting this news, as I had no idea that I was even being nominated for this award. It’s gratifying to know that others are watching, valuing and being impacted directly or indirectly by the work that I am facilitating through the state and national platform that is Project Humanities, the initiative that I direct, as well as by my community and professional presence in the field — the trenches as it were — in this ongoing work toward social justice.

Additionally, this news was especially meaningful since 2021, as Project Humanities’ 10th anniversary year, began with Project Humanities receiving an MLK Diversity Award in Education from the city of Tempe in January, and in December 2021, Project Humanities received the ASU Committee for Campus Inclusion Catalyst Award for “inspiring and igniting transformation and inclusion.” Importantly and notably, our 10th anniversary culminating event in November 2021 was my one-on-one virtual conversation with Dr. Bernice A. King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about the King family legacy and her and the King Center’s ongoing national and global work to promote nonviolent social change. This all feels cosmically connected. 

Q: How have your life experiences shaped you into the leader you are today?  

A: I have always wanted to be a teacher, and on some level must have realized that teaching is inherently a leadership profession. After serving in a few administrative positions here at Arizona State University, I better understand how teaching and supervising/managing are not that different. Each position requires of the most effective leaders, a commitment — personally and organizationally — to principles that Project Humanities terms “Humanity 101”:  compassion, integrity, respect, kindness, forgiveness, empathy and self-reflection. Every and any effective and impactful teacher, leader, manager, supervisor, student or staff member surely must connect with these principles in some way. And these aren’t necessarily faith-based principles, but rather principles that challenge us to do better and be better people. 

Q: How have you incorporated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s values of service and inclusion in your everyday life? 

A: With an academic career that spans over 30 years, I have worked ambitiously and tirelessly to empower diverse audiences of students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members to view critically and experience the world in a way that challenges their own perceptions and biases. By connecting literary and cultural studies with world events, I emphasize the power of lessons learned through talking, listening and connecting with one another. Disciplines, majors and minors are constructs. What is more important to me personally is not so much “what makes us human,” but rather the notion of “how we are human.”  This question crosses disciplines, professions, generations and communities. In the years since developing this initiative, Project Humanities has expanded its efforts to create outreach and programming within and beyond the ASU campuses and well into the broader Phoenix communities.

In the last eight years, our Project Humanities’ Service Saturdays homeless outreach has engaged hundreds of intergenerational and multi-professional individuals across the Valley to donate, collect and distribute clothing, shoes and toiletries to adults experiencing homelessness in downtown Phoenix. Individuals experiencing homelessness and other instability are often ignored or cast aside simply because of their unfavorable and often life-threatening circumstances. Volunteers from across the Valley become catalysts for positive change and are given opportunities to witness that, despite individual differences in appearance, perspectives, socioeconomic status and even values, human beings are, as poet Maya Angelou posits, "more alike than we are unalike."

Another specific example of my commitment to enhancing the dignity of all people lies in the wide range of programming that Project Humanities very intentionally creates and opens to multiple communities. Over the years, my team has organized community conversations surrounding topics — such as life after incarceration, religious doctrines and dogma, cultural appropriation and cultural awareness, privilege and unconscious bias in the workplace, workplace bullying, addiction recovery, suicide and self-harm, intersectionality within LGBTQIA+ communities, toxic positivity, youth and mental health, transgender athletes and sports, white women dismantling white supremacy, the uses of anger, and menstrual equity — to name a few. A common theme running through these very different topics, events and programs — and that informs everything that I do both in and outside the classroom — is my conviction that culture and difference must be acknowledged, valued and celebrated as elements of our shared humanity.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience of helping others? 

A: While I get great joy witnessing my students’ “aha!” moments in class, when they offer new and enthusiastic insights into a text that I have taught for years, and when they take my courses multiple times, 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. This is all very exciting, indeed.  

Perhaps the most transformative work for me, though, is our homeless outreach. It’s humbling, inspiring and meaningful on so many levels. Importantly, engaging with this outreach dispels so many myths too many folks harbor about homelessness. Engaging in this outreach helps to show that homelessness is not an identity but rather a circumstance in which any one of us could find ourselves if our current networks of support fail. So many take for granted what a travel-size tube of toothpaste and a new toothbrush, travel size shampoo and conditioner, soap, reading glasses, disposable razors, a pair of socks, a bra and clean underwear mean to those who do not have these items. More importantly, just asking clients their names as volunteers become their “personal shoppers” is a transformative moment of shared humanity. 

Q: Who or what keeps you inspired and motivated to serve others?  

A: Andrew, a high schooler and member of Boys Team Charity of Ahwatukee, told his family last week that he wanted to participate in our homeless outreach the morning of Dec. 11 to begin his 16th birthday. Andrew brought his parents, his brother and his brother’s friend, and yes, we all sang "Happy Birthday" to Andrew. That Andrew asked his family for this gift was a gift to me. And just after the donations truck had been reloaded and I was ready to drive off, a client in a wheelchair beckoned for me to come over to him. As is typically the case, I expected him to request something after everything had been packed away. I was very wrong. He called me over to say that he has not come through our pop-up market, but that he has been watching and observing us when we come down every other week. He thanked us for doing this outreach and talked about how organized we are. I was humbled, appreciative and moved by his/this gift of gratitude.  

That we have families doing this with us reminds me of the Todd family where the grandpa, Laray, has for the past three years driven two hours from Prescott to Phoenix to do outreach with his then 13-year-old grandson, Santi. Laray and Santi bonded over this outreach when Santi was in the eighth grade. Santi is now a high school junior and gets academic credit as a Project Humanities outreach intern. 

Fifty-two volunteers supporting 180 clients on Dec. 11 was a gift. Eighty-five volunteers on Thanksgiving weekend supporting 200-plus clients was a gift. Sixteen Friday afternoon sorters spending four hours sorting through and organizing bags and bags and boxes and boxes of donations is a gift. Nearly 150 bras donated from our new outreach partners, The Bra Recyclers, LLC, is a gift. A slew of sorted donations and four volunteers from Christina Bolyard and AZ Knowledge Empowerment and Advocacy Group is a gift. Having former Project Humanities student worker Bella Escalante join us after graduating from ASU five years ago is a gift. In this outreach, such gifts abound. And none of this outreach could be as joyful — or even possible — without each and every volunteer. All of this inspires and challenges me to keep this momentum and impact going. 

Q: What advice would you give to future leaders here at ASU?  

A: Being an effective leader does not mean that one has to lose touch with one’s humanity and the heartbeat of these principles — compassion, integrity, respect, forgiveness, kindness, empathy and self-reflection. These values are not “extras”; they are the core, and living these values is about intentionality and deliberateness. Practicing humility can be one of the greatest leadership qualities. Indeed, practicing humanity by extending humanity to others is also about risk-taking, especially when that very humanity may not be extended back to us. How others (mis)treat us does not have to dictate how we treat others. Dr. King’s life and legacy of non-violent social change certainly embraces this philosophy as a radical state of mind, as a radical way of thinking and being in a world that is laden with injustice after injustice after injustice. How we react or choose not to react to these injustices as we witness and even perpetuate them is the ultimate testament to who we are and how we are.   

Lester will be honored at ASU’S MLK Jr. celebration breakfast on Jan. 20, alongside servant-leadership awardee Silvana Salcido Esparza, student-servant awardees Roicia Banks and Ivan Quintana and ASU staff awardee Marcelino Quiñonez 

Arianna Reyna
amreyna6@asu.edu