Q&A: Project Humanities

Photo courtesy of Neal Lester. Neal A. Lester, professor and director of ASU's Project Humanities. Photo courtesy of Neal Lester.

Project Humanities, which started in the fall of 2010, focuses on talking, listening and connecting with different audiences about the purpose and value of humanities. Along with different themed events, the organization works in different communities. It also leads the Humanity 101: Creating a Movement effort and focuses on seven principles: integrity, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, self-reflection, empathy and respect . The organization has been a success, and now other schools in Arizona, and even Chicago, are starting to incorporate the program. English professor Neal A. Lester co-created Project Humanities at a time when students and their parents across the nation were “fleeing from humanities”, allegedly because it offered no real job possibilities for stability. Lester currently directs the program.

Would you consider Project Humanities an activist group?

Not at the surface, and I say that because we don’t protest. We try to open minds. I try to think of this as a classroom outside the classroom. Not just where a teacher goes in and tries to present all this knowledge but rather where the teachers also become the student and the students become the teacher. When we have programs in the community, for example, Vital Voices, we might explore childhood or stories and storytelling. It’s not inherently political but what could come out of those could be politics of identity or politics of place. I wouldn't call this activism in a sense, but rather an effort to redefine the relationship between the institutions and the communities. The human ties we are focusing on are not what it means to be human, but how do we behave as humans. I’m part of a grant that is connected with a women's college in Lahore, Pakistan. ASU faculty go there and Kinnaird faculty are here now. Two of them, I invited to go with me [Central Arizona Shelter Services] to help serve food. It was amazing to me to hear them talk about how important that experience had been for them. They could come over here and do all the tourist stuff and look at all the literature but not necessarily see that aspect of what is also American life. I found it important to not take them as a field trip so they could participate in the fullness and complexity of American life and culture, and homelessness is a dimension of it. Project Humanities could be activist, but we’re not standing out with picket signs or sit-ins. We’re not opposed to that, but our effort is to try and bring people together to talk, listen and connect.

In what ways would you say Project Humanities impacted other communities along with ASU?

It depends on constituent groups. For example, this summer we had five interns from three different local high schools come in and work with us. They focused on creating videos for our seven principles, which we are showcasing on our website and Facebook. As part of promoting Project Humanities, they went around campus and asked people about these values, “How important is respect?” or “How have you seen compassion being demonstrated recently?”. What was interesting about that is it really did bring people, who are not necessarily in humanities as a major, into the space of the project to see how things work behind the scene and it gave high schoolers an opportunity to work in a college environment (some were paid and others unpaid), but what they got was exposure to at least one organization within ASU, which also involved some mentoring by graduate students and our small staff. After their internship, some of the students have actually returned and told others. In fact, 60 high school students showed up to one of our programs that took place in the Mesa Arts Center. So that’s one way we’ve impacted. Another way we measure our impact is we’ve gotten so many collaborators and partners who come to us saying, “We’d love to do something with Project Humanities”. The more people see and know what you are doing, the more likely they are to participate. We have lots of collaborations within ASU and representation on our Steering Committee from our four ASU campuses. You can come to one of our programs and see an inner generation mixture and a multi-ethnic group mixture, but you also see groups who come from different spectrums in terms of interest and also expertise—business, healthcare, science and etcetera.

In February, we were recognized as the inaugural Key of Excellence Award recipients by Phi Beta Kappa; that was huge. It was a national campaign to promote liberal arts and science. As the first recipient of that award, they looked at Project Humanities and said your model of what we’re trying to do in terms of engaging different audiences and disciplines, and the excitement that is liberal arts and sciences. The East Valley National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also recognized me as a recipient for the Roy Wilkins Community Service award and specifically in my naming they cited, “the excellent work with Project Humanities”. I look at all of those things when we talk about impact. Not just how many people come to the programs, but also the feedback they give us both formally and informally.

Has there been anyone against what you are doing or faced any “haters”?

As the African-American faculty member who is leading the effort, I have had some people say early on, “Oh you’re bringing so many people of color through, particularly woman, so is now Project Humanities all about women and people of color?” which I found offensive given that fact some of our programs have nothing to do with people of color. When we have something called storytelling or we see a film about childhood, that has nothing to do with black women.

We’ve had a couple of programs where somebody had an issue with an aspect of it, but it wasn’t with any of our programming. This is feedback we are happy to accept because we are still a work-in-progress. People are waiting on what we are going to do next in a good way and I think that when you’re focused on what’s ahead then you can’t really think about the haters cause as Taylor Swift reminds us: “the haters are gonna hate and the players are going to play, so we have to shake it off” and continue to learn and grow.

What has been a major challenge for the group?

Funding. I think if we were in the sciences it would be easy for people to come to us and want to give us a lot of funds and resources. But we’re not sciences, even though we have conversation with sciences. I think it really speaks to the ways in which humanities and arts are still relevantly unfunded. The public at large still thinks science, engineering and math are really more important. Many think if you take humanities and arts away life will still go on, and we would say it’s like taking away the air we breathe. We take for granted the air we breathe until we start suffocating or until we are asked to focus on it.

Why do you believe there has to be a Project Humanities?

We are still in a moment where people are questioning "What is humanities?" and "How do they matter?". I don’t think we’ve made so much progress that we can stop. There are so many conversations Project Humanities can and has facilitated. I teach a class on the N-word and I’ve seen how the topic has resonated beyond Arizona. I get calls and invitations from all over the place. That’s what I was doing in Chicago at Oak Park Library—helping them launch their partnership program of Humanity 101 through that lecture “Straight Talk about the N-Word”. So, the more I see, the more I see the needs of what needs to be done, and what I see is people are more appreciative that we are having conversations that are sometimes around scholarly and sometimes around what people bring to the table. I see a need for that; others see a need for that, and the invitations and collaborators we have received also see a need because people aren't really talking about these topics.

What is Humanity 101? Project Humanities raised the question of “Are we losing our humanity?”, at the National Press Club in [Washington] D.C. What emerged from that was a real enthusiasm about a topic that moved beyond what you studied and majored in, but rather how do we demonstrate our fundamental humanities? From that conversation we created this notion of Humanity 101 as a tool box. These seven principles are quite fundamental to any success because every success is about collaboration and a relationship. Nobody has achieved anything by him or herself. We launched it last spring and are continuing it because we really want to create a movement locally and beyond.


Reach the writer at gvazque3@asu.edu and via Twitter @iamgisellevr.

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.