Neal Lester is pictured in his Project Humanities office in the
Discovery Center on the Tempe campus on Thursday, Feb.
13, 2015. Lester recently received the Invisible Heroes award
for his work in educating the community about prejudices,
stereotypes and biases and his work within the LGBTQ
community. (J. Bauer-Leffler/The State Press)
Combining research, classroom teachings and community involvement has allowed ASU English professor Neal Lester to rise above others in the humanities field and be presented with six awards in the last year alone.
His work as director of Project Humanities spans from research on the idea of hair in race and gender politics to teaching students and the community about the N-word, all while making time to present his knowledge in a connecting and honest way that brings people of all races, genders and economic situations together.
Lester has received awards from organizations as diverse as Phi Beta Kappa, the East Valley NAACP, Association of Departments of English, Invisible Heroes and Arizona Humanities, as well as a commendation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
“It has been a pretty robust year of recognition of what I've been trying to do and also what I think people are acknowledging as valuable work,” Lester said. “It has been both humbling and gratifying but it also means there are expectations that you continue do much more than what you have been doing."
Lester founded Project Humanities at ASU as a way to broaden people’s perspectives on issues and the organization has been a way for other organizations, such as the ASU Foundation, to get involved with humanity issues on and off campus.
John Skinner, ASU Foundation chief of staff, said the foundation started working with Lester almost two years ago because they were so impressed with Project Humanities and all of the good that can come through talking, listening and connecting.
“We started to work with Neal on how to build some philanthropic support,” Skinner said. “With Lester, we created a friends of project humanities programs and with promotional material that helps him advance his vision, his message with Humanity 101.”
That message centers on seven values: respect, kindness, integrity, empathy, forgiveness, compassion and self-reflection.
Skinner said Lester’s best quality is his charisma and his passion for what he teaches and believes in.
“Dr. Lester is a brilliant man. He’s an author. He’s a researcher. He’s a humanist,” he said.
Brenda Thomson, executive director for Arizona Humanities, said the spreading of the humanities across disciplines is important for not only teachers and scholars, but for all citizens.
People of all races, ages, genders and backgrounds attend Project Humanities events, Thomson said.
“One thing I’ve noticed over the years of going to these events is that you always come out of his programs meeting people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, having heard points of view you may not have heard and learning something about yourself in the process,” she said.
Lester is reaching out to students and showing them ways to use the humanities to learn from one another and not be in a bubble when it comes to education, Thomson said.
“He’s teaching kids more than to go to class and study,” she said. “He’s teaching them how to be successful citizens, how to be leaders in the community, but also how to be people who think critically about the things that are happening and not be siloed in a particular discipline.”
Hair and the N-Word
Lester has created two courses at ASU that he describes as “sexy courses,” due to the nature of the material being studied.
Lester’s research has been geared toward trying to find a space where everybody is not inhabiting and that led him to study head hair in texts and media, he said.
“I started looking at hair in text by women and then decided that there was enough there that we could talk about race and gender through something that is less divisive than trying to talk about it in a way that points fingers at people,” Lester said.
Learning early on in his study of hair he said he realized he didn’t have the privilege of talking about African American women’s hair so he began looking at literature by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Richard Wright and Nitozake Shange, where he always saw references to hair.
“What I kept thinking was that hair is so mundane that people don’t think there is a whole lot that can be teased out about a conversation about hair, pun intended,” he said. “I created a first-year seminar about that and I looked at the way hair had been used in folklore, popular culture and music, commercials to sort of point at that was a way of talking about race and gender in a way that seems more nuanced.”
Rather than looking at people, Lester said he looks at patterns in the media and asked if we are more accepting of straight hair than non-straight hair.
“I mean, there is a reason Beyonce looks more like Barbie than she did in Destiny’s Child and there is a reason Britney Spears and others have to have a diva fan in order to be sexy and glamorous,” he said.
The study of hair not only focuses on gender or sexual identity but also a myriad of topics spanning the humanities.
Lester’s research soon took him to the study of arguably the most controversial word in the English language, the N-word.
“The N-Word course came up because I was fascinated at the time, when then Sen. Obama was running for president, and I came across this Florida newspaper account of a middle school teacher who had written on the board, he didn’t say it, he wrote it on the board that Pres. Obama’s slogan of “Change” was an acronym, according to him of, 'Come Help a N-word Get Elected.'"
This led to Lester creating a course on the word and how in an allegedly integrated society there was still this proliferation of this word being tossed around, he said.
“It didn’t come as a result from looking at its proliferation in hip-hop, but rather from that moment of looking at that story,” Lester said. "I was also interested in whether there was a generational gap and why is it that people who are 30 and under somehow think they have taken this word back and have flipped it so it is more of a term of endearment than associated with a kind of historical violence and intimidation in American History.”
In order to learn about these issues, Lester decided to create a course to discuss it with students instead of going into isolation and researching on his own.
“What is clear to me is nobody is having a deep discussion about this word as a word unlike any other word in the English language,” he said. “It’s not like the B-word, the C-word, the F-word, it’s not about any of those kind of words that are associated with any kind of identity."
Through Lester’s research and work with Project Humanities, he is slowly creating a dialogue between people who may never have had the chance to engage each other in the issues surrounding society and the importance of society interactions continues to drive him, he said.
“You may not be able to change all of the evil in the world, but the way we treat each other is entirely up to us," he said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on follow @joey_hancock on Twitter.