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ASU professor earns Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity award

Through his workshops and lectures, Neal Lester is recognized for his efforts to unify communities

Dr. Neal Lester poses for a photo on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at ASU Preparatory Academy.

Dr. Neal Lester poses for a photo on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at ASU Preparatory Academy.

An Arizona State University English professor was recognized Monday at the City of Tempe’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award breakfast for taking humanities and diversity beyond conversation into action.

Neal A. Lester, founding director of Project Humanities, uses projects and classes to bring people together through community engagement. 

Especially in the current political climate “there are so many things that divide us,” Lester said.

Talking, listening and connecting are the tools that Lester used to encourage compassion, empathy, respect and integrity, but his work goes beyond talk.

Lester founded Project Humanities in 2010 when he was the dean of humanities at ASU. During this time, the nation was experiencing a recession and humanities classes were feeling strain.

He developed the Perils and Perks of Privilege workshop underneath the umbrella of Project Humanities to help workers empathize with one another and their communities.

The various workshops he conducts are open to the community. Lester has been invited to present within workplaces such as the Tempe Police Department and a conference among university police officials.

Lester co-facilitated the Perils and Perks of Privilege workshop for the Tempe Police Department with Yvette Johnson, the executive director of the Booker Wright Project, which focuses on developing diversity solutions without creating further divide.

The Perils and Perks of Privilege workshop discusses privilege and unconscious biases, however, he starts off with the similarities between people rather than the differences.

“One of the things that Dr. Lester and I strove to do was that people felt, not a sense of burden, but a sense of empowerment that they have some responsibility too,” Johnson said. “That’s privilege. We all have privilege, that means we all have some responsibility.”

A workshop on privilege and bias was presented at an executive training of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators called the Executive Development Institute last year. Michael Thompson, the ASU chief of police, said that he invited Dr. Lester to present at the conference after attending the workshop with the Tempe Police Department.

“I felt it was an important enough message to bring to other leaders at universities and colleges,” Thompson said.

Lester uses presentations and activities to make participants aware of privileges and preconceived notions they have. Thompson said that an activity he found to be very powerful was when Lester had all the participants line up and began a series of questions that either allowed the participants to step forward or to step backward.

The questions ranged from if a participant had more than 20 books in their home to if they grew up with an automobile. Thompson said that by the 10th or 12th question, the participants could look around and see how many people were ahead of them and behind them.

“You start realizing that these are things that you took for granted,” Thompson said. 

Karla Cesal, a graduate student at Grand Canyon University working towards a master’s of science in addiction counseling participated in one of Lester’s workshops.

“The workshops really do create this safe environment where we can talk and listen and connect without the fear of judgement,” Cesal said.

Cesal said that that Lester explains and provokes critical thinking, but the participants are in groups and come to their own conclusions about the topics. She said that he deserves this award.

“He has devoted his life to servant leadership and he has this level of altruism that I have never seen in another human being," Cesal said.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, Neal Lester's title was incorrect and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement's name was misinterpreted. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.

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