Do The Work: Dr. Neal Lester bestowed 2019 Paradise Valley diversity award

Dr. Neal Lester displays the 2019 Town of Paradise Valley Diversity Champion Award presented to him by The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i of Paradise Valley. (Photo credit: Hessam Rahimian)

Do. The. Work.

It was that idea conveyed by Dr. Neal Lester during a celebration honoring the sacrifice and service by those who made the dream of racial equality a perception of reality in the United States of America.

Countless deplorable acts against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his family, his followers and his perspective did not stop the man whose legacy is honored and observed by all American communities on the third Monday of January.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only National Day of Service named after an American civil rights pioneer and the namesake of an award bestowed upon Dr. Lester, an Arizona State University professor.

A view of the crowd gathered for the 21st annual Town of Paradise Valley Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration held at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. (Photo credit: Hessam Rahimian_

The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i of Paradise Valley presented Dr. Lester with its 2019 Diversity Champion Award Monday, Jan. 21, honoring his dedication to teaching, lecturing, researching and publishing in the areas of African American literature and cultural studies.

Dr. Lester has been a professor at ASU since 1997 and is credited with providing a more robust humanities focus to the state university campus. A longtime educator, Dr. Lester started his teaching career at the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo.

Today, Dr. Lester is a foundation professor of English and is the founding director of Project Humanities, which is an award-winning program ultimately designed to bring people together to discuss topics surrounding the idea of social justice.

In all, Dr. Lester has received 50 honors and awards — members of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i report — including efforts resulting in public scholarships, professional service programs receiving local, national and international acclaim.

Dr. Lester, at left, and Paradise Valley Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner. (Photo credit: Hessam Rahimian)

Diversity and inclusion

Dr. Lester began his remarks prior to his award endowment with a litany of current events — with their headlines read aloud — meant to illustrate the plight of those of color and those who identify with a specific gender or sexual proclivity.

Dr. Lester says with all the good things felt inside Paradise Valley Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive, the stark contrast of reality is always waiting outside the warm embrace of acceptance.

Above are winners of the annual essay contest offered by The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i of Paradise Valley. (Photo credit: Hessam Rahimian)

“I wish we could harness what we just experienced, so I don’t have to do anything,” he said pointing out the award offered is for those who participate in Project Humanities. “I am truly excited about this honor, but because of the work we are doing as a community. I would love to harness all the good stuff, but then I have to walk out of here into reality.”

From that comment, Dr. Lester offered headline after headline of actions he perceived to be void of humanity as those headlines spoke to the actions of:

  • Hate crimes against those who identify as members of the LGBT community; and
  • Reported sex and hate crimes.

“Despite all the goodness we are experiencing in this very moment, are we losing our humanity?” he asked of the crowd. “And, if we are, how do we get it back?”

Dr. Lester says this is something he often contemplates, but it wasn’t until a friend of his poised a response that stuck with him to that question. It was, “well, when did we ever have it?”

Dr. Lester seemed to not offer an answer during his speech.

The American Civil Rights Act of 1964 is widely considered landmark civil rights legislation and U.S. labor law, which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations based solely on race.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was created to eliminate discrimination, allowing housing choices for all Americans despite, among other things, race, color, religious preference or gender. The civil rights-era act established the Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funnels grant dollars for outreach efforts to cities across the nation.

“This is something I ask myself a lot. I will admit, I am tired of being overwhelmed,” Dr. Lester said pointing out the 21st Century onslaught of data, screen time and opinion.

“Humans have always had to navigate both the best and worst of times at the same time. The time is always right to do the right thing. Largely I find our society is more interested in tranquility than anything else. And, I know so many of those headlines are not what humanity is but they are sexy.”

But Dr. Lester says he believes that oftentimes once humans know better — they will do better.

“We do have evidence of people doing better but it is not that sexy,” he said of the 21st Century news cycle. “Then I wonder about compassion fatigue. We have never been more appalled by the horrors of the world then we are now and in the face of these horrors, we need to ask: Are we losing our humanity?”

Dr. Lester says one should not just settle for happiness — or the pursuit of it — but rather focus on good work that makes the world around you better.

“It is looking good before you are doing good,” he said of his perspective. “At the core of any and all social justice work is humanity — both yours and mine.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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