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How Project Humanities Is Creating Conversations About Social Justice

Neal Lester (center) during a community conversation held before the age of COVID-19.
Neal Lester (center) during a community conversation held before the age of COVID-19.
Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

It’s been more than five months since COVID-19 prompted closures aimed at keeping people safe — and concerns about how the pandemic would exacerbate existing inequalities in contemporary life. At the time, organizers for an ASU initiative called Project Humanities were planning future events, thinking about ways they could pivot to reflect changing conditions on the ground. Typically, their events bring people together for conversations about key issues affecting diverse communities.

“We knew we wanted to try something different,” says Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities. “We were all going through something we’d never been through before, but we knew we didn’t want to talk only about COVID-19.” It wasn’t long before the nation’s attention turned to police brutality, and protesters took to the streets to call for justice for Brionna Taylor, George Floyd, Dion Johnson, and others. “We knew that whatever we did had to connect to racial justice,” Lester recalls.

So far, it’s taken the form of podcasts, including an episode on defunding the police led by activist Angela Davis. “We really wanted to tease out what that means,” explains Lester. “This isn’t us advocating; this is us reflecting on what we read, hear, and witness in our circles.” Future podcasts will address additional topics, from gender binarism to anti-speciesism.

ASU alumna Fatimah Halim speaks at a Project Humanities event honoring late poet Ntozake Shange.
ASU alumna Fatimah Halim speaks at a Project Humanities event honoring late poet Ntozake Shange.
Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

They’ll do other virtual events in coming months, as well. Next up is a discussion called White Women Dismantling White Supremacy, which they’re presenting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, August 27, in partnership with a nonprofit called World Without Hate. “People are talking about white supremacy now in ways they wouldn’t before,” Lester says. “White women are asking what they can do, and looking for ways to hold each other accountable.”

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Next month, they’ll explore the relationship between capitalism and racism, with a conversation that addresses who labors, who gets exploited, and who reaps the rewards. It’s a topic at the heart of pandemic life. “People are asking whether schools and businesses should reopen at the risk of people dying,” he says. “Part of capitalism is who is making the most at the expense of people on the front lines.”

There’s a robust lineup of additional events, on topics ranging from co-parenting to environmental justice and indigenous communities. For Vital Voices: The Uses of Anger, which happens on September 29, Project Humanities is inviting community members to “bring a poem, passage, visual art, artifact, or story that connects them with anger.” The topic was inspired in part by white people questioning why rioting took place during recent protests.

“We wanted to be nimble enough to pivot to what people are talking about now,” Lester says of putting it all together. “These are hard conversations to have, but if people are really interested in dismantling social injustice, they have to happen.”

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