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Project Humanities: Talking, listening and connecting from a distance

ASU Professor Neal Lester says showing humanity to each other during crisis is crucial

Black man standing near balcony
March 27, 2020

These are most precarious times.

COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down. Almost everything we know has changed in a matter of weeks, including how we interact with others.

But does that mean we should unlearn what’s important, including how we show our humanity to each other at such a crucial time?

For answers, ASU Now turned to Neal A. Lester, the founding director of Arizona State University's Project Humanities and an ASU Foundation Professor of English.

Since 2011, the multiple award-winning initiative has been bringing together individuals and communities across Arizona — and beyond — to instill knowledge in and demonstrate the vitality of humanities study and research and humanist thought and public engagement. Now, they’re being challenged and invited to do this at a distance.

Lester talked to us about how Project Humanities is making the transition and how others can too.

Question: Because of COVID-19, we are all being forced right now to practice our everyday lives at a distance. In your case, Project Humanities had to temporarily stop Service Saturdays, your homeless outreach in downtown Phoenix. How did that impact you personally and what adjustments have you made? 

Answer: Everyone in leadership positions both inside and beyond the academy is being forced to make hard decisions on so many levels. My leadership of Project Humanities, especially in terms of our ambitious and impactful homeless outreach, is no exception. Indeed, it is painful to suspend this outreach when I know firsthand that the need is so great among those who constitute some of the most vulnerable in this crisis. I felt lost personally this past Saturday morning when the weather was great and my team of volunteers couldn’t be out doing this work. I can’t even shop for outreach items, another ritual I personally undertake after our distribution sessions. So, like so many of our outreach volunteers and other groups of volunteers engaging in various homeless outreach strategies, I am saddened that a valuable part of my community-building routine has been disrupted, and none of us have any idea how long it will take to get back to this important work.

Indeed, at a time when our homeless outreach has such great momentum in terms of increased number of volunteers and donations — a truck gifted to us from U-Haul for this effort, a new partnership with the Human Services Campus to use their gated parking lot for distribution, and Michigan State University Alumni Association planning their third annual Global Day of Service with us in April — suspending our homeless outreach was a very hard decision for me personally as the facilitator of this community-building and community-sustaining effort. The difficulty arose in part because we were there at the distribution site in downtown Phoenix with 25 volunteers exactly two weeks ago — then practicing the early rules of no touching, wearing gloves and having lots of hand sanitizer. Then, the rules changed suddenly, and it was now imperative for everyone’s safety and health that we follow the new protocol of “social distancing.” We understood that to protect each other, we had to protect and keep ourselves safe and well. We also had to think of our 150 to 200 clients who would have been lining up and unable to access hygiene best practices of handwashing and hand sanitizing to which the volunteers had access. So this decision was as much about them as about us. This suspension included all services — weekly Friday sorting, receiving clothing donations, and of course, the every-other-Saturday distribution. One of our most committed and enthusiastic volunteers posted on our Service Saturdays Facebook page asking if folks felt weird not being able to distribute this past Saturday.

Q: On my hikes, I’ve made it a point to say hello to people, smile or compliment them on their pets — anything to offer up some kind of daily kindness to strangers. How important are acts like these in such an uncertain period? 

A: I guess I have noticed smiles more willingly from strangers in my neighborhood on my own walks. Maybe folks are realizing more human connectedness in ways that we had not before because — to fall back on an old cliché — “we really are all in this together.” Despite differences in income, race, gender, ability, age, we are all susceptible to this virus and we are seeing now that anyone can have it and not necessarily know it until symptoms reveal. And although we are learning that some populations are clearly more vulnerable than others, in the larger sense, this virus — like death — is yet another a great equalizer (a la Francis Duggan’s poem “Death the Great Equalizer”) and bold reminder of our individual and collective mortality. Perhaps there really is a connection between the inevitability of death and demonstrations of our own humanity.

Still, I do worry about this outdoor activity personally when folks are violating “social distancing” protocol. I see stories and images of folks crowding hiking trails, we saw Miami beaches packed with spring breakers, and I still see folks clustered together walking. I know that the distance is not even absolute — 6 feet vs. 12 feet — and that the rules of what to do keep changing. First it was small gatherings of one size, then small gatherings of another size. I declined an invitation this past weekend to attend a small outdoor gathering allegedly of 10 because my understanding of the virus spread is that the more people together — of any size — the more likely the spread. Again, on my neighborhood daily walks, folk seem to be smiling and waving but I also see folks are moving to other sides of the street as “social distancing” — for me, a peculiar Jim Crow association of another moment in our American history of race relations. 

Q: What are some other things we can do to practice humanity at a distance? 

A: Before I answer that, let me say that I really see our Project Humanity hand graphic now through a very different lens as a result of this virus crisis and uncertainty. Our popular hand graphic images many individual silhouettes moving in a single direction but forming the shape of fingers on a hand. The visual is loosely based on Booker T. Washington’s complex message at the turn of the century and after emancipation in this “Atlanta Exposition Address:" “We can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” I like to focus on the operative word “can” which seems appropriate here in this global moment of crisis as well. Keeping ourselves healthy and safe will inevitably keep others healthy and safe; thus, again our hard decision to suspend our homeless outreach.

At the same time, I am witnessing incredible demonstrations of our “human ties” where folks are being supportive, more generous with their resources, and trying to talk, listen and connect even as we try to stave off panic and more anxiety. I see virtual live music concerts, virtual happy hours, and virtual church services. I see folks reading children’s books as bedtime stories, and I see folks making monetary donations to great causes.

Q: How have you virtually adapted some of your activities and events?

A: I am recognizing how “busy” I was and overbooked doing stuff that I probably shouldn’t have been committing to but feeling obligated. This mandated moment to pause underscores layers of my own privilege and allows me lots of time to self-reflect and to think more intentionally about what I choose to spend my time, talent and resources doing. It has also forced me to think about the lives of others and to exercise more patience with others who may be experiencing so much about which I know nothing. I am daily — almost hourly — witnessing horrific stories of suffering and loss at the same time I am witnessing stories of great personal sacrifice and caring.

In trying to continue our homeless outreach on the same level even with the abrupt changes in our own operations, Project Humanities is promoting the virtual Walk to End Homelessness sponsored in a couple of weeks by the Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix and letting our Project Humanities supporters know about the Amazon Wishlist for the Human Services Campus for emergency items during this time. The work continues for others more on the frontlines than we are and were. Supporting others still providing essential services feels useful.

While Project Humanities has had to suspend its homeless outreach and relegate our office operations to remote staffing, we also successfully navigated our first virtual public program last week. I was so excited that my small team moved forward with our “’Toxic’ Parenting Behaviors” event via Zoom. In this new program delivery format, there were so many moving parts to create and choreograph. I am pleased to report that our program was successful on many levels — attendance, engagement and content. Our team was pleasantly surprised and is now encouraged to do a couple more events virtually as the spring semester comes to an end. Aside from the actual research content of the program, what was most noted in participant feedback were comments like these that show appreciation that we are trying —even in these dire circumstances — to honor our commitment to bringing individuals and communities together to talk, listen and connect.

The idea of virtual public programming has been on our radar for a while and we have livestreamed programs on Facebook, but this opportunity makes us more hopeful that we may actually expand our impact and audience reach in the process of adapting to this “new normal” and the possibilities of virtual programming. We are keenly aware of the growing “digital divide” this crisis has further revealed even as we adjust to this momentary delivery format.

Q: It’s been reiterated to especially look out for our elderly neighbors. Beyond making sure they have all the necessities, what else would you suggest? 

A: Interesting that you ask this question as our very next program underwritten by the Come Rain or Shine Foundation is on aging and parenting. I spoke via phone this past Saturday with one of our Humanity 101 Founders, Professor Don Kelly, about joining our program as a panelist. He is 86 years old, a widower of three years with adult children, and home alone just out of the hospital, and nervously awaiting results of his COVID-19 test. He and I had planned to meet for coffee, but the world unexpectedly turned topsy-turvy and we both fell out of contact.

Professor Don Kelly and I had a long conversation catching up and he’s excited to be part of our program as he’s one of our loudest cheerleaders for Humanity 101. The subject of the next event in early April is right up his alley. Because our elders constitute one of the most vulnerable populations among us, I am glad to see certain stores opening for elder shopping at special hours. At the same time, I read accounts of elders not being able to get to stores at all or when they are able to get to stores, the essentials they need have been hoarded by nonelders. This crisis reminds me of what I say so often when I am addressing the sentiment behind Project Humanities’ six-year Humanity 101 Movement: “Are we losing our humanity?” My response is that we have always — as part of the human condition — had to reconcile what Charles Dickens termed “the best of times and the worst of times” at the same time. This time is no different. In fact, my writer friend, Jena Schwartz’s 2014 prose piece for our Humanity 101 eBook-in-progress offers this hopefulness in these uncertain times:

“The wringing of hands and the ringing of bells — both are true. Sometimes it washes over me, that life is what happens mostly between the two: neither disaster nor dream, but full and real, ordinary and complex, as simple as a good-morning kiss, a bike ride to town with an exuberant child, a moment in the sun alone, two giddy girls after a sleepover preparing for the grand finale, a second cup of coffee, a real-time experience of closing one door and watching another open. And just trusting that life intends to take care of us, so long as we take care of ourselves, and each other.”

When I posted this piece this morning, so many of my Facebook friends have “hearted” and shared it; reminding me, and I hope so many others, of our human ties during both the good times and the bad.

Top photo: Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, poses for a portrait on the balcony of the student pavilion on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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