Neal Lester

Are we losing our humanity? It’s a question Dr. Neal Lester has asked himself before, especially when following the news. “Sometimes I get discouraged and disillusioned,” he said. “As a humanist, I try to make sense of the world, and some things I just can’t make sense of.”

Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, visited the library in early October to lead a workshop for library staff and guests from local organizations, including Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and the Oak Park Township. The topic was privilege—what it is, who has it, and what to do about it—and challenged participants to look at themselves first rather than point fingers elsewhere, even in the face of cruelty and violence in the news.

“How do we look inwardly to understand what’s going on around us?” Lester asked those gathered in the Main Library Veterans Room on October 9. “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but we can control how we treat each other.”

The workshop, called “Privilege: Separate as the Fingers, Yet One as the Hand,” invited collaboration and interaction among staff from different government agencies. It was designed to “rethink traditional diversity training and show we are multiple things at one time,” Lester said. “We all have privilege. Having privilege and acknowledging bias are not inherently bad things.”

Lester’s visit was a highlight in the library’s Humanity 101 series this fall. Originally developed by Project Humanities and now in its second year at the library, Humanity 101 brings diverse individuals and communities together to talk, listen, and connect. Learn more about Humanity 101.

Through discussion and group activities, Lester encouraged participants to examine their own unconscious biases, imagine the world through the eyes of others, and have “a critical conversation that’s not necessarily happening on Facebook.”

Activities included taking a closer look at the images and messages in children’s storybooks, and nudged participants to think beyond race. “When can we have a story where disability or difference isn’t the story?” he asked.

At the end of the workshop, Lester encouraged participants to take the Humanity 101 pledge and embrace the movement’s seven core values: integrity, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, respect, and self-reflection.

Teams of library staff and guests from local organizations collaborate in a Humanity 101 workshopNorb Teclaw, who taught physics for 30 years at Oak Park and River Forest High School and now leads the Institute for Science Education and Technology, said that he’s gone to a lot of diversity trainings over his career. “This is a good update,” he said. “It’s a modern update, and really welcomed. Every now and then you need an inoculation.”

Lynn Allen, who coordinates District 97’s Multicultural Education Department, also participated. Although she’s always thinking and talking about diversity in Oak Park’s elementary and middle schools, in everything from hiring new teachers to supporting transgender children at school, Allen said she was glad to participate.

“I like doing things like this,” she said. “I can see where my holes are, and take this learning to staff so they can be aware of issues and see how others are addressing diversity. We’re all on a spectrum of awareness. We all have a lot to continue to learn.”

Cynthia Landrum, the library’s Assistant Director for Public Services, said it’s this ripple effect of learning that she’s excited about. “We are learning with our community partners so that we can all serve the community of Oak Park and our surrounding neighbors that much better,” she said. “And our partners will take the learning back to their organizations and share what they've learned with their colleagues, and that's going to influence who knows how many people."

Lester said that his workshop title, “Separate as the Fingers, Yet One as the Hand,” borrows from a speech by Booker T. Washington and is meant to signify that movements are made up of diverse individuals.

“I personally believe that progress can work best when individuals come together toward some greater cause that is bigger than themselves individually,” he said. “Success is about collaboration, and there is no success without connecting with others on some level.”

To take the Humanity 101 pledge and learn more, visit humanities.asu.edu/humanity-101-pledge.