Caring takes many forms. Here’s what I’ve learned

Neal Lester: I found that I need to give to something that feeds my spirit and soul.

ASU Foundation
4 min readDec 30, 2020
Neal Lester: Foundation Professor of English, founding director of Project Humanities

My Story

I am a Georgia native, so I grew up in the Deep South. I am an only child who was raised primarily by my grandmother. My grandmother gave me what I have come to recognize as my first lessons in giving and caring.

My background involves the ways in which the church I grew up in — the Paradise African Methodist Episcopal Church — was also a teacher and a guide not just in the religious faith sense — it was also a social center. It’s where tutoring took place, it’s where education and political galvanizing took place. It was a physical setting where all of these synergies took place, and giving was just one part of that.

Whether I tutored on the weekends as a high school student in my church, or worked at a day camp during the summer, there was always this sense that whatever was happening in the world, I was a part of that and there were ways that I could contribute.

As a child, I saw my grandmother always soliciting coins from neighbors, family and friends as a church fundraiser. The little booklets were called “gleaners”; they had slots that you could stick coins in. You would fill gleaners with, say, 10 dollars’ worth of quarters. Witnessing my grandmother fill booklets and booklets of gleaners for the choir or the usher board gave me a sense that the giving didn’t have to be big — the giving just had to happen.

Why I Give

When I became an administrator, a department chair, here at Arizona State University, I recognized that it is fine to give my time and my talent, but it is also important to give whatever treasures I have. It is hard for me to engage other people in the process of giving if I don’t participate myself. It is an opportunity to lead by example.

All that opened me up to how important it is to give, but also that people give in very different ways. People have different capacity levels. They have different things that they want to support.

That has played out in multiple ways since I began serving as director of this initiative called Project Humanities.

“I found that I need to give to something that feeds my spirit and soul, not necessarily in a religious way, but it has to be something more than just an intellectual exercise,” says Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities.

What I Care About

Some of my first gifts were to Project Humanities.

(Project Humanities is an ASU initiative, directed by Lester, that brings individuals and communities together to discuss the core values of the humanities in an effort to bridge differences and build understanding through talking, listening and connecting. Project Humanities programs include Humanity 101; Service Saturdays, an outreach to people experiencing homelessness; Hacks for Humanity: Hacking for the Social Good; a Parenting initiative; and more.)

Every day, I pay attention and I try to live by these principles that we call Humanity 101.

  • compassion
  • empathy
  • forgiveness
  • integrity
  • kindness
  • respect
  • self-reflection

These values have been one of the most valuable ways of extending and keeping a network of giving to Project Humanities, whether that has been corporate giving from State Farm, Amazon or Silicon Valley Bank to our annual Hacks for Humanity; or the Come Rain or Shine Foundation to our new Parenting Initiative or to our growing homeless outreach.

I found that I need to give to something that feeds my spirit and soul, not necessarily in a religious way, but it has to be something more than just an intellectual exercise.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to find a platform like Project Humanities that I can engage intellectually and critically and be satisfied spiritually.



ASU Foundation

ASU Foundation, one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits, raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University.