An influential professor at Arizona State University since 1997, Neal Lester has been selected as the 2022 ASU Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Servant Leadership awardee, as a part of the university’s annual MLK Jr. celebration.

Lester is founder and director of ASU’s awarding winning Project Humanities initiative, which seeks to connect the university and local communities through “talking, listening and connecting.” He has previously been a professor of English at the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo, having received his BA in English at the State University of West Georgia, where he was valedictorian of his graduating class. He then become the first African American to receive a doctorate in English at Vanderbilt University.

Lester will be honored at ASU’S MLK Jr. celebration breakfast on Jan. 20, alongside servant-leadership awardee Silvana Salcido Esparza, student servant awardees Roicia Banks and Ivan Quintana and ASU staff awardee Marcelino Quiñonez.

Encouraging the continuation of King’s legacy, each year, ASU’s MLK Jr. committee selects both a servant and student servant leader who have made a meaningful difference in their community and in the lives of people around them. For the first time in its 37-year history, the committee, chaired by ASU vice president for cultural affairs Colleen Jennings Roggensack, has selected two ASU students to honor….

Among the student awardees is Roicia Banks. Having faced many hardships early on in life from being both a Black and Indigenous woman, to growing up in foster care and being adopted by her late Hopi mother, Banks is the definition of a strong and resilient servant leader.

“I have done so much at my age because I faced some of the hardest challenges early on in my life,” Banks said. “I had to figure out what abandonment was and then really try to work through my identity, and being biracial was super challenging. Since I had a lot of these challenges early on, by the time I graduated high school and went to college, I had a good foundation of who I was, and everything just flourished after that.”

Banks is a first-generation graduate, having earned a bachelor’s degree in both African and African American studies and political science at ASU. She then received her master’s in social work from University of Houston. This education and 10 years of experience as a social worker for state and tribal government inspired Banks to make a bigger impact.

“I was definitely an advocate and a fighter for my caseload, my children,” Banks said. “But I started to realize that I’m getting solutions and I’m providing solutions, and nobody wants them, or nobody cares to implement them. I realized (the foster care system) is just a functioning oiled machine, and nobody’s really interested in preventative measures. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

In 2018, Banks became owner and founder of Social Roots LLC, a business that focuses on the improvement of African American and Indigenous communities, that not only preserves families but ensures that both children and adults have the resources needed to prosper in a healthy environment and community…. Banks is extremely proud of both her African Ameri- can and Indigenous culture, and attributes much of her success to the teachings and lessons of her tribe and Hopi mother…..

Banks plans to continue her work at Social Roots LLC and is currently working toward her Master of Legal Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous legal law at ASU.

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