Event Recap

A Compelling Conversation with Rev. Naomi Tutu

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

by Professor Caroline Kautsire

The room bustled with energy. She walked in with infectious energy to a room of curious hearts, hungry for insights from a remarkable speaker. When you take one look at her face, you see the memory of a legend, you see a legacy, and her words are living proof of a mission passed on to make a difference to the people assembled in room A-300 at Bunker Hill Community College.

On February 1st, 2024, Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu graced us with her presence in an interview with Associate Vice President, Chief Equity and Compliance Officer Nahomi Carlisle. This interview had liberation in it. You came out feeling better, changed, lighter. It was Promethean fire.

When asked to describe herself, Rev. Tutu went straight to her core identity as a black South African woman who grew up under apartheid. What is apartheid? you might ask. The reverend defined it as the system of government that separated people according to race. And this notion of people being kept apart is the thing that colored Rev. Tutu’s life with the purpose to fight against this system of separation. While many people pronounce apartheid with pleasant phonetics, Rev. Tutu takes a step back, pointing out how the sound of the word itself announces its purpose to keep people apart.

The word “apartheid” reveals itself when heard—and if broken up, it spells out two words: “apart” and “hate.” The Rev. explained that if you keep people apart, it is easy to teach people to hate one another. When hate is the basis of our lives, we lose our humanity. And this system is what propelled Rev. Tutu to bring people to difficult conversations about how we have been taught to hate. This injustice fires up the Reverend to fight against systems like apartheid so that we will build communities of diversity and justice for tomorrow.

Though we now live in a world that is “post-apartheid,” we continue to suffer in the remnants of it in places far from South Africa. The past constantly haunts the present. So, when asked how the Reverend remains positive even with this ongoing battle, she shared a journey of someone who hasn’t always been positive. Indeed, the hatred and division affected her. However, the power of community is what saved her from sinking into the depth of a dark perception. She shared that the community she was raised in (with her grandmother at the center of it), taught her that the images we see of God are from people’s interpretations. This meant she needed to understand her own identity in her own terms, not through other people’s perceptions of her. She also learned early in life that the painful things we see today are not the end of the story. We must realize that we are people who fight for better days and the battle is there for all of us to fight.

Reverend Tutu’s community kept reminding her that apartheid may have a bad system, but we can still believe in our own worth. Simply put, she advises us to surround ourselves with people who remind us of how great our stories are. We must surround ourselves with people who remind us that justice is the final story for all of us. 

As I mentioned before, looking at Rev. Naomi Tutu calls up the memory of her father, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked to share what her father was like, she shared some key things that make you realize how much he honored the sacred power of humanity. Firstly, she mentioned how, when the Bishop was sickly, people thought he would die sooner than later. But this prevailing idea did not defeat the Bishop. Instead, he fought it and found a calling to live his life fully.  He believed that every day is a gift. The Bishop led a life that encouraged people to embrace their experiences of different things and people. Secondly, he believed that we are built for community; to be fully human means to be in relationship with other human beings. We must always look for ways to be in relationships—even with those who are opposed to us. 

Of course, there were many who were opposed to the Bishop, and even though his family never understood why he spoke to those who tried to demonize him, his response was that those people who despised him were still his brothers and sisters. We will never get change by talking only to those who agree with us. We get change by talking to those who don’t agree with us.

The reverend also shared that her father enjoyed making fun of himself during difficult times. His closeness to the Dalai Lama was endearing. Their fun made the Reverend recognize that many people who are activists, those who strive for justice, have a sense of joy that oppression cannot take away—a joy that reflects an internal sense of God’s world and being able to have fun in the weirdest situations. The Dalai Lama and the Bishop also wrote a book called The Book of Joy. The book helps people recognize the humanity that exists in everyone. It highlights the truth that our pathways to the truth of God can be very different. Our struggle to figure out God is not a problem for God, but it can be a problem for people who try to put God in tiny boxes that please them. The Reverend asked: if God created this diverse world, then how can there only be one path? Whatever the case, the relationship between the Bishop and the Dalai Lama is based on complete honesty and love for one another—for humanity.

Again, in A-300, a room bustling with so many young people seeking insight and knowledge, the Rev was asked about her own awareness of the career that chose her. Did she see this calling coming? Did she know this would be her fate? Her immediate response was that she knew she was not going to be a priest. She never imagined herself as someone who would have any kind of stage.

Her parents said they were “born activists”—no matter how big or small the nature of the task was, so activism was something she knew she would pursue. As a teenager and constant troublemaker in school, she knew she would always be on the outside, someone “rocking the boat” instead of building communities. She decided to live her life under her own terms, even though many would assume she was copying her father’s path. Rev. Tutu realized that her insecurities at a young age fell off when she started to understand God’s intention for creating her—embracing a growth mindset that is open to a transformative life.

Finally, many of us are looking for ways to shape the future, so when Rev. Tutu was asked how we can help shape the future, she emphasized that the actions we take on a daily basis speak to activism. How we interact with others is activism. How we respond to people who try to diminish us is activism. She gave Nelson Mandela as an example. Prison guards often describe how Mandela always carried himself with dignity. In other words, when a system says you are lesser, you can carry yourself as someone who recognizes your full humanity. Therefore, every day is an opportunity to be an activist—every one of our responses to injustice can change the world. 

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