“In a time of flood, the wide build bridges and the foolish build walls,” human rights activist and international scholar Nontombi Naomi Tutu said in the opening to her Walden plenary address in Minneapolis. The proverb finds its roots in her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, where she saw the walls literally built to separate “white” from “black.”
“I came to see the truth of proverbs,” she explained. “What you do for or against another you are really doing to yourself.” She stressed that although actions are the building blocks of positive social change, words should not be ignored. “We minimize the impact of words at our own peril. Recognize the call to act and speak for change,” she emphasized.
Walden met with Tutu to learn more about her childhood in South Africa, her international education, and what she says is a universal responsibility: “to do what we can with the gifts we are given to make the world a better place.”
YOU GREW UP IN APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA AS THE THIRD CHILD OF ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU AND NOMALIZO LEAH TUTU. WAS THERE A “LIGHT BULB” MOMENT IN YOUR CHILDHOOD THAT LED YOU TO BECOME THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST YOU ARE TODAY?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: It was a multitude of moments. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, I experienced the impact of discrimination in different ways. Even as a child, you know that it’s wrong. My parents introduced me to people around the world who were doing amazing things. When my father was the chaplain for the University of Fort Hare [in South Africa], I listened to the students discuss politics—even when that meant they were expelled or arrested. Later, I met people who were part of the anti-apartheid movement in England. They could have carried on with their daily lives and never paid any attention to what was going on in South Africa and Latin America, but they refused to do so. They recognized that we all have dreams, hopes, and fears as human beings. These experiences brought me to believe that we all have a responsibility to do what we can with the gifts we are given to make the world a better place.
YOU WERE EDUCATED IN SWAZILAND, THE U.S., AND ENGLAND. HOW DID THE INTERNATIONAL NATURE OF YOUR EDUCATION EXPOSE YOU TO DIFFERENT VIEWS?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: By living in different places and being exposed to different worldviews, it became harder for me to say that the way I do something is the right way or is the only way—or works best for others. Ultimately, the broader our experiences are, the more different our worldviews and experiences, the greater our choice and our opportunities.
YOU LAUNCHED YOUR PUBLIC SPEAKING CAREER AS A STUDENT AT BEREA COLLEGE IN KENTUCKY IN THE 1970s. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR FUTURE CAREER?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: I was terrified to speak. I still get scared when I speak, but when I first started speaking, I felt that there was a great responsibility to tell people about South Africa and its struggles. It was a slow process. What I finally came to realize is that I had to use what I had: my own stories. Once I did that, I discovered I love public speaking.
HOW DID YOUR PUBLIC SPEAKING CAREER LEND ITSELF TO EFFECTING REAL CHANGE?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: At Berea, I did a lot of speaking on campus to student groups and organizations to make people aware of what was going on in South Africa and encourage them to actively oppose apartheid. I encouraged my fellow students to connect with students who were refugees in southern African countries. It was the start of the Tutu Southern African Refugee Fund I founded. What began with speaking to people grew into raising funds and then being able to help give scholarships to South African students in African countries.
WHY HAVE YOU MADE IT YOUR LIFE’S WORK TO ERADICATE RACIAL OPPRESSION?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: I always tell people that my two pet areas are racism and gender activism. For me, racism has impacted my life from the day I was born. We all lose because of race-based oppression. Just as we all lose because of oppression based on gender; any type of oppression limits people’s abilities to reach their potential, and, in turn, it limits all of our opportunities.
WHY DON’T YOU TALK ABOUT A “COLORBLIND” SOCIETY?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: It amazes me why we would be talking about a colorblind society when we love contrasting and matching our colors. In any other sphere of our lives, differences are important; we need to be able to understand and appreciate the differences. Consider an orchestra, about how important the different instruments are, how rich it is when it’s the piano, the violins, the drums, the violas, the cellos. I believe in the gift of our differences.
YOU LEAD WORKSHOPS FOR GROUPS DEALING WITH DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONFLICT. HOW CAN OUR ALUMNI USE THOSE WORKSHOPS AS A TEMPLATE IN THEIR OWN COMMUNITIES?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: The workshops are based on the model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa—that truth is the path to healing. The workshops I lead are designed to train people who are skilled to continue doing the work. First, I address attendees’ discomfort and fear about being in these conversations. Then, I ask how they can offer a safe space for other people in the community to have these kinds of conversations.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE A HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: For me, being a human being means you have to be a human rights activist. Remember that those who went before us made sacrifices, struggled, and changed things to try to make the world better. We have a responsibility to carry on their work. I have a responsibility to all those who went before me and to those who come after me. Just as I was gifted by those who struggled for the end of apartheid before I was ever born, I am responsible to gift those who come after me to a slightly better world than the one I received.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OUR ALUMNI TO FURTHER THEIR OWN MISSIONS?
Nontombi Naomi Tutu: You have to have a deep passion for what you are doing. Know that whatever it is that you do, your work has an impact in making the world a more just place. You also need to have a community of people who are working in similar ways who will sustain you when things look hopeless.
Watch videos of past academic residency plenary speakers.