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Road to reconciliation

Human rights activist Nontombi Naomi Tutu on how we can heal and be healed

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Ask Nontombi Naomi Tutu what she's working on currently, and she laughs and says, "Raising my kids." Amid all the activities to which the 49-year-old human rights activist is committed — taking groups to South Africa, facilitating women's retreats through her Sister Sojourner organization, co-writing a book — being mother of three actually speaks loudest to her professional mission of helping others build stronger, healthier personal relationships.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond and Nomalizo Leah Tutu, was born in South Africa, and continues to divide her time between the United States and her homeland. A former university instructor, Tutu has acted as coordinator for Fisk University's Race Relations Institute in Nashville, Tenn., and also has developed programs on race and gender for the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. She routinely teaches and speaks on topics such as human dignity, racism and gender-based violence, as well as the importance of building relationships, internationally and within the walls of one's home.

This trip through Colorado to speak at CSU-Pueblo isn't her first; Tutu sits on the board of the Arvada-based PeaceJam international youth movement, representing her father, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

The Independent spoke with Tutu from her home in Nashville.

Indy: You're going to be bringing your message [about how we can move through fear in order to speak and hear truths] to CSU-Pueblo here ... I've heard you say you like coming to college campuses because students really seem to want a new way of "doing relationships" in the world.

NT: Well, I say that because I've worked with so many different people, and so often I find that when working with people from so-called developed countries, when they think about working in so-called developing countries or in poorer communities, that there's a sense of bringing expertise — that we are the givers and you are the receivers.

I've found that young people today are looking to go and work to give what they can give, but also with the knowledge that they are receiving something, and that they are, in fact, building relationships. They are learning as they are teaching, and they are receiving as they are giving, which I think is the healthy way of being in the world.

Indy: And that really ties into — I was looking at some information about your [upcoming] book, I Don't Think of You as Black — a larger issue of having meaningful conversations. How important is communication?

NT: Oh! I don't think I can overstate the importance of communication. ... I Don't Think of You as Black, for me, was a huge learning experience, because when my friend Rose [Bator, co-author] made that statement, I had heard that statement many times in my life, that kind of statement, that "You're not like other black people." ...

For me, that statement in the past had been almost a deal-breaker. If you're a person that says that kind of thing, then I do not want to be in conversation with you. To stop, and to say, "What do you mean when you say that?" and to find out that it meant something very different, what she thought she was saying and what I was hearing were two very different things ... [sometimes] we're so sure that we know what the other person is saying, that we close ourselves off or judge another person or decide what type of relationship we are going to have based on one comment.

Indy: One of the other interesting comments I've heard you say is in regard to intimate violence being the starting place for all violence. In some ways, some of all of that comes down to communication and positive conversations between people, too.

NT: Are you familiar with [author and activist] Riane Eisler's work? Because I got involved with SAIV [the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence] through having read The Chalice & the Blade, and listening to what she was saying about how we choose to deal with one another ... that [violence] is a cyclical kind of thing, that there's a learning and reinforcing and relearning.

I had come at it from the opposite direction, where I had said, "I have come up in a system that is based on violence, and that then, because anybody who's opposed to apartheid is responded to in violence, that we have learned that violence." People in South Africa have come to believe that violence is the way to deal with anything, with any type of conflict.

When I read [Eisler's] work and was very much aware that South Africa has a very high level of intimate violence across racial groups, I had assumed it was because of our violent society. But then [I] started thinking, it makes more sense that you start learning in the home as a child, what you see as a child, rather than what you see in your surroundings.

All of South African society cultures, both black and white, are very patriarchal, you know. The idea that man owns his family, almost, is one that goes across the different cultures in South Africa. ...

And so if we are raising children who are seeing violence against their mothers by their fathers or who are experiencing violence themselves, who are abused themselves, that becomes their reality of the world and that becomes how they understand relationships.

Indy: How do you change that?

NT: ... Start thinking about how we interact with our children from a very early age, you know, from the very beginning, when we think they're not taking it in, when we think they're not aware of the language or the anger. ...

My son is in a school where they have a wonderful policy about bullying, and then he came home absolutely upset because a teacher had been yelling at and embarrassing another child in front of the class. And so, you know, he's saying, "They tell us we can't do this, and that when we see bullying we need to do something, but ... I didn't feel safe to say that to the teacher."

I think that very often we set up these wonderful things for young people, that we say that we're teaching them, and then we don't model it. And I know that we all have — I'm the mother of three, for heaven's sake — I know that we all have those times. When I say to my kids, "I don't want to talk to you. Don't come near me. I'm closing my door." And I just need that space. And we all get angry, we all get upset, but I think an awareness of how we deal with that is something we all could benefit from.

kakens@csindy.com

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