As the spring semester is coming to an end, Fairfield University Student Association (FUSA) is launching the Celebration of Unity Series, a compilation of events organized by the organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee to highlight Fairfield University’s past, present and future.

As described in the promotional materials distributed to students, the month-long event series aims to make “students come together to promote social justice and DEI initiatives, not just on Fairfield’s campus, but also within the greater community.”

On April 3, FUSA received Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, a black female priest, daughter of  Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and civil rights activist at the Dogwood Room for a student-led panel under the topic of “United in Activism.” 

The panel started with a direct question from sophomore panelist Grace Lannigan, who asked the reverend about how she has received pushback throughout her career because of her diverse identity and her message of love and inclusivity.

“I think it has been a reality all of my life. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, so [I was] already a Black person that was considered maybe a third or fourth-class citizen in a society that was very patriarchal. So, from the very beginning there was pushback for being an outspoken pain-in-the-butt Black woman,” explained Rev. Tutu as she added more details on her experience exercising her degree in economy and people “not believing I was an economist.”

On her challenges to becoming a priest, Rev. Tutu illustrated how she had to deal with breaking the stereotype of a white, male priest; “You know, our churches are not known to be places that are very welcoming of women’s leadership.” 

“To hear some of the reasons people would give on to why women shouldn’t be priests; my favorite was that men in the congregation would not be able to concentrate on the service if a women was in the altar because their mind would be going to other things,” said Tutu, which elicited some laughs from the audience. 

She quickly criticized the idea by explaining that the opposite, women distracted by men in the altar, has not been an accurate representation and thus, men being distracted by women in the altar is not a valid excuse for prohibiting women from their spiritual calling.

She also confronted those who are skeptical of Tutu’s work as a Black female priest and even give their unsolicited opinions about the priest’ type of clerical clothing, specifically her asymmetrical clerical top. To that, she responded by establishing that “God called me as I am, a Black woman who loves fashion, and so clearly, God called me to be a priest; God didn’t call me to be a white man in a black shirt.”

In response to a question asked by another panelist, Rev. Tutu described her work of facilitating dialogue through a commitment of truth and reconciliation as a mechanism to work with groups in conflicts.

“I always preface the work I do with, ‘I come out of a place where conflict was the order of the day,’ and the divisions that insisted between Black and white South Africans appeared to be so vast that people said that there was going to be a civil war in South Africa – that there was no way out of apartheid apart from violence,” explained Rev. Tutu while talking to the audience on how coming out from the apartheid experience has shaped how to approach conflict resolution.

She also addressed the issue of recognizing the racial and ethnic differences between people by establishing that there has to be a space to recognize one another from the beginning of the conversation. 

In her case, she delineated that her conversations start by stating “I am not saying we are all the same,” which knocks down the idea that people from opposite sides have to check their identities at the door and thus, she tries to promotes honest conversations where all parties go to the table with their own stories.

When asked how she manages the hardship produced by being an African woman who is also a priest, she brought the example of how Black women are often targeted with the adjective of “angry Black woman.”

“I would often say to people I recognize that one of the ways that society silences us as Black women is to say ‘you are that angry Black woman;’ so you don’t want to be the angry Black woman. So I was like ‘you know what? I’m going to start by introducing myself by saying I am Naomi ‘Angry Black Woman’ Tutu’, so that we get that out of the way,” exclaimed Rev. Tutu as the audience erupted in laughter. 

However, Tutu also described how there have been times in which she has to examine whether it is worth fighting the stereotypes that are imposed on her and all the women who look like her. She went further by stating that sometimes she engages in political and cultural fights knowing she will not be successful, but does it so “that the person coming after me will have a head start because I fought to a certain point.”

“We also have to recognize that our own mental and spiritual health is not meant to be nailed on the cross. I often tell people ‘Jesus already did that, I’m not about to,’” said Tutu as she encouraged the student audience to create a balance between their activism and their personal health. “So I say all that because there are times when the pushback is such that I’m not up to fighting it, that I have to give myself the grace, that I need to take care of me in this space and this particular time, that i don’t need to be the 24/7 warrior.”

During the conversation, one of the student panelists asked the reverend to use her experience of living and visiting many countries to describe some examples in which systemic inequalities are made universal. She quickly went to express that the issues of gender bias and sexism are prevalent in all societies. Additionally, she attested that while racism might look different in different countries, the “anti-Black” sentiment of racism is found everywhere; the main difference being who is considered to be the “exceptional” racial class. 

To those students who are thinking of serving as a bridge between people, Rev. Tutu shared three important points: make sure you are doing the work of social justice and that whatever you are doing, you do it with passion; find the community who will help you remember who you are, why are you doing what you are doing, and a community that will remind you of self-care; and finally, she encouraged the attendees to be ready for those days where it feels too much.

Rev. Naomi Tutu continued her day at Fairfield University with a visit to the Dolan School of Business Event Hall for a special participation of the Quick Center’s Open Vision’s Forum with a lecture focused on “Striving for Justice: Searching for Common Ground.”

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