Tutu, Nontombi Naomi

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Nontombi Naomi Tutu


Educator, human rights activist

Being the child of a famous individual can be tough when one has talents and aspirations of one's own. The daughter of 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Tutu has in recent years emerged from her father's considerable shadow to gain recognition in her own right as a tireless fighter for human rights. She was given the name Nontombi—meaning "mother of girls"—by her grandmother. "I thought that that meant that I would only give birth to girls," Tutu was quoted as saying in a November 2004 Detroit Free Press article. "But when my son was born, I realized that it meant that I'd work with the young women of the world." Her grandmother's prescience has proven accurate. Naomi Tutu has spent her entire adult life advocating for the rights of women and people of color. An expert on race and gender relations, she has spread her human rights message to audiences across the United States and the world.

Nontombi Naomi Tutu, who generally goes by Naomi, was born in 1960 in Krugersdorp, South Africa, the fourth child and third daughter of Desmond and Leah Nomalizo Tutu. Like all of her siblings, Naomi received an international education. At age 6, she was sent from her home in Soweto to the Waterford KaMhlaba School, a boarding school located 1,000 miles away in Mbabane, Swaziland. The Waterford KaMhlaba School was one of eleven international United World Colleges, an educational movement that brings together students from all over the world based on merit, regardless of their ability to pay. Naomi also received portions of her early education in England, where her father spent much of his early career.

Inherited Mother's Determination

While it was her father who made headlines worldwide for his work on social justice, Naomi points to her mother as her greatest early influence. Leah Tutu had given up her teaching career to raise the family, but managed to remain engaged as a community activist and labor organizer while caring for four children and a famous husband. Leah played a prominent role in the formation of South Africa's first trade union for domestic workers in the 1980s. In the November 2004 Detroit Free Press article, Naomi recounted an example of her mother's strength and conviction. "I was in college when I found out my mom had been arrested for allegedly assaulting someone," she was quoted as saying. "She had confronted a white woman who had fired her domestic worker without notice. The woman slapped my mother and my mother fought back. The woman filed charges but was stunned when my mother filed countercharges."

After finishing her secondary education, Naomi continued her studies in the United States. She graduated from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where she received a bachelor's degree in Economics and French in 1983. She stayed in Kentucky for graduate school, earning a master's degree in International Economic Development from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Economic Development at the University of Kentucky.

After she received her master's degree, Tutu went to work for Equator Advisory Services, Ltd., a private consulting firm based in Hartford, Connecticut, specializing in economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. She also did consulting work on her own in South Africa, where she was particularly interested in educational and work opportunities for black women. Meanwhile, in the midst of her globetrotting lifestyle, Tutu found time to marry an American man, Corbin Seavers, in 1982. Her work in Africa was recognized by, among others, the Universal Orthodox College of Ogun State, Nigeria, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1985. That year, at age 24, Naomi founded the Tutu Foundation for Development and Relief, and served as its chairperson from 1985 to 1990. The Foundation provided scholarships to South African refugees in other African countries, helping them obtain skills to both sustain themselves in exile and find meaningful work upon their return to their homeland. Tutu went on to complete courses toward a PhD from the prestigious London School of Economics, but she was still working on her dissertation as of early 2006.

Naomi selected the writings for and wrote the introduction to the book The Words of Desmond Tutu, published by Newmarket Press in 1989. In her introduction, she touches on the difficulty in making a distinction between the Desmond Tutu who was her tata (father) and the Desmond Tutu who became an international symbol of the nonviolent struggle for a free South Africa. Having lived in both South Africa and the United States, and witnessing firsthand the contrast those two countries present for a person of color, Tutu has developed a unique perspective on race. "The major difference is that in the United States, when I run against prejudice, I can walk away from it," she was quoted as saying in a 1986 Maclean's magazine interview. "I can say that it's your loss if you're judging me by the color of my skin…. In South Africa, when you run up against prejudice, you can't walk away because it doesn't end with this person who is acting in that way. They can call in all the powers of the state to intervene on their side and you don't stand a chance as a black person." In the Maclean's interview, Tutu described the personal transformation that takes place as the plane approaches the airport in Johannesburg: The "free and easy" Naomi becomes "a black person—knowing the kind of humiliation and degradation that you face in South Africa if you are black."

Began Academic Career in the 1990s

Since 1990, Tutu's career has been three-fold: She has taught, she has administered programs focusing on race and gender relations, and she has guest lectured worldwide on those topics. From 1991 to 1993, she was a visiting professor of African-American Studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. She was a lecturer at the University of Connecticut from 1993 to 1996. She also taught African studies at Brevard College in North Carolina. In 1997, Tutu went to work for the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. There her work concentrated on issues of race, gender, and gender-based violence.

At a Glance …

Born Nontombi Naomi Tutu in 1960, in Krugersdorp, South Africa; married Corbin Seavers, 1982 (divorced); children: Mungi (daughter) and Mpilo (son). Education: Berea College, BA, economics and French, 1983; Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Economic Development, University of Kentucky, MA; London School of Economics, PhD coursework (ABD). Religion: Anglican.

Career: Equator Advisory Services, Ltd., consultant; Tutu foundation for Development and Relief, chairperson, 1985–90; University of Hartford, visiting professor of African-American Studies, 1991–93; University of Connecticut, lecturer, 1993–96; Brevard College, professor of African Studies, 1996; African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, program coordinator, 1997–99; Race Relations Institute, Fisk University, program coordinator, 1999–2002; Office of International Programs, Tennessee State University, associate director, 2003–06; independent public speaker, 1997–.

Awards: Honorary doctorate, Universal Orthodox College of Ogun State, Nigeria, 1985; has received numerous awards and honors from different organizations, including the California State Legislature, the Kentucky State Branches of the NAACP, and the Boston City Council.

Addresses: Agent—American Program Bureau, 36 Crafts Street Newton, MA 02458.

From 1999 to 2002, Tutu worked at Fisk University, a traditionally black school in Nashville, Tennessee. There she served as program coordinator for the school's Race Relations Institute, whose mission is to address issues of racism in the global community. Tutu's next stop was the newly formed Office of International Programs at Tennessee State University, also located in Nashville, where she held the position of associate director. The Office of International Programs is responsible for leading all of the university's international efforts, including recruiting faculty with international expertise, developing collaborative projects with scholars in other countries, facilitating opportunities for students to study abroad, and promoting foreign language study.

Shifted Focus to Public Speaking

By the early 2000s, Tutu was recognized as a leading authority on race relations, gender issues, and the intersection between them. This, in combination with her famous name, placed her in greater demand than ever for public speaking engagements. She traveled the globe making presentations at schools, churches, conferences, community centers, and other venues on an array of social justice and human rights issues. By 2006, her public appearance schedule had become so active that she gave up her position at Tennessee State in order to devote herself to public speaking full time. Her speeches typically have inspiring titles, such as "Building a Global Community" and "Striving for Justice: Searching for Common Ground."

Tutu has described her life mission as being "to lift girls and women above the limitations of race, economics and gender," according to the 2004 Detroit Free Press article. To that end, she has worked in recent years to help women translate their skills at community building into a powerful voice in the political arena. Tutu has noted that because South African laws were hostile to both women and people of color until quite recently, she never voted until she was 34 years old; her grandmother voted for the first time at the age of 91. Consequently, serving as an election observer during South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 was an extremely meaningful experience for Tutu. But it did nothing to make up for all the years of disenfranchisement. "For most of us, there will be a feeling of anger for the rest of our lives," she was quoted as saying in a 1996 Cleveland Plain Dealer article. "It may be important to stay angry, so it will never happen again." In her public addresses, Tutu often calls for the need to "open the wounds" of racism as a first step in moving forward on race relations in the United States. She was present at the meetings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body-chaired by her father-charged with the daunting task of healing the gaping wounds left by apartheid. Tutu believes a similar process to the Commission is necessary in communities across America, where a history of racism has been, if less overt, equally damaging. In a February 2006 talk at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Tutu spoke about the problems inherent in confronting America's racist past. "For all of us, there are times when it is difficult to face the truth, some truth, about ourselves," Tutu said. She has devoted her career to forcing people to face those uncomfortable truths.



Tutu, Naomi, ed., The Words of Desmond Tutu, Newmarket Press, 1989, pp. 11-17.


Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 16, 1996, p. 1B.

Detroit Free Press, November 2, 2004.

Maclean's, March 10, 1986, p. 8.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 28, 2001.

University Gazette, University of North Carolina, May 23, 2001.


"Nontombi Naomi Tutu," Kent State University, 6th Annual Symposium on Violence,http://dept.kent.edu/violence_symposium/naomi_tutu.htm (August 28, 2006).

"Tutu to Give Keynote Address at NC State's King Commemoration," North Carolina State University, www.ncsu.edu/news/press_releases/06_01/002.htm (April 28, 2006).

"UNC Asheville to Host Talk by Nontombi Naomi Tutu; Daughter of South African Archbishop to Discuss 'Healing the Wounds of Racism,'" University of North Carolina—Asheville, www.unca.edu/news/releases/2006/tutu.html (April 28, 2006).