November 1, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 12
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Nobel laureate Tutu trumpets reconciliation

Talia Whyte

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu spoke to over 700 Boston school students Monday about why they need to take charge of ending violence on the city’s streets. The Nobel laureate was the keynote speaker at a youth symposium hosted by Wheelock College called “Bridges to Hope and Understanding: Exploring Truth and Reconciliation.”

The symposium highlighted the archbishop’s reconciliation tactics that have been used with youth in his native South Africa, and recognized five Boston youth who are “emerging leaders” working in their communities on issues related to violence.

“There are some good things going on with our youth in the city, and we never hear about the positive stuff they are doing,” said Jackie Jenkins-Scott, president of Wheelock College. “We thought it was perfect to invite the archbishop because he loves working with youth. We felt very fortunate that he wanted to be part of this.”

The event also brought Boston’s youth together with top local political officials, activists and local celebrities, including Gov. Deval Patrick, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson, City Councilor Charles Yancey and TV anchorwoman and humanitarian Liz Walker.

Patrick stressed to the audience that he and the others were there because “we love you, and we want you to love yourselves.”

While emphasizing he was not there to “import” or force his ideas on Boston youth, Tutu said he felt reconciliation was not only necessary in dealing with violence in Boston, but that it is also very therapeutic — a belief based in his experience as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1995.

Tutu was appointed to the court-like body by then-South African President Nelson Mandela to investigate human abuses alleged by both victims and perpetrators during the height of apartheid from 1960 to 1994. Through the commission, Tutu said, he learned that vengeance doesn’t solve anything, citing the violent conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East as examples.

In 2003, the archbishop founded the Desmond Tutu Emerging Leadership Program, which promotes leadership skills for youth committed to building peace and being agents of change in their communities.

“It is always better to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retribution and revenge,” he said.

Referring to children as “God’s best partners,” Tutu said that youth have historically been the ones to stand up against injustice. He mentioned it was the South African youth who protested over Afrikaans being taught in township schools. The incident would later become known as the Soweto Uprising, where nearly 700 people were killed by the apartheid regime’s security services. He also cited his gratitude for American college students who took a stand against apartheid by challenging the Reagan administration’s pro-apartheid policies and urging U.S. colleges and corporations to divest stock holdings from companies that had a presence in South Africa.

Tutu also applauded the inspirational fortitude of African Americans who persevered under extreme circumstances. He reminisced about being a young boy and reading about Jackie Robinson making baseball history in Ebony magazine. While he admits that he didn’t know the difference between a baseball and a ping-pong ball at that time, Tutu felt inspired by Robinson’s ability to overcome huge obstacles.

“African Americans have survived so many things like slavery and segregation, and shouldn’t their descendents be able to survive violence?” he said. “The descendents should remember that they are descendents of survivors.”

Tutu’s talk came at a time when both Boston and South Africa have seen recent spikes in violence.

According to the most recent available Boston Police Department statistics, there have been 58 murders in Boston this year as of Oct. 21, including 44 in which a firearm was used, and 240 non-fatal shootings. The city is still mourning the recent murder of 13-year-old Steven Odom, gunned down outside his Dorchester house on his way home from playing basketball.

According to a BBC report, over half a million South Africans were murdered, raped or assaulted last year, making South Africa one of the most dangerous countries in the world. On Oct. 18, veteran South African reggae star Lucky Dube became the latest statistic when he was murdered in front of his children during an attempted carjacking in a Johannesburg suburb. The high-profile murder has also raised concerns in the country about the safety of international visitors during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the international soccer tournament.

Following the symposium, youth in attendance said they felt inspired by the archbishop’s words of wisdom, saying they were determined to be social agents for change.

“People need to stop getting on the train of silence and do something about violence,” said Vanessa Etienne, a student from Boston Community Leadership Academy who was chosen as a student panelist for this event.

The archbishop said he was inspired as well, and hopes the youth will be guiding lights for better things in the future.

“You all are VSPs — very special people,” said Tutu. “You are fantastic and we are depending on you.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks to an audience of over 700 BPS students gathered at Wheelock College for a symposium on truth and reconciliation, Monday, Oct. 29. The archbishop’s visit came at a time when Boston has seen 58 murders over the past year, and the deaths of several innocent youths have stirred community leaders. (Don West photo)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu laughs with Wheelock College President Jackie Jenkins-Scott during a youth symposium hosted by the college on Monday. Over 700 students came to “Bridges to Hope and Understanding: Exploring Truth and Reconciliation” to learn Tutu’s reconciliation tactics, which have been used with youth in South Africa. (Don West photo)

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