Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘A Person Is a Person Through Other Persons’

The Nobel laureate and his protégé, Robert V. Taylor, talk Lady Gaga, mentoring and ubuntu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Robert V. Taylor at LACMA. Photo: Courtesy of PR by the Book

May 24, 2012

In 1980, Robert V. Taylor was a 22-year-old student expected to report for the two years of military service the South African government required of every white male. As an anti-apartheid activist, Taylor struggled with the decision. Should he join the group enforcing the laws he opposed or face jail time?

When Taylor met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he was presented with a third option: move to New York City. The Archbishop helped Taylor begin his journey West. Their lives have been intertwined ever since.

Last week, the Archbishop and his protégé Taylor made a special appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to discuss their story as well as Taylor’s book, A New Way to Be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways to Becoming Fully Alive. Before addressing a sold-out crowd, the two men sat down with TakePart to discuss everything from climate change to Lady Gaga.

Wisdom on Mentoring

In his book, in addition to sharing his story of being mentored by the Archbishop, Taylor emphasizes the importance of sharing stories in connecting with yourself and others. What would he say to people who think they have nothing to offer as a mentor? “No matter our story,” Taylor insists, “there is something beautiful in it.”

Some mentors don’t even intend to or realize they have influenced others.

“Some things are caught not taught,” says the Archbishop, recalling when, as a nine-year-old boy, he saw a white priest tip his hat to Tutu’s domestic worker mother, a rare showing of respect in a country so racially divided. “Coming out of a situation where you are told, and this was official policy of a country, that you are inferior, it was important to have elders as role models—people who you didn’t know at the time were influencing you.”

Lady Gaga and Gay Rights

God welcomes everyone, says Tutu, “gay, lesbian, circle, straight.”

Taylor compares the 80-year-old Archbishop to a more recent cultural influencer: Lady Gaga. After watching Tutu speaking to 15,000 high school and college students in a Tacoma arena—the same arena where Taylor attended a Lady Gaga concert a few weeks earlier—the protégé realized, “He was just as much of a rock star as Lady Gaga was.”

“I dress slightly more conservatively,” says the Archbishop.

Wardrobe choices aside, the Archbishop and Lady Gaga are especially similar in their outspokenness for LGBT rights. In their LACMA talk, Taylor, who is the United States’ first gay Episcopal Dean, and Tutu both applauded recent remarks from President Obama in support of gay marriage.

“How can we penalize people for something that is not a choice?” asked the Archbishop.

God welcomes everyone, says Tutu, “gay, lesbian, circle, straight.”

Youth, Modern Day Activism, and Climate Change

“There’s only one world,” the Archbishop insists. “Destroy it, and you’re done for, no hope!”

Both Taylor and the Archbishop admire young people today.

“I like the term they are using about themselves,” says Tutu: “They are awesome!”

Tutu stresses that it’s important to preserve the planet so these awesome young people can have an awesome future.

“Climate change is not something that is still going to come—it’s happening now,” he insists. “There’s only one world—destroy it, you’re done for, no hope!”

Taylor applauds modern tools like the Internet and social media being used for world change. When young people discuss the issues of places like Myanmar, he says, “that awareness would not happen and the pressure would not have happened without, I believe, the social media activism.”

But, he adds, “How do we use the Internet to sustain ourselves for the long haul?”


People like the Archbishop and Taylor devote their lives to standing up for others. What drives them to do it? One word may hold the key: ubuntu.

Ubuntu is a pivotal concept in Taylor’s book, and Tutu wears a beaded bracelet that carries the word. But what does ubuntu mean?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu carries a reminder of "ubuntu" on his wrist. (Photo: Amy Eicher)

“That we are interconnected,” answers Tutu. “That when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.”

The world is far from perfect today, but viewing ourselves through Tutu’s lens of what it is to be human brings a better world into sight. After all, leaders who followed ubuntu ended decades of apartheid in South Africa.

What injustices will the next generation of leaders end?

“The hard facts of life are making many say this is not the best world,” says Tutu. “We can be a better world.”

What do you think is one way you can apply ubuntu to your life?

A Boston native, Amy has worked in the film industry's social media space since 2008. As TakePart's Digital Community Coordinator, she combines her passion for social good with her knack for connecting ideas and people. Email Amy | @amyeicher

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