By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – When Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu delivers the keynote address at Gonzaga University’s Senior Commencement on May 13, his words will resonate especially with Gonzaga School of Education Professor Jenny Nelson, who experienced firsthand the policy of racial segregation known as apartheid that marginalized people of color in Tutu’s native South Africa for nearly four decades.
Ultimately, efforts by the Very Rev. Tutu, Nelson Mandela and people of conscience worldwide began the process to slowly dismantle apartheid, starting with Mandela’s 1990 release from prison. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first president elected in a fully representative democratic election; he served as president until 1999.
Nelson, a professor of teacher education, taught for 20 years under South Africa’s apartheid regime. Her work with both the privileged and the oppressed reflects her commitment to justice and equality. She frequently, in violation of the law, taught black students in a township near her hometown so they might become educated in a society that denied black students the same rights to education as white students.
Nelson began her teaching career at Krugersdorp High School, located in the heart of the conservative right-wing section of town. As a young social studies teacher, Nelson took her white students of privilege and introduced them to the South Western Township (Soweto).
One of her students would later recall Nelson’s efforts.
“I remember being both shocked and amazed at how big and close it was. Apartheid had worked so well that we, as young privileged white South Africans, had never before even seen the huge South Western Township,” the student noted. “Miss Nelson exposed us to the inequalities present in the system and gave us the tools to question them. We were taught not to be complacent and not to just accept things the way they were.”
The student’s complete letter is on display at the University of Bloemfontein, site of a historical collection documenting apartheid in South Africa and the impact that some teachers had on students during those troublesome times.
Harassed and repulsed by apartheid, Nelson left behind all she knew and loved in South Africa in 1989 for the United States.
Nelson has been teaching at Gonzaga ever since and has been a highly acclaimed teacher as well as a productive scholar, said her colleague, Associate Professor Jonas Cox. She is moving into phased retirement at the end of this year, after teaching for 21 years at Gonzaga, where she has specialized in both elementary and secondary social studies methods.
“Teaching prospective teachers and teaching about social justice (and injustice) is my passion,” Nelson said.