The Rev. Theresa Dear doesn’t talk about her resume, or her accomplishments. If you want to know her long list of awards, you’ll have to Google them because bragging isn’t her style.
She will talk about her childhood if you ask because then she can tell you about hope, which has been a theme in her life and got her where she is today. The Rev. Dear was in foster care growing up, living in nine homes between the ages of 11 and 17. Some of those homes weren’t welcoming; she represented a paycheck and was mistreated. In a video promoting the nonprofit One Hope United, she tells how the thought of everything she would be able to do one day got her through hard times.
A minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the national board of directors for the NAACP, the Rev. Dear has been instrumental in building a partnership between the venerable civil rights organization and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which co-authored an op-ed last year on racial harmony.
While the Rev. Dear is a nationally known advocate on racial and social justice, she’s also a leadership consultant and has held prestigious titles in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds, including vice president at Verizon and senior vice president at Metropolitan Family Services.
Deseret Magazine spoke to the Rev. Dear about turning points, hope and race relations in America.
Deseret: To move forward as you have, you must have had some turning points.
The Rev. Theresa Dear: There were two turning points. I didn’t have any clothes to wear to my eighth grade graduation. I didn’t even have shoes to wear. All my friends around me were talking about what they were wearing. And I don’t know whether my teacher — I’ll never forget this — noticed that I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, but after class, she pulled me to the side. And she just asked me, “Do you have any clothes for graduation?” And I said, “No.”
It makes me well up even thinking about it now. But my eighth grade teacher got me clothes for my graduation.
Deseret: Do you remember what you wore?
TD: I wore a white dress and some white shoes. I do remember that. But she handled it with such discretion. No one knew that she did this.
Deseret: What else propelled you forward?
TD: I used to help my great-aunt clean houses when I was a younger girl. And we would clean the house of a family, the Rothschilds in Skokie, Illinois, maybe once a month. And when we would have lunch, Dina Rothschild would talk to me about college. At the time, no one was talking to me about college, you know. No one in my family and not necessarily people at school.
But this amazing woman really prompted my imagination to think about the possibility beyond my own ZIP code. I don’t know whether she was doing it intentionally because she saw this little Black girl come into her house with her older, health-compromised aunt and she realized that she wanted to make a difference, break a cycle. I don’t know what her intention was, but she talked about education repeatedly.
And it was through those conversations that, for the first time in my life, I imagined that I could go to college. And it was from those conversations that I was inspired to research college, and college options and college support. And it was from those conversations at their table in her kitchen that I became ambitious and determined to go to college. And I was the only one in my family that went to college.
Deseret: Was it hard to get to college?
TD: It was quite tough. I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees from Loyola University. What I knew I had in my favor is that I was pretty smart. That’s what all my teachers told me. But through undergraduate and graduate school, I always worked two jobs and went to school — or in some cases three jobs and went to school part time.
Deseret: You were instrumental in taking The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ preparedness and financial preparedness materials and adapting them to be appropriate for Black, inner-city audiences. What was your experience?
TD: What the NAACP and the church have in common is care and compassion for humanity that is so needed, especially today. It gave me the opportunity to translate imagery, content and language so that it fit the African American community.
Deseret: Do you see a role for future collaborations?
TD: Absolutely. And the future collaborations could be anything from voluntarism to mentoring. Just as there was a Dina Rothschild in my life, I believe there are Dina Rothschilds throughout the church who can just have conversations with a young person about college and the great things that the future can hold for them.
Deseret: You’re describing a process of other people helping you build the future — and not necessarily the people you expect.
TD: You know, the reason that my faith is unyielding is because throughout my entire life, the Lord has been there. When I thought my life was on the brink of collapse because of a lack of resources, the Lord always stepped in. The Lord brought people — complete strangers — into my life that became friends, he opened up doors that I didn’t knock on. And he made what appeared to be very turbulent paths very, very smooth.
All of these experiences are why I believe in giving back and paying forward. That propels my philanthropic and voluntarism spirit and ambitions. I feel compelled to do it. It’s like my spiritual, social responsibility to do it for others.
Deseret: What are some of the most meaningful things you’ve done?
TD: I prefer to be behind the scenes. I’m not interested in recognition, but impact. But I mentor young people of all ages and religions around the country. I buy books for African American students at historically Black colleges and universities. And I sponsor young people to go to the NAACP convention for the first time — flights, hotel, transportation at the convention. I’ve done that for about 15 years.
When I am mentoring and talking to African American youth, I always tell them the story of how a lot of my mentors have been white. Some of those relationships happen organically. And some of it was them looking at somebody that had potential, curiosity and interest. And they said, “I want to work with you.”
Let’s just take Dina Rothschild. She didn’t spend a dime, she just cared enough to sit down with me and have a conversation in a very loving, inspirational, authentic kind of way. When I am mentoring and talking to white people, I help them appreciate what the Black journey is, and how many obstacles we face that they don’t necessarily have to face, but also that when we come together, when we work together, life can be better.
I don’t have any children. But I have mentored, inspired and helped thousands of young people around this country.
Deseret: Are we getting closer to being one people? Are we making progress on racism?
TD: I do think that we are getting closer and we’re making progress. The media’s job is to exploit things because they need to attract and increase viewership. You don’t see many stories about what’s working and what’s going well.
The thing that has really propelled and has been at the center of my life has been hope. And so I do believe that we are getting better and stronger as a country around race relations. And all we need to do is look at the millennials and Gen Zers that are going to lead this country. To some degree, we have discounted their work ethic. But these are true humanitarians, people who care about the climate, they care about the culture of this country. They care about the communities within this country, and they care about race relations. And I think that those are the torchbearers who are going to make a true difference. So I am really, really excited about the young people in this country and what they’re going to do.
I’m also excited about the social awakening of people in this country. ... It appears that when George Floyd happened, America was like, “This is egregious, we have to do something, we have to be better.” … And I’m also encouraged by the sense of ownership that people have about the fact that America is changing. People are deferring less to the government to step in. People are owning their ZIP codes, their communities and their neighborhoods. I have neighbors I have waved at for about 20 years. But for the first time, when George Floyd was murdered, they drove to my home, they came across the street — these are white people — to say, “I had no idea. I’m sorry. I just want you to know that I care.” Those are the things that I’m encouraged by.
We are an imperfect country. And we always have been. There is no perfect country out there. But we are a country with hope and tremendous potential.
Deseret: Any last words?
TD: I live by a quote by Maya Angelou that says that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel. I think it’s incumbent upon us when we are with people who are different from us to make sure that we make them feel valued, welcomed and included.
There is a quote in the Bible (Matthew 25:40) that says whatever you did to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, is what you do unto me.
There are a lot of the “least of these” in this country and in this world. That does not make them less. It does not make them subordinate. It does not make them unworthy. But it should compel people to be more conscientious, more sensitive, more compassionate and more giving when they are in the presence of the least of these, because sometimes the least of these is relative.
I’m talking about the homeless, the disenfranchised, those people that we have become almost insensitive to and conditioned to simply ignore. But we cannot, because we are here on this earth to be God’s hands, feet, heart and eyes, so that we can see and help others.