One friend calls her a "force of nature." Another describes her as an "indomitable spirit." Nerys Levy, a slight woman with heavy eyelids and round, pink cheeks seems too placid for all of that.
"I suppose I'm a bit intrepid, and if I start something I don't give up. I don't know if that's a force of nature. I feel more a part of nature," she says in a lilting accent, one of two holdovers from her upbringing in North Wales.
The other holdover is community service. Citizens of Wales, England's long-overshadowed neighbor to the west, support each other and are welcoming to strangers, she says.
Perhaps that explains Levy's work in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where over the past two decades, she has been a resolute presence on the Orange County Literacy Council, the Chapel Hill Preservation Society, the Friends of the Library and the Triangle Land Conservancy.
In her spare time, she's an accomplished landscape artist at Chapel Hill's FRANK gallery. But she also runs an art education project for local Karen refugees and travels the world educating others about the melting polar ice caps. And for the last 18 years, she's been the principal planner of a community dinner connecting politicians, advocates for the disabled and the mentally ill, minority leaders, nonprofits and some of the county's poorest residents.
Today, Levy is supposed to be talking about her Citizen Award from the Indy, but instead her thoughts are dominated by the next dinner—scheduled for April 26 in Chapel Hill—and the news of the day.
Earlier this month, a Chapel Hill man shot and killed three college students, all of whom were Muslim, in a student-dominated neighborhood. Some say the shooter was angry over parking. Others say the shooter's anger toward organized religion may have played a part.
"It just makes me even more determined," she says. "This is why we do the dinner. We do have in our society two ends of the spectrum, but I believe that if people eat with each other, they're less likely to kill each other."
Levy is uniquely prepared to fight for social justice. Her father was a Welsh politician and school principal. Her American husband, who died about a decade ago, was a New York-born anthropologist. Levy studied social administration at the London School of Economics under Richard Titmuss, one of several influential academics behind the formation of Britain's public National Health System.
For two years, she volunteered for the British equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corps, and in the 1970s, she worked with a literacy program in Apartheid-era South Africa. "I've been sensitized to the rest of the world."
Appreciation for all cultures is what drives community service, she says. People should embrace what's different and fight the natural tendency to draw conclusions about others. Realize we're all connected, she says.
Her philosophy shows itself in her landscape art, which is all washes of blues, grays and greens. Intensify or change one color, and you change the whole piece. She's not a public servant, she says, she's an artist first.
"But it's not as if I have a split personality. Life is art and art is life."