Episode 37 │ Pasta, Agent of Joy (BRAZIL/SOUTH AFRICA)
Updated: May 4, 2020
"I had already started to accept that I had my own form of Black excellence. This [traveling for work] is just me, this is part of who I am, this is what I've always wanted. That was my energy then, like, 'Yeah. This is my norm.'" (Sean, Episode 37)
Sean A. Watkins and I were students in the same department at Michigan State University around the same time, but he was a few years ahead of me. We didn't actually speak until we happened to sit at the same table during a career/networking event that was organized by our department. We remained Facebook friends after that. Then, when he announced the launch of his consulting business (Watkins Agency of Joy) earlier this year, I read his accompanying blog post and learned that he'd spent a year as a high school foreign exchange student in Brazil. So I reached out to him about being a guest, and here we are today. It turns out that Sean has lived and worked in numerous places around the world since he was just 16 years old. We mostly focused on his stays in Brazil and South Africa, plus the nearly two years he spent traveling to Europe frequently for work.
Sean's maternal grandmother had already led by example when it came to international exposure, as she traveled the world as a dancer when she was younger. With that in mind, and having his own curiosity about the world, Sean wanted to get out there as well. His chance came in high school, when a member of the local Amityville Rotary Club visited his 10th grade social studies class and asked which students wanted to participate in a foreign exchange program. Sean was the only one who signed up. Originally slated to go to Japan, his destination somehow got switched to Brazil, and he spent his junior year in Brazil with the support of rotary scholarships.
For 11 and a half months (2006-2007) Sean lived in Maringá, in the southern state of Paraná, attending a local Catholic school and living with four different host families during that year. Shifting between host families was by design, as the program wanted students to get multiple viewings into Brazilian culture. This was also a blessing for Sean; he didn't mesh well with his first host family, but his fourth host mom remains as the most open and supportive of them all. As a young Black gay teenager who would come out later in college, the small-town mentality and lack of Black or Brown faces in Maringá sometimes made Sean feel misunderstood, like he didn't belong. But he made friends with other exchange students in town, learned capoeira, and tried to make the best of his homestay situations. Plus, on later visits to São Paulo and Bahia over the years, he was able to witness the vastness of how many Brazilians are of African descent just like him. (As Sean explained to me, the southern part of Brazil is comprised predominantly of people of European descent, and Maringá specifically is known for its sizable Japanese population as well. It was inevitable that he'd stick out.)
After returning to Amityville and putting in an intense amount of time an effort to catch up during his senior year and graduate on time, Sean enrolled at Michigan State University. He'd considered going to school in Europe, but MSU offered him a $5,000 study abroad scholarship before he even accepted his admittance, so he became a Spartan knowing that he would get to go abroad again at some point. That point came during junior year, when he spent the fall 2010 semester working as a community outreach intern in Cape Town, South Africa. This was the best option for him in a myriad of ways. It was more affordable for him to do a semester in South Africa than it was to return to MSU's campus, and he got to work for the public health, awareness, and support needs of clients at Health4Men, a queer-positive and sex-positive organization primarily serving gay men in Cape Town. Sean had come out by that time and was an active LGBTQ leader on campus, so the internship in South Africa not only bolstered his activism but was also the beginning of his career as a storyteller at the intersection of media and social justice. Living and working in such a gay-friendly environment added another dimension to the new and slightly peculiar sense of belonging he felt as a Black man in a country where Black people are the norm, where they thrive. A two-week stay in Johannesburg especially drove home for him how rich the culture and history of Black people are in South Africa.
The summer following graduation in 2012, Sean received a grant to return to Brazil through a globalization project funded by both the American and Brazilian governments. As summarized on his LinkedIn page:
"Globalization: Socio-Economic, Political, and Environmental Interdependence: A collaborative education programme funded by the United States Department of Education and the Brazilian Ministry of Education to study at the Universidade Federal da Bahia, Universide Federal do Pará, and Michigan State University with eight Brazilian and three other American undergraduate students. The programme integrated together foreign language training, undergraduate research, and common curriculum through both cultural and institutional learning."
Sean's group spent a month in Salvador (Bahia) a month in Belém (the Amazon), and then took a semester-long course in the fall along with the Brazilian students who came to MSU from those two respective cities. In his opinion, the program was more effective in theory than in practice, as their studies were hindered by university strikes that were happening in Brazil at the time. And personally, being grouped with certain less-informed and less self-aware Spartans led to tensions that almost made Sean want to fight. But being in Salvador, formerly a major site of the slave trade and currently the Blackest city of the Blackest state in the country, that was the saving grace of the trip. He connected with other students of color (both Black Americans and Afro-Brazilians), and he learned about the unique African roots of the city.
"Digital social impact"
Back in the States after that program ended, Sean decided to give building a career in NYC a try. Coincidentally, one of his longest and most transformative positions had him traveling internationally again, but this time for work! As a social media director for a campaign that promoted interfaith engagement with climate change, he was often off to London to meet with collaborators, in addition to participating in events and initiatives in Scotland and Rome. A huge highlight was a two-week stay in Paris in 2015, where he and his team did a lot of work surrounding the COP21 United Nations climate change talks that were taking place there. That work included producing and hosting a daily podcast called "Climate Voices", where Sean and a partner interviewed notable individuals about why working on environmental issues is important for people in the interfaith community. Having the opportunity to hear stories and share them on a larger platform made him even more determined to represent issues and marginalized people as accurately and honestly as possible.
Now that Sean has his own consulting business that focuses on "digital social impact", he wants Watkins Agency of Joy to be a platform of light, joy, and transformational stories that encourages people to "be their full selves". He currently lives in Brooklyn, Brazil remains his second home in his heart, and among many other places, he'd like to visit more countries in Asia after going to Thailand for the first time last year. Sean can be found on his agency's Instagram page (@agencyofjoy), his agency's website (agencyofjoy.com), his personal Instagram page (@seanieboyy), or on Twitter (@seanieboyy6).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Pasta, Agent of Joy (BRAZIL/SOUTH AFRICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Amityville Rotary (FB page)
MSU out-of-state scholarships (including the Presidential Study Abroad Scholarship - link 1 / link 2)
International internships (MSU James Madison College)
Internships in Cape Town (MSU James Madison College - overview / program details)
Study abroad in Africa (MSU College of Social Science)
MSU Arts, Culture and Museum Internship in South Africa (website / blog / program details)
Health4Men website / Article about the project Sean helped with
Ivan Toms Centre for Health (includes Health4Men - website / FB / Twitter)
MSU-Brazil FIPSE/CAPES partnership program (article 1 / article 2 / video transcript)
MSU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (website / FB)
United Nations Climate Change (UNFCCC) homepage / COP21 notes
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.