After high school, and sometimes beyond, is when most try to figure out and tap into their purpose. Former Miss USA, Tonielle Simone Watkis in search for her purpose. In underground at Adelphi University, Watkis had to create a capstone project. She decided to create, “No Boxes Allowed”.
“It’s all about me going through my life on this quest to find my identity,” she says. “In the process I try on a whole bunch of others — trying on and faking and adapting and ultimately, defining who I am.” She has written versions of different lengths appropriate for different audiences, from middle schoolers to adults. She’s even performed it off-Broadway.
Watkis, 25, graduated in 2014. After living in New York City for a few years, she returned home to save money and prepare for her next step in life. That’s when she learned about the Miss Black Connecticut competition and decided to try out. After winning that she went on to claim the national title.
Since then she has been a beacon light in empowering youth and other young women to pursue their passion. I recently interviewed Ms. Watkis. Check out the interview below:
Growing up and still to this day who inspires you? How did they impact your life?
This may seem a bit cliche’ but, I’ve always been inspired by my mom. She migrated to the U.S. in the early 80’s with to pieces of luggage to her name. Thanks to her hard work, she is now a home owner, holds two degrees and also put me through college. She’s superwoman in my eyes. She taught me how to be innovative and a pioneer in my own right.
As a former Miss Black USA, do you see yourself as a influential pillar to these young, Black girls and women?
I think that the title, Miss Black USA, itself is very influential and those of us fortunate enough to have the opportunity of wearing it, step into such an iconic role. From the moment I was crowned, I knew that I would have very large shoes to fill as a role model, but I always believed that I had to live my life serving as a role model long before winning the crown in order to uphold the duties it required once I was chosen. Being a great influence to young, Black Women was what I endeavored to do in my everyday life prior to winning the crown. Earning the title of Miss Black USA further amplified my platform.
You are a founder/CEO of The No Boxes Allowed Project. Can you tell us what inspired the idea?
I initially wrote a one-woman play entitled No Boxes Allowed to fulfill my college capstone requirement in order to graduate. The play was about the many ways that I felt pressured to behave in certain ways to live up to the stereotypical ideals others imposed upon me about what it meant to be a young black woman. I realized that youth are most often often pressured about who they should be, how they should be, and constantly made to feel like they have to fit the “boxes” society imposes upon us all and it greatly impacts them. So, I developed The No Boxes Allowed Project, a mobile art education program which utilizes, performance, theatre based workshops, service, scholarships and motivational speeches to empower youth and young women to be boundless in pursuit of their passions.
The students are exposed to live theatre performances and engaged in discussion afterward which help them to think critically. The workshops encourage their creativity, but also affirm the skills they learn in school, and help them to improve their communication and literacy skills. I introduce them to the idea of using art as outreach, instilling in them the importance of serving those less fortunate in our community. Through scholarship, I am able to acknowledge and award students who exhibit artistic excellence and passion for the arts, helping them to pursue higher education. Through all of these elements combined, I teach the students that their potential for success has no bounds.
This year the first recipient of the The No boxes Allowed project’s scholarship graduated from the University of Connecticut-Hartford with a master’s in social work, how did this make you feel?
When the first No Boxes Allowed Project Scholarship recipient, Shanai Chambers, graduated I was on cloud 9! It was so amazing to watch what I had been imagining for years come to fruition. I was so proud of Shanai. She is an amazing young woman and a very influential pillar of the community in her own respect. I can’t take credit, of course; however, I am just grateful to God for ordering our steps to lead us both to each other. She has been a blessing to the organization just as I have been able to share my blessings with her.
The recipient Shanai Chambers also won Miss Connecticut Caribbean, are you helping her in her pageant career with coaching and tips?
Shanai is currently enjoying her year of reign as Miss Connecticut Caribbean, so I assist her in securing and preparing for appearances as that is what the bulk of her duties now require. We’ve prepared for media interviews such as her appearance on WTNH 8’s CT Style television segment as well as a radio interview on The Chat It Up Show on Energy Radio. We also did some coaching to prepare for an appearance she made at the New York Summer Fashion Explosion where she modeled some beautiful designs for her sponsor, FashionFrenzy ATL, among others.
Can you offer us fellow millennials any great advice and words of wisdom?
I offer the same advice that I offer my students, which an old friend once gave to me. “No one has a Heaven or a Hell to put you in,” so be your own guide. Try new things. Take risks. Allow room for failure and if it comes, fail gloriously so that you can learn from it and try again.
Earlier this year I resigned from my corporate 9 to 5 because I knew it was time for me to take the leap and pursue my dreams full time. Since then, my acting career, career as a teaching artist and the No Boxes Allowed Project have become my full time focus and have been thriving more than ever. The difficult days and struggles have been well worth it. Now I can say it was the best risky decision I ever made. Aspire to be boundless and that freedom will be yours.
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