Jannelle Watson is a 31-year-old Facebook employee, hotel blogger, and co-founder of a youth council program catering to Black students. Originally from Paso Robles, CA she now resides in Washington, DC, where she has lived for almost six years.
She was presented with the opportunity to travel abroad as a teenager, through a two-week trip to Italy for high school students. Growing up in a small town, she was eager to experience different cultures and gain a better understanding of what existed outside her hometown.
“At the time my family couldn’t afford the expenses to send me abroad, so I fundraised for four months selling candy bars and candles door-to-door in order to fund my trip,” she said. “To this day, I’m still surprised at the amount of support I received from my friends, neighbors, and family members who financially contributed to my trip.”
This early experience made Jannelle want to see more of the world and led her to travel to more than 30 countries. It also allowed her to learn the importance of learning and teaching perspectives and cultures. Passionate about uplifting the next generation of Black leaders, Jannelle’s program focuses on teaching youth aged 12-18 how to elevate their voices to create positive change within their communities.
“I can 100% say my approach to this has definitely changed based on my travels, especially my experiences traveling to Black nations. Most of the youth I work with have never been out the country given their current economic and financial status. Because of this, what I learn traveling, I take back to my Black students. By sharing my own learnings, I hope to give them insight into things they may not learn until they travel themselves.”
When in Black countries, Jannelle makes it a point to visit local museums and cultural centers where she can learn about the history of the country and the people living there. She then brings this information to share it with the students she works with. She also likes to teach them words from other languages she has learned on her trips, whether it’s a simple greeting or a way to say thank you.
“Many of my students have never been exposed to African culture, and were surprised to learn that there are several languages spoken on the continent. Most weren’t aware that slave trades occurred in other parts of the world, such as Spain, Sweden, Cuba, South Africa, and Brazil, among others. We spend a lot of time talking about the importance of Black wealth and finances, and most of them are surprised to see the value of the U.S. dollar compared to other countries.”
The knowledge Jannelle shares with them is priceless, told from a Black perspective and worldview that allows them to learn things they likely won’t find in their American textbooks. Jannelle says her students are drawn to the stories she tells them about African leaders, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates, as it shows them representation outside the leadership they’ve seen in the U.S. and lets them know they have endless opportunities to contribute to this world in meaningful ways.
Her students enjoy seeing photos from her travels just as much as she enjoys showing them. By highlighting the beauty, nature, and architecture of a country the media neglects to show, Jannelle is able to combat false narratives, allowing the youth to get a pure and unbiased glimpse of the world and change their perceptions.
“My students always have many questions for me about my travels and I love it! Many of my female students ask if I get lonely or feel unsafe traveling alone as a female traveler, while my male students ask me nonstop about the food.”
“They also have no problem asking me ‘Ms. Watson, are you rich? How much money do you make? How can you afford to travel so much?’ I appreciate these questions because they allow us to have deeper conversation about money, savings, and government run programs they can think about applying to that will financially pay for them to travel abroad.”
It is Jannelle’s hope that all of her students have the opportunity to travel abroad one day and have experiences that will teach them social flexibility, promote cross cultural understanding, and teach them invaluable lessons about themselves and others.
“Travel is important for Black youth. It can equip them with a more well-rounded global viewpoint, expose them to Black issues outside the U.S., and provide them with access to opportunities they may not have otherwise had,” she explained.
“All of my students are intentional when it comes to how they show up for themselves, each other, their friends, and their families. Given this, I know they would bring this same mindset and thoughtfulness to their travels abroad. They would genuinely want to immerse themselves in the culture, meet with the locals, and explore the history.”
There are various destinations Jannelle would recommend to Black travelers, the youth in particular, and the first is Ghana. A country full of young Black professionals and entrepreneurs, Jannelle found Ghana an ideal location in which to reset and focus on her ultimate personal and professional goals.
“Ghana showed me the power of Black excellence. I was so impressed by the number of Ghanaians I met who were running several businesses full-time. It was beautiful to see so many African entrepreneurs pursuing not just one dream, but ALL of their aspirations.”
“Everyone I met had a drive to push themselves and others around them to excel, and not in a competitive way, but with genuine support and love. I loved being around this type of energy, in particular among young Black professionals who had moved from the U.S. back to Ghana to pour money back into the communities where they had grown up.”
Kenya is another destination where Jannelle felt welcomed and right at home. One of her most memorable trips ever, she was able to spend a great deal of time with the locals learning Swahili and tribal traditions.
“To this day I’m so appreciative that I was able to experience being in an environment that was so welcoming and uplifting.”