Campus & community, People, Profiles

Madam Ambassador: The unusual trip from Barbados to Berkeley to Brazil

Tonika Sealy-Thompson's journey to a Berkeley Ph.D. was interrupted by her appointment as Barbados' ambassador to Brazil

Tonika Sealy-Thompson
Tonika Sealy-Thompson left Berkeley for the chance to serve her home, Barbados, as ambassador to Brazil (UC Berkeley photo by Melani King)
Tonika Sealy-Thompson

Tonika Sealy-Thompson left Berkeley for the chance to serve her home, Barbados, as ambassador to Brazil. (UC Berkeley photo by Melani King)

For Tonika Sealy-Thompson, the road to becoming Barbados’ ambassador to Brazil runs straight through UC Berkeley.

The post had been open since August 2017, and there were hints that Sealy-Thompson was on the short list for the job. Late last year, Mia Amor Mottley, Barbados’ recently elected prime minister and the first woman to hold that position, appointed Sealy-Thompson to the role.

At 42, Sealy-Thompson is Barbados’ youngest-serving woman ambassador and one of the youngest ambassadors to Brazil. She credits her time at Berkeley as being integral to her readiness to take on the high-profile job.

“This place, UC Berkeley, is unique on the planet,” Sealy-Thompson says. “I have been a few places, and Berkeley is unique for what it has to offer, in terms of a social justice education and global consciousness — qualities absolutely essential for a good diplomat.

“People at Berkeley deal with our global condition in so many different ways. There are indigenous issues, border issues, immigration issues. All those things were part of my education here. It remains the greatest public university in the world for these very reasons.”

Last year, Sealy-Thompson was heading toward the third year of her Ph.D. program and to earning a graduate certificate from the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. Her research examined the way performance in dance, music and drama meshes with politics in Barbados, the Bay Area and Brazil. Back home, her studies — complemented by over 20 years of local and international work experience — were seen as ideal for the ambassadorship. That, and the fact that she spoke fluent Portuguese.

She says her appointment came “as a great honor,” and that she was glad to serve, even if it meant that her time at Berkeley was voluntarily cut short. Mottley’s Barbados Labor Party had swept into power, so Sealy-Thompson put her Ph.D. program and the Bay Area on hold in May 2018 to serve her government.

By December, Sealy-Thompson was at work in Brazil, where she since has spent most of her time, other than to take a break in May to return to Berkeley to pick up her master’s degree and graduate certificate.

“Some of my professors teasingly called me `Madam Ambassador’,” Sealy-Thompson says, with a big smile. “I think if I’d been graduating from a Ph.D. program, they’d call me `doctor’ instead. Hearing `Madam Ambassador’ here took a little getting used to, but I felt their respect for me and their admiration for what I was doing.”

While her route to the ambassadorial ranks was unorthodox, she brought necessary skills. There is her facility with languages — she speaks English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Chinese. She began her collegiate career at the University of Manchester in England, after attending Barbados’ Harrison College, a public secondary school.

She beefed up her resumé with a certificate in international trade policy and diplomacy from the University of the West Indies, then tacked on a master’s degree in business administration in China at the Hult International Business School’s Shanghai campus before coming to Berkeley in 2016 as a Regent’s Fellow in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies program.

“It feels like such a confluence of forces — the right timing and the right match between my interests and qualifications to have a chance to serve Barbados in this capacity and at this time,” Sealy-Thompson says. “I have worked for my government proudly before, and I took the risk to leave my program to be available to work for my government again — I have no regrets.”

Tonika Sealy-Thompson

By signing the Ambassador’s official record for the first time, Tonika Sealy-Thompson put Berkeley behind her to start working for Barbados as ambassador to Brazil (Photo courtesy of Tonika Sealy-Thompson)

Back in 1997, it was then-Minister of Education, Youth Affairs and Culture Mottley who presented Sealy-Thompson with her Barbados Scholarship and the Tom Adams Prize for outstanding work in the humanities. And two decades later, it was Mottley, by this time the prime minister, who welcomed Sealy-Thompson back to Barbados. Ultimately, Mottley endorsed her as Barbados’ representative to Brazil, one of the island nation’s most important and enduring allies.

Sealy-Thompson says she loves this opportunity, but admits that the change has been jarring.

“I was used to living this student life — taking BART in the Bay Area,” she says. “Now, everywhere I go, I have a car and a driver. Even socializing is of a different nature. I talk with peers, but it’s not really for the pleasure of just talking or deepening ideas. It’s usually a case where I want to know something from them, and they want to know something from me.

“It’s a different dynamic. And you don’t get to fall apart or put on and remove your ambassador’s hat. You have to always remember that it’s about serving your country. It’s not about you.”

At the same time, she says, over two years of full-time study at Berkeley prepared her for her new role.

“Coming to Berkeley and doing interdisciplinary work was the best thing I could have done. Looking back, I see how everything was helping me to have a unique understanding of the place where I must now represent Barbados to the best of my abilities,” she says. “I started to connect three areas of study that I love —performance art, history and politics, thanks to Berkeley.”

Her time at Berkeley included working on her organization skills. Sealy-Thompson coordinated anti-racism workshops, brought guest artists and speakers to campus and worked on a proposal for a Berkeley summer course on dance and Afro-feminism. That program had its first iteration this past spring.

Much of Sealy-Thompson’s job involves how best to work with the Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician from the Social Liberal Party who assumed the reins of government in January. Barbados’ politics are far from right-wing, so is there a chance for conflict when the representative of a progressive country has to work in a country whose current leader is not progressive?

“No,” Sealy-Thompson says, definitively. “Barbados believes firmly in non-interference and the sovereignty of all countries, and we believe in the democratic process for every country. That process needs to be respected, whatever form it takes.

“My position is now to represent my government, and one of the most important tenets in my government’s foreign policy is that we are friends of all and satellites of none. We respect the sovereignty of every nation, and its political processes, as we want to be respected. We fought hard for our sovereignty. And it was human rights and human ingenuity that was at the heart of our successful fight.”