Treavor Wagoner

Summer is here, and with the start of a new month, I’m bringing you my conversation with Treavor Wagoner, senior product designer, author, and quite the avid traveler! We spoke just as Treavor wrapped up his latest trip and right before the launch of the ebook version of his latest book, “So Much Trouble”.

Treavor talked about what drew him to working at Redfin, and from there he spoke about life growing up in a small Texas town. Treavor also went into his college days at University of North Texas, and shared how his love of writing drew him to teaching himself HTML and CSS. We also touched on a number of different topics after that, including how he’s unlearning harmful habits and how his non-linear career path has allowed him to indulge in a lot of his personal passions. According to Treavor, being Black and queer in tech is hard, but navigating it is possible — keep going!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Treavor Wagoner:
Hi, my name is Treavor Wagoner. My pronouns are he/him, and I am a system designer by day, and then a seeker, traveler by the rest of my life.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Treavor Wagoner:
I would say it’s been going pretty well. I moved back to Austin to kind of start going after my dreams. It’s been going well so far. Well, it’s been kind of going well so far. I just adopted a dog and so it’s a little bit of a harrowing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. What kind of dog?

Treavor Wagoner:
So he’s a mutt, but we just got back his DNA results and he is German shepherd, Australian cattle dog, Shih Tzu, and a small poodle mix.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a mix.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, a lot of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. Yeah. Aside from the new dog, do you have any kind of plans for the summer I saw on Twitter, you mentioned that you’re touring US national parks. Is that still going on?

Treavor Wagoner:
No, actually, I did that last year, so that kind of ties into what I’m back in Austin for. But last year I did a seven month road trip around the west and where I was seeing national parks, as well as seeing friends who hadn’t seen in years because of the pandemic. And then also kind of keeping an eye out for land to buy or a house to buy or whatnot because Texas prices have gone up so wildly, so it’s been kind of difficult to find places to live. But I moved back to Austin to kind of reassess, save money, just prepare for the next five years of my life. But as far as this summer, no big plans. I think it’s just beat out the heat here in Texas, train my dog, take care of my dog and hang out with my friends who live here while I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you were there for South By this year. This was sort of the first year back, I think, after two years, roughly of sort of remote South by Southwest. Did you notice like a big change in the city with South By coming back?

Treavor Wagoner:
Typically, before or BC, before COVID, South By would shut down the whole city and all the local residents would leave or just stay in the house until South by went away. But this year, it was very quiet. It was a slow ease back into city shutdown. Typically, when South By is going on, you can’t go downtown, can’t find a parking space to save your life. But I went down to downtown once or twice and it was like any other day, to be honest. No streets were shut down as far as I saw. So yeah. I mean, I didn’t really participate in South By, but just because I didn’t want to deal with crowds and COVID and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And you live there, so what’s the draw?

Treavor Wagoner:
Exactly. But the thing about South By which a lot of people don’t really realize is that you have South By film, music and all the other treks associated with South By, but there’s also a lot of free shows or peripheral shows that are happening that you can go to, parties and things like that. Restaurants and local vendors are doing cool things for all the traffic, all the South By people coming into town. So yeah, I mean, that stuff is fun, but like I said, dealing with traffic and parking, all that stuff kind of is a drain sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
So currently I see you’re working as a senior product designer at Redfin. Tell me about that. What drew you to the company?

Treavor Wagoner:
Actually, I didn’t see it for Redfin initially. So I was the former head of design. Colin Gregson reached out to me on LinkedIn and he was like, “We’re trying to start up the design system at Redfin and we need someone like you.” I guess he had heard about what I did with Indeed. And he wanted to kind of do the same with Redfin, but at the time I wasn’t really looking for a job. I wasn’t working at the time. I was actually taking a break. I was on another sabbatical. I had just left a company where I had experienced racial discrimination and was taking some time to heal from all of that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I let him know. I was like, “Hey, I’m not feeling it right now. I’m not feeling it right now. I’m healing from that. I’m dealing with COVID.” I mean, I didn’t catch COVID, but the pandemic was fresh and new. This was like March 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So I was like, “Uh-uh (negative), I’m not.” It was at a time where I was once again, wondering if I wanted to stick with the tech industry or just, I don’t know, do something else, but I’m a completist and obviously I decided to stick with it and he kept reaching out a couple of times to see how I was doing, where I was at. I think that the next time that he reached out was around June 2020, and of course around that time, it was not a good time at all because of protests and police murders and things like that. Which again, just kind of reopened the bullshit that I had experienced. And I was just very frustrated and angry and jaded and bitter and old.

Treavor Wagoner:
I think it was around December is when I told him, “Hey, I feel that I can jump back in and actually provide or do what I’m here to do when it comes to systems design and really help you out.” So we began interviewing and all that stuff, and it was probably the best interviewing experience that I’ve ever had hands down. They really made me feel comfortable, and in the past, what I’ve experienced with interviewing as a black person is that people don’t really see it for you, or they don’t think that you actually have the expertise that you do have. And with Redfin, I just felt like they allowed me to present my work and the stuff that I consider to be my craft, the things that I study, things that I love to do, which is signing a system and they heard me out, and they loved it. And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the on.” And then they offered me a deal. And I was like, “Yeah.”

Treavor Wagoner:
The story of trauma doesn’t stop there. In Texas, we had the winter storm maybe a week before I was supposed to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, with the power grid and all that stuff, right?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It was very bad. I was one of the unlucky few who did not have power or running water the whole time, and we’re talking single digits. Yeah. It was traumatizing. The whole time I was thinking, “Am I going to survive?” I’m checking in with friends and they’re telling me, I’m not going to say it here, but it’s pretty traumatic stuff that they experienced. We’re talking death and things like that. And I, like a crazy person who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life, I was like, “You know what? Sure, I can start a job following all that.” So I started the next week and I did it with a smile on my face, but definitely it was a mental wear down for me eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I think we’re going to look back in the history books and just see how much repeated trauma and shit black people had to put up with that summer of 2020, because I got laid off right around that time, in May, around Memorial day. And I remember I didn’t really feel like going back and trying to jump into finding another job. I had just been at this place for two and a half years and I sort of wanted to take a break, but I felt extremely guilty about taking a break at a time when people were out protesting in the streets for such a worthy cause. And I’m like, I really need this rest, though. I don’t know what I’m going to have another time in my professional career to actually be okay with staying still for a few months because we got severance and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And what ended up happening, and I think a lot of black folks, again, during this time will mention this is that now you have this influx of companies that are not only pledging to do better in the face of all of this, but now all of a sudden I got work. I’m getting bombarded with offers and things to do and talking to companies internally about ways that they can change their DEI and all this sort of stuff. But then also being said, this is such a watershed moment, and do you think that this will continue? And I’m like, no, but also it’s not really up to me to do that because you, as the white people in power, it’s on y’all to continue this. It’s not on us. It’s not on the aggrieved to try to fix this. It’s on y’all. And of course now two years later, pretty much all of those promises have gone up in smoke.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I think I would say with Redfin, you asked me about Redfin. I would say that I’ve really seen them try. Not trying to be the spokesperson for Redfin, because I don’t think I could do a good job at it, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve been leaders in the real estate industry of trying to do the right thing for not only black people, but marginalized individuals.

Treavor Wagoner:
They’ve removed crime stats. Because our researchers are amazing, they’ve removed crime stats from house listings or property listings because they found that the areas that see a lot of “crime” are over policed and are predominantly black or brown, it’s kind of skewed data that they’re getting. So why have that on there? It’s not clean data, it’s not representative of the actual neighborhood, so let’s remove that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think they’ve kind of put the pressure on other real estate companies to do the same as well. So that really impressed me. Not only have you cleaned up house, clean up your own house, but you’re also encouraging other people to clean up their houses too. I thought that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should mention, this whole conversation is not to bash your employer. So I don’ want them to think that we’re going in on Redfin or anything.

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh, no.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I think it’s just worth mentioning that during that time in particular, there were so many friends of mine I know that were finally getting more speaking gigs, getting more design gigs, more companies were hitting them up. They were getting more job offers and it’s kind of bittersweet because yeah, it’s great that you see what I’m able to offer, but this is what it had to take for that to happen? And for it to not even be a sustained thing, it’s just sort of this one spike, and then that’s that. It’s crazy.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s like, finally. For me, someone who’s been in the industry for almost 15+ years, who has been around a lot of designers who get awards and things like that, or whatever or just get a lot of recognition; it felt good to finally be recognized in some way, but it was also bittersweet because I’ve been here, I’ve been doing the dang thing. I’ve been doing a great job at it, and in a sense, it’s like you’re not really recognizing me, the work. You’re recognizing me, the black designer. I’m more than that. I do more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or if anything, they’re kind of trying to maybe wallpaper over some corporate guilt.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, not to dwell too much on work or anything, but I’m curious what’s a typical day like for you at Redfin? What’s your day-to-day look like?

Treavor Wagoner:
So my title is product designer, but our design system team is very small. It’s just mainly me and my co-lead, who is a designer as well. So we don’t have a direct manager. We don’t have a product manager in our “pod.” We work with an engineering team, but they’re a separate team. They’re not actually a part of our team, but we work very closely together all the time. So my day-to-day is looking at roadmaps and kind of filling in for the product manager role. It’s also doing some design tasks as well, so designing components, researching systems, checking in with my co-lead to make sure that we’re on track to meet our goals for our MVP of the design system and things like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
Sometimes we get questions from our design system customers, which are designers and engineers from the company. If I know the answer, which most of the time I don’t, I’ll chime in and kind of help out wherever I can. So doing support, thinking about educating, how we’re going to educate our customers about the new system that we’re working on, checking in with our stakeholders as we’re building the design system, to make sure that we’re in alignment and we’re doing fulfilling business needs as well as our customer needs. And then also making sure our partners we work with to build the system are happy and aligned with us as well. It’s a lot of engagement. It’s a lot of communication, which for me as an introvert can be a little draining sometimes. But I would say that I have a pretty good self care regimen. I could do better, but I try my best.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think especially throughout the pandemic, we’re all just trying to hold on. Especially with all these other things that are happening out in the world that are not pandemic related that are still compounding stress. I don’t want to specifically give name to any tragedies, but for folks that are listening, they know what’s going on right now in this time in the world. It’s heavy, it’s heavy.

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s like a landmine. You’re just walking through this really beautiful field and you come across landmines here and there. Like you mentioned, not to name any tragedies that have happened, but there’s so many, so take your pick. But each one of those, it affects me. It affects me in some way. I’m an empath, so I see people hurting and I want to do something. I want to take the hurt away, but I can’t do anything about it. Yeah. I feel like the closest I can get is donating money, but even that feels like it’s not enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here and learn more about you and your origin story. Like you mentioned, you’re in Austin, Texas right now. Is that where you grew up?

Treavor Wagoner:
I did not grow up in Austin. Austin was always this cool city, but I grew up near Waco, Texas. Which, if you’re not familiar with Waco for some reason, it is in the center of Texas, central Texas. I grew up in a very small town, maybe 15-20 minutes north of Waco. Very small town, we’re talking less than 900 people growing up. Yeah. I’m from the country. Right now, you’re probably not hearing my Texas accent, but it’s deep in there somewhere.

Treavor Wagoner:
At a certain point, my mother who at the time was a microbiologist, couldn’t find a job in the Waco area. She was also involved with the military. So we had our house in near Waco, but we also lived up in Arlington, Texas, which is in DFW. So we had a dual-residence type situation where we would live in Arlington throughout the week and then go down to the country on the weekends. So I had a city life and a country life at the same time, which I think hopping up and down I-35, sitting in a car for an hour and a half each way kind of yielded into me being a traveler when I got older, and just wanting to explore more of the world, more of our country.

Treavor Wagoner:
When I was at the age where I needed to start going to school, I started going to Christian private school in Arlington. It was non-denominational, so all walks of life were there. Catholic, baptist, Christian, Asian, black, white, Latino, et cetera. The neighborhood that we eventually settled in in Arlington was predominantly Hispanic, or at least it became predominantly Hispanic. And my babysitter who I went to hang out with after school was Hispanic, she was from south Texas and she taught me Spanish.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I was exposed to a lot of culture at a young age, but I was also from a small town, so I faced a lot of small town mindset, which is not being exposed to a lot of different cultures. So I was always met up with encountering people who did not realize that there’s a world outside of the small town, outside of where Walmart Super Center was the biggest thing, the happy place.

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, it was fun. It was interesting, but I eventually had to get out of there because I’m a queer person and it’s a small Texas town, so you can gather what that means for me. But I had to go find myself. I had to see what kind of life I could lead being a black queer person. And that’s where I ended up in Denton, Texas, going to UNT, or University of North Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
So before that, though, you started off at a community college at McLennan, was that in Waco or nearby Waco?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was in Waco. So I went at the same time. I’ve always been kind of an overachiever. I think it’s because of the private school education that I had. But while I was a, I think junior and senior at West High, which is in West comma Texas. We say West comma Texas because when we say West Texas people think Western Texas, and it’s a town called West. You may have heard of it. Speaking of tragedy, there was a fertilizer explosion that kind of almost demolished the whole town. It was around the time the Boston shooting happened in 2013, ’14.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. Anyway, so I went to high school there, but at the same time I did dual credit, which is when you take government and economics and some other courses, you also get college credit for them. So the local community college that was doing that was McClennan community college. So I didn’t actually do full fall spring semesters. I did summer school, summer classes. And then I eventually went to, I transferred those credits to UNT. So I consider University of North Texas my full on college experience, and McClennan, or MCC was my kind of interim exposure to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that a big shift, going from a community college to a four year?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. It was less of a big shift going from community college to a full on university and more of a big shift going from being very sheltered to just all of a sudden having no rules, no one to watch over me or keep me out of trouble or whatever. No one to keep me from figuring out what queerness is or my identity is. So yeah, it was a unique experience, I would say. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, because I would say going from a private education to a public education was far more of a big shift, and that happened when I was in sixth grade, where all of a sudden you’re enforced to be very prim and proper, no cursing, to being in an environment where people are fighting, kids are fighting all over the place, cursing, having sex. Like, what did I get myself into?

Maurice Cherry:
It was a totally different world, it sounds like.

Treavor Wagoner:
It was a totally different world. No offense to Mormons, but I felt like I was a Mormon kid actually going into the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Was your Rumspringa.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. But at 12, 13. Looking back, it’s funny and hilarious, but at the time it was kind of scary. So I would say when I transitioned from graduating from high school and attending some community college courses or doing some community college courses to full on living in a dorm, being on a college campus, meeting people from different parts of the world, I would say that was very exciting for me. I just felt very free.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear that you were dubbed “the guru” while you were there.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, that was a nickname that my manager at the time gave me. That’s funny. I started as a web designer, so I was designing blogs when I was in high school, and online blogs were my saving grace as a black queer person. I didn’t have any friends, really, in high school, so I would just write online and that was my escape. So in escaping to writing blogs, I started designing them and created a service out of that for other bloggers. So I would create their templates, their blog templates. I learned CSS from doing that, and I think a little bit of HTML at the same time, and also got to flex my creative muscle as well and creating color schemes and finding this rinky dink image creation software, editing software, and creating mass heads for blogs and stuff like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
But that led me into wanting to do that as for actually getting paid to do it. And so within a couple of months of being on campus in my freshman year, I found a job flyer for a web designer for the rec center on campus. And I kind of just begged my way into that job. They gave me the job and after about a year or so of doing that, the head of IT for the division that the rec center department was under saw my work, and he was like, “Hey, would you like to do this for the whole division?” And I was like, “What does that entail?” He was like, “That’s like, you get to be the webmaster, web designer for 30 to 40 websites.” And I was like, “Okay, sure.”

Treavor Wagoner:
He was grateful for it because it was cheap labor, but I think that was the first time that I learned how to be… Not learned how to be, but I think that’s where I adopted my skill as in what I call an octopus. Like I mentioned, I had to maintain design, develop 30, 40 sites and they all kind of looked the same, but they had all had to look the same because they reflected the division, not so much their department. So I guess in a sense, it was my first time working with multi-brand design systems, which is crazy, because I didn’t really make that connection until just now. Like oh, I’ve always been working on multi-brand design systems.

Treavor Wagoner:
But because I understood system thinking, even at that age, which was around, I think it was 20, 22, he called me guru. So I understood our process was important. It was almost necessary to maintain that many properties all at once. You have to have some semblance of organization. So he just saw my approach and the fact that I plastered this cubby hole wall that I had. I was working from the storage room because we didn’t have an office or a desk for me to work in. And so while I was in the storage room, I would just plaster all the walls with site maps and diagrams and whatever, just to keep myself organized with all these many different properties that I was maintaining.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was that early post-graduation career like?

Treavor Wagoner:
Because I had already had a lot of experience under my belt already having been paid to do web design, salary wise, I was able to get a high wage for my first job out of college. It was hard because it was at the time where we were having the recession in 2010, so it was very hard to find a job. But once I got a job, I was able to get a high salary. And high salary at that time for me for a, I guess, relatively kind of new designer was $45K in Dallas area. Yeah. I felt like I was going from ravioli eating every night to having a luxury apartment overnight, it felt like. It was interesting. It was a little bit of adjustment, and I don’t think I quite found the balance. Eventually I was let go from that job, and I think that was pretty devastating to experience that. But it led me to creating my own business with my former partner, romantic partner, which was a bad idea.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that business Braver?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was, yeah. It was a combination of our names, but it was also a representative of the kind of work that we wanted to do, which was a traveling philanthropic, but also providing web development solutions to small businesses in the Dallas area. So yeah, and we were able to do that. We actually started our company cash positive, so that’s always been a great accomplishment of my own. It’s not something that people know about, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, that I was able to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re also the co-founder and the executive director of a group called Black UX austin. Tell me about that, and what did you want to sort of get out of that group?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. So going back to talking about leaving a company that I was working for, that I faced some racial discrimination, a researcher that I was working with at the time, Carmen Brunes, she’s also black as well, but she saw what I was going through and she was like, “You need a release. You’re way too talented to be treated this way. And I want to provide an outlet for you to do what you do best.” Two other researchers had started Black UX Austin before I even came along and they just had never been able to get it off the ground, and so she told me that she wanted to actually take it all the way.

Treavor Wagoner:
She wanted to be nationally recognized and be the one stop shop for black people wanting to get into tech, specifically in the Austin area, largely because black people in tech are usually the onlies in the company. That’s the typical experience, whether you’re the only black person on your team, in your organization, in your department. And so you may experience things that if someone like you was around, they would tell you “Girl, you’re going through some shit right now. They’re treating you badly. It’s gaslighting.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So there wasn’t that community there before we came along. I don’t think there was that kind of community in Austin specifically, and if you’ve been to Austin, you know that it’s very white. There’s not that many black people here at all. It’s funny, because one of my best friends asked, I think he was asking someone else and I think one of his other friends had visited Austin and he was like, “Did you see any black people there?” And he was like, “No.” I told him, I was just joking, but I was like, “Yeah, I’m the only one here. I’m right here. You’re talking to the black people or the black community in Austin.” No, just kidding. There’s more than that of course, more than me.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. We started Black UX Austin as a means for black people in tech to have a community, to have a safe space, to not feel like you are being tone policed, to just let your hair down and just be yourself. We started right before the pandemic started and as we were reforming and making it kind of formalized COVID started. And so we were like, “Oh, crap.” So by that point, we had only had one in person event. And then we had to shift everything to be all virtual. And we got so good at it that other black organizations that were in and out of tech were like, “How are you guys doing this?” Because we got really good at it that people on LinkedIn, on maybe Instagram, too, or whatever were seeing what we were doing and were wanting to support.

Treavor Wagoner:
And these are not just black people, but also white people, organizations where they’ve seen or witnessed black people being oppressed or mistreated in some way. They just wanted to support. So there were other black organizations or organizations in general were just asking us, “How are you guys able to grow and thrive online as you’re doing?” Part of it was that I know a lot about creating online community, having been someone who grew up needing community when I was growing up in rural Texas and being the only very sensitive black person in probably a 20-30 mile radius. So I sought online community as much and as often as I could, and so I just learned from that and I think that has warmed its way into or carried its way up to now, which is providing community or safe spaces for other black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I’m mentioning all these aside, but as I did my research, I saw that you’re a poet and you’re an author. Tell me about that, particularly about the impetus behind your latest book. Where did the drive come from for that?

Treavor Wagoner:
My gosh. So first of all, I don’t call myself a poet. I do write poetry, but I don’t feel that it fits me well. I call myself a writer. Poetry is not the only writing that I will do. I want to do more memoirs and things like that, but actually I didn’t get my degree in design or web design or anything like that. I got my degree in creative writing. I had started to pursue creative writing and communication design, which if you’re not familiar, communication design, at least at UNT, it encompasses advertising and graphic design. So not web design, but it is design or the visual aspect of design. And at the time, it was the closest thing that I could get to a design degree.

Treavor Wagoner:
And my minor is in computer education and cognitive systems, which translation, that means a couple of courses in installing Linux systems and some Adobe Photoshop courses. So yeah, that was the closest I could get to having a web design degree at that time, which was between 2006 and 2010. But eventually I ran out of financial aid and I just stuck with the English creative writing aspect of my life. So growing up, I’ve always had, I guess, an affinity for writing. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and so I started writing songs at 12, just because I had seen one of my favorite songwriters, Mariah Carey. You may laugh, but she’s a great songwriter. Obviously we know a lot of our songs. I’ve always just written lyrical poems. Yeah. There’s a floppy disk somewhere in my storage somewhere of maybe 500 lyrical poems I had written when I was a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Not a floppy disc. You got to get it off the floppy disk, man.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I know. You know what, I think at some point I did translate them to modern digital at some point, so they’re probably somewhere on a hard drive somewhere maybe. But yeah, I don’t know if I want to revisit those, to be honest. They’re probably terrible. But yeah, while I was at UNT, I got my English degree and like I mentioned before, I had started my UX product design career. Product design is kind of like a jealous mistress when it comes to my other abilities, so my writing kind of had to be pushed to the side, but eventually I was approaching 30 and I was like, “What can I do very quickly that I can be proud of my twenties for?” And that was creating or writing a book.

Treavor Wagoner:
And so I self-published my first title, which is called The Remaining Trouble and Other Battles. And then during the pandemic, I kind of remixed it and expanded it and republished it as So Much Trouble. And in terms of writing, it’s probably the project that I’m most proud of, because the way I was able to produce it is how I envisioned it, and the quality is great in terms of design and writing. I was just very proud of it. I think all creatives should have something that they’re just absolutely proud of that they did. I feel like that’s very rare. Even if you do great work that other people admire, this level of self deprecation that designers have, or they don’t fully love the work that they do, even if it’s great. So I think that everybody should have that one project where they’re just like, “I absolutely love the shit out of this thing.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, the book is about, it’s a book of poetry, a collection of poetry about based on a time in my life where I had experienced relationship trauma. What I aimed to do with the book was to really just tell a story of a black kid who didn’t know how, but just really wanted to be loved and to love. And I feel it’s intense at times, but I love how it came out and anyone who’s read it has told me the same.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when I asked you earlier about what you wanted to discuss, you had told me a few things that I kind of want to unpack a little bit. You said navigating a box-based world as an odd shape. You said unlearning harmful habits, and you said self parenting. Talk to me about it. What’s on your heart?

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s very woo woo, and that’s kind of where I’m at in my mid-thirties right now. This is not the case for everybody, but for a few millennials, we’ve grown up in and seen some shit. We’ve grown up in a time where our parents told us one thing and the world is actually another. So there’s a great deal of, at least when you identify as black and queer or gay, and so those are two communities that have seen a lot of shit go down and who have experienced a lot of things, a lot of terrible things we’re talking. If you’re black, you know what we’ve been through, but in terms of the queer community, AIDS, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic/pandemic and the fallout, the religious fallout of that. People who are religious saying you’re going to hell because you got aids or because you’re gay or whatever.

Treavor Wagoner:
And just living in fear of identifying as gay and over time, I’ve learned to unlearn all of the survival tactics that I’ve had to learn growing up in rural Texas or growing up in Texas in general. Age 35, I’m trying to just radically authentically be myself and love myself and encourage other people to do the same. Not living under any guises, any false pretenses or anything like that. Just be yourself and love in that. I’m finding that it is yielding a great improvement in your health, in your physical health and your mental health as well. It’s really important to just be yourself. So that’s where I’m at.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think you mentioned self parenting, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a black queer person and he was like, “We need somebody to speak on the unique experience of being a black queer cis male and the relationship with our mothers.” My relationship with my mother has been very rocky. When I came out to her at 19, I wasn’t under her roof. She maybe would have disowned me completely, so I’m glad that I had the wherewithal and the knowledge to just wait until I was out of her house to tell her who I actually am.

Treavor Wagoner:
After that, I think we were even more distant than we were already, because I think moms know, but once you say the words, then they actually know, and there’s no denying it, and so I think that created a bigger rift between you, too. And so because of that, there were things that as a, what we call in the community “baby gay,” or somebody who’s fresh to the gay community, there are some things that I experienced that I really could have benefited from having a parent there or some kind of mentor or something to kind of guide me through all this newness, and I didn’t have that necessarily.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I had to learn how to self parent. I had to learn how to look at the seven year old, who was scared to be himself and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” To just learn to love myself. And I think that plays out in every aspect of my life, even my professional career. There are times where I deal with imposter syndrome or just being in spaces where I wasn’t previously, and now I all of a sudden am because of the great shift in thinking in the industry. I’m specifically talking about summer 2020, where all of a sudden the gates that I wasn’t allowed to enter through, all of a sudden I am, but I have no understanding of how this new arena plays out or how to be or anything like that. So I deal with imposter syndrome.

Treavor Wagoner:
And then you know what I do? The kid who just felt very ostracized, very on the outside of everything, on the outside of blackness, on the outside of queerness, just because I didn’t have access to it, that plays out. And so what ends up happening is when that little kid comes out, the 35 year old bubbles up and says, “You’re okay, I got you.” And that is essentially self parenting, basically being your own advocate and standing up for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’re still trying to find yourself?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think if you’re living, you should be, because we’re always changing. I identify as a seeker. I think it plays out in my travel habit. I’m usually traveling by myself, and I prefer it that way, largely because traveling is not vacation for me most of the time. It’s me thinking and writing in exotic places, in dirty places or whatever, what have you. Just being here, there and everywhere, just trying to learn about myself in different environments.

Treavor Wagoner:
Also, I feel like growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone, and so that’s why I do that. I want to learn as much as possible about myself. And I find it to be a common thing where people don’t want to do that either it’s from fear or they’re afraid of what they might find or lack of self confidence, which I totally understand. But I don’t want to live in fear in my life, so I put on a brave face and I go into the unknown. So, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there was a lot of subtext in that inhale just then. But black person to black person, I felt that. I felt that. If you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you want to do? What would you want to try to do?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. That’s related to the question of if you weren’t a designer, what would you be? And I would say if I weren’t a designer, I would probably be a professional entertainer, a singer or songwriter or something. Being a designer in the tech world, it can be very technical, very heady stuff. I find I want to flex my emotional muscle more. I try to do that as a system designer. As designers, we’re empathic anyway, or we have a lot of empathy. It’s just a part of the job, but it’s in a technical space most of the time, so you can’t really go too deep with it and understand fully what your empathic abilities are. But with creative careers like music or writing or even acting, you get to explore that more and understand humanity more or better. That’s what I would be.

Treavor Wagoner:
But if I were to stay in this hypothetical situation, if I were to stay within the tech industry, I think I’m close to what I dream of being. This is going to sound very nerdy, but hey, we’re all nerds here. Kind of like a special agent designer in the realm of design systems where I help teams adopt the design system, where I basically do the dirty work for them of taking the existing product and essentially almost creating kind of a new version of that product with the design system and basically going “bippity boppity boo,” over amount of time, taking what was old and crusty and putting some shine on it, making it golden, saving the day in that way. I’m almost there.

Treavor Wagoner:
A part of it is trying to get business to understand what design systems even are, and then also getting them to understand the pain point of a feature team adopting a design system and how hard and strenuous it is. So if there was someone like me or a team that I was a part of to go in and do that hard work for them and essentially save the day, get some happy smiles in there, make the business feel like their employees are happy just because somebody came in and helped them out, then that’s what I would love to do. I’m a person who, I don’t care about promotion. I don’t care about money. It’s more about how I make people feel. I want to help people. And if I can help people with their jobs, their day to day, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like my job is rewarding. So yeah, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
What career advice would you give to somebody, they’re listening to you talk, they’re listening to your story and they see that you’ve had this very, I think non-linear career path, is probably a good way to describe it. What career advice would you give to someone who is walking that same sort of path?

Treavor Wagoner:
There was advice that I’d gotten from design evangelist Steven Anderson, when I was, I guess, fresh out of college and at the height of being really unhappy with my first job out of college. He gave the advice of have fun with your career. And I’m going to expound on that and say, don’t just get a job get a craft, something that you can believe in, something that makes you happy and makes you joyful. It makes you want to wake up in the morning and get to it, jump into it. I’m so glad that design systems has become a thing, because when I wake up in the morning, I’m really excited to just jump in with design system stuff. I really geek out on it to the point where people don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, because I’m speaking a different language, I’m speaking a systems’ language, and they’re usually speaking a product language.

Treavor Wagoner:
But yeah, that’s what my advice would be is have fun with your career. I think something that we didn’t talk about really was at a certain point, I was a career contractor, so I was kind of like a handyman and that meant I was taking on jobs three months or six months at a time in Austin, Dallas, Seattle, or if I wasn’t anchored to a city, I was traveling full time around the country, doing things. At times, I was working from Costa Rica while I was backpacking and things like that. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to just not do things the typical way, and it has always made it fun. My favorite thing is to tell people things like that and to see their face is like, “Really? What?” Just shock people. So have fun with your career.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Treavor Wagoner:
I’m going to ask a clarifying question. Do you mean professionally or do you mean in my personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean any way that you wish to take it.

Treavor Wagoner:
I was hoping you would say one or the other, because that would make it easier. But I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m thinking a lot about my personal life. I’ve given a lot of attention to my professional life up to this point, and like I mentioned before, product design or my design career has been like a jealous mistress of anything else that I try to focus on. So I had the great ability during my seven month road trip last year to kind of do both. I think about where I want to go from here or from that point, and also foster my design career. And I see myself retiring from design. I haven’t really told anybody that. I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would love to.

Maurice Cherry:
Why don’t you think it’s feasible?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think because I’m thinking very realistically, I’m looking at my finances and I’m thinking, “Okay, you want to do this and this and this and this and this and this. How are you going to pay for that? Oh, right. You have to have a job, Treavor. Come on. Get real.” So I would love to get to a point where design is not my only main means of income. I’ll say it that way, where it’s not my only means of income. Maybe I’m still doing design systems in some way, but it’s not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m finding balance. That’s where I want to be in five years, is maintaining a balance where I’m loving life still, I’m loving doing design systems or helping people with design systems, but I’m also creating a family.

Treavor Wagoner:
I feel like with my career, I haven’t fully been able to do that. I’ve been very much a career girl. So yeah. So to be able to kind of invest more in, like I mentioned before, the emotional side of myself and have family and people. I guess just foster more relationships. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s where I’m at. I’m kind of thinking on the spot a little bit, but that’s where I want to see myself in five years, is feeling balanced, full of joy, and loving what I do in terms of work. And I’m almost there. I feel like I’m almost there, and it feels really good to be almost there, whereas before it felt like it was a long time away.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you about your work? Where can they find that online?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So you can find out more about my writing and my design@treavorwagoner.com. My name is spelled a little weird, I have some extra letters in there, so I’ll spell it for you. It’s T-R-E-A-V-O-R W-A-G-O-N-E-R.com, and you can go to my design page and you won’t have access to my portfolio, but you’ll see all the other nerdy things that I write about there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @TreavorWagoner. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Treavor Wagoner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I get the sense that you are someone that is at a crossroads right now. Usually when I give these post scripts, when I’m talking to the guests, I’m saying that you’re doing great work, which is not to say that you’re not doing great work, but I really feel this sense of tension within you, like you’re at a crossroads right now. I would be interested to see if in the next five years you fulfilled that balance that you’re seeking.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. I’ve been seeking, living that persona for years, and as a seeker, you eventually find. And so that’s probably part of the tension, is the realization, I would say, as a seeker is that you realize what you’re looking for, you have already had. And so now that I’ve kind of realized that I’ve always had it, now I get to actually discover it more, what I already have, and enjoy it. That’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:
How profound.

Treavor Wagoner:
I am a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
Treavor Wagoner, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Treavor Wagoner:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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Liz Montague

If you’ve been a regular reader of The New Yorker magazine, then you may already be familiar with this week’s guest, Liz Montague. (But if you’re not, then this conversation is a perfect introduction!) Liz is the first Black woman to have a cartoon featured in The New Yorker, and now she’s an author with her first book set to hit bookstores everywhere in the Fall. Everything’s coming up Liz!

Our conversation begin with a quick life update, and from there Liz talked about starting her comic “Liz at Large” as a college student. She also talked about how she began contributing to The New Yorker, and spoke about representation, how that’s reflected in her work, and her future books (plural!) that are on the way. Liz is proof that self-determination and hard work definitely pay off in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Liz Montague:
Hi, my name is Liz Montague, and I’m an author, illustrator and cartoonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, before we get more into learning about your work and about your journey as an author/illustrator/cartoonist, tell me, how has this year been going for you so far?

Liz Montague:
This has actually been a really good year. I mean, I think personally, it’s been really good year. I just got married. I just bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Liz Montague:
Thank you. In a personal and material way, I guess it’s been super good. I mean, professionally it’s been really good, too. It’s been my first year working on book projects, which is very new for me, having come from the news media world. It was a very tumultuous past few years for everybody, and being on the news side of that was really exhausting. So I think this has been a really calm year, I’d say

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I guess as calm as getting married and also moving into a new house. I’d imagine there’s probably been some stress around that, even just with the pandemic and everything.

Liz Montague:
I mean, it’s less stressful than covering the Trump presidency and 2020, COVID, all of that and trying to do it in record time with deadlines and everything. That was way more stressful than this, 100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. I get that, totally. I totally do. What lessons did you learn over this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved?

Liz Montague:
I would say that I prioritized just my mental health. I feel like everyone’s saying that and that people say it so much, it starts to not mean anything. This is the first year I really started saying no to things. And that’s been kind of scary, but empowering, but also terrifying. I don’t know. I’m still learning.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think that’s something that a lot of people are still learning, is to say no. I think the pandemic, of course, forced everyone to not just slow down, but in many cases to just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that we’re at this point, though we’re not completely out of the pandemic, we’re at this point where restrictions are being lifted and rates have gone down to a point where we now have to try to come out of this period with some new normal. And what this time has forced everyone to do is just sort of reevaluate their commitment to work, their commitment to being busy and all that sort of stuff.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And the pandemic and the pause that it caused happened at such a weird time in my life where I was 24, and I’d already been working at The New Yorker for two years and had been doing this work for about two years. And now where we’re at now, I’m 26 and I’m trying to really figure out, “Holy crap, what do I want to be when I grow up?” And I didn’t expect that question to scare me so much. It’s terrifying.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, in your 20s, it is a scary thing. Especially, God, I’m thinking even now with everything that’s happening right now, it can be hard to think about, “What does a future look like?” I totally understand that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Thoughts around that right now is just like, “Okay, so I’m done, what do I want to keep doing? What new things do I want to do? What do I want to try? Is there still time to try things and be bad at them and new at them? Or am I at a point where I’m just supposed to try things and automatically be good, because that’s what people might expect?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll say with you being in your 20s, you totally have the time to try and fail at stuff. The 20s are for that, the 20s are your time to do that. Your 30s are sort of your time to sort of refine the process. And then hopefully by your 40s, you have it figured out. I’m saying this now because I just turned 41 recently. But you hope to have it figured out by that point.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:06:02].

Maurice Cherry:
But I can definitely say in hindsight, in your 20s, that’s the time to… I don’t want to say make those mistakes, but that’s the time where you can sort of have those errors and it doesn’t affect you long-term into the future, that kind of thing.

Liz Montague:
Everything feels like you’re one wrong move away from crumbling it all. But I know that that’s not actually true. Even if it feels like it’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go ahead and jump into Liz at Large. For those listening who for some reason have never heard of Liz at Large, can you give an introduction?

Liz Montague:
Liz at Large is a single panel cartoon series that I actually started my sophomore year of college. I was just trying to sort out my own mind to myself. And I just kind of started drawing these cartoons where my dog, my childhood dog, to me would give me advice.

Liz Montague:
And it just started as a super casual thing that I would post on Instagram. And my teammates, because I was on the track and field team in college, would be like, “Oh my God, I love that cartoon. Where’s the next one?” And they would really kind of just hold me accountable to just keep doing it. And I just really just stuck with it.

Liz Montague:
And then eventually after I was out of college, I was working as a graphic designer. I was already working for The New Yorker at the time. I was able to make it into a single panel cartoon into the Washington City Paper, which was a lot of fun.

Liz Montague:
But then it’s a different ballgame once you have deadlines and you need to worry about, “Well, how is this going to print?” And the kind of evergreen nature that it needed to be, because when the deadline is versus when it would print was two weeks apart. So it’s really kind of grown and shifted with me, which is kind of cool to have that to look back on and know where I was mentally when I made it. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to ask, have there been new changes and things that you have introduced to the comic as your life has gone on?

Liz Montague:
Stylistically it’s changed a bit, where I think it got a little bit more fluid as time went on. When I look at the old versions of it and old cartoons of it, it feels very rigid, like I was really afraid of messing up. And then as time went on, I think it got a little bit looser. I think I was willing to kind of play around with environments more.

Liz Montague:
And then it changed even more once it was in the Washington City Paper, because then it’s like, “Okay, there’s a deadline. Okay, there’s an audience that’s actually going to see this.” As opposed to, the internet is kind of a black hole. You’re kind of, sort of thinking of an audience, but you’re not really thinking about, “Oh wow, someone’s going to tangibly hold this in their hand.” And that tangibility kind of made me a bit more nervous.

Liz Montague:
And then I think that the content of it kind of had to zoom out a lot more. Again, because there was that two week period versus when it was due and when it would print. For a daily, local newspaper, you don’t know what could be going on in the world at that time. And then what ended up going on in the world at that time was the Trump presidency and eventually COVID, and we were in the middle of Washington DC. So it was big news there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, I’m thinking during that time, I can imagine everything during that time was about voting, the presidency. Yeah, I could see in DC how that would be really… Well, I’m curious. Knowing that stuff was going on as you were doing the comic, did you sort of feel a need to speak to the times in that sort of way?

Liz Montague:
I mean, it was almost impossible for me to be super responsive in the way that I would be for a New Yorker daily cartoon or something just because I knew, like, “Okay, by the time that this is actually printed a week or two from now, there could be a whole new thing. There could be a whole new something else going on.” I actually ended up zooming in to my own life and making it hyperspecific to whatever I needed to hear, and then just hoping that it would work out for whenever it was printed.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably a really good strategy too, I mean, to just make it more focused on you. I mean, it is called Liz at Large, it’s not World at Large.

Liz Montague:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it makes sense to focus it on you and your life as opposed to trying to make it some sort of regular bulletin about what’s happening in the world.

Liz Montague:
[inaudible 00:10:09] sure, and there was already enough of that. And I was like, “You know what? This isn’t for that. So I’m going to just do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that ends, what was the feeling that you wanted to really capture with Liz at Large?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, it was really just for fun. Just to see what my friends would say, what I would say. But I think as I continued doing it, I realized that the power that emotional literacy could have of just taking a second to stop and think, and think about how you feel. Think about what you need to hear, what I needed to hear and taking the time to write that down, and that could actually have a profound effect on your life.

Liz Montague:
And I think that that kind of really became a big why for me, as far as just emotional literacy matters, the way that especially in… It’s always weird to speak on the Black community, but it’s like how in the Black community, emotional literacy talking about your feelings, addressing your feelings is kind of just an issue that really needs to be sorted out. And how it could just make everything so much better if we just stopped and felt and processed. And I don’t know, just the impact that it have. I hope that made sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, it made sense. I think if that’s something people can grasp from the comic, particularly from a single panel comic, I think that’s really powerful. To that end, there’s so much about Black people that’s reflected through not just the media, but through different types of media, through cartoons, through movies, et cetera. And so if you’re able to not only make it hyperspecific to your life, but then also try to make it unique to the quote/unquote “Black experience,” which is such a varied, vast concept, it’s impossible to do that.

Liz Montague:
I worked in nonprofit at the time. I was a graphic designer at a nonprofit when I lived in DC. And I remember I read research on the racial empathy gap. And about how there’s research on it, about how for whatever reason… I mean, not for whatever reason, we know what the reasons are. But white on audiences have a really hard time connecting with people of different skin tones, especially darker skin tones.

Liz Montague:
Because at the time I was working for a nonprofit that was mainly geared toward and focused on brown people, Middle Eastern people. So it was just wild to realize that this is empirically researched information and that the impact of it is everywhere where it is. Well, why are there so many white leads in these cartoon shows? Why are there so many white leads in these regular movies and books, et cetera? And the idea that it’s harder for white audiences to connect with, I don’t know, different skin tones, different genders.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think that’s more on the forefront now with people talking about the recent movie Turning Red and about how people felt like they couldn’t… Not people. There was one white man in particular who did an interview who said that he couldn’t connect with it. And it was just, “I can’t connect with this, da, da, da, da, da.”

Liz Montague:
And it was because it was about a girl going through puberty who didn’t look like him. And it’s like, “Okay, but we all watched A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, and I’m not a rat and I was able to connect with Ratatouille, but.” I just totally went on a whole tangent there, I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I’m glad you mentioned the Turning Red thing, because I was thinking about that as you were saying that, that sort of empathy gap. Because as people of color, we are forced to kind of make that gap when we see so much media that doesn’t involve us.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when you have this one thing, particularly an animated thing geared towards children and then some grown-ass white man is like, “Well, this doesn’t represent me.” Well, it probably doesn’t because it’s not geared towards you. It’s not about you. But look how many other things out there in the world are geared towards you and about you. Do you know what I mean? It’s so weird.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Yep. It’s the weirdest thing, but there’s literal evidence on it. And how much can a single panel, or even whatever other cartoons in the world, how much impact can they really have? I don’t know. But I was like, “Maybe if I put these universal feelings with a darker-skinned Black girl, maybe this could help someone close that gap.” Not that it’s Black people’s job to teach anybody how to feel, but I think that that was part of the intent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me a bit through the process of creating the comic. You mentioned having to sort of have it in by these specific deadlines. Does that mean that you sort of batch a bunch of comics together? How does that work?

Liz Montague:
Oh my God. It was the jankiest process ever. I was still figuring things out and working my full-time graphic design job and a million other things. And it was due every Thursday, and it would print two Thursdays after it was due. And I would have to get done the… There would have to be the social media size and then the regular size for when it would print.

Liz Montague:
And I would only submit one each week and I would sit there for, I kid you not, hours and stare at the wall and be like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what to say right now, and I have a deadline, and the editor’s texting me.” It was a mess. It was a hot mess really, but we made it through.

Maurice Cherry:
And you said that there was also kind of the added thing of seeing it in the paper. I’m sure at that point, you’re gaining a whole new audience outside of your friends on Instagram. How did people react to it when they saw this in the paper? Did you get a boost in clients or anything? How did that happen? What happened?

Liz Montague:
Honestly, I don’t really know. I guess I got wider reach, for sure. I think that tangible media, things that you can hold, just ends up in different people’s hands in a way that… There’s a lot of digital noise and people scroll and don’t always really stop and look. And I think that it being something tangible in people’s hands enabled them to stop and look more.

Liz Montague:
But I do know that after, once it was in the Washington City Paper, I ended up getting reached out to by a random blog. And they were like, “Oh, can we interview you or whatever?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then I did that interview, and then through that, that’s how the editor from Random House founded me, and that’s how I got my first book deal. So you never know what can lead to what. So the two things are probably distantly connected.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I want to kind of dig a bit more into your origin story. Now you mentioned living in DC, is that where you’re from originally?

Liz Montague:
No, I’m from South Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. So being from South Jersey and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of drawing and art as a kid?

Liz Montague:
I mean, yeah, I think I was. I think I have a very artsy family. Both my parents went to Pratt. My mom’s an architect, my dad’s an engineer. So I have two older sisters and we were all very exposed to that. And it was super encouraged. And my parents had a lot of friends who had been artists or were artists.

Liz Montague:
But it was always, “Oh yeah, Charlie can be artist, his parents just gave him a brownstone.” It was very clear who could be kind of what you think about when you think of a traditional quote/unquote “studio artist.” And that there was definitely a wealth gap in between that, versus who needed to have a more desk job type artist thing. Architecture, engineering, graphic design, which is what I ended up going into. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess knowing that growing up, you were drawing and kind of having this interest in it… And you said both of your parents went to Pratt, but you didn’t go to Pratt. You went to the University of Richmond.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Well, so my mom’s from the south side of Chicago, my dad’s from Brooklyn and he grew up in the projects. So they didn’t have traditional four-year college experiences. My dad went to junior college first and then went to Pratt on a basketball scholarship. My mom started out at Hampton and then eventually made her way to New York and finished her degree over a decade.

Liz Montague:
So for me, they were just kind of like, “Well, you run track and your older sister ran track and she got a scholarship, so you’re going to get a scholarship too.” And I was just kind of like, “Okay.” And University of Richmond just happened to be where I got my athletic scholarship. And that’s why I went there. I had fun.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was going to say, there’s actually a pretty strong Hampton University to pipeline.

Liz Montague:
There is?

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say I probably had about… I know I’ve had at least three guests on the show where that’s been the case. Yeah, it’s a pretty strong pipeline. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, that it’s from HBCU to design school in that way. Tell me about your time at University of Richmond. How was that experience?

Liz Montague:
I flipped around majors a lot. I went into college knowing that I liked to draw, but not really… Even with parents who went to Pratt and were in the arts, I had no intention whatsoever of even studying art, minoring it, anything. I was like, “I’m going to get a business degree.”

Liz Montague:
And that totally didn’t work out. I hated it so much. I tried to do computer science, anthropology, English, and none of it worked. And then it was towards the end of my sophomore year and my academic advisor was like, “Listen, you need to pick a major or you might not graduate on time.” And my scholarship was for four years and I was determined to graduate in four years. And then I was like, “Okay, just put down studio art.” And that’s how it happened. I know it’s not the best story, but it’s the truth, so.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program there?

Liz Montague:
It was really intimate, which I think I needed, especially at that time. There were more faculty than students in the major. It’s a very, very small school. I think University of Richmond has 3000 students, which was smaller than my high school. I went to a really huge rural New Jersey high school that had thousands of kids.

Liz Montague:
And our senior year, my senior year, there were five majors, we were all women, and we had six professors. So we were outnumbered by our professors. It just allowed you to have a really one-on-one experience. There was room to just try things and figure things out, and we were given a lot of freedom, which I really appreciated. It helped to really just kind of be self-motivated and not rely on, “Okay, well here’s a syllabus. Do this, this and this.” You’re really able to kind of carve your own path, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, it does. I was going to say, I imagine that’s really super empowering. To have not only that kind of intimate class kind of setting and makeup, but then your being able to kind of work closer with your professors, with people like that. Because I’ve had folks on the show before that have went to larger schools or went to art schools and stuff, and that kind of one-to-one kind of relationship is tough to get.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And I knew that it was definitely like I kind of lucked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something pretty cool happened. Now you’ve kind of alluded to it a bit earlier in the interview, but something pretty cool happened around your senior year with The New Yorker magazine. Tell me about that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I was a super brand new 22, felt very old and mature. I had just heard back a graphic design job, was super pumped, I was like, “I’m moving to DC. I’m about to be such a grownup.” And then was at the office for something, I don’t even know what, and was supposed to be working, fully supposed to be not on my phone, but I was.

Liz Montague:
And I was on Instagram, scrolling through, and on my explore page or something, The New Yorker cartoons page came up and I was just scrolling through it. And I was like, “Oh, wow. All of these cartoons are white. Every single character in these are white, it’s all kind of the same perspective over and over again. I wonder if they know?”

Liz Montague:
At the time, my headspace was in brand new, about to start at a nonprofit job in DC where I’ve just been trained on all of these unknown biases that people have and corporate structures and yada, yada, yada. So in my mind I was like, “Oh, they just must not know that they’re using all white characters. Let me just tell them, they have no idea.” And so I just hit the email button and was like, “Hey guys, don’t know if you’re aware, but all of your cartoons are white. You guys should do something about that. Best of luck.”

Liz Montague:
And that was really it. And I did not expect to hear anything back. And then I got an email back and they were like, “Oh…” It was Emma Allen, who’s the editor there. She was like, “Oh yeah, we’re aware, da, da, da, da. Is there anyone that you would recommend?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, me. Yeah, I draw cartoons.” Literally, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, at all.

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, you shot, though.

Liz Montague:
I saw an opportunity and I took it. I saw a window and I ran through that thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, one of my favorite sayings is fortune favors the bold. And I mean, you saw an opportunity, you went for it. And so after you did that, after you pitched yourself and said that, did they reach out to you and say, “Let’s see what you got?” What happened?

Liz Montague:
Basically. It was like, “Okay, well send us something.” And then I think I that night was trying to cobble together some sketches. And it was 50 sketches before I got one yes. Once I got one, I was like, “Okay, so this is what they’re looking for.” And then you get two, and then three, and then four. And then you’re able to start contributing regularly.

Liz Montague:
But there was definitely a very steep learning curve. Because I remember when I first told my dad, “Oh, I’m going to have a cartoon in The New Yorker.” He was like, “What’s The New Yorker?” That was not-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
And he’s from New York, but he’s not from that New York. So it’s just like my frame of reference for The New Yorker was their Instagram account. I had no frame of reference for a physical magazine for The New Yorker brand.

Liz Montague:
But I think that was kind of a really big advantage, to come from the outside. Because I think that a common problem that they have, or a common thing that happens with people who submit is that they’re trying to emulate The New Yorker voice. But I had no idea that there was a New Yorker voice, so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, and also when I think… I mean I’m in Atlanta, so I don’t know… I mean, I know of The New Yorker, but when I think of that magazine just in my mind’s eye, I’m thinking it’s a maybe more upper middle class audience, white audience that mostly would be paying attention to or reading The New Yorker.

Maurice Cherry:
But then it’s also online and I look at a ton of stuff from The New Yorker online, so. Even in it’s just design stylings, I feel like that’s who it’s trying to sort of cater itself towards. So when you said you have to try to find what that voice was, was it about trying to tailor yourself to that audience, or more so tailoring yourself to what just the editor wanted at The New Yorker?

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think probably a little of both, because this was my first professional art job ever. Kind of straight into the fire, so to speak, where I didn’t have any concept of, “Oh, this is the deadline and if it’s not in by the deadline, it’s not going to print.” And of, “Oh, these are finals and you’re going to keep doing it until it’s right.”

Liz Montague:
And of atmosphere and what skin tones can print and what skin tones can’t print. And will it smudge into the black lines so then you won’t be able to read facial expressions?There’s such a learning curve there in general, and then on top of that… And I talked really openly with my editor, Emma, about that at the time, about, “Well, Black humor isn’t going to be funny to people who read The New Yorkers.”

Liz Montague:
And I remember I said that to her point blank, via email. I talked to her about that, where it was just, what I might find culturally funny might not be able to be in this magazine because of the voice and the audience that you’re targeting. So where does that leave me if what, because of cultural things, because of societal things, I find funny but can’t be published here, what am I… Am I supposed to, I don’t know, put myself in the shoes of if I were middle class and white?” So that was a huge barrier, but I figured it out. I mean, I got some zingers in there. I definitely got some zingers in there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine once people discovered that you were the first Black woman cartoonist in The New Yorker, that probably also expanded who read The New Yorker.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I would get DMs like that where it’s like, “Oh, I read The New Yorker now because of you.” And I’m like, “Oh God, $12 a magazine? Please, spare yourself.” But I mean, I don’t know. It’s such a weird, hard conversation to have, because it’s-

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, let’s dig into that a little bit. What makes it weird?

Liz Montague:
I think because it can be hard for institutions to own that conversation, and then it’s kind of deflected into, “Oh, well maybe there was somebody else, and what about this? And well, we don’t really know people’s racial identity and what…”

Liz Montague:
And then it’s interesting how with these conversations about first and what’s overdue, whatever, it’s like a lot of times the conversation ends up on the individuals rather than the institutions where it’s like, “So why didn’t you guys hire anybody in the last 100 years?” You know? And it’s like, “Am I at 22,” or at the time at 22, “equipped to have that conversation? Equipped to really navigate the waters of this and navigate other people’s identities, navigate the commodification of my own identity? Am I really?”

Liz Montague:
It’s a minefield, and I think that especially right now, where we’re at as a society, it’s just whatever you share is then up for sale and you have to be willing to be not just branded, but then speak on behalf of that entire community, and then have it challenged.

Liz Montague:
And then especially for The New Yorker audience, which was used to a very specific kind of perspective and thing, and then to have me not offer that very specific thing, people didn’t take it very well sometimes. I got some wild emails. Yeah, I think that there’s one cartoon I have where it’s the girl’s hair bit off someone’s hand. They don’t sell it on the Condé Nast store. It’s the only cartoon of mine that they don’t sell on the Condé Nast store.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
It’s just weird. Did I answer that well?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think you did. Because as you sort of said that, what sort of becomes apparent to me and hopefully to the listener is there’s this layer of activism that ends up getting added to your work that you not only didn’t ask for or volunteer for, but you didn’t include in the original work.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:29:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I mean your cartoons, like you said, they’re about kind of slice of life sorts of things. You didn’t intend to layer some deep social message or anything into it, but that’s how people are perceiving it based on your identity.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like everybody who’s from a marginalized group is forced into the role of activist. And it’s like, especially having lived in DC, I’m first generation suburban, nobody else in my family grew up in the suburbs. The people are fighting a good fight, but that’s such a thing to just put on somebody, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
It’s just a hard thing to navigate because then it’s like you don’t get a rest ever. And I think that that’s kind of what I realized, especially towards the end of 2020, with everything going on with the police and with George Floyd and everything, where I was just like, “Man, I’m tired.” I was just so tired and drained.

Liz Montague:
And that was the last cartoon I did for The New Yorker where it was, I think the text was, “Oh, my white friends think racism is new.” Or something like that. It just makes you tired.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the feeling. I totally know that feeling. Prior to doing this podcast, when I was… when did I start the Black Weblog Awards? I think it was 24? 23 or 24. I started this event online called the Black Weblog Awards. And this was back in 2004 or 2005, really kind of pre-social media. Definitely pre-Twitter, but pre-social media. Facebook, I think, was just starting to transition out of being only for college students and opening it up to everyone in the world, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I wanted to do, because I was an active blogger at the time myself, what I wanted to do was make this event that would celebrate Black bloggers that I knew of that were doing great things. Because I saw that there were other blog awards out there. There were two that were both called The Weblog Awards, although one kind of shortened their name to The Bloggies or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw with the winners is like, “Well, all the winners are white.” And I know that there’s people of color that are out here blogging, particularly Black people. And what got me was one of the awards had a category that was Best African or Middle Eastern Blog, and all of the nominees were white and the winner was white. And I’m like, “You mean to tell me out of the entire huge continent of Africa and the probably similarly huge section of the Middle East, only white people? I find that’s very hard to believe.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so I started the Black Weblog Awards sort of in opposition, but also to celebrate the community that I knew about that I was kind of a part of. And when I sort of talked about that layer of activism that gets added onto there, just calling it the Black Weblog Awards invited so much criticism and unnecessary hate. And this is, again, this is pre-Obama. So this is this at a time in the world, it’s post-9/11, pre-Obama, where Black and brown people really not really favored that well in terms of the media and such.

Maurice Cherry:
But I did that for seven years, ended up selling it to a friend of mine. And I mean, even as the years went on with it, it was amazing how the reception to the event changed as society changed. So around 2007, 2008, Obama’s running for president and such. Comments I kept getting back about the Black Weblog Awards is, “Well, I mean, we’re post-racial now. Why does it have to be the Black Weblog Awards? Why can’t it just be the Weblog Awards?” And I’m like, “Well, two of those already exist. And I’m only doing this for Black people. So it is the Black Weblog Awards.”

Maurice Cherry:
But as society changed and the way that people perceived the work that I did changed, I even experienced that with Revision Path when in 2015, I did a talk at South by Southwest in Austin called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was about two years into doing Revision Path, managed to land at South by Southwest with a speaker proposal, did a speech to a room of maybe about… the room sat close to 500 people. There may have been 15 or 20 people in there.

Liz Montague:
Whoa. Intimidating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was there. People were charging their phones, people were asleep in the back, nobody was really paying attention, and I gave this talk. And there were a handful of folks there, “Good job,” that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
When I tell you that presentation didn’t pick up traction until five years later during the summer of unrest, when we heard about what happened with George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department, then it started to pick up steam. And people were like, “Oh, well this is so great. This is so wonderful. We’re trying to center Black voices. We want to know about this presentation.”

Maurice Cherry:
And in my mind, I’m like, “This is five years old, but the way that people are perceiving it now has changed because the culture has changed.” Like I said, there is this layer of activism that gets added to the work that I didn’t necessarily put it there, but you’re attaching it onto it based on your societal values or what’s happening in the world and how you think you should feel about it because it exists.

Liz Montague:
You just said a word. You just said a word.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a lot. And I mean, I can imagine. I mean, I was going to ask this question a little bit later, but that whole thing about representation, we’ve seen this influx of Black artistic talent with cartoons and animation and fine art and such.

Maurice Cherry:
One, you see all these new Black shows and stuff. A lot of those Black shows also have fine art and they’re from Black fine artists. Now you never hear about those artists, that’s a whole other conversation. But it’s so interesting how all of these things and all these shows and movies and such, and they’re in these different genres, but they all kind of have this layer/burden of having to represent for the community. Do you feel like you have to do that through your work now?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, I definitely did. I definitely felt a lot of pressure. I mean, especially based on where I’m from. So I’m from rural South Jersey. There was a soybean farm behind my childhood house. So very, very rural, very white.

Liz Montague:
And I just remember what we would be told as the few Black people in town was, “Every white person’s opinion of a Black person is going to be formed based on how you act. So you better act right. Or else you’re damning every other Black person they’re going to meet.”

Liz Montague:
And so that was kind of the framework that I had. And I think that I just kept feeling like, “I don’t want to mess this up for anybody else.” In the cartooning world, at The New Yorker, I don’t know, in the spaces that I felt that I was at, I just didn’t want to mess it up for anyone else. So I wanted to make sure that I was saying yes to everything and super amenable and like, “Oh, no worries, it’s fine. It’s okay if you don’t have the budget for it.” Just very overly accommodating.

Liz Montague:
And then I just got sick of it and was just like, “You know what? This isn’t sustainable. It’s just not sustainable.” But I think that also as I got older, just maturity-wise, I just realized the only person I can control is me. I can’t control how I’m interpreted. I can’t control another person’s actions to a fictional future person who may or may not exist. I need to just live as a single human being in this moment and not as every possible iteration of Black person that this person could interact with. I think I was doing that for a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I mean also, I think whenever you’re doing work that has such a large kind of public footprint, and I feel like actors probably do this a lot. You learn eventually what strategies you have to kind of, I guess cope is the best way to put it. But you don’t read the comments, you don’t read the reviews, you just do the work and just keep moving on.

Liz Montague:
I don’t know. I think I didn’t want to not be what everyone expected me to be and then miss out on opportunities, too. Because especially early 2020 when the pandemic was starting, it was like all this stuff came out of nowhere.

Liz Montague:
And I felt really conflicted about it because I was like, “God, am I [inaudible 00:38:00] off of all of this terrible stuff happening to the Black community? Am I benefiting off of the George Floyd shootings? All of the shootings that happen to Black people that aren’t talked about, and just this collective white guilt that’s happening right now?”

Liz Montague:
Where all of a sudden, I’m getting to do stuff for Food Network and the Obama Foundation. I worked on a Biden presidential commercial. I did a Google Doodle. I don’t know. My mom was just kind of like, “Oh, just take it. Just take it and just be happy.” And I was like, “You don’t understand. What are the ethics behind this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, your mom’s right, just take it.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:38:40] take it.

Maurice Cherry:
If the opportunity comes, just take it. I mean, there are a lot of us that did have a bit of a come up during that time. And I think that’s kind of a bit of the secret shame around it. I guess you could call it shame, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But the fact that now people are paying attention to the work that we do, but that it had to come at a time of such civil unrest, at the death of an innocent person. That it had to come to that in order for us to be recognized. And there are some people I’ve talked to about it and they’ve said to me, “Is this what it’s like for white people all the time?”

Liz Montague:
Is it?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it? I mean, that would be interesting if that’s the case. But it is this sort of weird tension, like you’re being recognized because… You know the hard work that you’ve done to get to this point. And yes, you’re being recognized, but the fact that you’re being recognized because of all this injustice and inequity and other things that are happening in the world, it’s sort of…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. It is a very weird feeling, but at the end of the day, take the work. Take the work, get the check. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Take the work. So your mom’s right in that aspect, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I get where you’re coming from too, because I had an influx of speaking gigs and a whole bunch of stuff like that. Because I got fired from my job, they cut my whole department right before the summer of 2020. And so for all of this to happen, it’s like, “Oh, well at least I’ll be able to eat for a few more months.”

Maurice Cherry:
But it does sort of come with this psychic weight of, “Yeah, but all this other horrible stuff in the world had to happen. And it was during a global pandemic, but I’ll take it.” One thing Black folks are going to do, it’s make a way out of no way, so. Just take it.

Liz Montague:
Yeah, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So now you’re a full-time cartoonist, you mentioned working at this nonprofit for a while after you graduated. What do your work days look like now?

Liz Montague:
Right now I just finished my first book, my graphic novel, Maybe An Artist. It’s available for pre-order. That’s with Penguin Random House. So that’s just finished, and that was taking up literally all of my time up until a month ago, maybe. And now I’m working on a picture book, also for Random House. And I also have a three book deal with Scholastic for a three book Y-series.

Liz Montague:
So my days are pretty much split between those two projects, with the series grouped together. I’m one of those crazy people who wake up really early and run. I don’t know, I like being out in the sun. So my days just start with me waking up, going for a run, I usually do some kind of HIIT class or something. My husband makes me a coffee, I try not to check my phone or my email because if I do, I’ll get sucked in and then I’ll just be on my phone and suddenly it’s three o’clock.

Liz Montague:
I actually try to get done all… I do a to-do list of everything that needs to get done. Look at chapter one, or finish sketches, the ending or beginning of whatever. So I’ll do those early in the morning when I can rely on my focus, because as soon as it’s lunchtime, all bets are off. I pretty much do that until lunch, and then in the late afternoon do emails, and then whatever else is left on the to-do list. That’s pretty much my day. I usually have the same day every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Are you still doing the Liz at Large comic?

Liz Montague:
I haven’t posted any of them. I still do them sometimes for myself. I don’t know, the cartooning world, there’s just so much going on. And it’s very rare that I even watch the news these days to even… I think that the thing with cartooning, or at least for me back when I was doing it more than I am now, it’s very reactive.

Liz Montague:
And it’s usually very reactive to news specifically, where it’s like I’m looking at the news, I’m looking at social events, I’m looking at what’s going on and then I’m reacting to it. But these days, it’s like I don’t really give my myself things to react to anymore. Because I feel like I learned the hard way in 2020 and early 2021 that there can be a breaking point to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How do you kind of keep motivated and inspired with the work that you’re doing?

Liz Montague:
I think that right now, I kind of just want to see, “Okay, let’s see how far I could go.” That’s definitely part of it, of just like, “Okay, let’s see when the wheels fall off. How long can I really pull this off for?” That’s definitely a part of it.

Liz Montague:
And the other part of it, I think, does go back to even why I started Liz at Large. This idea of emotional literacy and of just seeing Black characters and of providing Black characters in general, and being able to provide Black characters as a Black woman. Because you wouldn’t believe, I mean, I’m sure you would believe the amount of Black characters and characters of color in general that are not made by people of color.

Liz Montague:
And to be able to… I mean, authentic is such a weird word. But to be able to provide a… to be able to showcase an experience that I’ve actually lived, I think, is something really powerful. And something that I’m really proud to be able to do. But I don’t know, it’s also that whole idea of, “If not me, who?” That’s a trap, that’s a total trap. So I think my why is day to day. It’s day to day.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, at this stage, I think we’re all kind of taking it day by day. So I completely understand that.

Liz Montague:
I wish I had some big, “Well, you know…” A reason or something. But I think I’m just figuring this out.

Maurice Cherry:
And at this stage of your life, that’s the time to do it. That’s the time to just try to figure it out, you know? I know that you and I have sort of talked about this prior to the interview about what you want sort of people to take away from it. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it day by day, as things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
I think certainly, with what you’ve just described already, you are at a great place in life right now. Great. Great. So take it day by day-

Liz Montague:
I can appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
… and kind of just go through the days and your feelings and work as it happens. Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, there’s a lot of people at your age that would love to have that kind of just opportunity and work lined up. I mean, a three book deal? A three book deal. That’s major. That’s major.

Liz Montague:
No. It’s just like-

Maurice Cherry:
A three book deal, on top of a book you’re already working on, on top of a book that’s about to come out. Come on now.

Liz Montague:
It’s so weird though, because I feel like day to day is also so solitary. I don’t have coworkers, I don’t know people. I mean, it’s hard because the only people… So I’m comparing. You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to, you shouldn’t be, but everybody does it. And it’s like you end up comparing yourself to your wildest ideals and your biggest insecurities of just like, “Well, you should be doing more. Well, what about this? Well, what about Instagram?”

Liz Montague:
And then that’s a whole other can of worms, because it’s like the social presence, the social media presence part of it. Because I feel like there’s a huge pressure, especially nowadays, to have this very big social media presence to… I don’t know, exist on all platforms, be approachable at all times, be connecting at all times.

Liz Montague:
And I remember I texted my agent Wendy and was like, “Listen, man. I can’t do TikTok. I can’t do it, please.” Yeah. And she was like, “Of course not. You don’t have to.” But it’s crazy though, because these days in meetings and for negotiations, they’ll ask you your followers. And it’s just like, “What? What?” I don’t know. It’s to think about the longevity, the sustainability of this, of such a fast paced world where we’re consuming so much so quickly, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ll tell you though, the way to not burn out from that is to focus on the audience and the community that you have. The thing with a lot of social media, and I know this from one, just from being old and being around on the internet forever.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s so much about modern social media that is about trying to attract an audience that you don’t have. And I think what can end up happening with that is you end up exhausting all of these efforts and jumping through all these hoops to try to impress people that don’t know you, don’t know your work, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
The reality is if the work is good, the people that already support you will kind of do some of that legwork for you. They’ll tell people, they’ll tell friends, they’ll mention you in rooms that you’re not in. So you don’t have to be on all the things all the time. I think probably for a visual media or a visual artist like you are, being an illustrator and a cartoonist, being on Instagram does make sense because it is a visual medium. TikTok is the Wild Wild West.

Liz Montague:
It really is. It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, aside from just the ever-changing and shifting algorithm of the platform, it’s also super toxic. And I know art, I’ve seen artists on TikTok that I’ve had on the show. So I know that it is helpful to kind of get the word out to people. But then it also exposes you to so many just idiots that don’t get it. And they spend their free time trying to instill the seeds of doubt into you so you don’t do the work that people love you for. You know what I mean?

Liz Montague:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to be on all the things, because you spread yourself too thin. Focus on the audience that you have and on the platforms that you feel you can at least control and have some semblance of yourself on there, where you don’t have to change who you are or what you do to kind of get your work out there.

Liz Montague:
So that’s been the hardest part lately, is just being like, “Okay, who I am right now, right this moment, not me 10 years from now or me three years ago, who I am right now is capable of doing this work and is enough.” I feel like everyone’s kind of dealing with that. I feel like now we’re in a stable enough place as a country and as… well, I mean as stable as America ever is, for people to reflect on, “In the thick of it for two years, and what happened to me during those two years? What did I lose? What did I gain? Am I proud of what came out on the other side of it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
I think a lot of people are dealing with that. I think I’m especially dealing with that as just, I don’t know, especially… 30 is looking pretty close coming from this side of 25. 30’s looking pretty close. And I’m just like, “Jesus,” trying to figure it out. We don’t need to figure it all out, that’s not real, social media and everything else, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean give yourself some grace, certainly. And realize that, I mean, like I said before, where you’re at right now at your age is great. But I mean, and whatever way you feel is I think the best way that doesn’t take too much out of your regular process. But even just documenting where you’re at in some way I think is helpful for other people so they know that… Again, like you said, we’re all kind of figuring it out. But I think particularly for Black creatives, there’s this strong propaganda to hustle hard and “They sleep, we grind.”

Liz Montague:
Oh, for sure. For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that is not sustainable at all. I get these naps in everyday. Please believe it.

Liz Montague:
Exactly. [crosstalk 00:50:53], oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
I work smart, but I’m sleeping over here, a lot. So once you sort of find what that balance is, I think even just documenting it… Even if it’s just for yourself, not even for the public. But just so you know, “This is how I felt as I was going through this time in life, as I was trying to figure these things out,” I think is super helpful.

Liz Montague:
I mean I feel even just talking about as Black creatives or Black artists or whatever, what’s attainable, I didn’t really think that it was possible to be your own boss for real. Or have stability. Does that make sense? Where it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense.

Liz Montague:
And I think that it shocked me more than anyone, that, “Holy crap, I’m a homeowner. When did that happen? How did that happen?”

Liz Montague:
… wild that we don’t even realize what we’ve written off for ourselves because of whatever paths we choose or wherever we find ourselves. And I think that especially for myself, there was a lot that I didn’t think was achievable. And it’s like, “Oh, wow. Actually, this is.”

Liz Montague:
And I think that a lot more Black artists especially need to realize that. Because I think that especially the eat, sleep, grind culture, as someone who lived it, that burned me out so quick. I was like, “I’m never going to draw again. I hate this.” It took a year to come out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now even with these books that you are working on and everything, do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Liz Montague:
You know what, speaking into existence now, I would love to work with Disney. Hit me up, I’m a huge Princess and the Frog fan. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I think I’d like to teach somewhere down the line, or even now. I used to teach really fun community art classes when I was in DC, but then the pandemic kind of put an end to that.

Liz Montague:
I think I’d like to teach. Who knows? I swear, every other week I’m talking myself out of going to medical school or something, or becoming a pastry chef. It could be anything at this point. I would definitely love to do something centered around Black mental health, for sure. And diving into that and different ways of just connecting.

Liz Montague:
Because I know that people love to say, “Hold space,” and whatever that means. But I think that beyond just face-to-face talk therapy, which in a perfect world would be accessible to everyone and they would be able to have Black therapists who could understand where they’re coming from, we need to deal with the world that we’re in right now. Where there need to be more accessible ways of connecting beyond just this one way that is very not accessible for most people. And I feel like there’s some kind of world where there’s an art-based solution to that. Or at least in the world that I want to exist in.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your story to be?

Liz Montague:
I hope in the next five years, or not “I hope,” I know. In the next five years, I’m going to be spearheading a lot more projects. I feel like up until this point, I really just… people have approached me and I’ve said yes.

Liz Montague:
Whereas especially with the series at Scholastic, that was the first thing that I pitched myself, I came up with myself and that was fully my idea that I’m going to be taking to fruition. So more of that, more of me getting to execute my ideas instead of executing other people’s ideas. I hope a lot more of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to wrap things up here, Liz, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Liz Montague:
My website is lizatlarge.org. I’m on Instagram, @lizatlarge. I’m also on Twitter, but I don’t really tweet that much. It’s also @lizatlarge.

Maurice Cherry:
Liz Montague, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, as I was doing my research for this interview and everything, I was like, “I think I’m becoming a fan of you and the work that you’re doing.” I mean, even the fact that you’ve managed to accomplish this much at a young age is phenomenal. And I’m really excited to kind of see where you go from here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s one thing to have these accolades about first Black women cartoonist in The New Yorker and then to have all this success. But being able to sustain that as you go forward in your career is going to be super important. And I hope that this interview kind of has given you something to think about. But then also I’m excited to kind of come back to this in a few years after we see you really blow up huge and do big things. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Liz Montague:
Thank you so much for having me and reaching out to me and just having this space in general. This is actually so awesome. Really. I really enjoyed this.

Kevin Carroll

Can you believe we’re almost a quarter of the way through 2022 already? I think now might be a perfect time for a creative tune-up, and this week’s guest is a true instigator of inspiration — Kevin Carroll. As a founder, author, and public speaker, Kevin’s words and his work have influenced hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to tap into their creativity and accomplish epic tasks.

Our conversation touches on a number of topics, including success, longevity, curiosity, and perseverance. Kevin talked about growing up in Philly, being a linguistics expert in the Air Force, his time at Nike, and talks about how you can find your own “red rubber ball.” Kevin’s words were just what I needed to hear right now, and I hope they will encourage you as well. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to this episode multiple times!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Kevin Carroll:
Kevin Carroll, author, speaker, instigator of inspiration. I get an opportunity to spend time with co-conspirators and storytelling, creativity, innovation, human performance, and advancing the human condition in a good and positive way. So I get a chance to do that on a regular.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a dream job.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily, you know, it’s so funny, one of the things that I tell folks is I don’t really have a job per se. I’m kind of like Tommy from Martin Lawrence’s show. So my friends always say, what do you do, what do you do? Because like you’re always here and there and there. And so, I think I just have discovered that folks see a talent or a gift or skill that I might have that would lend itself to a project or an idea or something that they’re trying to advance.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t really see myself as having a job in a traditional sense, a J-O-B. I really do think that I have this career portfolio, I actually was reading an article about that, why you should build a career portfolio, not a career path. And so I think I have a series of experiences. So I have more of a portfolio than a career path.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Kevin Carroll:
Surprise and delight and expect the unexpected, that’s what’s been happening so far this year already. I’ve been really blessed and count my blessings. We’ve stayed healthy this entire time. I think that’s allowed me to double down on optimism and positivity and to put out in the world some good energy. And that good energy is being reciprocated and reflected back. It’s been really wonderful some of the different projects that I’ve been invited to be a part of, find opportunities, to do a little bit of travel already.

Kevin Carroll:
So, some really fun locations. I was at the University of Oklahoma recently where I did some work with students on campus, but also student athletes on the campus there, and also in the community of Norman, Oklahoma. So that was really exciting. And then I literally just got back from an event where I spoke to 5,000 people, a live event, and that’s the first time a large group like that has been together was in DC.

Kevin Carroll:
And I was telling a friend that I got a chance to see the African American Museum, the National African American Museum of Art. I had not seen it like sitting on the, as you drive by it. Most of the buildings, if you’ve ever been in DC, Maurice, I don’t know if you spent much time there, most of the buildings are white. And here’s this building that’s this beautiful bronze brown, and it just stands out, and it feels so warm and inviting. And so, I got to see that yesterday, actually, I got there on Sunday and we were driving through and it was a sunny and it just stood out, and I was so inspired to see that.

Kevin Carroll:
That event with 5,000 people was actually in DC. So, I think that was a great sign for me to realize that wonderful things are coming this year and that’s a great source of inspiration to see a building like that and to think about all the voices and actions and impact that black and brown folks have been making, and I want to join forces with that. So that’s my goal, is to keep advancing that kind of intention that you would find in a building like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s definitely great to come across that sort of realization like that, especially during Black History Month.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Right? It fell right on the last two days of Black History Month, so it was great timing to see that building. It wasn’t something that I was unaware of, I was paying attention to that. I also talked about the importance of being where your feet are and being present. I think that’s what a lot of folks don’t do a great job of is being present, so that’s something that’s really been helpful for me is being present.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess given that, what do you want to achieve this year? Did that kind of put like an idea in your head about what you want to do?

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t ever really have like a I want to grow my business X percent or I want to, I don’t have those kinds of metric measurable per se. My whole thing is just at the end of the year, can I reflect back and see that I advanced the human condition in a positive way, and I had in some way that really will reverberate. That’s a thing that I always look at is like, what were some of the moments, what were some of the things? And so, I just want to continue to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
A big thing for me is I’m chasing significance, not success. That’s what I’m chasing> success is attainable and you can have a measure of success at any age, quite frankly, but significance takes time, and that’s the long game, and that’s the collective measure of all the impact that you’ve had. And so, that’s what I’m pursuing. This year is just another part of that mosaic, of that journey and chase to significance.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re doing so many things, as you mentioned, at the top of the show. You’re an author, you’re a speaker, you’re an instigator of inspiration. And I’m curious, what does an average day look like for you?

Kevin Carroll:
Probably not an average day. It can vary. There’s always some structure to what I’m trying to accomplish each day, and I do like to make sure that I feel inspired at some point. I’m always looking for opportunities to connect with folks. I have a very curious spirit about me. I think a typical or average day can be captured in this quote by Albert Einstein, “I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious.” So I like to be passionately curious each day.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, whatever that unfolds or brings my way, that’s what I’m about. So it could be doing three virtual keynotes because we can do that now. [inaudible 00:08:20] necessarily got to get on a plane, to working on a collaboration with a sports program or sports team or university, or doing some reverse mentoring with my godson, where he actually teaches me art or Legos or something, and I’m learning from him, and he’s nine years old and he’s brilliant. I enjoy doing that. I just think that every day that’s my end goal is, was I passionately curious today or not?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I definitely think that the way that these past few years have been, in many ways, it’s opened up a lot of different avenues for people to try different things, to just pursue different types of work and stuff like that. I like that idea of just being curious and kind of seeing where things go. For me, at least I can’t say it for the listener maybe, but for myself, that feels super aspirational to be able to have that kind of freedom to do that. You’ve been doing it since 2004. What’s been the key to your longevity with this?

Kevin Carroll:
I think it’s relationship building. And my attitude is, if you shine, I shine, and I don’t want to be transactional with you, I want to be transformational with you. And so, that means we’re building something, we’re building something. And you’re in the business of seeing what you can get from me and you want to be transactional. We probably won’t build together. But if you’re about building a relationship and connecting on a deeper level that I can help you shine and in turn, it’s going to reflect back and maybe not right away, it could be five, 10 years from then. But that’s all good, and that’s all love, and that’s the way that I’ve looked at it.

Kevin Carroll:
So relationships have been really, really key and critical, because what I’ve discovered, and I think it’s one of those really wonderful, unexpected things, is I’ve been meeting people. When you think about all the public speaking that I’ve done, I’ve done public speaking since early 90s, I’ve been doing that. “Formally,” I’ve been doing it since 2002, but I’ve been meeting young people, meeting individuals where they are for decades.

Kevin Carroll:
Those individuals have grown up and guess who they remember put them on back in the day? Me. So now they’re in positions of influence and decision makers, and I get these notes on LinkedIn, Twitter, DMs on Instagram, hey, you might not remember me, KC, but you spoke at my school. My mom got you to sign this book. I happened to be at this conference. And now I’m with this company, this business, I’m doing this, I’ve started mine. And I thought of you when this idea came up, when this project came up, when this conference came up, and I immediately put your name for it. That’s what’s been happening for 18 years.

Kevin Carroll:
And it’s been gaining more momentum, which has been really magical when you think about it. But I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just been organic the way it’s all played out. My wife always points out, she said, “You put all those seeds out there not knowing that they would grow into oaks.”

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of, I guess, peel the curtain back a little bit, you asked me before we started recording, what’s your end game with this, this of course being Revision Path and this podcast. And the way that you just expressed that I think maybe ties into what I guess I could see the end goal of Revision Path being, in that there’s all these stories about black designers and developers and creatives and such that people can learn about. And to me, my hope is that this helps inform as many people as possible, we’re out here, we’re a creative force, we’re doing this work, in terms of planting those seeds as you mentioned.

Kevin Carroll:
You know what else, you’re creating a time capsule, you’re creating a time capsule that’s going to be a way finder for the next generation. So you need to realize that. I know we talked about you creating some kind of other creative effort off of this. You know exactly what I just said, I know you wrote it down.

Maurice Cherry:
I did.

Kevin Carroll:
I know you did, because look, we did our little prep call, convo before this, our warmup, and this just came to me. This is a time capsule. And imagine if you’re a young person trying to find your way and we can only envision ourselves in a position if we see ourselves there, well, they get to hear ourselves, they get to hear these voices. So you’re creating this audio time capsule. Come on, man. That’s fire. That’s fire. I’m telling you, first one’s free, Maurice, first one’s free right there. There you go. Receive that bro. Receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
Before striking out on your own and doing your own thing, I think people probably know you well from your work that you’ve done at Nike because it sounds like it was a very, very unique experience for you. Talk to me about that.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, you had a couple other guests on here that are Nike alums, Jeff Henderson and Kevin Bethune, those are two of my partners in crime and positivity. So they’re good brothers and we’ve done some fun projects together. My time at Nike, I always reference it in this way that Nike let me fly my freak flag. Nike let me really stretch my wings creatively and to discover things about myself that I didn’t know or that were lying dormant because of other experiences, and I didn’t get encouraged to express it. And Nike gave me permission.

Kevin Carroll:
And in doing so, unlocked a lot of my creative energy and my creative confidence. And so, I think that’s been something I’ll always be grateful for at Nike. I think I reciprocated with creating a more sense of belonging and connection there at Nike and Nike at large, at the other locations around world. And so yeah, I got an opportunity to do lots of different projects and work in lots of different areas from footwear design to special projects with Tinker Hatfield and his group to being a director of internal communications, working there.

Kevin Carroll:
So Nike really gave me an opportunity to tap into a lot of my gifts and talents, and they saw value in allowing someone to have all these experiences. And remember I said, I don’t think I have a career path, I have a career portfolio. Nike was a place that let me put more arrows in my quiver of that portfolio, if you will, of that career experiences. And so, yeah, I’ve always felt that Nike was this amazing living lab for me that I got a chance to do and try lots of different things and discover a lot of things about myself.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember listening to an interview where you were talking about how Phil Knight, who is the, I think he still is or maybe he was, the CEO of Nike, but he kind of referred to you as the mayor of Nike.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Yeah. He’s retired now but he was the co-founder, CEO and chairman at the time when I was there, 97 to 2004. He caught wind of some of the creative capers I was doing on campus and the impact I was having. And so, he asked me to have a regular meeting with him monthly and to discuss with me the people and the culture and how things were going there. He kind of coined that term for me, said, I might be CEO and chairman here, but you’re the mayor here and you know this place.

Kevin Carroll:
So, I would give him information and share how people were feeling, what was going on, and being that bridge for him, being an executive, you’re not necessarily privy to that. So I was giving him that insight and visibility to how the people were feeling, what was going on, and opportunities for him to continue to further advance the culture in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to switch gears here a little bit. As I mentioned to you before I listened to some interviews and things, you really talk a lot about how like your personal story can be a catalyst for someone else to kind of chase their dreams. So I want to dive a little bit into your personal story. Tell me about what it was like growing up in Philly.

Kevin Carroll:
Listen, Philly’s grimy. I love Philly that way. And we take a lot of pride in that with our city and everything. My childhood was challenging because of circumstances that we were navigating as kids, me and my two brothers. And so, addiction and abandonment, upheaval and uncertainty, dysfunction and disappointment were the norm because my parents were addicts and my grandparents rescued us.

Kevin Carroll:
The thing that I think my grandparents, maybe not necessarily realizing it but because of their age, we had a lot of freedom as kids to make a lot of decisions that probably shouldn’t be making when you’re a kid, but we out of necessity and just they couldn’t keep up with us that way. So, we had a lot of freedom. And so, I discovered a playground in my neighborhood first that was kind of the epicenter of our neighborhood, but it was this place where I felt I belonged first.

Kevin Carroll:
And so sports was a big thing in our neighborhood and I realized that very quickly. And so I dove head long into sports and played every sport you could imagine, whatever the season I was playing it. But it was never for trophies or first place or medals, it was always for belonging. I loved being part of a team and connecting and being a part of that.

Kevin Carroll:
That was I think an unlock for me was being part of a team and finding a place to belong. And it was a positive way for me to channel a lot of the questions I was having as a kid because of the decisions my parents made. And so, sports really was a great outlet and a great coping tool for me to manage that. And then public library was another great place, I loved learning and reading. So I went to the public library a lot.

Kevin Carroll:
And then my best friend’s mom became my mom in many ways, Ms. Lane. And so she poured into me as much wisdom as possible every day. I had a key to their house since I was nine, still have that key to their house. Ms. Lane was the cheat code, if you will, for me. She gave me all of the different ways to unlock possibilities and potential. I always say it was just two words that she would speak to me, why not. And she would always answer any of my, like Ms. Lane, Ms. Lane, I got this idea. She’d always say, well, why not? But then she’d always follow up with, don’t talk about it, be about it. Lots of talkers and very few doers, which one are you? So I learned about action And accountability from her.

Kevin Carroll:
But also someone who was unconditional in their love and just hoped for me to be successful. And Ms. Lane was the person who poured that significance idea into me, that you are going to be successful because you’ve got intellect and smarts, but I want you to chase something bigger and grander, I want you to chase significance. So that’s where that all stems from.

Kevin Carroll:
So that childhood started off difficult, but I found a way to rise above it and didn’t do it alone. I think that was one of the key things for me was when I talk about relationships earlier, that’s where I learned relationships and the importance of them. And it served me well all the way through me being on my own now for 18 years. Relationships stem all the way back to my childhood.

Maurice Cherry:
It takes a village. Like you said, you were staying with your grandparents and then you had Ms. Lane, you had your sports teams that you were a part of. So you had all of these different influences as you were growing up.

Kevin Carroll:
And these crazy people at the playground, because playgrounds, they got some colorful folks that are up there. I tell people, I’m a mosaic of many people, drug dealers, abusers, and war veterans, and ain’t quite right folks in the head folks. Just all kinds of people were there, other kids’ parents, food service workers, custodians, they all poured into me. And my brothers. I know that I’m a mosaic of many people.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after you graduated high school, you went on to college, and then after college you went into the military, you went into the air force. What was behind that decision?

Kevin Carroll:
I became a young dad. So, I didn’t even finish college, I was in my junior year, became a young father, I was 20 years old. And I came home and my grandfather said, “So what are you going to do about this?” He said, “You need to do the right thing.” And he said, “You need to not repeat history and be an absent father.” And so that was a loud message from my grandfather. And so these are his sensibilities.

Kevin Carroll:
So I made a decision to join the air force, not go back to college. I figured I could finish it while I’m in the air force, but I wanted to provide for my family. So I went in the military, my uncle was in the air force, so that’s why I chose the air force. I told people, they said, why’d you pick the air force? I said, my uncle always was smiling, so I figured he must be enjoying it. So, that’s why I picked the air force over any other branch. And joined the air force.

Kevin Carroll:
That was first time I ever been on an airplane was going to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. And landed in Texas and had no idea that I would end up really enjoying the air force and learning so much about myself and discovering I had other gifts and talents that had not been discovered yet. I had a language ability in the military discovered that and ended up becoming a language translator in the military and working with a top seeker clearance and doing all this clandestine work, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, kind of crazy stuff. So I speak a bunch of languages, and did that in the military.

Kevin Carroll:
And once again, more relationships, I’m still connected to a lot of people that I met when I was in the air force from 1980 to 1990. So 10 years I was in there, I’m still connected to a lot of those people too. So, we go back to that, what’s that through line for me is relationships and the importance of it and not being transactional with people being transformational.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t want to gloss over the language part because I think that’s something which is super interesting because when you were in school, you had started to learn Spanish, but you dropped out, is that right?

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, I dropped Spanish actually. It was five minutes. It was an amazing five minutes, Maurice. I thought it was a silly class, so I walked out of class, but the funny thing is I never forgot that five minutes. [Spanish 00:23:32], literally that stuck. I was a bit of a knucklehead and young, and I didn’t realize I had a gift then. And the military, they test you and it’s smart, they test you in everything just in case you have a talent that hasn’t been discovered. And lo and behold, I passed this language test in the military in basic training. And that’s how I got uncovered.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I end up learning Serbian and Croatian Czech and German and become fluent in those and do that work in the military. But yeah, that’s how it ended up happening. But I can always reflect back to the fact that I actually always had it in me, I was just a bit of a hard head back in the day. So yeah, had I hung in there, I’d have Spanish in my repertoire. I’m sure if I put some time to it, I can learn that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you know German, German’s a romantic language. I think Spanish might be not a total one to one, but I feel like you probably could pick up Spanish pretty well if you know German.

Kevin Carroll:
They’re in that family. Germanic is a little harsher than Spanish. Germans, you wouldn’t necessarily equate that like romance language, it’s a little harsh, a little strong. What I’ve discovered is once you learn a language, you are what I say language curious, if you will. So you’re just open to hearing what people are saying and how they’re using their words and what does that word mean. I use Google Translate all the time. I really am fascinated with what was that language and what was that I heard.

Kevin Carroll:
I think that’s the thing that really helps you. And a lot of folks that are American aren’t learning other languages. And I think that’s a big misstep here in the US, because you go to other countries and people are fluent in other languages because they’re just open to that, and they’re also raised that way. So I just think it’s so important. You’re not going to learn a language only taking the class twice a week for 50 minutes though. It’s not going to happen. That ain’t working.

Kevin Carroll:
Oh yeah, I took Spanish in high school. Yeah, how often did you yeah, oh, twice a week for 50 minutes, I said, how much do you remember nothing? Nothing. Yeah, because you got to be immersed in it. So I think that’s the other thing too is you have to be curious about it and want to keep learning.

Maurice Cherry:
French was my language. My mom had, French is her first language. But she also studied French and stuff in school and everything. And so I remember being a kid, she’s a retired biologist, but she had all her college level French books at home. So, I started learning French in second grade, and then basically learned it from second grade all the way up until I graduated college.

Kevin Carroll:
You were around it all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s true.

Kevin Carroll:
Practice it. See that’s the problem is that if you don’t have a way of actually exercising and using the muscle and using the words to gain confidence, that’s why people fall off from their language learning. So you had a built in tutor, you had something there, you were immersed in it, you probably had either magazines or periodicals or different things you could read in French, all that stuff that immerses you, that’s what happened in language school in the military, it’s like you are fully immersed. I can sing Roll out the Barrels in Czech and all these other things.

Kevin Carroll:
We’d get dressed in cultural clothing and different things, so you really understood what it was you were learning. So full immersion is the key. That definitely had the right kind of environment to get really fluent in that language.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting when you kind of say it that way, especially about the Spanish part, because when I got to middle school, seventh grade, I wanted to take Spanish so bad. It was the first language elective that had filled up super quickly, because I was like, I didn’t want to take French because I already knew French, and I felt it wouldn’t have been fair for me to take French when I already knew it. Everyone else was learning it and I would be like, yeah, yeah, yeah, [French 00:27:51], whatever. I would already know it. I was doing good in French, I ended up taking French, but I did want to take Spanish.

Maurice Cherry:
I can kind of understand a bit of Spanish now, but I mean, even with French, I can listen to French music, I can read French books. I can understand it. It does, like you say, knowing another language does kind of make you language curious and opens you up to just more culture I think.

Kevin Carroll:
More culture, which is never a bad thing. The world is flat now, we have access to everything from everywhere. You do yourself at a disservice if you’re not curious around these opportunities and things to broaden your viewpoint and outlook on everything. I’m so glad that you have languages in your life. Maybe that’ll be the takeaway from our conversation is get some language in your life. Foreign language, not just English language, foreign language.

Maurice Cherry:
You had 10 years in the air force. After you left there, what was your next step? What were you thinking about doing?

Kevin Carroll:
I got my degree while I was in the service. Got a certification as an athletic trainer, I was actually working some NFL summer training camps when I was in the military, did armed forces sports program. I was actually the only certified athletic trainer in any branch of the service, so I got a chance to travel in support of armed forces of sports program around the world while I was still in the service. So I decided I was going to do athletic training when I got out of the service.

Kevin Carroll:
So I left after 10 years, moved back to Philadelphia, actually was a single dad then, so raising my boys. And started working in high school as an athletic trainer and a health teacher. Then I got a job at college level as an athletic trainer. And then I ended up in the NBA as only the first black trainer in the history of the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers, and the third in the history of the NBA. In 1995. And did that for two years.

Kevin Carroll:
That was the springboard. And my languages were the springboard to me actually getting noticed by Nike. So when I was with the 76ers, I actually got encouraged to use Serbian in the middle of a game to insult a player from the former Yugoslavia, [inaudible 00:30:19]. My coach told me to start saying something about his family when he’d run by because he wouldn’t expect it from our bench and distract him a little bit to save a time out. Literally that’s what my coach asked me to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So I start cussing at this dude every time he runs by and he’s seven feet tall. So I’m mumbling, whispering stuff every time he goes by our bench, and he can’t figure out where it’s coming from. So when he turns in the middle of the game and says, who’s insulting my family in Serbian over here, and the coach points at me goes that little guy right there. And Vlad is like, there’s no way. And I [Serbian 00:30:54], and he’s like what? And after the game, he came and approached me, and you’re going to love this because you’re based in Atlanta, he asked me to join the Yugoslavian National Basketball team for the 96 Olympic games in Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I joined them as the sports medicine liaison and their translator.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
Black dude from Philly working with the Yugoslavian national basketball team. I got this crazy old school Polaroid picture of all of us. I’m the only raisin in the milk, I’m the only raisin in the milk. So it’s this really great candid picture of all us from a Polaroid from that moment when we were doing the pre-Olympic tour. That’s how folks at Nike actually found out about me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Languages really did unlock something for you. I mean, of course you kind of had the interest in sports, so, being an athletic trainer I’m sure it kind of was almost like a fulfillment of a wish that you kind of had as a kid, I would imagine.

Kevin Carroll:
Well, it’s so funny, I thought I was going to be in the NBA as all kids play sports, I’m going to be in the league one day, as a player I’m thinking. I didn’t think that my intellect and my ability to learn and then the understanding of games and then learning the science behind injuries and all that would actually propel me to that position.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I actually got to the NBA, I paused and really thought about like, whoa, I never thought it would be like this, but I made it to the league. How about that? And then of course, them haters from back in the day that told me it wasn’t going to happen, as soon as I got that gig, guess who was calling for tickets, Maurice? Yo Kev, hook us up with some tickets. Nah, remember that thing you said back in the day. I remember. I kept the receipts. No tickets for you, no tickets for you, no tickets for you. So yes. But I ended up getting to the NBA, which was a roundabout crazy way, unexpected way, but yeah, made it to the league.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, man. Then like you said, that sort of opened you up to end up doing work for Nike and you started your own business. You’ve lived like four lives. With all these different careers and the way that they’ve all intersected, that’s fascinating.

Kevin Carroll:
It doesn’t make sense now when I say that it’s not a path, it’s a portfolio.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you decide to start writing?

Kevin Carroll:
So, Ms. Lane, my best friend’s mom who’s like my mom, she was the one who kept bugging me. When I got to Nike, she kept saying, when are you going to write a book? When are you going to write a book? And I would always push back, Ms. Lane, [inaudible 00:33:37] for? And she was persistent. I want to say for at least five years, she kept bugging me, bugging me, bugging me about it.

Kevin Carroll:
And then finally I said, “Ms. Lane, who’s going to read it?” And she said, “Well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible. That’s who you should write it for.” Bet. That was the moment I went, okay, bet, I’ll do it. But then I went, I don’t want it to be like a regular book so I’m going to use all this creative energy I’ve learned at Nike and all these things, I’m going to create this proposal that’s going to be so amazing that they’re just going to clamor for this book.

Kevin Carroll:
And I put together this proposal that was unique and different, crickets. Nobody wanted do it. Rejection. In fact, one publisher said it was over-designed and too creative. And actually told me to dumb down my idea, and maybe they’ll consider doing my book. And then I made a decision I’m going to self-publish it.

Kevin Carroll:
So I started the process of self-publishing it in 2003. We got it done by 2004. And it took off, we sold 11,000 copies in nine months. I didn’t realize that was determined to be a successful book because in the industry, if you sell more than 8,000, which is basically getting beyond your friends and family, that’s a successful book. We had done that with just word of mouth, no back table sales. I wasn’t pitching it on stage or anything.

Kevin Carroll:
And someone at ESPN happened to get a copy of my book and they were starting a books division. And I got a call out of the blue from ESPN, they wanted to sign me to a book deal. And I was still at Nike when all that happened. And so, I signed a book deal with ESPN and Disney while I’m at Nike, and that really starts this great opportunity to write more books and everything.

Kevin Carroll:
But Ms. Lane was the person behind the decision to write a book, well, the indecision, but lovingly shoved me towards my destiny kind of moment and stuff. But I’d always loved books. The public library was always a really special place for me as a kid, so I’d always loved books. And I’m always surrounded by books. But I never envisioned myself being an author. That was never anything I imagined or thought of even in my quiet time. Now that I’ve done four books, I’m quite proud of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you self-published first, and then the success from that is what sort of ended up having publishers kind of coming to you for are doing more books. I love that part.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. And I think that sometimes you have to know what you’re writing it for, what’s the end game, let’s go back to that, right? What’s the end game. And when she basically said, well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible, oh, okay, bet, I’m going to do it then.

Kevin Carroll:
So until you kind of have that in mind who you are doing it for, and then we just talked about this time capsule, I know for you you can see someone opening up this time capsule, if you will, figuratively and literally, with all of these gifts and they’re unearthing these voices and these stories. That’s the spark for you then, that’s catalytic. And so, she was that catalyst for me to share a story. Then I made kind of that like, well, I’m not going to do a regular book. Having that attitude.

Kevin Carroll:
That decision actually was so interesting with the book it won over 23 design awards, my book did. Working with a great design team and then working with a great print team that did the self-published piece, and ESPN didn’t change anything in the design when they signed me to the book deal, they just put their logo on it and that was it. And so, that book’s been in print with them since 2005 and still in print, and I think there’s over 400,000 in print now.

Maurice Cherry:
Katalytic with a K.

Kevin Carroll:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Now the metaphor of the red rubber ball comes up a lot in your books. Of course people can sort of check out the books and know what that’s about because you literally have one book called what is your red rubber ball. How would you suggest that listeners out there find their own red rubber ball?

Kevin Carroll:
So, it’s a metaphor, the red rubber ball, it’s literal for me because of sports and play, and the playground being the first place that I felt a sense of belonging and connection. But for most people, it’s more about the metaphor. What are you chasing? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What inspires you to go after it? And so, I think that’s a fundamental question. You need to know what inspires you to get out of bed every single morning. You have to have something.

Kevin Carroll:
And that became even more evident during this pandemic, because this global traumatic event broke a lot of people who didn’t have that clarity of purpose and passion and intention, and they felt lost. It derailed a lot of people. It broke a lot of people. And then there were some people who had this discovery moment, and they doubled down on the thing that they cared about, and they learned more during this pause.

Kevin Carroll:
And so I just think that the red rubber ball is about what are you chasing. What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning and that you want to chase it every single day? And then if you can be blessed and fortunate enough to find a way to blur your passion and your play, that’s great. Maybe you don’t necessarily, your work isn’t your play, but you can always know that this is something I’m chasing, this is something that inspires me and I want to keep that close. That’s the red rubber ball.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all of your life experiences that you’ve had, is this how you imagined yourself as a kid?

Kevin Carroll:
Never, never. I never imagined myself like this, honestly. When I first went to college, after high school, when I went to college, here was my job career idea. I was going to be in public relations in a bank. How random is that, dude? How random is that? But Maurice, this is how this got in my head. So, when I would ride the trolley, the trains in Philly and out on the main line, I would always see these men just dress sharp with briefcase. And so, I envisioned in my head, oh, they must work in a bank because I always see people dressed nice going in the bank. So, maybe they’re in there doing, I don’t know, public relations. I don’t know where I got that idea of public relations. So I said, I want to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I went to college and people would ask me, so, what do you hope to accomplish? Oh, I want to work in public relations in a bank. I would spit that so fast, public relations in a bank. And people would always look at me curiously like, well, that’s very clear what you want to do. I was about them fits. I loved how cool they looked and clean and [inaudible 00:41:04], briefcase. And I obviously was interested in stories, public relations. But I didn’t have the word storytelling. And so, that’s what I thought I was going to do.

Kevin Carroll:
There’s no way in my wildest, wildest, wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined doing what I’m doing right now. Zero chance. The NBA thing was probably the only thing I might have spoke out and got laughed, basically just laughed at. And that squashed when I was a kid and my attitude was I’ll show you, you watch, I’ll show you. And then I end up in the NBA. That might be the only thing that I had an inkling of an idea. But of course, no one believed that would happen. But other than that, there’s zero chance I imagined what I’m doing right now, zero chance.

Kevin Carroll:
I just knew that I needed to be around a ball, so sports and play. Books, around education and enlightenment and just raising your game and elevating your game to learn more of the curiosity piece. And betterment. So people bettered me, and so, how can I better others? And so, those are my three Bs that I look that, the ball, books and betterment. And that’s kind of how I’ve always been about. I recently got that clarity, but those are three things that have been consistently in my life and a constant for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you the purpose now to keep doing the work that you do?

Kevin Carroll:
There’s another one out there that needs to know it’s possible. Ms. Lane. So I made a promise to her before she passed away, it’s been eight years now, and I told her, I’m going to be the next you, Ms. Lane. I’m going to be that encourager for the next generation. I’m going to use technology and all these things, I’m going to have greater reach and impact, but I’m going to be the next you, and I’m going to remember what you said, there’s another you out there that needs to know what’s possible.

Kevin Carroll:
So that’s what gives me the passion to do this each and every day, that there’s someone that needs to hear from me, see a project I’m working on, maybe collide with somebody that I’ve already impacted, something like that. But I know there’s another one out there. So that’s what I do the work for on behalf of them.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about significance versus success. I’m curious, what does success look like for you now?

Kevin Carroll:
It’s happening. I’m doing it and I’m proof that you can find success. Your circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny, you can rise above that. Got to have that passion, purpose, and intention, and that clarity around what it is that you want to chase. So, that’s success, I have that. Significance is what I’m chasing. So I can point to, like you said, I’ve had four or five different lives, they’ve all been successful. Easy to point to that.

Kevin Carroll:
But significance, I haven’t reached that yet. I haven’t gotten to that point where I’ve got this really amazing platform that I’m impacting lots of people on a regular basis. I’m doing it kind of in piecemeal now. I’m hoping, I mean, speak it into existence, I want to have a TV show. I want it to be a Saturday morning show, where I’m inspiring young people, and they’re seeing themselves in me. But not to be the host or anything, but seeing all these journeys and all these experiences that I’ve had, and know that it’s possible for them.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, how can I introduce them to all these different careers and show them this wonderful multicultural expertise that’s out there so that they can see themselves in these roles that maybe they quietly imagine themselves doing, but not speaking them into existing or letting anybody know that they really want to do that, because they’ve not seen themselves in that role. So how can I be that unlock? How can I be that way finder? How can I be the plug for folks? How can I be a cheat code? That’s what I want to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So, that would be the end game for me, is this programming of some sort, traditional, Saturday morning or on a digital platform, but have the reach an impact so that I can be that Ms. Lane for the next generation, that CEO, that chief encouragement officer.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see a Netflix series in your near future. I totally can see it.

Kevin Carroll:
That’s what’s up. See. That’s what’s up. Right? Your lips God’s ears. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s do this, Maurice. You’d be one of the people on the show, I’d be talking about you. We’re now interviewing Maurice Cherry and how he created a time capsule of black and brown voices to encourage people to go after it. See, there it is, it’s already happening. Episode five, limited series. Or it might be like season nine.

Maurice Cherry:
You dropped already so many pearls of wisdom in this conversation. It almost feels a bit selfish to ask this, but what advice would you give somebody that wants to sort of chart the same kind of I guess path, to call it that, how can someone follow in your footsteps? How can someone be like you?

Kevin Carroll:
Do you. Be the best you think is the advice that I’d love to give folks. I’ll go back to the original thing I brought up. I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious. And I think curiosity for the win, FTW. Curiosity, that’s going to unlock, that’s going to help you stay in beta as a human being, always updating, always improving. I say this all the time, we’re so quick to update those apps on our devices and our computers, but what about ourselves?

Kevin Carroll:
We’re the greatest app ever created, Maurice. There is no app greater than us. We’re so quick to update those apps on the devices, update yourself. That starts with curiosity, that starts with wanting to raise your game. And that’s going to unlock all kinds of possibilities and potential because you stay in beta, you’re always in this mindset of improving, of getting better, of leveling up. And that’s the key. And so, that would be my advice, that would be the thing that I think would really make a difference for someone, to chart their own path to significance, and to have a career portfolio of lots of amazing experiences. And to go beyond just a path.

Kevin Carroll:
We go into a super highway, that’s what we want, super highway of experiences. I think it’s available for everyone and it doesn’t, I’m proof, circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny. I’ve seen it all over the world, I’ve seen people do a lot with very little, we’re resourceful and resilient well beyond our circumstances, but we got to surround ourselves with the right other mindset and people who believe in the same things. Haters are your motivators, they’re going to be out there and they’re real.

Kevin Carroll:
But find people who are like-minded and about the same things and keep them close. Keep those people close because they’re going to be the ones that help you when you’re really struggling. It’s not a clean, straight path. It twists and turns and challenges you. I always say this too, Maurice, doubt is success testing you. When doubt appears, when doubt comes into your mind, that self-talk that you’re not good enough, this isn’t going to be available, this is never going to happen for you, are you ready to dance with doubt? Are you ready to fight the good fight on behalf of that hope, that dream, that aspiration that you have? Then you ready to battle, then you ready to dance.

Kevin Carroll:
And that’s the key. Are you willing to fight for this when it’s not going to be easy, when there are challenging times? That’s the key, because that’s going to unlock things that you never thought were going to be possible.

Kevin Carroll:
One of the things that’s clear, my journey, expect the unexpected, because there’s a lot of unexpected stuff that’s happened. It continues to happen in my life, and just expect that, and respect it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Kevin, I mean, again, you’ve given so much in this interview, my God, where can people find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Kevin Carroll:
Just @ me, @ me, @KCkatalyst with a K, that’s easy. K-A-T-A-L-Y-S-T. Yep. So KCkatalyst. @ me. You’ll find you can find me on all my socials, is that, and it’s easy to find me linked in that way. You can find out more about me that way. And if I can be of service to the next gen especially or the young at heart, and folks that are just trying to advance something, I’m happy to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Man, Kevin Carroll, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I had an idea I think how the conversation went, because as I mentioned to you before, I’ve been listening to your interviews all day prepping for this, but I mean, the unexpected twists and turns that are just a part of your stor, I think what anyone will take away from this is that you are someone that embodies curiosity and really just a passion for learning that is definitely taking you to where you are now. The fact that you’re also still paying it forward to so many people is astonishing.

Maurice Cherry:
I see that Netflix series in your future. It may not be Netflix, maybe it’s Hulu. I mean, there’s like a dozen streaming services or something now. But I see it happening because this kind if message, it’s an important message, but I think especially right now, it’s so important because of what’s happened over the past few years. I think a lot of people have just kind of felt stuck, and this period of time has caused them to think about, well, what’s the next thing going to be. They need that catalyst, they need the KC Katalyst, that’s what they need.

Kevin Carroll:
My buddy would call me the hope peddler, he said, you out there peddling that hope. I’m like, that’s right, I got what you want, I got what you need. Come on. Let’s go. Hope will not be canceled, my man, hope will not be canceled as long as I’m out here.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Carroll:
My honor and pleasure, man. Time capsule, I’m just going to leave you with that, Maurice Cherry. Time capsule. This is what your program is going to become, there you go.

Ron Bronson

If you’ve had any sort of interaction with government services on the Web, particularly at the national level, there’s a pretty good chance your experience in some form was designed or conceived by this week’s guest — the one and only Ron Bronson.

Longtime fans will remember Ron’s first appearance on the podcast seven years ago, and our conversation starts off with a quick recap of what lessons he’s learned over the past year. From here, we talk about his career shift from education to civic tech, the emergence of consequence design, and even a Finnish sport akin to baseball known as pesäpallo. Ron’s story is a testament to the power of reinvention, and hopefully it convinces you that whatever it is you’re imagining, it’s possible!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Ron Bronson:
Hi. It’s Ron Bronson. I’m based in Portland, Oregon and I’m a design director in civic tech in the government.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you so far?

Ron Bronson:
Interesting. Obviously, we’re all coming out of COVID slowly. So that’s obviously been a thing. And ascending to this role, I’ve been a manager of a team of seven before and now I’ve got over 30 direct reports, obviously some managers who report to me, but there’s the whole department now. So that is definitely a different set of expectations and challenges. Trying to work on a book, trying to stay involved. So 2021 is interesting to try to remap all the stuff that you lost from being in the house for a whole year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn in this past year? When you look back, how do you think you’ve changed?

Ron Bronson:
Wow. I think momentum doesn’t necessarily have to stop. I thought last year was, in my mind, when it started and things started to shut down, I was like, “[inaudible 00:03:38] a wasted year,” all the stuff I had mapped out for myself, career-wise, thinking about work, and it turned out that wasn’t true. Opportunities still came and I was still able to do things and write stuff and read stuff and speak at events, obviously virtually.

Ron Bronson:
So that was interesting to me and surprised me, but I think maybe I got a better sense of the things that motivated me a little bit. I don’t know that I necessarily … Like I said, I was operating with my outlets … not autopilot, but kind of just doing stuff and taking for granted that every day was going to be, “This is what you do. You go to these events and you go to nonprofits or you go to work and you see your friends,” until have all that taken away and realize that some of those things fueled you, that you liked doing that stuff or it inspired you in some way. To not have that is crystallizing. It also means you appreciate it more. So it taught me a lot about myself. Maybe the times when somebody calls and says, “Oh, let’s hang out,” and I’m like, “No,” now I’m probably like, “Hey, yeah. We should hang out. Let’s do it.” So it’s a big lesson for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s been interesting how … I’ve noticed this trend among friends of mine, even from guests that have been on the show. I feel like we’re at this point where everyone is reevaluating what their next step is. We’ve been in the house or in some form of lockdown or restriction over the past year and a half and, now that things are starting to open up again, everyone’s like, “Well, let me think about what I want this next thing to be. Do I still want to go ahead in the same manner that I have with work or with my schedule or do I want to change things?” I’m seeing that everywhere now, which I guess is a good thing.

Ron Bronson:
I think so. I think it’s cool that … not cool, but I think it’s important to have these conversations because we weren’t really able to take stock of them before, been able to see the world for what it was maybe a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Now, I know you can’t talk directly about the work that you’re doing because it is a government agency, but can you give just a broad overview about the work that you do?

Ron Bronson:
I think, at the core of the work I’ve been doing, for years, really, even before I became [inaudible 00:05:49] in federal service and was working in state government, is trying to identify problem spaces that exist, working collaboratively with teams to identify problem spaces, big problems, small problems, murky problems, and trying to operationalize a way out of those problems and doing that in a way that’s sustainable.

Ron Bronson:
It’s one thing to go into a place and say, “I’m going to help you solve this,” and then solve it and leave. It’s like, when you break something and you fix it, you don’t know how they fixed it. So now they’re gone, so you’ve got to call them every time, instead of doing it where you’re like, “You’re going to help us. You’re going to work with us. You’re going to be our eyes and ears [inaudible 00:06:26]. You’re going to be part of the team that helps us figure this out.” And the way, you know how we did it so that, when we’re gone, you can do it. And not only can you do it, you could teach other people to do it, too. And so I think, at its core, that’s the work that I do, that we do, and it’s pretty rewarding. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
What makes it rewarding?

Ron Bronson:
I think it’s fun to see a murky situation that doesn’t necessarily have an explicit answer. And maybe a thing I learned from, say, when I started to now, is where I identified a problem, like, “Oh, I know exactly what the problem is here. Do a little research and we’ll just confirm what I knew the problem was. You get on this team and you work together to answer … Do some [inaudible 00:07:07] research, talk to some users or stakeholders and get some answers.” It turns out, not only were you wrong, but what they asked you to do was maybe the wrong [inaudible 00:07:16] problems. Now you need to revisit it or you got a prototype of a thing or idea and you talk to the people who actually use the thing and they say, “No, no, no. You’re missing the point. What you actually need it something completely different,” and now you’ve got to revisit and reboot and rethink.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to go through that, not initially. What’s fun about it is, if you can go through that and you do it in this way that’s thoughtful and you bring [inaudible 00:07:39], bring the people along, then at the end of it, the end result of what you get is more sustainable and it’s fun to see the fruits of that labor. I know, gosh, you build things. Some people who build stuff … It’s one thing when you build a thing and you’ve got to do all the work yourself or your work on a team and then, when you go away, it collapses, but it’s fun, even at my non … I started Indianapolis Design Week and then, when I left, somebody else took it over.

Ron Bronson:
It’s cool when you can see a thing that you started, somebody else takes it over and they put their own spin on it. And that’s sustainable and it has a legacy. And so to have that in my professional work, as well, is super rewarding. Even if it’s, like I said, a longer process to get there, it takes a long time, it’s nebulous, the answers aren’t as clear, that’s super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I like that part about you saying that it’s sustainable because I think, certainly if you’re a designer or a developer at … I’m just naming companies here, like a Dropbox or something like that … No shade to Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but if you’re at a product-based company, the work that you do may really not even be seen. It can easily be overwritten. It’s kind of ephemeral. And also, you don’t really know if your service is going to be around in the next five years, 10 years or whatever, whereas the work that you’re doing, you know that it has a home, almost.

Ron Bronson:
Exactly. 100%. Yep. And I think that … You talk about public sector, working [inaudible 00:09:05] or working in, say, civic tech where maybe you’re adjacent or something. By being able to do work that you know … Again, it may also be [inaudible 00:09:12] and no one will see it, but at least you know, at the end of the day, who you’re working for, either for the people in front or the folk behind the scenes [inaudible 00:09:20] people in the front. And I think that’s a cool cycle of life to have.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day like for you?

Ron Bronson:
It varies. It varies dramatically. And it’s varied, obviously, when you talk about being in sales, for instance, leadership in this situation versus maybe when I was [inaudible 00:09:35] contributor or even a couple years ago when I’m working at, say, local or state situations, but I’d say that [inaudible 00:09:41] we have a lot of meetings, obviously, but it’s a lot of content switching. So there’s meetings, obviously, to deal with just the things you would deal with in any kind of leadership role. There’s also kinds of some project-related stuff that happens, as well. In my case, right now, lots of strategy and trying to figure out how to build resiliency into teams and supporting people where they’re at, but it’s really variable. Other than, say, there’s a lot of meetings, I don’t think any two days are alike.

Ron Bronson:
The content of each day is very different because it’s so responsive to what’s happening, not only in the world, but individually or organizationally or whatever. So it can be really very variable, which is cool. Obviously, if you’re a control freak, not that I am, but maybe a little bit, it can be a little discombobulating because sometimes you don’t know what’s coming, like, “Oh, what’s going to happen a month from now?” I don’t know. It could be anything, but as long as you can relish in and embrace that sort of mystery, it’s kind of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
How have your responsibilities changed over the years? I guess, aside from going up to the ranks to where you’re at as a director, but how have your responsibilities really changed since you’ve been there?

Ron Bronson:
The scope and the size. Actually, when you talked to me years ago, I was a director then, too, but I had [inaudible 00:10:57] only a few direct reports and I was leading statewide strategy, but it was a different sort of … scale was different and also the purview is different, the responsibilities are different. And then I go to a smaller government and, obviously, I don’t have any of that kind of responsibility, more principle designer kind of work.

Ron Bronson:
And then, over the last couple of years, going from IC and doing more information architecture and content strategy work, but [inaudible 00:11:19] more strategic work, in general, to leading projects to staffing people to projects to, again, now just trying to shape an entire … figuring out how you move a team forward in an industry that wasn’t really a thing, designers working in the public sector, much less entire teams. Maybe it’s one or two people, okay. We’ve always been around, but to have the scale of, let’s say, a small agency of design type people and [inaudible 00:11:49] definitely alike. It’s a lot of making things from scratch, trying to invent it as you sort of fly the plane as you build it kind of thing.

Ron Bronson:
So for me, I think the work is similar. I think I’m doing similar kinds of things, a lot of similar kind of thinking. I think it’s just, over the years, playing a video game and going to different levels and taking the coins you get from level three and now you use them at level six because you’ve got a lot more coins in your pocket or you got [Selixir 00:12:14] on level four and you put that in you and now you’re on level eight and you’re like, “Oh, I’m ready. I got that. That wizard gave me that thing.” I mean, it’s a funny metaphor, but that’s kind of what it is. I don’t feel like it’s that different. It’s just that the other experiences prepared you for, A, more meetings and it prepared you for nebulous things and having to answer questions that are not …

Ron Bronson:
Also, you get to choose sometimes the things that you get to decide. You’re working with other people, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you, at a certain point for certain things. And that’s weirder than when you’re … I joked before I did this with, oh, well, it was really cool being the person that you could talk to people about the work and the problems, but it’s like watching your favorite sports team on TV and being like, “If I was the general manager, I would do this, this, and this,” and then now you’re the general manager of the baseball team. Turns out there were things you didn’t know about the problem space he was in. You didn’t know that the budget was here or you need to do this or do that. So that metaphor, I think, matches very well to my existence now, where it’s the things you just don’t know until you’re in the seat and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I was wrong about that other lens I had before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has it changed, I guess now with things being more remote? You’ve always been remote in that role. Right?

Ron Bronson:
I’ve always been remote. So for me, no, it has not changed anything about anything. I think the scope of the work is different, maybe a little bit, but no, it’s the same. Nothing changed in that way at all, which is great. I mean, I’d say this, that across government, across public sector, civic tech, whatever, it was definitely a sort of … especially when you get down to state and local levels, certainly a resistance to remote work to this kind of thing for a bevy of reasons. I know when I worked in local government, we had a heck of a time trying to get even a day where you could work remote. Well, they had to change that last year [inaudible 00:13:56]. Right?

Ron Bronson:
And so I think that, now, you deal with people and you see this and now people have a level of … it’s not savvy, but they certainly have more experience with it now. So the resistance they used to have isn’t there like it used to be because folks have had to adapt to this new reality. And so I think that takeaway has been great because it was such a difficult thing before. I think, again, you get down to these lower levels or certain, whatever, agencies, whoever [inaudible 00:14:23] maybe. I don’t know. So that part has been, I think, great to see, is just people’s comfort level with it changed in ways that you never saw before.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think that an interest in civic design has changed over the years?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. I mean, I was actually talking to a friend about this, a friend who left the country for awhile and wants to come back to the country and was like, “What should I do?” And I’m like, “See, when you left, it was really just a few things you could do, a few places you could go, [inaudible 00:14:49] digital service or an ATNF or something or places like Code For America.” [inaudible 00:14:55] New York City, but you didn’t have the options.

Ron Bronson:
Now, there’s tons of cities that have these digital service teams, different states like Colorado that have them now. Local governments are starting these. San Francisco has their own teams. There are lots of private sector companies, of course, that are doing this that built in very similar models that use a lot of the same tenents. And so I think that, yeah, there’s a ton of opportunity for people now to be able to get involved in using their skills for good and for helping move things forward and helping accelerate conversations that maybe were harder before. You wouldn’t have gone to work for the IT department in your local town before. You wouldn’t have wanted to do that, but now maybe you would because of all the different ways that civic tech conversation has elevated and proliferated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few service designers and designers working in government on the show over the past few years. And I think, certainly, all of us have seen how design and technology can have a profound effect on how people process information. I think we can clearly look at the last five years and see how that has been the case.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
If you had to give a pitch to say, I don’t know, current designers and developers now about going into civic tech, what would that look like?

Ron Bronson:
So I think people [inaudible 00:16:14] to a lot of the other things that I work on, personally. It’s one thing to be upset about systems and structures and processes and things not working well. It’s another thing to actually try to figure out how you can not only leverage your skills to make things better, but to be on the inside, at least to see … You’re not going to do it forever, but at least to see how it operates, see where the problems are, see where the issues are, see how you can solve those. Don’t just complain about the problems. How do we fix some of the problems? And you’re not going to fix all of them, but you can fix some.

Ron Bronson:
And also it’s a nice proving ground for being able to leverage … especially people who are hybrids. You’re an interaction designer who likes research or you’re a service designer, but turns out you’re really good at product design. To be able to leverage your content strategist who also does PM stuff, to leverage those sort of skills because, in a lot of [inaudible 00:17:04], especially the lower you get down in government, they’re not going to have these massive agile teams. So you’re going to deploy those multiple skillsets. I did that when I was in local government. I really liked it, personally, because it gave me a chance to sharpen some skills. My [inaudible 00:17:17] skills got way better, being in that situation, because they had to get that way. Maybe in a bigger place, that simply would never happen.

Ron Bronson:
So I think my pitch to people who are considering this kind of work is that, if you care about community, you care about your technologists who cares about the work, it’s good way for you to give back and be involved, but also to grow skills that’ll serve you well moving forward, beyond where you are in your career right now.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re all digital citizens, in some way.

Ron Bronson:
Agreed. 100%. Yep. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, that even, in some way, we totally are all digital citizens. With social media and such, you really can’t escape it.

Ron Bronson:
So true, so true.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you and I first spoke back in 2014, and you’ve alluded to this earlier just now, you were in Kentucky, I believe. What do you remember from working back during that time?

Ron Bronson:
That job was [inaudible 00:18:08] all I want. That job was the state headquarters for the community college system. And so it was higher ed, but it really wasn’t. And actually, that was the first job that I’d had that wasn’t on a campus, at that time. So for me, it was a little weird at first to be in this [inaudible 00:18:25] higher ed, but what it really was was a government job. You’re a bureaucrat and you’re making policy and you go to 16 different colleges and you’re setting digital strategy for the entire state and working with an internal team. A lot of the processes and things didn’t really exist before we built them, when I had that job.

Ron Bronson:
So it’s why I’m here, frankly, in many ways, even though I don’t know that that was my favorite job, but it gave me a great glimpse and lens of how to manage a big team. How do you manage people who don’t report to you, but you still set policy for them and your decision impact your work? I had to learn that and develop that skill over time. How to develop training for a massive internal team, public-facing stuff. So it was a great trial by fire. People [inaudible 00:19:11] what you see on Twitter a lot. Folks will say, “Oh, if you’re qualified for a job, but you’re not sure and you’re nervous, apply anyway because you might learn something.” Well, that job is [inaudible 00:19:21], but you feel a little in over your head, a little bit.

Ron Bronson:
I wouldn’t recommend that all the time, but in that situation, the pros for me in terms of what those lessons taught me after … And a lot of them were bad lessons. It was people-related lessons, but still … So I remember that time very vividly. I’m not going to get into all of it, but y’all have to DM me and I’ll tell you all the dirt.

Ron Bronson:
But any case, the positives of that were the lessons that I learned really allowed me, moving forward, to be a much more incisive designer, a much more compassionate leader, better communicating, to own what I know. So yes, there were some really great lessons from that time that have served me well, even to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you first entered into civic designer just right after you left Kentucky, went to Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
You were principal service designer for the City of Bloomington, Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it a big shift going from education to now civic design work?

Ron Bronson:
It wasn’t, partially for two reasons; one because, again, that job in Kentucky was pretty much a state job. I mean, it was state related. So everything we did was bureaucrat-level state stuff. That job and my job now, they’re different, but it was a lot of the same kinds of economies of scale. So that prepared me pretty well for being sort of in a faceless situation. Local government was fun. I really enjoyed it, especially at a sub-100,000 size city level. In a big city, it’d be probably similar to what I do, but in a city where [inaudible 00:20:56] 80,000 people, folks have problems with the website, they print a thing out and bring it to City Hall and say, “Ah, I went to this page. It didn’t work. Can you fix it right now?”

Ron Bronson:
I really enjoyed that. I thought that was really cool. You go to parties and folks tell you that they found a thing. So much of the work that we do as technologists in any part of the space that you’re doing, and I’m being very broad about this, you don’t really get to … You interact with users in user interviews or stakeholder things, but you’re not dealing with your users in this very retail way. The same ways that, if a thing breaks, I can go take it back to the store.

Ron Bronson:
You can’t do that with a website, but in local government in a city of that size with the team that we had … That was an amazing team. I want to shout out Bloomington, Indiana [inaudible 00:21:37] open source development team. All the stuff they had built was in-house. We transitioned the site from our in-house CMS that we had to Drupal. So it was a whole process, multiple things that went on there, but it was really, really cool, actually, to get to do that.

Ron Bronson:
So no, the transition wasn’t weird. I think the hard part for me was going from being director and doing a lot more leadership stuff to going back to being hands on. I did that on purpose. It was a deliberate decision for me to … I was in an IT shop, so doing a lot more front-end development and doing design and building the design system initially, but also doing a lot of service design stuff. I did all the service design. They never had a service designer before.

Ron Bronson:
All the user research … [inaudible 00:22:20] was a collaborative effort with some other folks, but leading that UX design, writing tons of content, so wearing a ton of hats, but I wanted that experience. I missed it. For me, it was really great to get to do that while also doing strategy, while also shipping an actual, physical thing. They needed a new site app. It had been 10 years old and we shipped it. So I loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, through the work that you’ve done, there’s this phrase that you’ve coined I’ve seen come up called consequence design. Can you talk about how you came to that idea and what exactly does consequence design entail?

Ron Bronson:
I used to always joke with anybody who asked me about consequence … I feel like I have a better answer now, but I feel like every interview I do about this [inaudible 00:23:00] changes. So you just [inaudible 00:23:02] all us together at some point. We’re going to figure this out together, as a community. But really, what it is is … I feel like consequence design is really born out of a lot of the conversations that are happening right now around … I think there are several conversations. There’s some that are around any patterns or dark patterns, for instance, which I don’t like saying, but people know what I’m talking about when I say it, so I just say it, or [inaudible 00:23:26] some of the hostile patterns that you see online.

Ron Bronson:
And I feel like a lot of these conversations, well, one, they’re not calling a spade a spade. We already have words for what deception is. We already know what … something that’s fraud, but we don’t want to call it that. So instead, we call it, “Ooh, it’s a dog pattern.” No, this website is trying to scam your grandmother. That’s a scam and we should call it what it is. It’s fraud. We should call it what it is.

Ron Bronson:
But through doing talks about these topics over the previous couple of years all over the world, people would ask me, “Okay. Well, what do I do about it? I’m just a junior designer at a bank. What am I supposed to do about this? How do I fix it?” And so I felt like all the conversations that we have around ethics and ethical design and so forth is a philosophy washout. I didn’t like those conversations because, one, they triggered me to thinking about [Hagel 00:24:18] and not doing great in philosophy. And I’m being funny right now, but also … which is true. I didn’t do great at that.

Ron Bronson:
But the other reason I don’t like it is because it takes the agency out of the hands of individuals. Yes, you’re not going to fix certain structures and systems, but there are things that you can do, that you can impact at your level or have a conversation about with your colleagues and eventually impact through glacial change, through iterative change. So I wanted a term that was, how do we take the areas [inaudible 00:24:48] policy, service design, the user experience, how do we merge these things together and how do we take real-world experiences, things like kiosks in public spaces that have really terrible UIs? That’s not divorced from the work that you and I do every day, but people act like it is, how we foist these experiences on people.

Ron Bronson:
And so I wanted to bring all that together to have an industry-wide [inaudible 00:25:12], practitioner-wide conversation around, “Let’s identify these are problems and let’s talk about how we might be able to fix some of these things.” First, we need to identify that they’re actually problems. And I didn’t just want to keep talking about the individual pieces of it. I wanted to be able to have a way to encapsulate it. And that’s how I got to consequence design as an idea. It’s still very fuzzy. The book is not out, will not be out until next year, but I’m trying to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s right. You are writing a book. I saw online-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:25:41] very slowly.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw parts of what you’ve been putting together online and we’ll link to that in the show notes so people can take a look at that, but it’s not your first book that you’ve written. You wrote a book back in 2017. Right?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. That was really more of … You know how people do … when you write your blog for years and you put all the blog posts into a book. And so that’s what that was.

Maurice Cherry:
That counts.

Ron Bronson:
The web management guide. Yeah. It was fun to get all that stuff together, mostly because all those blogs are dead now. So I’m kind of glad I got a few of those things together into a piece, but this is going to be the first time I’ve published a real print book. We did that online and you could go on GitHub. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but this will be a real thing you can put in your hands and, hopefully, use the reference guide. So I’m pretty excited about that. I’ll be more excited when it’s done, but I’m excited about getting further down the path.

Maurice Cherry:
So I read Web Management for Regular People because this was right around the time I was sort of … I mean, I was coming out of doing Lunch. I was coming out of doing my studio and looking for work, looking for something else, and really was trying to almost brand myself more as a strategist and less of just a designer because I had been a designer and I had done the studio for so long. And honestly, having a team that did the large part of the actual building and construction meant that I sort of fell behind in my skills. Yeah, I could still get in Photoshop and whip something up if I need to, but I’m nowhere near the production level work that I used to be in terms of speed. I wouldn’t say in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of speed. I’m nowhere near that.

Ron Bronson:
I hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Not to mention, with even web design, I mean, all the stuff that went on in the mid-2010s around CSS preprocessors and stuff, I was like, “Okay, now you’ve lost me. Now that you’re introducing JavaScript into CSS, I’m out.”

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember reading parts of your book because I was really thinking of how I would rebrand myself and eventually ended up doing that as becoming a digital strategist. And even where I work at now, I’m a content strategist, but reading what you had to say about strategy and how to design a strategist and things like that … I’d even talked with other people I’ve had on the show, like Douglas Davis, really helped me to form an idea of where I wanted to take my career next. So I want to just thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that. That warms my heart. That’s really cool because I didn’t know anybody cared, but I appreciate it. That’s why when you asked about it, I’m like, “Oh, right. I don’t want to talk about that,” but that’s really cool. That’s really, really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s something that is certainly important now. It’s funny, I see so many strategy roles now that I certainly didn’t see a few years ago.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there definitely weren’t any back then. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think, initially, they kind of were more in the purview or the domain of advertising, but now tech startups are looking for strategists and different web agencies are looking for strategists. They’re looking for someone that can sort of bridge the gap, I suppose, between the design and the business or at least has been in the trenches enough, I should say, to be able to give an overview of what should be done, where we should go, what pitfalls we should look out for. But yeah, strategy is an interesting field now in design because you’re kind of a professional generalist, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
So true.

Maurice Cherry:
And certainly, at a time in the industry when things were so heavily skewed towards product design, and I would say they probably still are-

Ron Bronson:
Still are, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… to a fault. Strategists occupy a really interesting role in the design industry. So yeah, I want to definitely thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that I’ve noticed, looking through your history and everything, is that coaching is a really big constant in your life. It’s something you’ve done since you were a really young man, a teenager. Mostly tennis, but you’ve coached debate, as well. What does coaching do for you?

Ron Bronson:
It’s really fun to, especially coaching tennis because you just see it … I mean, debate, too, but it happened then, too. That moment where somebody goes from a thing you talked about, oh, same thing you keep telling them over and over again … You’re like, “Look, you’re going to build on this.” I remember it happens every season, all the time. These kids, you start them off early and it’s really hard, whatever it is you’ve got them doing. Maybe you’ve got them playing people that are better than them because that’s what you need them to do that week or maybe [inaudible 00:30:07] and they’re not doing as well. And then, by the end of the year, there’s this moment when they play and it comes together for them and then they win something that you didn’t think they’d win or whatever and it’s always fun when …

Ron Bronson:
I was the worst player on a really good team in high school. There were four D1 guys on my high school tennis team. I was definitely not D1 quality. I played D3 tennis, but seeing how good players prepare, seeing how they work, and also trying to figure out how to fit in in that environment. My way to fit in was to basically be the second coach. I was a scout. So I could tell my guys, “Oh, yeah, the number one guy. Yeah, Kenny, you played that guy last year. You beat him two and one.” That was really useful to him. He appreciated that information. And so it’d go from them being curious about me saying that to them to, “Hey, Ron. Hey, did I play this guy? How did it go? Calm me down. Help me out.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m in high school and I’m doing this. I’m a high school junior, I’m a senior and I’m doing this for my better players because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be on the team. And so, as I got older … I didn’t like practicing as a kid. I liked to work on my own, but I didn’t really enjoy the way practices were set up. So I’m like, how do I create an environment where players want to get better and they want to come, they want to belong, irrespective of where they are in terms of their talent level? All you need to do is be hungry and excited about it.

Ron Bronson:
So how it ties to my everyday work is the same kind of thing. You come in with energy. You come in excited. I come in trying to help you get better and it’s not transactional. I’m not trying to make you better to get something out of it for me. I mean, we benefit from it, but I don’t care about that. If it means you getting better, it means you leave and go make more money, shout out to you because you did that. You made that happen. I didn’t.

Ron Bronson:
And so coaching is that and it’s fun over the years. I’ve been to camps over the years. I’ve been coaching high school tennis now. To have this arc of seeing kids from 1998, the first time I coached, to this year … I mean, I’ve taken years off, of course, but I coached this season. Basically, in theory, there were kids in ’98 who probably could have kids now, who could be kids of mine. Right? I’ve done a generation of this, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to be a little relevant over the times and you get to see how people evolve and grow and change and how you need to adapt your methods to resonate with a different generation. I’m almost washed, but I’m not quite there yet. I’m getting there. I’m not going to be coaching at 60. Then I’ll be super washed, at that point. So I’m not going to be one of those coaches you see, like … Oh, no, no. I’m nearing my end, but it’s been really fun and it’s … You work online. As somebody who spends a lot of time on a laptop, a lot of time on a computer, it’s very, very nice to have a time where you don’t do that and somewhere you’ve got to show up and be accountable to people and not just a … to be somewhere every day.

Ron Bronson:
And it’s different than a nonprofit or something. This is different. It’s in-person. It’s every day. There’s an ebb and flow. It’s pretty simple, but it’s not. You build the culture, but you’ve got enforce the culture. It’s a lot of lessons in it. I learned so much just from this season of coaching. I learned so much. And it’s stuff that I think applies to my everyday work. So it’s super, super cool.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now.

Ron Bronson:
Oh, man, Finnish baseball. I mean, it’s true. Pesapällo, Google it, friends, but I really want to know what’s next. People tease me, friends of mine. Even second-tier friends will tease me about, “Oh, your Twitter bio changes all the time.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m just AB testing,” but also I just want to [inaudible 00:33:28]. But one of the things I always put in there … It’s not in there right now, but it may be after we hang up, “Thinking out loud about a post-service design world.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m really obsessed right now with thinking about, as it relates to the work, anyway, is thinking about what does a world look like that doesn’t involve always just expecting folks to get on the treadmill? How do we build experiences that then involve people getting off? How do we build humane experiences that allow people to say, “Well, you used the thing, but you’re not using it anymore. Thanks for using it,” instead of guilt tripping them because they were going to unsubscribe from your stupid newsletter. I wonder about that. And I think COVID has helped a little bit with that, but I still think we’re still very embedded in the CRM, always be closing mentality of every … It’s permeated everything that we do.

Ron Bronson:
So I’m really obsessed with how do we … especially in terms of human-centered design, what does the next thing look like? How do we ideate paste this world that is very dominated by selling and buying things? Because I don’t like it. I just don’t. So I’m very obsessed with trying to figure that out, not because I want to invent something. Maybe I want to absolve my own guilt for being involved in this, tangentially, but that’s what I’m obsessed with, other than Finnish baseball, which I’m very obsessed with, is this topic.

Maurice Cherry:
Please go more into Finnish baseball.

Ron Bronson:
Long story short … This is your 90-second version of the story. [crosstalk 00:34:53] play a version of baseball. It’s the version they play now, since the 1920s. It’s a really cool design story, Finnish guy. He’s a Finnish Olympian, actually, in track, though. They played a bat and ball game in Europe that, basically, it was one base, whatever. He came to America twice and saw some baseball games. It was like, “I like this, but I can make it better.” So he went home and over 20 years, partially because of the way Finland became a country 100 years ago and so he was able to do this at the time when the country was becoming a country. So they sort of build this national pride over their own sport.

Ron Bronson:
And so he was able to iterate this sport called pesapällo, which is basically a Finnish version of baseball. There are nine players, there are four bases, there’s a bat, there’s a ball, there’s a field. Everything else is different. The rules are a little bit … It gets weirder. I found it online years ago … I invented a sport years ago and so I found it in the midst of doing that, but it wasn’t until about 2016 or so that I, through the internet, through magical Twitter, sort of went mini viral in Finland. It was an article about me in a newspaper. I ended up at the Finnish Embassy in New York. I’ve been to Finland since then. I’ve been on TV in Finland. It’s a whole thing.

Ron Bronson:
So anyway, I just enjoyed the game. I think it’s a really cool design story. It’s mostly a rural sport. You get more nanoseconds. It’s mostly a rural sport. There are some city teams, but it’s evolved into being a pretty rural sport. There are kids that play it from when they’re little. There are adults that play it. I just love the community and the culture around it. It’s a very specifically Finnish thing and I just think it’s a fun story to me. I think it’s been really fun to get immersed in it and you can … Now, I can watch all the games online. Back in the day, when I used to get into this, you couldn’t do that. It was three-day-old videos and there were no commentary and you didn’t know what was going on.

Ron Bronson:
Now, I just think I [inaudible 00:36:42] podcast. So it’s been a really fun way to get immersed in another culture through a thing that we all … many of us appreciate sports. Right? So, yeah, that’s the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m looking it up now and I like that Wikipedia calls it a fast moving bat and ball sports.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. It’s way faster than baseball. It’s definitely not boring. It’s not boring. A baseball game, you can go get a hot dog, come back and you won’t miss anything, maybe. In pesapällo, you would do that, you might miss a lot. It’s pretty great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it played here in the States or is mostly just a European-

Ron Bronson:
No. It’s literally only played in Finland.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Ron Bronson:
It’s literally only played in Finland. I mean, there are a few pockets of places where Finnish expats have brought it. So there’s a small community in Switzerland, there’s a small community in Germany, there’s a smaller community in Sweden. There are probably eight people in America that might play it. And as it turns out, the outreach that they were doing, it’s actually a community of people playing in Bangladesh in India, weirdly enough, and Pakistan. So there’s a [inaudible 00:37:48] trying to go … not global, but a little bit, some growth going on.

Ron Bronson:
There’s a major league for the men’s [aliment 00:37:55] sport for both, but it is entirely a Finnish exercise right now. So yeah, nothing in the States.

Maurice Cherry:
Fascinating. I’m looking it up as you’re talking about it. I’m seeing all these articles and things about … I’m going to have to watch some pesapällo on YouTube. I’m interested now.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there’s some good stuff on YouTube and Twitter. You go to Superfaces, you can look it up. You follow me, unfortunately. You could see my [inaudible 00:38:23]. You can unfollow me after this, but it was a good run we had. It was a good run we had, but you can see all my annoying tweets about it in half Finnish, half [inaudible 00:38:32]. [inaudible 00:38:32] at Finnish. I’ve gotten better, but it’s still pretty bad. But yeah, it’s some really fun stuff, just to highlight. They’ve gotten way better at social media in the past 10 years. So you can actually follow the game fairly well online. It’s pretty neat.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What advice has stuck with you the longest, throughout your career?

Ron Bronson:
I don’t know that it’s specifically advice. I think it’s more modeling. Having had so many good bosses over the years, good managers, people who … or even people that weren’t managers, who just looked out for you. Having that model so much in my life has made me [inaudible 00:39:07] level of empathy and care and consideration that I never would’ve. I think it’s funny how you actually talked about 2014. The lesson is is that that experience taught me that, if that had been first job and that had been my first situation with a manager, my entire career would be different, and not for the better. And so it’s wild how one person or one situation can completely change the trajectory of your situation. So you need to choose carefully the places you decide to start your carer, move your career or whatever because people, unfortunately, have an outsized impact on where you go and how you move forward and how you get to brand yourself and so forth.

Ron Bronson:
But it made me very appreciative for the people before that in ways that I wouldn’t have that. It made me so appreciate for people that looked out for me, who empowered me, who propelled me, who gave me the room to fail, who gave me chances, helped me grow and put me in positions to be successful. And so I just try to pay that forward all the time, anyway I can, because I’m just so grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I look at your past interview and then, of course, when talking with you now and just seeing all the things that you have accomplished in life, aside from career-wise, you also just have very interesting personal pursuits. You’ve sort of glossed over inventing a sport, but you’ve invented a sport, you’re into pesapällo, you’re doing all these … You had a T-line for awhile. I remember the T-line.

Ron Bronson:
Dude, yeah. You go way back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Ron Bronson:
I do stand up, too. That was cool. I got that out of the way. Never doing that again. It was fine. It’s just you can’t … I want to win a state title next year. That would be cool, if we can do that, only because my high school coach never got to. My high school coach meant a lot to me and then we never got to do it. Through the way schools work, a lot of the players who train end up going to private schools. So we were good, but I wouldn’t have been on a high school team if we had the players that should’ve been on the team, but we were [inaudible 00:41:06] of our state title. So I’d love to win one for him. So that’d be cool.

Ron Bronson:
Besides that, I don’t know. It’s actually a good question and I don’t have a good answer for it because I’m not sure. It’s a question I’ve wondered, myself, is, “Cool. You’ve gotten pretty far. You’ve done some stuff. Wow. What a run you’ve had. What’s next?” Getting this book out would be cool, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ron Bronson:
I’m really curious to see, myself, what the next bucket of milestones and goals, myself, are. I’m not sure. A lot of my work right now is focused on trying to build a better world, I guess, which is hokey, but it’s true. And personally, I’m not even sure. Honestly, I really don’t even know.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess this is sort of a related question to that, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Ron Bronson:
I want it to be intentional. I want the next chapter of my story to be intentional and I want there to be a level of care involved in it. It’d be cool if I could get out of America for awhile and go live somewhere else for a good while, maybe not come back. That’d be rad. That’d be the end of that. So [inaudible 00:42:14] embassy, call me, but something like that would be cool. I think maybe, as it not relates to that, thinking about the work, it’d be cool to see what other kinds of stuff I could do. It’d be fun to help a state scale up their own digital team and go run one of those. I love fixing [inaudible 00:42:33] problems and solving them. And I’ve got some longevity in that now. So I really enjoy that kind of work. So it’d be fun to find a bigger problem space and solve it and help [inaudible 00:42:42] work with a team of people to fix these problems and none of this stuff is done alone. So that could be fun to set those kinds of goals.

Ron Bronson:
I like being behind the scenes. I don’t need anything super, super visible. I don’t want to aspire to anything ridiculously visible, but I like solving problems that other folks don’t necessarily want to solve. But I think, much like when we talked seven years ago, I didn’t know what the future had in store. I didn’t know what my stealing was. And I think that, if I wanted people to get something from this, if you get nothing else from my interview, other than [inaudible 00:43:15] pesapällo, which is amazing, you should all love it, is don’t put a governor or a ceiling or a cat on your potential. Don’t let your own imposter syndrome or something your parents said when you were 11 or something a teacher said when you were 22, don’t let … or a boss said to you when you were 30, don’t let those things, those individual, isolated situations put a cap on where you think you can go.

Ron Bronson:
Obviously, you have to do the work. Obviously, you’ve got to show up. Obviously, you’ve got to have some luck, but if you can position yourself, the opportunities can come. The things can come. You’re patient, but you’re also doing the work. And be willing to reinvent yourself, but I think that that’s the biggest lesson from, say, when we talk to now and thinking about the future, is as long as you don’t put a cap on it prematurely, then who knows what doors can open, what ceilings can be there because I don’t know. I didn’t predict this. I didn’t see this coming. I really didn’t. I’m past where I thought I was trying to go, which is really cool, but also kind of frightening.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, Ron, where can our audience find our more about you and about your work and everything online?

Ron Bronson:
Definitely always at Ronbronson.com, definitely on your Twitter machine. Your Mileage May Vary There at Ron Bronson and also Consequencedesign.org. I’m trying to throw things up on there, as well. And since Maurice encouraged me to do this, I’m probably going to take that [inaudible 00:44:40] and stick some of that stuff on there, too.

Maurice Cherry:
The strategty book is really good. If people want to check it out, I can link to it in the show notes. It’s a quick read and really I came across it at a time when I needed to think about what my next step was going to be because I had sort of wound down my studio and I was doing interviews and, I mean, the places I was interviewing at, I was like, “I don’t want to go and just be a designer. I can bring more to the table than that.” And so reading just what you wrote about strategy and everything really changed my mindset going into all this. So hopefully, people will check it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Ron, as always, thank you so much for coming on the show, for really giving us an update on what you’ve been working on. It’s been so great to hear about all the work that you’re doing, helping out our government, as whole, with the work that you’re doing. I know we’re not going directly talking about stuff, but just being able to-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:45:39] [inaudible 00:45:39].

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, that’s true.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. Y’all can look and see. You’re smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I think just, one, being able to do that work and then also how you’re encouraging and paying it forward to other people, whether it’s in civic tech, whether it’s coaching or what have you. I can definitely tell that you have that sort of spirit of paying it forward, which I think will take you very far. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ron Bronson:
Appreciate you, too, always for all the work you’ve been doing and doing these thankless tasks. It’s a lot of work and a lot of energy and amplifying people, especially back in the day. I’ve given you your flowers while we’re on the show. I was just a guy buried somewhere and I think I tweeted at you and you were like, “Yeah, come on the show.” That is seriously the coolest thing in the world. You didn’t have to do that. You could’ve been like, “Ah, all right, buddy. That’s fine. I’ve got a long list,” and you did. So super grateful for you, not only for this, but for all the things you’ve done over the years, your different projects you’ve put on and amplifying black designers, specifically, but also people of color and just really … not just talking about the work, but doing the work and being intentional about that, and inspiring others to do that, including me.

Ron Bronson:
So just as much as you just said, “Ah, whatever I did,” it goes back to you. Your body of work speaks for itself. So super grateful for you, for now and always.

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Kaleena Sales

One of the things I love most about Revision Path is talking shop with design educators like Kaleena Sales. Kaleena is an illustrator, a design educator at Tennessee State University, and the author of Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Non-Binary Field Guild for Graphic Designers. Kaleena is one of many Black design educators that are helping make the design canon more elastic for students by allowing Black culture and aesthetics to be a part of the conversation.

We talked about teaching design virtually at an HBCU, and Kaleena talked about growing up in Nashville and how she thought about pursuing a career as a fine artist before putting in time working in the advertising industry. She also spoke about what drew her back to her alma mater, as well as the many ways that she has seen design education change since she started teaching. Kaleena is also active with AIGA Nashville, and even shared some info about her upcoming book! With educators like Kaleena, I think the future is in good hands.

Next week: episode 400!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right so tell us who you are and what you do.

Kaleena Sales:
Hi. I’m Kaleena Sales. I’m a design educator, illustrator, researcher from Nashville, Tennessee. I teach design at Tennessee State University where I’m also serving this year as the interim chair of the department. I also serve on the steering committee for AIGA’s design educators community.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How’s 2021 been going for you so far?

Kaleena Sales:
You know what, it’s been good so far. It’s been really, really busy. 2020 was busy and then I feel like 2021 is just sort of a continuation of that. Lots of really cool opportunities have come up. There have been a couple of book projects and conferences and some speaking engagements and things that have kept me really busy. That’s been really nice and it sort of like serves as a good balance for me between my teaching role at TSU.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it hard kind of trying to balance the teaching along with these other opportunities?

Kaleena Sales:
It can be, yeah. I mean, this year’s been weird anyway just because of all of the virtual instruction and then having to figure out how to deliver content to students in addition to taking on this interim chairs position for the first time and learning how to serve in an administrative capacity. That’s been a lot of really like a new space for me. So doing a lot of the the book projects and sort of my, I guess field work has really started as a really nice balance. So it keeps me really busy, but I really like being able to do all of the extra projects. I feel like it really gives me the context that I need to be a better educator.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s dive into more of the work that you’re doing at Tennessee State. So your interim chair of the, which department is it again?

Kaleena Sales:
It’s the Department of Art and Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Art and design. Okay.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, studio and design.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I would imagine with sort of this, I guess, hybrid… I don’t know is it sort of a hybrid thing now that students are getting vaccinated and such or is it still all virtual?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Well, we have a few hybrid courses, but this past year a lot of the delivery has been virtual. So we’ve been trying to stay away from each other as much as possible. But there have been some classes, the more studio-based courses. So like ceramics or sculpture and those types of things that are difficult to teach just online. Those have been meeting a little bit in person. For my design classes, I’ve been all virtual though.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been trying to teach design virtually?

Kaleena Sales:
It’s not terrible. I mean, obviously with design, we have the benefit of using the computer as our main tool. So it’s been fine in that way. One of the challenges though is I’m used to like a lot of other design educators and just educators in general like I’m used to walking around the classroom and assessing student’s work and sort of being there with them as they’re navigating through some of their challenges and helping them to see things as they’re working.

Kaleena Sales:
So you lose some of that within the virtual space because students are either working offline or they’re not sharing their screens with you while they’re kind of going through those processes. So that assessment and kind of critique process really has changed quite a bit in the virtual space.

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s the part that’s tough and I think that the students are having a hard time with that and that feedback loop is a little bit difficult for some of them. But again, I’m thankful though that we do get to just use our laptops for the most part to do our work. There have been some issues though with just access to laptops and software for some of my students. So a lot of the students that I teach typically rely on using the computer lab to do a lot of their work.

Kaleena Sales:
So we have seen a drop-off in enrollment because some of the students who just don’t have the materials to do it just didn’t enroll in classes this semester or this past year. So that’s been really unfortunate and I’m hoping that in the fall we’ll see that turn back around.

Maurice Cherry:
I was listening to this podcast series from the New York Times called Odessa and they have been following this… Really, it was this high school girl and her class. Her band actually, marching band. And it struck me just like it has to be so hard for students right now everywhere. Regardless of the grade because school is such a vital social function as well as a societal function. And when something like the pandemic kind of strips that away and turns into a virtual experience, it’s not just so much about, “Oh, you can’t commune in public,” but it takes away something from like the whole society.

Maurice Cherry:
So I can only imagine trying to focus and learn, and you can only do it on the computer and you can’t really collaborate in person or knock ideas off of other people in real time in that way. It’s really tough.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, it is tough and a lot of the students… Everyone’s wired differently. So you have introverts like myself who are completely fine like being at home and away from people. But we have a lot of students who really, really do need that social component and they’re missing it. Then all the other activities that you have with just college life in general, outside of just your classes. And on an HBCU campus, one of the big draws to an HBCU for a lot of students is the community and it’s that sense of being around your peers. So when you’re back isolated at home, you’re missing out on a big part of why you even attended college in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s very, very true. Overall though, I’d like to know because I mentioned before we started recording that I’ve had a lot of design educators on the show just really this year, but what’s the experience like teaching design at an HBCU. What makes that special?

Kaleena Sales:
There’s a really I think a kind of specific experience that happens when you’re learning design at an HBCU. And I’m sure it varies depending on which HBC you’re attending and all that. But a lot of the students that I teach, they come from cities like Memphis, and Atlanta, and Chicago. They are really from like black parts of town and then they come to a college that’s predominantly black.

Kaleena Sales:
So your cultural kind of experience is very kind of specific and that comes out in your design work at least in my experience it has for the students. So when we’re teaching about international typographic style and Bauhaus, and all of that, the students are engaged to a certain extent, but they’re very much interested in expressing their culture through design.

Kaleena Sales:
So I would say that’s a really big distinction between learning or experiencing design and learning designing in HBCU versus at a predominantly white institution is because you’re surrounded by black people, black culture all the time and you’re not really in the minority yet. So the students that I teach often don’t really see a need to create work that fits the mainstream necessarily.

Kaleena Sales:
They’re not really pulled to do that or compelled to do that the way that I see black students who are in predominantly white institutions doing. So that’s really interesting to observe and it actually kind of is what created my personal research interest in general. So that’s one of the biggest observations I’ve made.

Maurice Cherry:
I would also imagine because you being a black design educator and it’s at an HBCU, you don’t dissuade students when they try to do that, right?

Kaleena Sales:
You know what though, it’s been a journey for me because I’ll be honest and say that when I first started teaching, I was teaching very much the way that I was taught. So I was teaching very much like, again, international topographic style, and sans serif, and flush left, and these are the rules. I started teaching really like when I was 27, so it’s been quite a few years ago now.

Kaleena Sales:
So I wanted my students originally to fit into the mainstream. I felt like that was going to be their path into the industry. And it very much still is to be honest, but I’ve changed the way that I feel about that and the way that I teach about that now. So instead of wanting them to squeeze into the mainstream. There’s a really good quote by an AfriCOBRA artist that says something about making the canon… Instead of fitting into the canon, making the canon more elastic. So that’s sort of like how I approach it now versus the way that I taught in my really early years.

Kaleena Sales:
So now, I’m encouraging them to consider the ways that their identity might show up and the way that their social economic kind of status or upbringing might even influence their design work.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m thinking on how that would look like. I don’t know. Can you give an example of what a student… And you don’t have to like call-out a student by name or anything, but what’s an example of something that a student would do in that instance?

Kaleena Sales:
I actually write about this in the book Extra Bold, but one really kind of specific example would be just even the way that we all view wealth or money for example, right? If you think about if you grow up wealthy or in a family that’s pretty well off, your view of money is normalized. So if you were to ask to design a logo for a bank for example, you might represent that in a really sort of corporate way. It’s like simplified typography and that sort of thing.

Kaleena Sales:
If you grew up like I grew up, which was like inner city and not very well off, your ideas of what wealth looks like is very different. It might be a little bit flashier and it might have gold as a representation or some other kind of symbolism that matches that type of thinking. So I see my students choosing fonts, and colors, and textures that really speak to the visual landscape and the culture in which they come from.

Kaleena Sales:
So there’s a lot of, I think, influences from hip-hop and just very like urban design. They don’t shy away from that and I don’t want them to. So those are kind of some things that come to mind when I think about that specific aesthetic.

Maurice Cherry:
The first thing when you said that what came to mind was… I don’t know if you remember seeing this, but there’s this black bank called One United Bank and they have this visa card with Harriet Tubman on it doing the Wakanda salute.

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I saw it on Twitter and people clowned it, but leave it to a black bank to do that. You know what I’m saying? You wouldn’t see that at Wells Fargo. That ain’t happening.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s funny. That sort of pushes it into sort of a space where those symbols… And I don’t want to criticize that design, but those symbols sort of take on a little bit of a stereotype or they don’t mean as much. I think that it’s hard to talk about black aesthetics and black design sometimes because I think sometimes we feel that we’re being or we’re describing like a monolithic viewpoint or like a monolithic experience when we do that.

Kaleena Sales:
And that’s certainly not ever like what I want to suggest. I think it’s true for everyone’s experience. I think we just are all influenced by just the things around us and the media that we consume, and the way that we grow up. Even our fashion choices respond to our culture as well. So those are really the things that I see.

Maurice Cherry:
And your research focus, I mean it plays into this about black culture and aesthetics. How did you end up deciding on that as a focus?

Kaleena Sales:
Well, exactly sort of what I was just describing, which was I started to notice that my students were making some choices. So for example a lot of my students were liking like the Old English typeface. I was getting so frustrated and I thought, “Oh my gosh. Why do you guys keep choosing this?” I stepped back and I tried to be less critical and I was like, “Well, why do they like this particular typeface and why do I see certain color palettes repeating like red, and black, and white and really bold color combinations?” I started to study a little bit about the mere exposure effect and subliminal exposure. I don’t know if you are familiar with that or not.

Maurice Cherry:
No. I haven’t heard of that.

Kaleena Sales:
So it just simply says like the more you see something, the more you like it. The subliminal exposure effect essentially just says that even when things are repeated subliminally and you don’t notice that you’re seeing something over and over again, you still end up having a sort of a preference for that. So it’s sort of similar to, if you grew up in a household where people smoke cigarettes and then maybe as an adult, the smell of cigarette smoke is actually sort of calming to you because it reminds you of home.

Kaleena Sales:
Or if you grew up in New York City, and it’s busy and loud, maybe a very quiet kind of experience is discomforting to you. It’s sort of that kind of thing. So when we see things, textures of the city, the sounds of the city, even like fashion choices depending if you’re into sneakers or if you’re into certain kinds of shoes those color palettes and things, they stick with this.

Kaleena Sales:
So I see that in the research that I’m doing. What I started to do in my research was pull examples of my students work and compare it to the visual landscape of urban environments and I saw a lot of similarities between the two. So for graffiti lettering and then an interest in that kind of typography style or even textures from a city like walls or landscape and then the textures that students are choosing in their design work.

Kaleena Sales:
So I just think it’s kind of interesting and fascinating. Although, I specifically am interested in like the black experience and particularly the urban black experience, I think that this can certainly be true for people who grew up in rural areas and that sort of thing. So that’s sort of where that research interest comes from. It’s directly from my students experience and in my experience observing them while teaching.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Now, I want to switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about the work that you’re doing at Tennessee State. Of course a lot of the work you’re doing with your students. Did you grow up also in Tennessee?

Kaleena Sales:
I did. I grew up in Nashville and I went to Tennessee state university for undergrad. So that’s home and Nashville is home.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I would imagine creativity and art were probably a big part of your childhood and your environment growing up.

Kaleena Sales:
You know what, not really. I would say I wasn’t exposed to a lot of art. My parents were military parents and my dad was in the army. My mom was in the army for a while. It wasn’t really a very artistic kind of household. I was sort of the oddball in my family in terms of having an interest in that, but it was always supported though. When I did decide to pursue art as a career path, I was lucky that my parents were supportive of that. I know I teach a lot of students who say that their parents are sort of unsure or not supportive of that when they first decide to choose that as a major.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing up in Nashville, I’d imagine Tennessee state was probably just always in your backyard?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah, it was. It was the only college honestly that I even considered going to. When you grew up in Nashville, especially I went to like a black high school and was in the band. So you get used to that, that culture. So we would march in TSU’s homecoming parades. So it was just always there. I think about this sort of in hindsight sometimes because I didn’t even know of any art schools back then. When I was thinking about going to college, I just had never heard of like MICA or RISD. They were completely foreign to me. So I think about that too in terms of exposure. I wonder if I would have known what choices I would have made.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you say that about going to a black high school and sort of being close to another historically black college. So for folks that know that have listened to the show, I grew up in Selma, Alabama and the nearest… Well, we have a HBCU there. We have Selma University, but it’s a small college. We don’t even have a band. Nobody really pays attention to it. But Alabama State University in Montgomery was always like the school that we kind of, I wouldn’t necessarily say, emulated, but we also would march in their homecoming parade and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So that whole culture of all of that is just so rich. Oh. See, now you got me thinking about marching band and memories of all of that is so rich. But it’s interesting though about not really knowing about the possibility. I mean, when did you sort of know that you wanted to study design to go to Tennessee State and to study it?

Kaleena Sales:
So I had an art teacher in high school and the class that we were in was called commercial art. I didn’t know what that meant, but for some reason I really liked the way it sounded. So I used to draw a lot. I didn’t know anything about computer graphics or what commercial art even meant, but for some reason I really grabbed a hold to that title. So when I was choosing a major, I chose art.

Kaleena Sales:
After the first year or two of studying as a studio art major, I realized that I liked painting and all of that, but I really did not… I was sort of afraid of pursuing a career as a fine artist. I didn’t want to have to… I’d had this weird vision in my head that I would be standing on the corner trying to sell paintings for a living. I was afraid of that lifestyle and I was just like, “I need to find something that has like in my mind more stability.”

Kaleena Sales:
I was reading a magazine, I think it was like essence magazine or something like that and I came across the titles in the beginning of the magazine and it listed like art director and all these other… And I thought I don’t know what an art director is, but that sounds like something that I want to do. So I really clung to that and I started researching like early internet days. I started researching art direction and found the VCU’s Brandcenter. It was called the Adcenter at the time, but found that program online. And that’s what took me off in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And VCU’s Brandcenter, I mean is well known, I think internationally well known. We’ve had another guest on the show, Brandon Viney who also went. I think he grew up in and around Virginia, but he knew about VCU. So certainly their program definitely cranks out people that can perform at a top-notch design level. How was it when you were there?

Kaleena Sales:
It was amazing to be honest. When I discovered the program and I set my sights on going there for grad school, I’ve sort of like obsessively stalked their website and tried to emulate the work that I saw coming out of that program. When I got accepted and I went, it was all that I was hoping it would be like it was intense and rigorous. I don’t think it’s really meant for… I mean, I have thoughts now about how it sort of does exclude people who could not go through a program like that because maybe they had to work or had other kind of obligations. But for those of us that were privileged enough to not have other obligations and could do that, I really learned a lot about how to just think and how to solve problems and how to process ideas.

Kaleena Sales:
So I feel like although I’m not working in the ad industry anymore, it definitely has affected every part of my career since then in terms of just me being able to think about things in more of a problem-solving and strategic viewpoint.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know you interned for JWT for a while and then you worked for several years at Doe-Anderson which is an advertising firm. With that whole experience, how did it sort of bring you back to Tennessee eventually?

Kaleena Sales:
When I worked at Doe-Anderson, I worked there for a couple of years right out of grad school. It was a good experience, but 2008 right when the country was going through a recession, we lost a big client and I got laid off. I was like, “What? What is happening?” I had just won some awards and I thought everything was going great and it was one of the early shocks in my career that things could be turbulent and things could not go the way that you think they’re going to go.

Kaleena Sales:
I don’t know why I was one of the ones that was let go and honestly, it’s sort of a side note. I do think that it’s possible that there was some cultural fit issues. But that’s what made me move back to Nashville. I thought, “Okay. Well, I’m out of work. What do I do?” And I started freelancing as a graphic designer.

Kaleena Sales:
That was really the first time that I really started to think about my skills as a designer a little bit more seriously than when I was doing the art direction thing. So I got pretty serious about learning craft and investigating typography a bit more and that’s sort of kind of is what paved the way into me teaching design.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the ad industry though is notorious for being like… It kind of chews people up and spits people out so that could have been for the best.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. At the time, it felt really crappy. I was like things happen for a reason and I’m so happy with… In hindsight, I’m happy with the direction that my career has taken since then. But it’s a tough industry to be in. I mean, so many ups and downs. So many people that I know that still work in the industry that have just been uplifted so many times and moved. I think it’s great if you have a passion for it, if that’s your thing and that’s what you’re really interested in and that’s rewarding. But I think my forceful exit was what I needed to refocus on the things that I really care more about.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve mentioned you’ve been teaching for a number of years. We won’t do the math on that, but how have you seen design education change since you started teaching?

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, man. I think that one of the biggest ways is that the conversation surrounding diversity and the canon and decolonizing design. I don’t know if I was just disengaged or if those conversations just weren’t really happening when I first started teaching. So that’s been one of the biggest ways that I’ve seen a significant shift in terms of pedagogy and just the ways in which we are considering what we’re teaching to the point where if I do teach things that are traditionally in the canon.

Kaleena Sales:
I make sure that I’m providing context whereas early in my teaching days, I wasn’t doing that. So that context might be the reason why we’re learning about this person is because there are other people that were excluded that could not be a part of this conversation. And the reason why we’re learning about this particular design style is because other design styles aren’t in this book at all that we’re using.

Kaleena Sales:
So I see that across the board. It’s not just something that I’m doing. There’s tons of design educators that are revamping curriculum and really trying to respond to some of the changes that we’ve seen socially over the past few years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. it has really been interesting how… I didn’t go to school for design so I can’t really speak on it from a historical standpoint, but certainly I know since I started doing this podcast back in 2013, it’s amazing to see how educators have really started to come together not just in, as you say kind of elasticizing the canon or like teaching outside of the canon, but also even coming up with other curriculum or even opening up their class to talk about these sorts of things because students, like you said, you teach at HBCU.

Maurice Cherry:
So students are coming with these questions or they’re coming with these viewpoints and to not shy away from them and to be able to speak to them and place it in a modern context and place in a cultural context. I mean, it’s amazing just how much that has changed. Really, it feels like within the past maybe 10 years or so, it feels like it’s really started to grow around that. I’m seeing it even from mostly white art institutions. I’m seeing the same thing start to happen. I’m glad that it’s starting to take shape in that way.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. I think that a lot of people recognize the opportunity to make these changes and are feeling some of the responsibility. I think as educators we are certainly sort of on the front lines of reshaping the next generation of designers and the way that they approach design. So I’m really happy with a lot of the conversations that I’ve listened to or been a part of even over the past couple of years that are really starting to push things forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I guess the pandemic maybe might have accelerated this a bit, but now you’ve been seeing more events around this. I remember 2015, Harvard’s graduate school, they have an African-American student union there and they put together this conference called Black in Design. And the first year that they had it was in 2015. I remember trying to get people that I knew like peers and friends to go like, “Let’s go. It’s at Harvard.” The tickets were less than $100. It was super cheap.

Maurice Cherry:
But they were looking at the program and the thing was it was called Black in Design but it wasn’t digital design. At least for the first year, they have the conference every other year. And for the first year, the theme was around the concept of space like the city, the neighborhood, the region, et cetera. So people are looking at that and I’m trying to get people to go and they’re like, “But they’re not talking about Photoshop. They’re not talking about illustrator. Why would I go to a Black in Design Conference when they’re not talking about digital design?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “How many black design conferences have you been to in your career? None. Let’s just go. It’s cheap. Let’s just go.” I’ve been fortunate to go every year that they’ve had it. I’m interested to see how they pull it off this year because I went last in 2019 for their third installment and I want to see how they do it this year. I mean, last year for example and this year as well, there was State of Black Design that went on. There’s Where are the Black Designers? I’m seeing even other colleges doing small little designs speaking events and things like that. So it’s really starting to blossom. It’s wonderful to see.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. There’s been a lot of really great programming. The State of Black Design, the one that you just mentioned with Omari Souza. I mean, incredible. So I love it. I think the more that these types of things pop-up, it’s just going to further the conversation, get more people involved and engaged and really just recognize that this movement is happening and it’s not just like a fluke.

Kaleena Sales:
I think when there’s just like one conference here, maybe some people will catch it, but when it’s happening over and over and all around us, at some point you can’t avoid it. So you have to kind of decide whether or not you’re going to engage in this change, in this movement.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen any sort of pushback against it, I’m curious like from a student standpoint?

Kaleena Sales:
Not directly. My students have not pushed back against it. They’re all about it. They’re excited to learn about, again, black culture, black history and whatever discipline that comes from whether it’s in their art history course or whether it’s in one of my design classes. So not directly with my students. I have seen questions maybe from design educators surrounding how do we engage students who aren’t interested in this?

Kaleena Sales:
So I would imagine at predominantly white institutions where this might seem like it’s sort of like breaking from the norm of what’s being taught. There may be more pushback, but I think overall even at predominantly white institutions there’s a lot of excitement or a lot of recognition that these are important areas. So yeah, I mean overall it’s going in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s good to hear. That’s good to hear.

Kaleena Sales:
At least in my experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What would you say your students teach you?

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, man. Well, I think just they taught me to be a better professor and to understand context more. They also taught me how to give feedback. I think when I first started teaching one area where I struggled was how do I communicate the things that I would like for them to focus on in a way that they’ll understand it and in a way that doesn’t feel subjective and just a personal opinion.

Kaleena Sales:
So I had to learn that and I had to sort of read them and read their responses and figure out what was landing and what was not landing. So I certainly have learned that from them just based on the ways in which they respond back to me when we’re in class. They also have really great ideas. I just sat in on a bunch of meetings today and yesterday where our seniors were presenting their senior thesis projects and they’re choosing such interesting topics that are sort of blowing my mind.

Kaleena Sales:
One student is interested in fashion and she was addressing ways that the pandemic has changed our outlook on clothing and fashion. Another student was thinking about the ways in which bias and stereotypes can be addressed through animation and cartoon. There’s all these like topics that they come up with that I’m just like, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” I love to see like the way that they’re processing how to use art and design in those ideas. So I’m constantly learning from them.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting. I don’t know. I mean, of course kids now have just so many different experiences that they’re pulling from especially during this current time. That part about the fashion though, I mean I can just personally attest. I’m looking at my closet and I want to get rid of everything. I want to adopt like a minimalist capsule wardrobe at this point. I look at my slacks and my suits and stuff, I’m like, “I want to get rid of all of this.” Because I haven’t had to wear them. I haven’t had to go anywhere with it.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s exactly what the student was sort of suggesting. We’re liking this comfort thing. Let’s get more of that, more yoga pants and sweatshirts. Then even just sort of like this particular project for example. The student was even questioning, “Are we learning more about sustainability? Are we not comfortable being as flashy anymore?” So she was just really posing some really interesting thoughtful questions and those are the things that are really refreshing to hear especially from really young designers.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a great question. Now, that you’ve mentioned that I’m just thinking like when I scroll through Instagram, that is exactly what I see. I see so many tie-dyed sweatshirts. I mean, of course there’s like muted color palettes. There’s talk about sustainability and organic and all this stuff, but everything is very beige.

Kaleena Sales:
That makes us feel like we’re being socially conscious because beige is the color of being socially conscious.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve been talking about design educators kind of touching on that earlier, but there’s also been this kind of pretty regular conversation in the design community around maybe the lack of black design educators. What do you think contributes to that?

Kaleena Sales:
I just think that we’re underrepresented across the board in the industry. In design and in education, higher education, and the end of higher education, I mean most accredited… Well, I guess depending on if your state school or how your funding works, you have to have a terminal degree to work as a college educator. So that’s the MFA in most cases. So that already pushes a lot of people out of the possibility of pursuing this.

Kaleena Sales:
I know a ton of amazing black designers that went to college for it and would be incredible, but like a lot of other designers, they’re working. They’re doing their practice and so they didn’t go and get that MFA teaching degree. So that’s one of the ways that I see that it’s limiting because it begins to be really expensive. Obviously, the more education you’re pursuing. So those advanced degrees you’re having to decide on do I want to get student loan debt? Is this worth it? Is the college teaching job going to sort of offset the cost of all of this?

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s a really big consideration depending on who you are and where you’re from and what sort of like… Maybe even generational wealth you might or may not have. So I think that can contribute to the lack of diversity in education in general, higher education in general. But then even as designers, there’s just so few still, so few black designers working in the space that it just gets narrowed even further when you add in another criteria. So it’s black designer and educator. The numbers just get real slim. So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I could see that. I mean, I think visibility is sort of one part of that as you mentioned. You just don’t really see that many. Although now, I think you’re seeing more and more with these events and speaking and things like that. But also I wonder if students as they’re learning, are they also being enlightened about going into design education as well?

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Probably not as much as we should. Actually, just before joining this call with you, I was listening to Jacinda Walker do a presentation about the work that she’s doing and she pointed out that there are, I think 300 and something black design educators across the country. That’s a really tiny number and she actually just mentioned something about to your point, we sort of need to do a better job of advocating for our career and talking about it and communicating to younger students what it is that we do and some of the things that we enjoy about this.

Kaleena Sales:
I think that there’s still, I guess, a little bit of a misconception in terms of what teachers do. A lot of people, I think there’s still a little bit of that idea of like if you’re… What is it saying? If you’re good, you do and if you’re not, you teach.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. Like those who can do and those who can’t teach.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So I think that can sometimes, the mindset of a lot of creatives. So if you’re in a creative field, you really do have that itch inside of you to do the work, right? You want to practice. So teaching feels like, “Well, I’m not going to be able to do the work. I’m going to be in this box where I’m not really practicing.” But what I would love for people to know is like when you’re working in higher education as a professor, research component that a lot of us are asked to do allows for us to grow our practice and really do a lot of personal projects that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do if you’re working in the industry. So I’ve seen my personal work grow since being an educator.

Maurice Cherry:
Now is that sort of how you came across doing the book?

Kaleena Sales:
Extra Bold?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I was trying to give you a good segue into it.

Kaleena Sales:
Well, yes. I actually met Ellen Lupton. She came to Nashville, I think it was 2019 and she was AIGA Nashville. I served on the board for AIGA Nashville and we hosted her. she was actually doing a presentation for one of the really early iterations of the book before it took the shape that it is now. We took her to dinner. The board of directors for AIGA Nashville took her to dinner and we sort of chatted and just touched base and kind of do what you do when you’re at dinner.

Kaleena Sales:
She followed up and asked a few questions. Then eventually I was going to be a contributor for a small part of the book along with so many other amazing contributors. That was where it was for a while and then I got an email last year sometime from her where she invited me and to be a co-author and do some more writing in the book. So that’s how that took shape.

Kaleena Sales:
So it’s been amazing to be a part of that collaborative project. And what I love really most about that book in particular is that it involves so many different voices and perspectives and narratives. You hear from people like me who I don’t think typically has this sort of platform. So I love it. I feel like I’m learning so much from the other co-authors and the other contributors in the book.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when does the book come out?

Kaleena Sales:
So Extra Bold will be released on May 11th, and so really soon. It feels like it’s been in the works for quite a while now, but just a couple more weeks. At least from the time we’re recording the podcast. I don’t know when it’ll be released, but May 11 is when the books will be on the shelves.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So I’m excited about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. By the time this airs it’ll be out.

Kaleena Sales:
Oh, good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. So that’s exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
So about your work with AIGA Nashville on the board, what is it like sort of serving a chapter that’s in a city like Nashville? I’ve had other people from Nashville on the show before and even other people from Tennessee, but I don’t know if people might think of Nashville as being a really sort of design hub or a design city of any sort.

Kaleena Sales:
Yeah. Nashville, we’re known for our music, country music. But we do have a pretty good design community in Nashville. What’s really interesting about the board and what I love about AIGA’s national board is it’s extremely diverse, much more diverse than the industry is. We have maybe 50% black designers and lots of women designers. It’s just a very welcoming kind of place and community to be a part of. It was really the first organization that I took on any sort of a leadership role. I was the director of education for a while and then I transitioned over into being the director of diversity and inclusion.

Kaleena Sales:
And just by being involved, I have met so many other like wonderful designers. I didn’t realize that I was missing out. I think that naturally a lot of artists, designer types are kind of in our own little like circles or worlds. When I joined the board, it sort of forced me to grow and be a part of the larger like Nashville design community. And I certainly feel like I’ve benefited from doing that. I love just being a part of the events and figuring out content that will service the community there.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some upcoming events and things that you all are planning to do this year?

Kaleena Sales:
Well, we always participate in Nashville Design Week. So we’re brainstorming some ideas for that. It’s not released yet, but we typically invite in some inspiring guest speakers. Last year, we did a panel with Mitzi Okou from the Where are the Black Designers conference and Forest Young, and Bobby C. Martin. We just had an amazing conversation about the experience that they’ve had working as black designers in the field.

Kaleena Sales:
This year will hopefully be like a continuation of those types of conversations. We also do a lot of programming. I don’t serve in the educator role anymore on the board, but we do a lot of programming for students. So we do a lot of like portfolio reviews and meetups for students. So that’s always fun to help them get their foot in the door.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I kind of want to switch gears here again. We’ve been focusing again a lot on your work and the things that you’re doing, but I’m curious what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired to really continue this work?

Kaleena Sales:
The more that I work and the more that my work sort of shifts, I really want people to feel seen and I want to value the different experiences that black and minority designers have in this industry. So that might be again looking at the ways in which there might be some differences in the ways that the portfolios from an HBCU might look versus again a predominantly wide institution and advocating for us to remove bias in our review practices.

Kaleena Sales:
So it motivates me to talk about that and to share students work and students experience. And it motivates me to continue to have conversations about just diversity and design in general and sort of like the implications of the lack of diversity on our experience when we’re working as designers, how does that affect our confidence? How does that affect our mental health? How does it feel to be the only black designer in a creative department? Similar to when I was working at the ad agency and sort of it motivates me to talk about that so that other young designers who are black and are in those situations can feel seen, feel understood and sort of recognize that they’re not doing anything wrong. It might just be the industry needs to catch up to fully appreciate their point of view.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year?

Kaleena Sales:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from launching the book, I should say.

Kaleena Sales:
That’s a big one. But I want to actually write more, but I really would love to find a way to connect my illustration interest with design. I feel like right now they’re still living very separate lives. I do a lot of like illustration work and portrait drawings and things, but also obviously, I have a really big passion for design and writing. So one thing I’d love to do is find a way where they can sort of… Like these things can co-exist. So I do a lot of experimentation and I’m trying to figure that out. So I’ll feel really satisfied if I can get to some sort of a solution on that. And especially if it continues to elevate black voices and experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Kaleena Sales:
I was serving like I said as the interim chair. So the next year I’ll be the chair of the department. I think I’d like to be still in that position in five years. So that’s a lot of administrative work for the department. But what that looks like for me is like revamping curriculum and thinking about ways to get more of our students working in art and design spaces and facilitating that experience for them. So again, changing curriculum, getting them connected to mentors in the industry and just doing all of that sort of work on behalf of the students that I teach, but more from an administrative role and capacity.

Kaleena Sales:
So that’s where I see a lot of my time being spent. I would also love to do illustration work for some… I don’t know. I want to take it away from just sort of something I’m doing on the side and maybe do more commission work in that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have like a dream client or a dream project that you’d want to do?

Kaleena Sales:
Sort of. There’s not a specific client. I think that I would just… I sort of believe that if I continue to work on my craft and then refine it, that whatever’s meant to happen will happen and that right opportunity or that right client will find its way to me. So we’ll see. I would love to do some sort of partnership. But I don’t know what that exactly looks like. I’m really open to wherever that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything online?

Kaleena Sales:
So I am on all the social media channels on Instagram @kaleenasales. On Twitter @kaleena_sales. I think that’s right. And I’m on LinkedIn. I would love to connect on LinkedIn to whoever would like to connect and stay in touch that way. I’m on social media. My website is kalinasales.design, if you just want to kind of check that out and read a little bit more about what I’m up to there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And we’ll also put a link to the book in the show notes.

Kaleena Sales:
Yay. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Kaleena Sales, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really helping to teach the next generation of designers. I mean, it floored me the first time when I heard a teacher tell me that they actually use this podcast in their class because for people to know, I do this at home in my bedroom. And the fact that it has this kind of reach where I know educators are teaching it around the world, I think also speaks to this greater elasticization of the canon that you’re speaking about. I’m just glad that you’re there to help really guide and shepherd the next generation, and also keep them true to their cultural identity as they do it. That is super important. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

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