Jonathan Robinson

photo by Terrell Neasley

December is a good time to reflect and take stock of the year, and that’s the basis of my conversation with this week’s guest Jonathan Robinson. Jonathan is a creative powerhouse — a writer, a filmmaker, and a director, just to start — who’s currently on a personal journey of self-discovery.

We started off doing a bit of a recap of the past year, and Jonathan shed some light on what creative and experiential producers do and how he came into those titles through his work in the advertising industry. He also talked about working with AI and VR, and spoke about how his time spent at Facebook and Twitter helped shape him into his current calling as a storyteller.

For Jonathan, chasing his passions and connecting with other people are what drives him. When you look back at this year, what’s been your driving force?

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

My name is Jonathan Robinson, and I am a creative producer, director, and writer, supporting all kinds of interactive experiences, products, and bringing stories to life.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back at this year, at 2023, how would you describe it? Like, how’s it been for you?

Jonathan Robinson:

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, I think. I kind of liken it to making a loop around a racetrack. Things feel very familiar. But also, the urgency of how I’m trying to sort of move up in the race is starting to set in. I started the year still very much in a sort of personal sabbatical, working on a few writing projects and a VR concept which was really fulfilling, but also because these projects were very personal and tied to my personal experiences, my family history. I was doing a lot of digging up sort of latent emotional baggage and opening up wounds that I didn’t know were there. Add to that sort of the reality of living in capitalism and needing to pay your bills, trying to balance how to leverage the skills and the experience that I’ve had over the last close to 15 years working as a producer to generate some income without necessarily going back to the kind of soul crushing work that it felt like I left quite intentionally. I’ve done a little bit of contract work to pay the bills, but in doing so have been reminded why I left in the first place.

I think if anything, I feel like I went on a sort of condensed loop of what the past four or five years of my journey has been just in this one year. I think that’s given me a renewed clarity and motivation to continue in this sort of uncomfortable, unfamiliar path towards what I think I know I want.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s a very diplomatic answer.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s me. I’m a producer by trade and also a little bit by personality. So always trying to find the middle ground that moves us closer to an objective.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. How are you making time for joy these days?

Jonathan Robinson:

One of those things is really starting to take some of these more administrative skills that I’ve used in my professional life and trying to apply them to the emotional maturity, work and growth that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years. I had a moment of I mean, as most of us did during the pandemic of real clarity and understanding that I was not investing nearly enough time and energy into my relationships as I was into my career. And so, from there I started to just try to apply some of that structure that existed in my career that created that focus and apply that to relationships. It sounds, like, very academic or clinical, but I have a standing call with my best friend every Friday or excuse me, every other Friday when we talk for about two or three hours on the phone. I have standing dates with a couple of other friends either on a weekly or monthly basis just to make sure that we have a touch point. And it’s not like we’re only ever talking during these times. But I’ve found that when you have that consistency, it makes it so much easier to seek out these connections in between. And I think for myself, I’m kind of a self-isolating personality when I don’t have the sort of structure and pressure to show up if someone is not directly in my vicinity.

Living here in Oakland, I actually don’t have most of my closest friends in the area. They’re either in New York or in Southern California or in Europe. And so, it does take a little bit more effort on my part to make sure that those relationships are solid and are being fed. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing that growth and the ways in which it’s made me less in my head about reaching out and connecting with people. Even if it’s just something as silly as sending a meme or a photo of something ridiculous that I just saw while I was crossing the street. Yeah, I mean, add to like trying to make sure that I get out of the house and have in-person community. I’ve been attending this writing group here in Oakland, at Wolfpack Studios, a little studio in downtown Oakland. And it’s just maybe about anywhere between six to twelve of us once a month.

And we get together for about two hours, two to three hours, to go through a couple of prompts. We start with haikus and some short story prompts. Folks are reading their poetry and rapping or they’re not writers at all and they just wanted to show up and have a good time. But I’ve found some really cool people who just being able to express yourself in a room of other people who are willing to express themselves and open up in that way, I think, has been really refreshing and really rewarding for my own personal work. So that’s kind of the variety.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s really good to still try to keep those lines of communication open. I know when the pandemic first started, that was kind of a thing a lot of people tried to do, at least through Zoom or through other types of telecommunications type software. Just like check in, see how things are going, et cetera. But now I don’t want to say we’re a few years out from the Pandemic, but certainly the world has gotten back to its normal state. Well, I don’t want to say normal. You know what I mean. We’ve started.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ve pushed past that restrictive period, and I think some people have moved past it, some people haven’t. I still feel like it’s a very sort of OD and touchy time in terms of communication. So, I like that you’re making those efforts to actually keep in touch and keep those lines of communication open because it can be so easy, especially if they don’t live in the same city as you. It’s so easy for those to just die on the vine.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

2024 is right around the corner. Have you thought about what you want to accomplish next year?

Jonathan Robinson:

I have, and as I said before, it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I’m excited. I am going to be taking a renewed focus on these creative projects that I started about a year and a half ago. I’m working on a sci-fi script and a couple of short stories that I want to shoot and preparing for a push to either potentially go to a film school later in the year and figure out how to kick start a filmmaking career. So that’s like one track. But on the other end of the spectrum is exploring what I describe as more experiential work, things that involve newer technologies like artificial intelligence and VR. There are a couple of artists that are really interesting in this space, one of which is a good friend who I used to work with in New York. Their name is Sougwen Chung, and they do essentially a lot of collaborative performances where they are generating art along with their artificial intelligence and robotics companions that they have built and programmed over the last, I think, twelve years now. And so, I’m very excited to find ways to replicate that same kind of work, as well as find ways to collaborate with folks in that space, including Sougwen themselves.

But in terms of what all of that looks know, I can’t really tell, really. I grew up in the church, so it’s really easy for this phrase to come to mind, but I am literally walking by faith and not by sight. I am just putting 1ft in front of the other and juggling the variables and catching the consequences, which I mean, I guess is what it means to be a producer. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in that space dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. But it’s a lot easier to do that when you have conviction, which I think has been the theme that is coalescing towards the end of this year in terms of how I want to approach 2024. It’s with conviction. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to have everything absolutely planned out; I don’t need to know how everything is going to work out.

But I do have to walk with a sort of full body yes and a confidence that is grounded in purpose. And that really is what conviction is. So that’s what my 2024 looks like. Walking into the unknown, sure footed.

Maurice Cherry:

I like that. I like that a lot. That’s funny that you also kind of tied that back into the work in a way about like, this is what it means to be a producer, which I want to unpack a little bit later now when I do my research and everything to try to find out more about the guest. And you alluded to this a bit earlier, kind of being on this personal journey. What brought that on?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think when I look back at it, and in hindsight, it started at the end of 2017-ish, basically when I started at Facebook. Up until this point, I had been working in New York in the advertising field. I’d bounced around between a couple of different agencies, but at that point I was around three years into my second stint at a production company called The Mill, and essentially being like one of two senior producers in their experiential and interactive division, which they had just started to build back up. I got this opportunity to work at Facebook, and the job was in London. So, I’d be leaving the country to live outside of the country for the first time since I was like three years old when I was in Costa Rica. And so, I was really excited about that opportunity. This is also 2017, so if we think back to where the world was sort of socio-politically, an opportunity to work at a place like Facebook is a sort of double-edged sword. High impact, massive reach, and you’re working on a product that touches almost half of the people on the planet in one way or another.

But at the time, we were also starting to discover, more concretely anyway, that some of the ways in which that impact was landing in people’s lives was actually quite harmful, and that maybe something actually could have been done about that, but simply wasn’t. So, I threw myself into that opportunity with optimism and a lot of youthful vigor. But I think the combination of one understanding the relative impact of one or even a couple hundred individuals in a corporation that has 70,000 employees and a global reach, it makes for a quite Sisyphean task, I think, is the word. Pushing that boulder up the hill every day, and also living in London, moving there without any friends and family. And all of these things sort of coincided and combined with the point in my life that I was at, and I fell into a pretty deep depression. And then I learned the first rule of working in tech, and that is that every six to eight months there’ll be a reorg. And I was reorged out of my role and needed to find a new one. And I had one of two options: stay in London and find a team within the Facebook ecosystem that could use my skills so that I could stay in London or move to the bay area for this particular team that had headcount.

And they were like, we’ll take you on, we want to have you, but it means you got to move back to the states. And with option two, came back to the states, and just in time for about a year’s worth of soaking up the benefits of this northern California climate and nature and all of the amazing culture of Oakland right before the pandemic, and sort of back in isolation. That isolation again just sort of brought to the forefront the struggle I was having between the kind of impact I wanted to have in a company like Facebook and the kind of impact that I was actually having and whether or not that was commiserate or whether or not I could square that with the negative impact that the company was having, at least from my perspective. And so you’re sitting in a studio by yourself all day for months on end, as a lot of us know, and it leads to a lot of introspection. I was spending a lot of time in therapy, actually. I had just started therapy right before the pandemic started, which was amazing timing, but was also spending a lot of time actually talking to my mother about her own sort of personal journey and the spiritual journey that she was on at the time. We started talking about different belief systems. And she really surprised me by bringing up IFA and this sort of African indigenous spiritual frameworks of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.

And I started to dig into some of these things and do a little bit of research on my own. And she invited me to a weekly class, weekly zoom with someone who was going to sort of run through a curriculum to explain the basics of the framework. And without getting into the details of the spiritual beliefs themselves, I think what was most impactful about that was this underlying system that was about understanding your place within this particular life, this place and time that we exist. And how it connects to our ancestors, the people who came before us, the people around us, and the unseen forces that are at play, whether that be natural forces, societal forces, technological forces. And it really started to give me almost like a narrative framework to be able to investigate my life and see what was working and what wasn’t, what did I want to change. And that’s kind of how I got to this place of I don’t think working in tech is the thing for me. I’m not knocking it for anybody who does want to. I do think the work is incredibly important for all of the reasons that I left.

But it became very clear that my path, my purpose is in storytelling and finding ways to weave narratives that can help us investigate the relationship between what we see in front of us and what we feel like we experience as reality and those unseen forces, the parts of reality that are just outside of our perception and how to sort of marry the two, make them compatible and then create a better reality. Because I do think that that is what we are here for, to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we can’t really do that if we’re not honest about who we are and the world that we live in and what kind of world that we want. So, yeah, long winded answer to say, that’s how I got here.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to say some of those things that you mentioned. I mean, 100% mirror, I think, what a lot of people might be feeling about working in tech, I think just in general, a couple of months ago, we had Maya Gold Robinson on the show. And I’ve known Maya for a long time. I knew her since she was a product designer in Chicago, and since then she has…actually she’s also worked at Facebook. She also worked at Twitter. She created…

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah, I love Maya. She’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

You did? Okay, cool. Yeah. But she was talking about how right now she’s also sort of taking this break and being like, I’m kind of done with tech right now. I’m going to take a year; I’m going to spend it with my family and just sort of figure out what these next steps are. I think what we’re seeing with tech, and I want to talk a little bit more about this kind of creative journey because I feel like part of this personal journey you went, underwent deals also with you as a creative because you said you emerged talking about storytelling. But I feel like we’re starting to see that tech is not all it’s cracked up to mean. Well, yeah, surprise, right? But I think the way and I mentioned this in the interview with Maya, I was like it kind of felt like in some way we were kind of sold like a false bill of goods about tech, about how it is going to offer you this economic prosperity and these opportunities to be on these projects that can change the world. Especially for large tech companies. But then you get in there and you’re subject to so many other isms and like you said, professional reorgs and things like that.

And it can be easy to feel like a cog in the machine and that your work doesn’t really have the impact that maybe you were told it does.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely. And it’s not necessarily that any of those things were completely untrue. You absolutely can work on these projects that have massive impact and change the world and be financially lucrative, even for yourself as an individual, as much as it is often understood that most of that financial impact is going to go to somebody else sitting in a bigger office. But that doesn’t actually always balance out with all of those other things you mentioned. The reorgs, the isms, the sort of cog in the machine feeling that you get when you work on something diligently and over long extended hours with a massive team and you spent two to six months on something and then all of a sudden somebody decides that no one will ever see it, period. Yeah, that gets old actually rather quickly.

Maurice Cherry:

Very quickly. Absolutely very quickly. I’m thinking of my own journey. The last place that I worked at was this tech startup based out of San Francisco, and I came on under the title Creative Strategist. Creative Strategist was like a title. It’s funny you mentioned the Pandemic, because during the Pandemic, I was also thinking of, like well, what do I really call myself? Because prior to getting I don’t want to say prior to getting into tech, but prior to working for the startup that I worked at at the time, I had my own business, still have the business, but back then I had a staff of nine people. They were designers, developers. I was kind of doing creative work with Mailchimp and WordPress and all this kind of stuff.

But then you get into a startup in these companies and the startup I was at at the time, I changed titles maybe about six different times as the company grew. And so, each time that title changed, I don’t know if it really reflected what it is that I really do. It sort of just puts you in a bit of a box in a way. Like I went from being a content marketer to a design communications lead, to marketing lead, to head of media. And I think the last title I had was like senior Creative strategist because it felt right. It was like, yes, I know the creative part, but I also know the business part and I can sort of bring these two things together in a way.

Jonathan Robinson:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But what I basically was doing, and this kind of alludes, I think, a bit to your story is like, I basically was taking creative projects that the company wanted to do and making them happen, which is a producer type of thing, which back then, I didn’t really think that that’s what I did. Or at least that I didn’t associate that with what I did. But the last place I worked; we made a print magazine. We made a print and an online magazine. And I mean, I threw everything into it because I’ve always wanted to do a magazine. I grew up on magazines and we got two issues out the door, really. We only got one issue out the door.

The second one came after they laid off the entire team. But it was a quarterly magazine. I put so much into it, the structure. I’d sent out this weekly hot sheet to let people know when assignments were due. And these are the artists that are working on certain visuals and all this sort of stuff and had a plan for at least a six-issue run. And these are the themes that we’re going to talk about. And these are the writers that I want to bring in. And we did the first one with great success, and we were leading up to the second one.

The second issue was at the printer. Like it was set to go out a week from then. And then they laid us all off because they invited us to like a slack group called Goodbye and we’re like, Wait a minute, what? Wow. Invited us to a slack group called #goodbye. And I think I started my workday at eight and by noon I was unemployed. It was just like that, and I was so pissed off because it didn’t give me enough time to really pull together all my stuff. But it’s like, yeah, you spend so much time putting something together, and then it never sees the light of day. We were going to do this issue on Web3, and I found a Black Web3 ethicist.

Jonathan Robinson:

Wow.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay? Brought them on as, like, a guest editor-in-chief, and we curated the entire magazine for the point of view we wanted to have. It will never see the light of day.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s crazy. This is unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable. Yeah. I think we can only get, like, one or two of those experiences before we’re like, what are we doing this for?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve had three of them since the pandemic started. I had one in 2020. in 2021, and one last year. And yeah, it wears on you in such an insidious way where you know that you can do great work because you know that what you’re capable of, but then it’s like, does it have value in this, I don’t know, tech system that I’m a part of? It’s so weird.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I really appreciate that particular phrasing. Does it have value in this ecosystem that I exist in? I think that was the turning point in at least my therapy practice that helped me decide, okay, I need to leave. Or at the very least, I need to change how I approach this space and show up in this space, because I don’t have the same value system as these people do. I’m being evaluated on a completely different criteria than I evaluate myself. I’m disappointed and feeling upset because I keep trying to make their value system mesh with mine. They don’t need to. They don’t need to.

I step into this space. I understand that these are the criteria, these are the objectives, these are the responsibilities that I have. So, I’ll do those things. But I think I may be misremembering this secondhand quote, but I believe it was Toni Morrison talking about her first job and how her father told her, listen, you work over there. Those people are not your family. You go there, you get your money, and then you come home. And that is how she approached every job that wasn’t her personal projects. And that’s kind of the mindset I had to switch into that helped me get to the place of actually, I don’t think I want to keep showing up here at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s tough, because with these tech companies, we might as well just keep talking about it, but we’re talking about these tech companies, and the first thing that they really try to sell you on is like, we’re like a family. This is like a family thing. And even that can be super loaded, especially if you don’t come from a great family environment that could turn you off if they’re like, Wait a minute. I actually don’t fuck my family like that. So, I don’t know. This is like a thing that I want, but it sort of builds this in this sort of period of introspection, you start to wonder if the work you do is even valued by this industry. So maybe what I do is better suited for media than for tech or maybe it’s better suited for nonprofits than for tech. Like something where that’s right, the abilities that I have can be used towards a greater good that’s not about KPIs and personal performance plans and stuff like that.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s exactly right. I think that language that they sort of I mean, it’s not just language, it’s a whole sideshow experience that they sort of bombard you with as you step into these environments where they tell you, yes, we’re all family. This company is yours; no problem is someone else’s problem. You can have all the impact that you can possibly dream of if you just put together an idea and work hard to make it happen. All of those things. And they talk about the values that they have of showing up as your authentic self, whatever that means, and radical honesty and being collaborative and caring about the humans that we serve, our customers, our users, or whatever a new term they decide to use to clean up the fact that actually they’re talking about the people they make money off of. All of that sort of sets this context where you can very quickly forget that you’re in a corporation. Like you’re working at a place that is an equivalent size and scale of an ExxonMobil.

And maybe if you were working at AT&T, you wouldn’t necessarily think too much about the coffee and the cereal and the food courts and all of the amenities and how it does actually feel very comfortable and like a family. And so, it’s easier to remember that you work for a corporation. I think because of the way that some of these tech companies decorate their culture, the aesthetics of their culture obscure that reality. That it is very much a corporate culture where capital and profit reign supreme. And as much as they might say that they want to prioritize the betterment of humanity, they will always make sure that they run that language by legal so that they can always prioritize their dollars in that final hour. Yeah. And just sort of unpacking all of that takes some time and it takes some introspection. You really do have to ask yourself, is this company mine? Do my values actually align with the stated values of the company? And then are those values being practiced in the day to day see those values in the impact that we mean? I think that’s difficult enough to ask of yourself, but it is a necessary first step so that you can ask it of the companies that you work for.

Maurice Cherry:

Right at this point I’m like Marshawn Lynch. I’m just showing. Up so I don’t get fined.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s it. That’s it. That is it. I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

I worked for AT&T. I worked for AT&T for almost two and a half years. This was back in two thousand…from 2006 to 2008, I worked there. And at the time their internal sort of slogan was “Shaping Human Capital,” which is like, okay, like, you walk into the building, and you have this big, huge banner – shaping human capital. And I mean, the two and a half years I worked there were grueling not so much in an emotional way, but it’s like it wore on me in such a way that it was affecting me physically and I had to leave.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And that’s when I left and started my own business. And I feel like that’s really when I started to find myself and my career and my purpose is when I left. And the only reason I sort of got back in, nine years later, honestly, was because the market had changed and the kind of work that I was doing with my studio just wasn’t as profitable as it was before. And I wanted more stability because working for yourself is great, but working for yourself can be a real roller coaster, especially because we started in the middle of a recession and it’s not very easy to try to make the money that you need to pay your bills and just sort of exist in this capitalist society.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think things are different now, but not necessarily better because what’s happened is a lot of these tech startups are picking the worst parts of corporate America and wrapping them in this sort of aesthetic, as you mentioned, to make it seem like, oh, it’s going to be fun and foosball tables and beer on Fridays and stuff like that. Kristy Tillman, who I’ve had on the show before, she’s a friend of mine and I know she once talked about filters. No, what’d she say? Perks as filters. So, like, a lot of companies will list all these different perks, and the perks are fairly similar among companies of a certain size that have reached a certain level of funding. It’s like unlimited PTO. And this sounds great if you’re coming from a place where you had to fight and claw for every day off that you had to get – unlimited PTO sounds great.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But then that can also be a filter for the fact that the internal culture will overwork you so much that you will feel guilty for utilizing those days and often get penalized for using those days even if they’re not in an egregious manner. I mean, this especially happened during the pandemic with remote stuff. Like it’s remote, you can work from anywhere. And some people took advantage of that. Actually, at the last place that I worked, I’m not going to name where, but people can search and find there were some people that basically traveled every month, and it was remote and so they could work from anywhere. And they’re like, oh, well, if I can work from anywhere, I’m just going to backpack through Europe. That sounds nice, but then what happens is that builds enmity with the people that don’t backpack through Europe or can’t just pick up and leave and go workplaces. And so even though the company had that as a perk of working there, they ended up penalizing this person for it.

And they were just sort of like, “I don’t understand. I’m still getting my work done. I’m going between times, nothing is happening, and I’m getting penalized for what I do outside of work in this way.”

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Divesting from all of this is, I feel, like the smartest move to try to make, especially with what we’ve seen in the past couple of years with tech layoffs, unionization efforts and really the rise of AI and these new technology things. I mean, we’re talking now just fresh off of the writers…not the writer’s strike, the actor’s strike, just ended. But what we’ve seen this year, if we look back through the whole year, we’ve seen three major unions have strikes and win: the writers, the auto workers, and now the actors. And so, what does that mean now for the future of work in this country? Especially now that we see that these efforts can work? We can lobby together and have better, more holistic workplaces and things like that. I don’t know. I worked at a place where we unionized in 2020 and they laid us off three months later. So, I don’t know if this means now there’s more power that exists.

I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but no, a lot of things are changing in a lot of different ways right now. And I think if you’re a creative person, it can be tough to kind of find your anchor amidst all this.

Jonathan Robinson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And you touched on a lot of different ways in which the currents of society, or at least the trends that society is experiencing, all of the different ways that they sort of knock us around as creatives trying to find our footing. But I do think at the same time, those currents, those trends, those forces, they can help us understand some of the different forces at play on the inside of us so that we can find what movements to attach ourselves to or to move in parallel with that can help us figure out what’s going to be right for ourselves as much as all of this promise of tech was a great way for a lot of us to move up the sort of economic ladder in ways that other folks in our families or previous generations were unable to or barred from. At the same time, we also see that just because you get higher up the ladder doesn’t mean the guy at the top of the pyramid isn’t going to kick this ladder off in order to save a couple of dollars. You can make all of the cool stuff in the world, but if this company needs to ensure that its profit margins look a certain way so that their shareholders are going to be happy, then you’ll find out exactly how they feel about family, so to speak, and you’ll be gone.

And these technologies that we created together out of an enthusiasm in a more optimistic sense for the possibilities and all of the different solutions that we could find within these technologies. They are at the same time because they are owned by people at the top who don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind and are specifically incentivized to care more about how much money shareholders are making than how well our lives are impacted. We see those technologies being turned against us and at the same time to the point of these different unions recently being victorious over some of those forces. We can see that when we look to each other’s humanity and find the common cause and stand in solidarity with the prioritization of the human aspect of our work that we are not capital, we are humans and stand firm in those convictions. We can quite literally face giants and move mountains. But it is still difficult for every actor’s union or writers’ union or the auto workers union. We have, to your point, examples of unionizing and immediately finding yourself out of work or all of the different ways that unions have been combated in the tech industry or in the visual effects industry and the advertising industry, all of which I’ve had some experience working in. And I see how much the struggles of these writers, these actors, mirror exactly what so many of us have experienced both in tech, in advertising, in visual effects and production.

We just haven’t been able to make some of those en masse movements last long enough to make that impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Maurice Cherry:

No, we definitely should keep trying and I think because we’re seeing how it’s worked on, again, this very large level like in the entertainment industry or in the auto industry, I think it’s given people more visibility into it and honestly, it’s giving people more knowledge. It’s amazing when we were back, when we were trying to unionize at Glitch, it was amazing how many people had no experience about unions and what they were except like negative talking points. And it’s like you do realize that some of the perks that you have are the direct results of unionization in the past. Like the eight-hour workday.

Jonathan Robinson:

These things.

Maurice Cherry:

Came because people unionized in the past. So, you wouldn’t have to work 12,13, 14 hours a day or whatever. But yeah, we’re starting to see, I think the tide shifted a little bit. I’m curious though, for you where did this, and if I can call it this, this love for creating and producing and storytelling. Where did this come from? Did this come from you growing up, or…tell me about that.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with stories from a sort of consumption perspective. My mom was trained as a teacher and sort of raised me with a strong emphasis on traditional education. So, I was always reading something. I mean, I had to do book reports over summer break. When I would finish my homework too fast, she would create more curriculum for me to do. I was getting in trouble for talking too much in class, and the teacher said, well, he finishes his work, and then he starts talking to the other students, and that’s disruptive. So, she made an agreement with the teacher to create an entire curriculum that she would grade that would be included as part of my grade.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Mama didn’t play!

Jonathan Robinson:

No, not at all. So, I was constantly reading and consuming stories, and I’ve always been a deeply curious individual. I don’t want to just know what happened or even how it happened. I also want to understand why it happened. And I think all of that extra emphasis on critical thinking, on reading analysis, and on doing your own research and citing your sources sort of built this almost like programming in my brain to understand stories, both from a surface level as an entertainment experience, but also on a deeper level as a tool for communicating information and actually being able to sort of transcribe experiences from one person to another without having to directly live through them. The thing that was included in the story. So, I’ve always sort of had that perspective on storytelling to a certain point. I graduated high school and was like, I want to be a comic book artist.

The dream was to work at Marvel, maybe work on an X-Men or Spider-Man comic. And after some experience in an art school, the now defunct Art Institute of Las Vegas very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to get the kind of education that I needed from that particular place and moved to New. York, just because I felt like that was my Mecca, the place that had been calling to me, where I was going to figure it all out, and quite literally stumbled into a career in advertising as a producer. I was on my girlfriend’s couch trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent the next month, found a Craigslist ad for a project manager intern, and my only question in the interview was, what’s a project manager? And how can you be a manager and an intern at the same time? That experience really opened up an entire world of possibilities. I didn’t realize that there were so many creative individuals with stable, well-paying jobs. Even if you are working 12 hours a day, and maybe more than that, sometimes you could make websites and flash banners and mobile apps, and one job leads to another. And I think the place that really blew the doors open on the possibilities was The Mill. Working there was quite a privilege in both stints that I was there.

The first time they were starting what they called their Mill digital team. And the whole idea was around. The mill is traditionally a VFX studio. They do all of the…their whole little tagline is like, “if you watch the Super Bowl, at least two out of every three commercials that you saw, The Mill touched in one way or another.” But they were trying to move into this more digital, out of home experiential field that was starting to pop up at the time. And I got to work with a really incredible dream team of creative and technically excellent individuals who sort of took me under their wing as this young 22-year-old little idiot who didn’t know anything but would follow instructions and ask as many questions as came to mind. And they exposed me to the possibilities of what you can do with a serviceable, knowledge of available technology and a strong creative vision. Add to that the third leg of the stool, some business sense and tact to be able to convince folks to pay for those things, and you got yourself a pretty promising path for making some cool things and getting paid to do that.

But working there meant being able to, on the one hand, work with animators who typically did 3D animation for visual effects in like a Gillette commercial and trying to explain to them how you’re going to turn a couple of data sets into a particle visualization that replicates the visuals of the sort of mackerels and tuna form of something like a school. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

Fish or something like that. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Trying to convince these folks to do things with their expertise and their most familiar tools that they had never been asked to do. And then also trying to tell stories with these data points, because, again, we’re in the advertising and marketing field, so everybody’s got a narrative. And so that experience really helped to shape the possibilities of how I could connect my love of stories and the depths of what stories mean. Not just the what or the how, but the why with these new emerging technologies and the deep institutional knowledge of more traditional media that could influence the way that you combine these new technologies to create experiences that really allow us to experience stories in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. Yeah, it really does feel like a serendipitous journey where I sort of stumbled into all of the places and things that I needed in order to be the person that I am today to do the things that I want to do. But I like to believe that that’s how life is supposed to work. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you end up where…

Maurice Cherry:

…you’re supposed to be stepping out on faith, right?

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned your mom, you mentioned this girlfriend you had at the time who were some of the other people that really helped support you during this journey.

Jonathan Robinson:

I think I’m going to name off some of the folks that really stood me up at The Mill that first time. My first mentor, Kay Gowda, was the senior producer for that Mill digital team. And when I say he stepped in as a big brother and really looked out for me both from and in the office process perspective, but also from outside life, like, what are you trying to do in this space? And here are some of the possibilities. He really set me up with a lot of the tools that I still use to this day to help navigate ambiguity and figure out what it is that I want. He just sort of built in these habits of constantly seeking new information on a daily basis. I used to start my day by combing through like a folder of ten to twelve websites and blogs that would post about new marketing and technology experiences and news, and then I sort of put that together into an email to send out once a week for the team. I was already a curious individual, but being able to focus that curiosity in a way that tied to whatever productive endeavor that I was trying to achieve at the time, I think was a really formative bit of knowledge. You also helped me just sort of find the calm in the storm of being a producer in a high paced environment with lots of conflicting objectives and demands, just really being able to settle in and say, like, I’m not going to solve everything, but if I can solve one thing, what is that? And let me do that first.

It really sort of grounded me and allowed me to gracefully navigate some of the more tumultuous projects and moments in my career. So, Kay Gowda is a huge influence. The executive producer of that team, Bridget Shields, really looked out for me both in sort of setting me up for success in some of the smaller pitch projects that came in the door during that year that I worked there the first time. I mean, I did my first pitch to Nike and landed the job under her guidance. And she trusted me to do this, having not seen any real evidence that I could. She just trusted me and gave me the support to make decisions and was always available to talk through any questions that I had. But more than that, she looked out for me. When we all got fired, I was on that team for about eight months before, similar to your Slack, your #goodbye Slack channel, we were all individually called downstairs into the conference room one after another, and every time somebody came back up.

They came back up silent, closed their laptop, grabbed their things and walked out of the room. Yeah. Eventually I understood what was happening, started saving some files, but yeah, we were all sort of let go unceremoniously without notice. On a Friday and the following Monday morning, Bridget had an email in my inbox of three different places that she had already called to let them know that I was available for work.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Jonathan Robinson:

She told me exactly what salary to say that I was being paid, which was not the salary that I was being paid, but it was definitely going to be a healthy increase. She told me exactly what projects to reference and how to represent my impact and what title I need to speak to. Interactive producer or creative producer. And that’s sort of where that naming convention was first introduced. For me, those connections, those calls that she made really paved the way for every job I’ve had since then. I really appreciate the way that she looks out for her team because I got to admit that wasn’t even something that was super special for me. She does that for everyone she works with. So, I really appreciate those individuals.

I think more recently, I got to give credit to that second Mill crew, the second stint, particularly on our Executive Briefing Center experiential multiyear project. These folks really helped me sort of figure out that I was more than just a good producer, that I could be a good creative leader as well. Kinda. Akash is top of the list. She’s my partner now. I met her there at The Mill. Our creative collaboration really expanded the ways that I felt comfortable showing up in executive meetings and representing creative work, not, you know, the X’s and O’s of a schedule or a budget. Collaborators like Will Arnold, whose endless curiosity really inspired me to continue to explore the visual concepts that I wanted to introduce into some of the work that I was exploring at the time.

And he actually came through and provided a lot of the projection visuals in the music video that I ended up directing a couple of years ago. Eric Chang, who’s a creative strategist and writer, and his wild imagination and reserved intellect…just a really grounding force that helps me cut the noise out and really focus on what matters while also finding joy in really small things. Yeah, I mean, I could probably go on and on and on. There’s so many people who have made it possible for me to be where I am today, and if I keep going, I’m going to go forever.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give to somebody that they’re listening to this episode, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to sort of, I don’t know, maybe just try to figure out where they are right now. Like, maybe this has been a tough year for them and they’re feeling a bit unmoored and trying to kind of find their way in this current space. What advice would you give them?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think first I’d say slow down and listen. Look around, see, take note of where you are and how you feel. I think ultimately one of the things that has been most emphasized over the last couple of years for me has been that you’re always exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where you go next is entirely up to you. We can only actually live in the present, but when we are able to be our most present, we actually get to expand the idea of what present is in order to reshape the past and what it means for us and to be able to sort of look further into the future as to where we want to go and what our next step should be for us anyway. Because ultimately, the only person who can tell you what to do next and where to go is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what you want and why you want it. There’s plenty of noise in the world that can sort of interrupt, obscure or even manipulate that knowledge.

I mean, we’ve talked about it over the course of this conversation. The technology, the corporations, the capitalism, the politics, all of it. All of that noise makes it really hard to hear your own voice. But when you seek that voice through stillness, through rest, through reflection, it becomes a lot easier to know that your next step is the right one because it’s your step and that is really all that matters.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, first I want to be on set of major Sci-Fi production, hopefully making my story come to life. Even if that is an optimistic projection. I want to be involved in the conversation around how these new forms of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, don’t have to be at odds with the most precious aspects of our human experience, our genuine humanity. In fact, if we take the time to understand ourselves and the technologies in full context of how either came to be, then we can find parallels that can between those sort of evolutionary journeys and use the relationship between the human interface and the technological interface to better ourselves from a truly human perspective. I don’t mean, like, escaping into fantasy worlds and ignoring deteriorating physical reality that we all live in in this planet or even sort of like replacing aspects of our humanity with technology to make things easier or more convenient. I do mean truly improving the human experience, deepening our connection with each other and with the natural world through experiences that teach us about those relationships as we interact with these technologies that are so complex and so immersive. Those are the kinds of projects that I want to bring to life. From an experiential standpoint, five years from now, I want to be having the conversation of how these experiences that I’ve created for both installation and virtual reality have really tried to hammer home that point and bring that conversation to a larger audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they follow you, follow your journey? Where can they find that online?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, you guys can follow me on Instagram for my musings and ramblings. That’s at U-A-T-J-O-N-C or keep up with me via my website. Jonrobinson.me. That’s J-O-N-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N me. Honestly, those are the two best places to keep up with what I’m doing. And a lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is shouting about our current realities. So, brace yourself and bring your thinking cap. I love a discussion.

Always happy to hear from anybody on any of these topics. Don’t be a stranger, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, Jon Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea how I thought this conversation might go and then once you started talking, I feel like it just sort of went in a completely kind of free form direction, which I think is good. I mean, I think we touched on a lot of different topics that are, I think, on the minds of a lot of creatives right now. Particularly, I think, a lot of creatives that work in the tech industry and such. I really feel like you’re at a place where you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to figure out what your next move is. And I think you gave such great advice about just slowing down and listening and letting that be what guides you next. And I’m really excited to see what’s going to guide you next once you come sort of at the end of this personal journey. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

I appreciate it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Thanks for having me, Maurice. I enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, I look forward to the new individuals you have on. This has been an amazing platform, and I really appreciated the opportunity.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Dr. Cheryl D. Miller

What can I say about Dr. Cheryl D. Miller that hasn’t already been said? Her groundbreaking work as a designer in the 1980s and 1990s has paved the way for Black designers in this industry. Her first-hand knowledge and experience is sought after by colleges and universities all over the country. And now, in this season of her life, she is being celebrated and awarded as a pioneering figure in the field of contemporary graphic design by AIGA, The One Club, Cooper Hewitt, IBM, and many others. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better guest to have for this episode!

Cheryl and I talked about her recent work as a design educator, and she shared her newfound dedication to writing and why it’s so important to transition from oral tradition to scholarship. She also shared her interest in new tech, and spoke about mentoring younger designers who are blazing their own trails in the industry. Lastly, we explored what success looks like for her now, and she talked about what’s coming up next as her passions for art, writing, and design intersect. Sit back and enjoy this thought-provoking conversation with a true design legend.

(And thank you all for 500 episodes of the podcast!)

Interview Transcript

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

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Maurice, I am Cheryl D. Miller.

Maurice Cherry:
No introduction needed.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
No. No, I barely have a website, and now it’s come down to just, “Google that, okay? And I’m not the basketball player.” There are three of us, and I think there’s a psychologist and a basketball player. “Just put in Cheryl D. Miller, and that’s it.” That’s it in a nutshell. “Just Google, Cheryl D. Miller.”

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2023 going so far?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
2023 is going really, really well. And I say that I’ve been granted much favor and grace through the pandemic, and it’s continuing. And 2023 has just expanded with new platforms, new vision, new sharing, that really all has been birthed from our pandemic season. It’s going really well. My projects… I’ve been a professor at several universities, I’m now with three. And that’s a unique experience, because everyone that’s working with me is developing this hybrid pedagogy. And I say the only thing that’s left for me to explore with this is that I’ll hologram into my classrooms next. So somebody has that figured out next. I’ll be lecturing via hologram in the Metaverse. I don’t… I would say soon.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re at Howard, you’re at UT Austin, ad ArtCenter, right? ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yes. All three.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah. And I’m crossing my fingers. I’ve been talking with University of Connecticut UConn, because it’s in my geography. I’ve wanted to do something locally. I might be with them in the fall as well. Since pandemic, I have carried four universities at a time.

Maurice Cherry:
Light work for Cheryl Miller.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, outside of that, do you have any big goals or projects that you are working on now?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Well, yeah. I’ve dedicated myself to writing the rest of way out. I have a lot of things to write, Maurice. And I don’t want to talk too much about the writing, but I’m writing crazy. And one of the things that I do pride myself on, I do pride myself on a few things, that is, I don’t compile footnotes. My work, I make footnotes. So my revelation, my development of scholarship, I am creating conversation that I’m hoping they will be, my footnotes and the things I write, finding proof for my revelations, I’m leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. I will never write as many books as footnotes that I will leave to my scholarship.

That’s one of the things that I really, really believe in that our community, which I represent the BIPOC, indigenous community with being African-American, but a woman of many, many colors. And we must write, we must publish, but we can’t do that if we don’t have content. So my work is, I want to make sure that I leave as many footnotes and content as possible. And that doesn’t always mean that it’s in the form of a book. So I’m putting up my YouTubes, my lectures, recordings, all these things that if you study the things that I’m leaving behind, those that are really writing and researching have footnotes that they can create and compile for their books and so forth. We can’t write if we don’t have content.

And one of the things that I always contend is that I think Bond House is a hundred and a few years old. I’ve lived two thirds of that history. So my lived experience must be documented, which is much different than compiling footnotes out of the library. But you can’t do that if you don’t have content. I’m leaving content. Valuable, I know what’s in the card catalogs, I know what I’ve experienced, I know what I’ve lived through. I don’t compile footnotes in my work. I create them. So my lived experience, my lived history, I’ve been an eyewitness to a lot of things, I’ve known a lot of people. So writing that out in different forms, which is really my scholarship and revelation, I’m creating footnotes. And then I’m documenting those notes in places where if you’re going to really going to do the work, you’ll find Cheryl Miller. You’ll find Cheryl Miller found this out. You’re going to find Cheryl Miller’s research.

So I’ll be lucky if I get maybe three books out. But making sure the ingredients for you all to write, that’s been a big part of my work, which is… I’m in a sacred project of collecting Black graphic design history that’s in collections with Stanford University and Cooper Union Herb Lubalin Center. It’s sacred work, because I find deceased Black designers and estates. I’m working with families that know that their loved one had some crazy kind of career, and it’s all in a box in the attic or in the basement, and they don’t know what to do with that ephemeral. And usually, I show up giving them a place to have their work preserved and cataloged. So with that, that’s really important, because we can’t write a history if it’s all oral tradition and lost and dry rotting in somebody’s attic or basement.

And I’m meeting so many families. I have a daughter, I won’t call her name. I have one I’m meeting this afternoon. I’ve worked with Sheldon Dixon’s daughter, I’ve worked with Dorothy Hayes’s niece. They all tell me these incredible stories and trust these sacred boxes that I will take care of them. And thus far, Stanford has received the concept of this without charge. That’s what they do. They bring in collections, they preserve art. I think they have MLK papers. This is what they do. And some people say, “Well, why didn’t you take it to HBCU,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Stanford will preserve the work freely for us.

So I’ve given everyone an invitation. Some people have wondered my motive. My motive is, “Okay. Well, you keep that stuff in your attic if you want. Or you have an opportunity for somebody to come by, pick it up, and you have a name and a catalog annotation. You have your own numbers. You don’t come underneath Cheryl Miller. This is not the umbrella. You have your own note. You have your own archive. You have your own collection. And it’s being preserved.” So we started with, I don’t know, somewhere between 40 and 60 invitations. And it is sincere, and it’s real. And I think the ones that are really moving me are the ones of estates where the designer is dead.

And I can’t tell you. Like my conversation with Dorothy Hayes’s niece, she says, “Thank God for you. I inherited everything. My aunt left me everything. And I haven’t had a clue what to do with it.” It’s sacred, because I listened to estate members, those who have inherited. I hear the stories of, “my dad,” “my aunt,” “Thank God it’s not going to be lost. I don’t have to toss it out. I have no idea what I was going to do with this.”

So it’s really an honor to work with the families who tell me their oral traditions and give me their boxes of goodies. And there’s all kinds of things. There are all kinds of things that we have a culture of. See, I’ve been at this since I was 17. And we have this culture of saving things in case something big happens. Okay?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
In case somebody gets discovered, or it’s hidden or lost. Who knew footnote on the back of a match cover, right? And these boxes are full of these things for a rainy day. Oh my God, you talking about the Black designers, they’re full of, “Oh my God, I got to save this for a rainy day in case… Just in case.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I’ve had the privilege of talking to families, working with Stanford to pick up the collections, sampling the collections. They come in, they come into a holding area, they have special buildings, and it’s a process to bring these boxes in from everybody’s attic. And I’ve been telling you all, the ones that I’ve invited down to land of the living, “Open your file, open your collection.” Maurice, open your collection. You have an invitation. Open it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
So that means fill out the papers, go through it, and start it. Meaning you’ve got transcripts, you’ve got all kinds of notes from when you started this, and you remain an archivist to your collection. You don’t have to put anything new in it. You own all your rights and all of that. So it’s an honor. I’m telling all of my younger scholars, “If I’ve invited you, fill out the papers and start. You don’t have to put your current work in, because you’re working with it. Put your stuff in from college. Put your thoughts in. What did you write? Where are your diaries? That kind of thing. It’s not for me, and it’s not for you. It’s for the next generation that’ll come and needs to write about Revision Path.” Well, if Revision Path doesn’t have a record of that and hasn’t left footnotes, or you don’t pay the website bill, it’s all gone.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
It’s gone. So preserving our stories so that we have content for the next future generations to do the scholarship that’s required, that’s really important before I die. And if you get a book or two out of me, well, good. Good. You’ll get a book or two out of me. All right? They’re forthcoming. But collecting content so that we move this out of oral traditions and storytelling into scholarship and into history books, you can’t do it if you don’t have the ingredients, Maurice. So that’s a big portion of my work. And writing the most intriguing research I discover, and don’t ask me, just wait, but I have found some intriguing research that answers my primary questions for us all. So I’m writing that and working out where that will be published and how that will be published. I’m not anxious for publishing. I’m anxious to make sure that we have what’s necessary to publish.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
There’s no agenda to that. And nobody’s making any money on that, so we don’t worry about that. Yeah. Look, yeah, I have friends and foes, and friends and foes worry, “Is Cheryl Miller making anything?” Cheryl Miller… Listen, I’m waiting for the MacArthur, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I hear you. Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I haven’t received a dime, you hear me? Not a dime for over 50 years of work.

Maurice Cherry:
Waiting on that Genius Grant.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah, I’m waiting on the… I pray on it every day. I do, because… And these things are for the young at heart, all these awards and things. It’s like, “Oh, well, we are going to get this award, because it’s like art collecting.” I’ve learned some stuff about fine art too. “Well, we’ll collect, buy low.” When they’re young, they’ve got performance. We collect and buy cheap now, because we know that they’re going to be producing for 30, 40 years. We are not going to give her that. She’s going to be good for 10 years. This should be going to glory.

No, but I haven’t monetized. There isn’t anything. There isn’t anything. Monetization, if you will, of this advocacy, man, I don’t even have a T-shirt. I don’t have a baseball hat, no merch, no nothing. Okay? It’s been 100% advocacy, because scholarship, I’ve learned, and in your work, statistics, the two together, the two signs of a coin, just marching and picketing, and I’m a civil rights girl. All of that brings awareness. But what has moved the needle in my life is one thesis, one document of footnotes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Cheryl Miller’s a footnote lady. And I wrote one piece, and here we are. So I believe in designers who write, I believe in scholarship. And there were years that I wondered how and why I went to seminary. I’m a theologian. And I was running the studio in New York, and Union Theological became my client. And I started part-time, and oh, that’s a whole nother story. Me in seminary is a whole nother story. But I got led into theological work. And when I got led… Theological work is not religious work.

So when I got into the process, I learned things that I use now. And I would say that I’ve created a genre of design social justice. Oh, you study with Delores Williams and the works and likes of Cornel West in and out of the alcoves, and James Cohen. You walk through some liberation theology, you walk through some social justice and change, pedagogy. Your tools will sharpen to slay the dragon. And then Union does not pride itself on making ministers. I mean, you can walk out and be a minister if you want with an MDF, but you are trained in dynamic levels of critical thinking, research development of scholarship in the recording of history.

And I got led in to be trained. And I did not need… When I wanted to go to grad school again, I went. Of course it makes sense, so you got a Master’s, go get a PhD. Well, PhD in art, unless you’re doing art history, the Master’s from Pratt was terminal for anything I needed to do, even to teach. And Union wouldn’t let me get a PhD in any form of any branch of what they had theologically, because I didn’t come up that route of a BA, a graduate degree, all of that.

So getting a Master’s of Divinity yet put me into what it is that is dynamic for me now. I see things that people don’t see. I answer questions that people don’t even think to answer. And that comes, and I document create footnotes and scholarship. My work is sound. And that came from being theologically trained. They train you, sharpen your knife to be able to cut prime rib with your eyes closed. And there were days like, “Why in the world am I doing this?” I’m running Cheryl Miller Design downtown, “What am I doing up here with all these intellects?” But I had learned the importance. I had leaned into my academic coach with the thesis.

Leslie King-Hammond, she was a PhD from Johns Hopkins. And I met her when… You know my life story, my dad died, I couldn’t go back to RSID, and I ended up with MICA. She was an adjunct African history, what, if not the first Black professor at MICA 50 some odd years ago. I was grieving, and the Dean put her in my care, put me in her care. “Here, take care of this child. She’s supposed to be in Providence. Her father died, and now she’s in Baltimore. Take care of her.” And she was a newly minted PhD, and now claimed emeritus in her own right, of course.

Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, she was my coach. Everybody asked me, “Cheryl, you got a mentor?” No, I had no design mentor. Nobody took interest. I’ve always had Leslie, I’ve had writing coaches. I’ve had some of the best editors to take care of my work, to take care of my writing. Leslie inspired me to be a scrum. I said, “Oh, this is more than doing a book report.” She guided me. It was rigorous. And she guided me through the infamous Pratt thesis. And we all know what that thesis has done in our lives. I was charged with Cheryl, the chair of the design department of Pratt says, “You can’t do a design project to graduate out of this program.” I don’t know what he told anybody else. All I know is Anton Minasi had a studio in Lincoln Plaza, and we all had senior reviews. “What are you doing for your thesis?” We all had appointments.

I’ll never forget it. I went upstairs. He was in a loft across the street from Lincoln Center. And God rest his soul, he said, “Cheryl, we’ve talked about you. You can’t do a design project for your thesis.” I said, “I’m in design school, I’m in graduate school, and I can’t do a thesis. Come on.” “No.” And he gave me a charge. He said, “We want you to make a contribution to the industry.” Well, I just took a deep breath, and I knew what it meant. I knew exactly what it meant. I left his office. I got down, and this is back in the day, there was no cell phone. I went over to the… And he used to have little calling cards. I went over to the payphone on the corner, and I called Leslie. I said, “Dr. King. Pratt’s not letting me graduate with a design project. I got to write my way through this. Will you be my coach?” Thus, brought Transcending the Problems of the Black Graphic Designer to Success in the Marketplace, starting with Cheryl Miller. How about that? Starting with Cheryl Miller.

So I’ve always been a writer. People don’t know I was recruited to RISD, and I was also invited to Wellesley. So I had a choice go to RISD… When I graduated high school, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, we were in a season of reparation, and all the Ivy League schools and New England schools came down to all of the urban towns. And they came to New York, they came to Philadelphia, they came to DC. They scooped up most likely to succeed SAT scores. We all got… Everybody got invited to go to college, or at least to apply. So I was invited to RISD, and I was invited to Wellesley, English Lit and writing.

And I always say now, “Well, I went to RISD, ended up a writer, I got something to write about.” So I got trained. I got trained in scholarship and design and art and design, and its equalities and inequalities is my topic of conversation. So graduate degree number one gives me me something to write about. And graduate degree number two has given me the skillset to do it.

So we lean into that, and that’s how this has happened. Because I will tell you, what I’m doing now, the only thing that being a designer and having gone to all the design schools and all of that, just Google it. The only thing that has done for me in my work has identified a problem and gives me my content for my purpose, for what I write for. So I lean theological work as being trained as a scholar. It has equipped me in ways that design school could never.

And I just think about those years of, “Oh my God, what am I doing? Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I in seminary?” And I got Cheryl Miller downtown going, I got AIGA, I got all this stuff that’s now in articles, and so forth and so on. And I’m like, “Why I was there was to prepare me for this moment that keeps me relevant and pertinent. I write the solutions to the injustices that I see, and I create scholarship.” And the only other thing that turns the needle like that is statistics. When you back it up with your type of work, well, 2% of this and 3% of this and 4% of this, and oh, back that up with some footnotes, this, that, and the other, then it’s like you got your deposition for your court case. Short of that, it’s like a whole bunch of people complaining and making noise.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, first of all, you mentioned a couple of things I’d love to touch on. One thing that you said about Stanford and Cooper Union, which I thought was interesting, because I got a similar criticism when some of the Revision Path episodes got inducted into the Smithsonian. People were writing, and they were like, “Well, why didn’t you go to HBCU? You went to Morehouse. Why did Morehouse take it?” I was like, “Well, Morehouse, first of all, I don’t think they even have an archive or something like that with design. And I already had a relationship with one of the curators at the Smithsonian.” It was a four-year sort of thing. That’s interesting though that you would get that sort of criticism about that. I mean, when you first came on Revision Path, I remember, I saw the pictures of you boxing up the stuff, and the folks from Stanford coming over and taking pictures and everything.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a weird criticism to have gotten.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
But it’s not a lot, but it sits in the back of people’s like, “Do I dare ask her?” Well, the thing about it is, preserving art costs money. It costs money, the archival process. So if someone is going to say, “We’re going to care in perpetuity for all the artwork that you bring in and make sure it’s annotated and credited and made available,” listen, you go work with that. I’m grateful. I’m grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of those five years or so, since you were first on Revision Path, a lot has happened. I mean, you’ve had… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a designer have such an award tour, a victory lap, I don’t know what to call it. But you have had a number of accolades since then. Of course, you mentioned your professorships. You mentioned the collections at Stanford, at Cooper Union. There’s also your AIGA medal, your honorary doctorates, one from VCFA in 2021, one from MICA and RISD, from both of those in 2022. I mean, this has to be a tremendous validation of your work and your career. How does that make you feel?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I’m humbled, and I’m honored. And honestly, I’m grateful that I’m alive to see it happen. Like the gospel song, I’m alive to see it happen, Maurice. And to have achieved three design awards of our industry, the Cooper Hewitt, Visionary, the AIGA. And the one that touched me in an interesting spot, and maybe it’s because I’m a New York designer, was being inducted into, it’s the one club, but it’s the old school advertising Madison Avenue Club, being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I’m like, I have delayed, but not denied. And God’s been faithful that in the midnight hour how much work I’ve done for our community that no one knows. I’m appreciative that I’m alive, Maurice. And I’m still vibrant, so that I can use it. So all of these awards and things, I’m not retiring and I’m not expiring. I’m on the other side of this history, but it’s opening up doors for me to continue to do my work and to correct the wrongs that I see. And it’s opening doors that otherwise would’ve remained shut. So they’re honors hard, hard-earned. Someone posted that on a LinkedIn. I was just being peppered with acknowledgements and well-deserved, long overdue, but somebody said hard-earned on LinkedIn, and I said, “Glory.”

And the first one, I was with [inaudible 00:29:21] Debbie Allen. And if you heard my reflection remarks, receiving AIGA, the night before, she’d earned the revered award, and she was wearing red, and I decided I was going to wear red to stand with her. And these are lifetime hard-earned acknowledgements. And I always tell folks, “Don’t get it twisted. I’m not an overnight success.” Overnight success that took 50 years, Maurice. And I’m not above the law. I don’t want anybody to go through what I’ve been through. So you can’t do this if you haven’t had your own measure. You can’t work like I work if you haven’t had your own measure of challenge, pain, suffering, disappointment at the hand of this industry. And I couldn’t lay my life down like this if it hadn’t touched my door, that’s ridiculous.

I’ve had my measure, I’m not above the law, and it’s been hard earned. And what it does now is, it gives me for those who want me. I’m on invitation only now. Invitation only is, there are a lot of things that are going on now that I’m not invited to the table. Well, I don’t have to be invited to everything, but the ones who invite me really want transformation and not performance. You don’t call me if you really don’t want to change your situation. So that’s a design model, less is more. I don’t have to be everywhere because I don’t trust everywhere to take care of my heart.

And with that said, every place that’s acknowledging, everyone that’s inviting me, they really want me. And for what I’ve been through, all of the horror of disappointment and rejection, why would I want to beat my head against performative projects where you just want my name? I don’t need that, Maurice. And especially on this side of history, I can get more done, I can get more done with people that want me, that really want transformation. I can get more done in one year than most people can get done in 10. You call Cheryl Miller. You want to get it done? Call Cheryl Miller. You want to look like you’re getting it done, she’s not the one. Because I’m really going to do it. So don’t call me unless you really want to hear it, you really want to do it, because I’ve always been truthful to this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would wager your years of experience definitely has given you a sharp eye for discerning that.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Oh God, yes. I can tell performative requests a mile away. It starts with the ones that don’t ask me. I’m like, “Oh, I see you. I see you. I’m not even on that distribution list. Okay. All right.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like we’re sharing an inside joke with that, but I know exactly what you mean.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah. So it doesn’t mean I have to be everywhere, it doesn’t, it’s just that where I am are in genuine places that want growth. I shout out University of Texas Austin Design. Listen, I have to shout out to them. They had just three alumni write a letter, just three. And they’ve been transforming. They didn’t have to have board meetings, and this, that, and the other. I came for a residency and they invited me to stay and, “Would you like to create a class?” And I said, “Yep, I would be honored.” You’ll have to ask them what’s it been like inviting Cheryl Miller to the faculty? Same thing. And I honor that, they really mean business. It’s a good school, it’s a great design school, heading up the ranks. And a part of it is, it’s reaching, and embracing, and being sincere to a diverse design community. And they said, Cheryl Miller, you got something you’d like to share?” And I said, “You better believe it.” And I got this crazy class that keeps me crazy busy.

Decolonizing graphic design from a Black perspective. It’s not Black history, Cheryl Miller’s not doing Black history, not like that. This is, I have decolonized the entire canon. And I’m like, “Oh my God.” And the point of the class is that a Black perspective is my perspective. I set the example of how to do it, how to take a one, number one, week one, and the basic canonical history goes all the way down until you get to Christmas, depending on your school. I go through each era and I show you how I decolonize the modernist perspective, but the prompts and the rehearsal back is, well, where do you come from? What’s beyond this modernist canon?

So this one class, I won an award from Howard with it. I’ve taught it at Roger Williams, I teach it at Howard, I teach it at University of Texas. And it’s the platform. I say platform because it’s the lectures that undergird two classes that I’m teaching at ArtCenter. And so ArtCenter, I teach communication design, I’m a co-professor, we teach publication design. But the prompts for the course, I’m a publication designer, so we’re teaching the craft of publication design, but the books that are being produced are not modernist solutions. It’s like, “Okay, so where do you come from? What are you bringing to the conversation of the book you’re designing?” And it’s intriguing. And I’ve been co-teacher, I also teach grad school there. And what I’m finding, I teach the capstone thesis graduate course, I’m a co-professor there, and I did that also at Leslie. People are asking me to teach capstone thesis. Well, who better knows how to write a thesis than Cheryl Miller? So to be a professor of thesis capstone books.

And I come and partner with those professors that are well oiled machines. The crit that we go through, it’s my training, how to do a thesis. I’m like, “I’ve got to renowned thesis, it’s crazy. One thesis, and here we are. Cheryl Miller can do a thesis, and so Cheryl Miller can teach you how to do a thesis.” I’m teaching Senior and graduate capstone thesis research and development. Now at Howard, which is exciting, is that they wanted me to teach that class. And so I think it’s two years, have I been with them two or three years? I’m not sure. Either two or three, whichever one. The first two, I’ve taught that basic class two semesters. And then they asked me, “Can you do a part two?” I’m like, “Apart two of the part one?”

And then I won an award last year, I was so honored. I got adjunct award, Phylicia Rashad, one of her first awards as Dean, for this course. I’m like, “Here goes my work again.” So the course is unique and it’s transformative, and so they asked me what I do part two. And so part two at Howard is I do believe it’s one of a kind, I never say I’m the only, I will always say one of the first. But I’m teaching the history of Black graphic design at Howard University, part two of the design one that I teach in the Fall. So part one is decolonizing graphic design from a Black perspective, which is how to rework the canon base, how do we get new stories? That’s part one. And part two is strictly the history of Black graphic design. And I follow the canonical errors, but I don’t talk about any White designers at all.

And without a textbook, how about that? Because we’re still waiting for textbooks. And it’s the first university college, three credit class, strictly the history of Black graphic design. And so I’ve created my syllabus, I’ve got my lectures, I’ve got my content. The first class is extremely popular, and we are working with University of Texas to make it e-learning. So we prototyped it with a few professors last Summer, and I’m hoping that it will help as continued education for my colleagues. It’s inspiration of how I expand the traditional modernist canonical syllabus. And it’s a popular class, and it’s the basis for everything I’m doing. The only way that you can get the class is, either you take it from me, or we wait on University of Texas to make it. I’ve got to keep it in an academic environment, so I’m not doing it streaming and all that kind of thing. It’s going to be fully accredited and you can get a badge and all that.

So we’re working on getting it so that people can take it. But if we’ve been fortunate enough to have one another in a class, then you’ve taken it with me. And I’m taking as many university engagements that will work with me this way, and I’m very busy during the day. Mondays are my hardest days. And inviting me to do this means that you are also working out what’s happening in design pedagogy, and curriculum, and education. So I have to shout out to Howard, UT, and ArtCenter. They are Zooming me in, and they’re working with it. So working with Canvas, and Blackboard, and Zooming me into the classroom, and these hybrid tech situations is opening up a world of knowledge-based wisdom.

Not only Cheryl Miller, but the pandemic has put us into this place, and I have grown in this space. And so are institutions that are willing to work that out. We’re not only but content experts from around the world, and it’s exciting. And I would say that schools should not frustrate themselves. And when we talk about looking at how we’re coming out of pandemic, listen, I tell my students, the ones that I teach at my other class at UT, is branding for diversity, I tell them all the time and the graduates preparing their portfolios and things, I said, Put some Zoom screenshots on.” These are aggressive design classes, Maurice. “And when you’re presenting, this means that you can design globally, you can be a design leader globally. You can manage how to be virtual, how to be remote, how to be global.” I said, it’s a skillset now.” We’re just not landlocked to walking around New York with black portfolios from corner to corner.

So Cheryl Miller has taken advantage of the pandemic and those that have heard the crying to diversify. And so these schools have wanted me and I want them, and they have blessed me and taken care of me in these years of mine now. And I have space for a couple more universities, but they have to be patient with me. Like I said, I’ve got my fingers crossed. I know that I’ve reached out. We have a campus here where I live, University of Connecticut, and so we’re looking at that. But I will work with this with whoever will work with me, and the two places that you want me. I don’t have to teach typography and this, that, and the other. I don’t have to do all that. You want me for one I do.

So the decolonizing of graphic design from a Black perspective, you want me to teach that. It’s a writing class, the prompts are writing. But I’ll tell you one thing that has stirred my heart is, when I teach this class of Howard, the way my scholars write the papers to the same prompts. Maurice, they help me get up every day because they are appalled that our history is not included in the main canonical story of North American graphic design. Their papers are unapologetic, and they keep me going like, “Oh my God my dear, I won’t labor through this one more year just to make sure you have a history.” So my hardest day, you asked me what’s a day like for Cheryl Miller?

Let’s take the first day, Monday is my hardest. I teach 12 hours straight. I get up, I’m online with Howard at 9:00 for three hours, I take a break. Then I move across the time zone, across the country, so I’m Eastern Standard Time. I start at 9:00, I’m with them for three hours. We lecture, we dialogue, we work out. We really work out on the content. Then my Texas class starts their time, 2:00, 3:00, and I’m there until 6:00, three hours with them. So 2:00 to 5:00 Central Time, 3:00 to 6:00 my time. I take a little break, then I head to California. There 2:00 is my 5:00, I have some transition time. Sometimes I’m early or late, depending on which way my Texas class goes. And I’m online, that’s a five hour class. My class starts all over again. My day starts all over day, all over again. It’s a five hour class that they go to at 2:00 and it’s over at 7:00.

And so I really have to shout out to the team there, the tech team. I Zoom in, review the work. We’re teaching publication design with a different spin. We’re working that Zoom in design, I’m telling you, it’s really an aggressive ArtCenter class for five hours. I start again. They come in fresh at 2:00, from 2:00 to 7:00, and I clock in 5:00 or 6:00, and I work until 10:00. I put in another five hours. So my family helps me, and everybody makes sure that I get water. I get water Maurice, I get water. I get a glass of water, I get a bio break, I get dinner, and I just keep moving. I keep moving. So my Mondays are my hardest things. The rest of my schedule, I write. I allow interviews, I do interviews. My door is still open. I’m here today with any popularity or notoriety because I never say no to the young designers.

So if you catch me, I do portfolio reviews. People want to stop by my LinkedIn Messenger, or my Instagram Messenger all the time. Ms. Miller, thank you for everything, can I talk to you? I talk to everybody, Maurice. I still do, I can’t not. I’m totally accessible all the time, which I think is the secret ingredient. I would say if there’s any secret potion to Cheryl Miller, I’ve been accessible. I don’t care who you are, you want to talk to me, I’ll talk to you. Because nobody ever wanted talk to me, Maurice, and that’s it. Nobody ever wanted to talk to me, not really. And so I’m like, “Well, if you want to talk to me, I’ll talk to you.” And so young scholars, young designers, I have a motto, if you see me on Instagram, or you see me on LinkedIn, and the green light is on, that means I have time to talk to you. I said “Don’t even make an appointment.

I said, “The way pandemic and strange diseases and everything gets us, I might not be here. If you see my green light, you better catch me right now.” I’m a right now, lady. Let’s do it, do it now. And so every day somebody text me, “Ms. Miller, can you talk?” I’m like, “Yep, I surely can.” So I still do portfolio, I still do portfolio reviews, interviews. Everybody wants a little quote or something for their thesis. I’m still at it, and I don’t burn out within this, I’m built for this. So this is my training, so I know when to stop, I know when to rest. I do not work on the weekends, I do not work on Sundays. So to run a marathon, you have to know where to take your Gatorade breaks. And I’ve never been in a situation where I have burned out or lost my way emotionally, spiritually, break down, nothing. I’ve learned early my capacity, my boundaries. I rest a lot.

On Tuesdays I don’t do anything. After a Monday like that, I don’t do it. I go to the gym, leave me alone. I got a couch corner. And then I’m back up. I can get more done in two days than most people get done in two weeks. The key is rest and pacing yourself. The key is rest. Don’t go past being tired, stop. And so I learned that. Running a business in New York, client’s crazy. But I guess I learned to run the race there in New York. I learned how to take care of myself, and glory to God, I’ve got divine health, except for a left cranky knee. I’m on no medicine, nothing. Antacid it every now and again. But no pills, nothing. And so I’ve learned the art of self-care in running destiny’s journey. And my family plays a big part of that. My family plays a big part of that. I have a blessed marriage. Phil is enjoying all of this with me. We started when we were teenagers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see the pictures on Instagram. You all are living it up.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah. He’s like, “Cheryl, when’s the next gala award? I’ll take you. Cheryl, I’ll take you.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So the invitation comes with Phillip. And he comes with Philip. And what’s interesting, I’ve got some interesting photos that I will release. When I went to RISD Freshman year, there was a young lady, Freshman, I don’t know what happened with her because I left out after Freshman year. But she came up there to study photography, and he came up to visit me one weekend. And we had these, Civil Rights kids, I had this bush. And she took these love affair photos of Phil and myself, and we both had these well cropped precision bushes. It’s like, “Cheryl, how’d you do that?” I’m like, “Listen, I vinegared up my hair. Listen, I did what I had to do to be in the notice.” I’m like, “I’m not going to be left.”

So I worked that out. And so when we got invited to come to RISD, I said, “You know what? I’m going to entertain my community.” I said, “Let me show me post some militant Angela Davis freshman shots of Cheryl going to RISD Freshman year. And so he’s been with me the whole way, and it is a pleasure. We just did a cameo last week. A week before I woke up and I said, “RISD was inviting folks to come up to their Senior show.” And we live two hours from Providence, that’s nothing. So I said, “Phil, I want to go up to the Senior show, a cameo. Can you drive me up to Providence?” He said, “Really?” I said, “Well, what else are we going to do? We were just going to sit here and watch CNN and these crazy people on television.” So he says, “Sure.”

So we jumped in the truck, and he took me to Providence, and saw the show, which is, oh my God, RISD design. Oh my God, just go to Instagram and look it up. Oh my God. Eye candy. If I say something is design candy, trust me, eye candy, design candy. Oh my God. Oh my God. And so it just warmed my heart. We were up there with Gary Manchin, is where the gallery is, and there’s a patio, when you walk out it overlooks Providence. And I sat there and took a familiar picture with him. I’m like, “You remember when we were kids we took this picture from this venue, not knowing where life would leave us?” So he’s been with me. And the kids, it was a good decision for me to leave New York City with the practice and concentrate on them. I have good kids. Oh my God, they’re such a blessing.

And it’s so funny, as they were coming along when if they misbehaved or anything, I would always say, “I want you to know I was a famous designer, and now I’m on this pickup line with you people.” I said, “I’m a famous designer, and now I’m in kindergarten.” So I chuckled with them over the course of raising them. And so now with all the awards, we have a group text and I said, “I told you I was a famous designer, but more than anything in the whole wide world, I wanted to be with you all.” So I’m a soccer mom, I’m a basketball mom, I’m a baseball mom, and never looked back about the design business. But I always wrote, the phone rang constantly. You called me, oh my God, can I have a copy of the thesis? Can I have a copy of the thesis? Can I have a copy of the thesis?

Oh my God, my phone has never stopped ringing because of the thesis. Now I’m with the awards, they come with me, they went to RISD with me. Got a chance, I’m so proud, they treated us so well. I’m so proud of President Crystal Williams, the 18th President of Rhode Island School of Design, first African American president of a top ranked art school. They just treated us so well, and the kids were so proud. And they go like, “Yeah mom, we know, you are a famous designer.” So what I have wanted to missed all of that for the sake of these crazy people in the industry slaying dragons? No. I have my teenage prom date is my husband, and we have two kids that have grown up to do their thing, and well, and they know that I was telling the truth. “Your mother was a famous designer and now she’s in kindergarten with you.”

It’s a blessing to be here. So it’s a blessing to be alive because a lot of these peers of mine, dead and gone, they’re getting these awards posthumously. That’s no fun. Thank you for the acknowledgement, but they’re dead and gone. I gave Nicole, she doesn’t have to do it anymore, but I gave her, that’s my daughter. I said, “Nicole, if anybody from New York calls you and wants to give your mother an award and I’m dead, don’t go get it unless it’s monetized. Say you had a chance to do it when she was alive and you didn’t. I’m not coming to New York unless there’s money assigned to it for her estate.” So we joke about it, but I’m proud of them, they’re proud of me, and I balanced it. But I work hard. When I work, I work hard. And when I play, I play hard. So there you go. You got another question?

Maurice Cherry:
You’re everywhere, you’re super active on social media, I see you even have a collection of NFTs. I want to ask you about two things. One, where do you see the future of design with all these new technological advances? And then secondly, what impact do you think social media is going to have on design?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Okay. Well, first and foremost, a lot of what I see tomorrow that is happening today comes from the experience of something very simple. I started in this business at the age of 17, 18 years old, and they invented the Magic Marker. Listen to me carefully, I say this all the time. I entered into this business when they discovered the Magic Marker. They were eight in a box, and the name of it was Magic Marker. Up until then, which was transitional, I was trained doing layouts with guash, a wooden teeth square, and charcoal, and speed balling. If I resisted Magic Markers and said, “Oh my God, I got to have my guash.” I wouldn’t be here today. I entered the television industry, when everybody interviews me about BET and all of that, and I always put these markers so people can locate time in history.

Gayle King, I worked in a television station, WTOP-TV, post Newsweek channel nine, was my first design job when I graduated from MICA and moved back to Washington. And Phil and I had just gotten married. Gayle King was a news trainee, news program upstairs in the news department, and Oprah was in Baltimore. And everything was done in film. And in the art department we did old school art cards in color, and the art department, we’d have to make the news graphics, the promo titling, the whole thing. And we had stands where the cameras would roll up onto the art. The station had its first animation camera was filmed.

And then they brought in videotape, this new, oh my god, videotape. And so what happened in that transition period in Washington, they started putting production companies around the area of the television stations, right over the key bridge. They had some colored video production houses because everything was film. So to make the 5:00 or 6:00 news, all the film had to be developed, and edited, and cut, and whatever’s going to happen. The whole place was filmed Maurice, in the New technology. So when I met Bob Johnson, he was trying to figure out BET, which you hear me in that prototype story. I love it. But he asked me would I work at the BET star and prototype TV cards? And after we’ve had this one conversation about his idea, it’s a crazy story. And I’m like, “All right.”

This is before he incorporated, he was working out the idea. And I met him in the prototype stage. So he was at the station and trying to sell this concept. And he says, “Any black designers around here?” And they send them down to me. All I can say in that conversation, I don’t want to go over that conversation because it’s all over the internet. He said, “Will you art direct my prototype show? Take the BET logo card and what we call lower thirds and all of that, because we’re going to do it in video, we’re not going to do it in film.” And so my conversation here is that, well, if I stayed there figuring out how to do lower thirds and graphics with film and didn’t learn kyron, and digital, and video, I wouldn’t be here today. Video, and that production, and those production houses that were lined up in Virginia, and if the TV stations were holding on the film, where would we be today?

And so I’ve always been in this transitional, one foot in and one foot out. Well, let me tell you, by the time I got to New York, just look at your history of the McIntosh. New York City, the Macintosh wiped out God knows how many businesses. I don’t do small businesses, genre of business. So the first thing that really impacted the business at large, the design industry in New York City, was they began to bundle Page Maker on HP computers. And people started, “Well, I can do my own brochure.” And I’m saying, “Oh Jesus, look at this. What’s happening?”

Then I had Danita and [inaudible 00:59:27], you’ll see them on these award tapes. Danita Albert, one of my art directors. I said, “Listen, I got to keep up with this. Whatever this is, we got to do it.” And I said, “I bring the machines in. In other words, I sign my name to the leases, buy all the programs and stuff. I don’t have time to go figure this stuff out, go figure it out. And we got to pull up these drafting tables.” And the speedball turned into the rapidograph, into the uniball. Man, I have been through some technology.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Man, I have been through some technology. But when this Macintosh QuarkXPress one and Adobe and Photoshop, when they bundled this stuff, well they didn’t bundle, you had to buy it. The stuff was expensive and I had to buy… I had my own staff camera because I had a firm, it wasn’t freelance. I had a firm and that’s why I have logo sheets and stuff. If you didn’t have a camera, you couldn’t do this stuff.

So that’s why I have crafted logo sheets that are flying all over because I don’t know about anybody else but Cheryl Miller had, unless you were on a job and you were freelancing and hustling stats after you worked, you know, needed a camera. There was no Adobe Illustrator skewing and all of that. This is Herb Lubalin, Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpigna crafting by hand.

So there were whole businesses for this. And type setting, my office was full of type catalogs. So you had type houses that only did headline type. You had type houses that did body type, you had retouch, retouching, retouchers. You had stack houses for negatives. Okay? So everything the computer did was a business inclusive of the deliveries.

So you had to move camera-ready art from uptown, midtown where the studios were, to the printers downtown. So the delivery services, this thing wiped out New York City. QuarkXPress, Macintosh, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. And those who were too cheap to figure it out – how to pay for all of that – took PageMaker on a HP and it went into DIY, do-it-yourself.

All those business folded and I just don’t mean they sea change. You know what sea change is? A sea change is different than a paradigm shift. A sea change is it’s gone. It’s gone. Never. To. Return.

And I saw this and I said, “Oh.” And the delivery service, AOL and the internet was flying, printing files, no more bikes running. The only thing moving now on bikes in New York City is Uber Eats.

I saw these businesses go if you could not keep up. And the resistance. Okay, well you can resist if you want. And listen, I used to visit Tony Dispena’s office downtown, and I was a regular go-by-and-visit.

And you can see, Douglas Davis has a retirement celebration documentary on Tony. You can find it on YouTube. And he shows you old school Tom Carnase, Herb Lubalin, and all of that crafting.

He had a well-tuned studio and you had to have equipment for that stuff. I still have that equipment, man. We had to have ellipses and drafting tools and… Oh Jesus, all that stuff by hand. I still have it all packed away. Okay, I’m looking for a museum’s installation. Cheryl Miller Design Studio still exists. Can you believe it?

I saw Tony’s shop pivot. He did not linger in holding onto speed balls. Speed ball pins and ink, and drafting to… See there was a process of how you did this stuff. You drew it out, you had your tissues and you had to have that camera. This thing hit New York City so fast. I went in there one day and he had a number Macintosh.

So what I’m sharing with you is University of Texas, I saw is starting a master’s program of AI. Next year it’s going to launch. MIT has a has a six week continue ed. Resist it if you want. Resist it and see where you’ll be. You’ll be right there with Uber Eats. You’ll be right there with Uber Eats. All right?

And I’ve been through too much technology to know, don’t resist. Learn it. And while you’re learning it, they will figure out the copyright stuff, they will figure out the legality, they will figure out… But it’s going to do you no good if this technology doesn’t have some content experts.

And so I’m like, learn it and figure out your code of ethics for using it and compete. Don’t resist. Or you’ll be on your bike riding around with Uber Eats, still looking for pay stub deliveries to printers downtown.

Yeah, this is it. I’m curious about NFTs. I have several collections on Foundation. Phillip is doing that part of my practice. I think there’s something there. You know, got to watch out for moving west for gold, because the only ones that make gold are the ones who make the shovels. The only ones who find gold out west are those who sell the shovels. Is there a there, there? But I won’t know if there’s a there, there, if I don’t jump in the game.

So we’ve got a Foundation collection, I’ve got a collection up now for women’s… He put up one for, there’s some women’s images. Yeah, I get it. Phil’s trained in blockchain for his business.

So we just keep it moving. We just keep it moving. I’m far from – well, I can’t say I’m just getting started – but I’m into Cheryl Miller 2.0. Or 3.0, 4.0, whatever it is. I’m curious. I have some entree, but I haven’t had time to work it out yet. But I’m curious about teaching in the metaverse and I do not jest when I think before it’s all said and done I can hologram into some space to teach.

The only proof of anything that I’ve said here that it’s important. You’ll always hear me say, “Design doesn’t change. Technology does.” There’s not a thing about design that changes. Technology changes. And I’m a designer. I’m a good designer. So if I want to be left behind, I’ll go back with my magic markers.

I told you all of that to show you how much technology I have grown through. And I was inspired as a kid. TV was brand new. George Olden moved down to Washington DC to be with CBS when I was born. And so I grew up on art cards. And I’ve always been able to be blessed enough to be able to keep up with the technology. When I say “keep up,” is to afford the computers, to afford the programs, to afford the training.

And so we’re just going to keep it going and inspiring young designers to compete. So the answer to the question is Star Trek. We’re on an odyssey. I can only tell you if you don’t want to get lost, you better get your little continuing head. Or go to YouTube University. I always love going to YouTube University. They’ll teach you anything. They’ll teach anything you want to know.

Maurice Cherry:
That is so true. That’s so true.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I also like The Verve, Terrence Moline’s group. They throw up their tips and they keep it moving in that group. So you want to learn some technology and what’s going on, they’re really working those programs and talking about mid journey and all these dolly and rainbow this.

But you have to show up to these things. You have to participate. You have to always be inquisitive and be excellent. Like Oprah says, you got to do the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you and I have talked about some young designers that you have been mentoring. You’ve talked about – or I’ve seen pictures at least I know – but you and I have talked about Simon Charway, Taeler Breathwaite.

How has your mentoring been going? I mean, I know you’re everywhere in terms of social media and of course like you said, you want to be on the metaverse. Like in the real world here, how’s your mentoring been going?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Oh well, listen, apples don’t fall far from the tree. Everyone that’s in my tribe, they have their gifts. I think in my life I’ve inspired them to touch their gift. And the proof that they are of my tribe, they’re all winning awards too. The family that prays together stays together. So my tribe, they’re award-winning, they’re doing the same thing.

They stop by every now and again and say, “Auntie” – they know, don’t call me “Abuela” or “Nana” or anything – so everybody knows to call me “Auntie.” I just speak into their lives, hope and inspiration and to identify your gift.

And I do have some tips Maurice, and they have been kind enough to regard some of my wisdom. And when applied, they get the same results. So they are competitive designers. I’ve got so many of them. But what you can’t do is write me and say, “Cheryl, will you be my mentor?” That’s not the way that works.

Usually I see a giftedness. And I think one of my favorite, you mentioned Tré [Seals] and Taeler. Tré, I love Tré. I love him dearly. And I love how he always remembers me. And he’s the man of the hour and he will be the man of the hour. On several occasions, his YouTubes and his articles, he will tell you that he ran into my article in 1987.

And most people run into the article 1987. And they find me, they do everything they can do to find me. And if you’ve gone through all that trouble to find a vintage, he said he paid 60 bucks. He found it on eBay. Somebody gave it to him, and then he found his own copy. I know I bought 200 of them, so I know 200 of them are around someplace.

He found it, someone gave it to him, he read it, he found me. I don’t know how he found me, but back when I was raising the kids I had a website. You could write me on the website. And he said, “Ms. Miller, I got an idea.” I said, “Mm-hmm.” I always listen. I said, “Mm-hmm, we all got ideas. Okay.”

He says, “I found your article. I read your article. I have an idea.” I said, “Mm-hmm.” And he says, “I want to make typefaces from the lettering on Civil Rights posters.” I said, “Mm-hmm.”

He says, “What do you think about that? Is that a good idea, Ms. Miller? I paused. And he quotes me pretty well, I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, “Tré, do it now. If you don’t do it, somebody else will.” I didn’t have to tell him twice. And here we are.

See, this is what I tell everybody. You’re not going to be the only one, but could you try to be the first one? Try to be the first one. You’re not going to be the only one. Don’t you still go to McDonald’s and look up and say, “Can I have a Coke, please?” Well, we only have Pepsi, will you take Pepsi?” Don’t you go to FedEx and say, “Can I have a Xerox?” In the Canon machines back then.

First name recognition. I will never be the only one, but I’m going to be the first one, one of the first. I will never say “only.” You will always hear me say, “I’m one of the first.” Because just when I have the audacity to say I’m the first, somebody else comes up and says, “Well, I was there before you Miller.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, you were.”

So you got to stay humble with it. But you got to be the first one, one of the first to the application of your gift, your idea. That’s your brilliance. And so I see people now trying to do that, and they’re coming up with civil rights. And I said, “Man, don’t imitate. Don’t duplicate. Create.”

Taeler. Listen, that little baby can design. You hear me? She’s my youngest. I met her in Texas. Now, I don’t know the statistics, I don’t keep up with it, but she must be one of the first young black designers to have gotten as many grad school acceptances, top rank schools. And you’ll have to interview her to ask her where she got accepted.

But I’m not saying she’s the only one. I don’t know if she is the only one. She’s the only one I know out of University of Texas of Austin Design that got grad school acceptances, top rank schools and money. She’s selected prac. She’s got some intriguing work that she’s going to be doing and finishing out.

So you have to go interview her. And what was it like? I was one of her senior design teachers in Texas. And so, she was competitive. And boy, she was racking in those admissions and scholarships. I’m like, oh my God.

Simon. Oh listen, I love Simon Charway. I met Simon Charwey online. And one of the things that is so important to this work that I’m doing is that, and even there’s a segment in Dori Tunstall’s new book, Decolonizing Design. She’s got a piece in there that talks about the importance of the place to start is to understand your indigenous origins. It’s a requirement.

And I have researched, I had a family issue. I’m African American, but I’m also Filipino American and I’m West Indian. And I’m from DC. My backgrounds, my Zoom backgrounds, my story, everything. I’m what they call MGM: multi-generational mixed.

And I was raised African American. But culturally, I am Danish West Indian and I’m African American from D.C. I can hand dance. But I got four different grandparents, four different places.

I’m Filipino from Cavite. So I’ve got a Filipino family, I have a West Indian family, I have an African American family, and I have a Native American family. So my grandfather was white, an American Indian from Fauquier County.

So in this story I have one African-American grandmother, my father’s mother was African-American. And all of these people resolved at Howard and ended up in D.C. And I learned to hand dance. And that’s my story.

But in that richness is I’m Danish West Indies. My grandmother is indigenous Danish West Indian and Ghanaian. And my research led me to finding… Long story, but you can buy my book. Black Coral is my memoir. That work needed to be done in my life before I could even begin to do the scholarship on design.

And I have Ghanaian, DNA that I needed to process. I had a missing Filipino family that I needed to deal with. My mother came up looking a hundred percent Filipino on Howard’s campus. There was so much that needed to be dealt with in my origin, my heritage, my being born into this drama, that Black Coral – you can get it on Amazon – was a lifetime work that I ended up publishing in 2013. And with that, I found my tribe and origins of my Ghanaian DNA.

And with that comes the authenticity of my African aesthetic. You have to know the slave trade. So I know the Ghanaian slave trade is my history. The colonizers, the French and Martinique, the Dutch, the Portuguese. I know my colonizers are the Danes. And I know my history is with the Ghanaian Kings.

I traveled all through the West Indies for years. Census records, census projects, studied Danish census records, putting together and answering the question, “How in the world do I have Ghanaian DNA?” It’s from the slave trade.

And so with that, I found my tribe and where they are in Accra. I have a cousin, my great-grandmother’s nephew, who went back and became what they call “enstooled.” And he sojourned back to Ghana, and he’s a chief of the Virgin Islands. They enstooled him and met the lineage of all the tribal leaders.

So I have all of these records and pictures of the tribe, which is really genuine. I mean, it’s research. I’m hoping to go to Ghana. It’d be my second trip to Africa. But I’m hoping to go on a research trip to look at the decorative painting houses and things. I’m going looking at the Ghanaian aesthetic.

And I met Simon online. He wanted my advice on his African Design Matters project. We began a conversation on Instagram. And I saw him, and while everybody’s sleeping, I’d wake up and go to their conferences. They’re like 7, 12 hours.

So y’all sleeping. While y’all sleeping I’m with the Ghanaian designers and I’m hearing their agenda. I’m like, “Oh, these Pan-African brothers and sisters, they got a manifesto. And while we sleeping, they’re manifesto-ing.”

So I saw him interface online, working hard to integrate his research into a North American discussion. So he’s trying to meet us. He’s working with AIGA. And I was fascinated with his work because I would get up and listen to them lecture and their conferences. And I said, “Simon, the only way that you are going to break through with your research in North America, you got to get it ratified. And the only way that I know to get what you’re doing ratified is Yale.”

I did. I just said, “Simon, go to Yale.” I said, “I can’t tell you how to get to Yale, but you got Professor Mafundikwa, you know him. He’ll tell you how to get to Yale. Use your network to get where you’re going.”

All I can tell you is that I did what I had to do in that invitation of inspiring. I never say I’m anybody’s mentor. Let him say it. I inspired him to reach, you got to ratify this work. And the only place I kind of think this fits is Yale grad school.

And Mafundikwa can help you. I just live in Connecticut, so I can tell you the highway and the exit to get off. Yale isn’t my school, RISD and MICA, they’re my schools. I said, “I can just tell you the exit off of A 85. But you got enough that… Try.”

And I didn’t even say, “Try.” I said, “Do it.” And all the way up to the last moment he got accepted, we walked him through application, acceptance, the airplane ticket. We walked him through the whole thing. And so when he got here, it was the week after, two weeks maybe he’d been here and it was summertime. He finally got here.

I said, “Phil, would you take me up to Yale? “I want to meet Simon.” And I asked my son and I said, “He doesn’t know what’s going to hit him. We got some coats around here?” He’s in New England, he’s never seen snow. He’s going to wake up and it’s going to be, “Oh my God, where are the ancestors? Where are the outfits?”

So the guys put together a few sweaters because he didn’t know. So he is just going to wake up and it’s going to be frigid. But you wake up and it’s freezing, you know, what you going to do? So I said, “Brothers, give me some sweaters and some coats. And Phil, can you take me to Yale?”

I found him and he was so grateful to meet me. And then he touched my heart. He touched my heart, Maurice. He said, “Will you take a picture with me?” I took pictures out in front of where he was living. He said, “Ms. Miller, can you take a picture with me at the Yale sign, Welcome to Yale?” I said, “Well, do you know where it is? He said, “No. But I got to have a picture with you standing in front of Welcome to Yale.”

Oh my God. And Phillip was so patient. We drove around Yale’s campus looking for this one sign that Simon wanted. It’s one of these entranceway gate things to the campus, and he could not tell us on what corner, what street. And we drove all around Yale, which is a city school. Where’s the sign that says, Welcome to Yale? Well, we finally got it. He was so excited. You can see the picture on Instagram.

And he was so excited to meet me. We stood out and he kept taking pictures. He says, “The elders won’t believe it.” That’s what he kept saying. He says, “The elders won’t believe that I got here unless I take a picture of Welcome to Yale with you. And I’m like, “Okay, Simon.”

It took him three years to get here. It started pandemic. He started reaching out. Everybody’s online. He found me. I started going to their conferences. And I’m like, “Mm, I get it. I get what you’re doing. I see it.”

And Simon is just proclaiming and got his research. And I’m like, “Yeah, you trying to cross over into an international space. I got it. You need to go to Yale, brother.”

So from inspiring him, it took three years. The process of application, getting to work together, through the interviews, through the plane ticket, through the whole thing, through “Professor Miller, can you meet me and stand in front of the sign?” And forever grateful. And he knows I have Ghanaian DNA.

I’m like, “For the elders, Simon, I know I don’t look Ghanaian, but trust me, I know some Ghanaian art. I know Ghana. I know I got Ghana family. I got a chief. I know my chiefs. I know my story. We are craftsmen artisans. My tribe is, if you’ve seen the decorative coffin makers, the Sowa tribe, Accra Ghana, is my tribe. And so I come natural. We’re designers, we are wood cutters, ship makers, and we build the decorative coffins of Ghana.

And so when I start talking to you all about some African design, I know what I’m talking about. And that’s what I mean. That’s what mean about, I got stories to tell that nobody else can tell. I got footnotes to make that nobody else can make. I’m not compiling footnotes. I’m creating these footnotes and I’m leaving them in places for somebody to write something, whatever you’re writing.

And Cheryl Miller said, “Well, if I said it, it’s a footnote, and it’s a research and it’s a proof.” And my DNA says, I’m Ghanaian. And Simon and I connected. The ancestors connected us. Okay, so that’s the way the drum beats.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, how do you measure success? I mean, what does it look like for you now with all of the accolades and the awards and the prestige? What’s success like now?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Just remember me and acknowledge my friends. And when the ones that I’ve poured into make success on their own, that they remember. I do not talk about this famous thesis without acknowledging Dr. Leslie King Hammond. I refuse to talk about all these awards that stem from one thesis without celebrating Dr. Leslie King Hammond who was my academic coach and the scholar in my life that said, “Go get some skills.”

And I always tell y’all, well, when y’all have your big conferences and stuff, just make sure somebody got Ms. Miller. Is she is on the plane? Is she on the train? Somebody got her bag? Just remember me.

I went to AIGA, I met Teressa Moses from University of Minneapolis. We were walking out of the main theater at one of the breaks. And she and her friends were going to dinner and she turned to me and she said, “Professor Miller, you want to come and go to dinner with us?” And I kind of looked like, “Y’all don’t want me coming to dinner with y’all.” And she welcomed me. She said, “Come on, go to dinner with us. We’re skipping the rest of this. We going to go find dinner.”

And that meant more to me in the world that she included me. I can’t have gone through and have the passion for our community if I haven’t been through the pit of hell with this industry. The only reason I did this is so that you all, any measure of it, you don’t have to go through anything I went through. You don’t want to go through what I went through.

You don’t want to go through Jim Crow trying to steal my portfolio and not giving anybody a chance. I don’t want to bore you through the civil rights era. So the only reason I’m accessible at all…

Maurice, you don’t want to go through anything that I’ve gone through, not even a measure of it. So if there’s anything I can do to help you not go through it, I’m going to do it because I’m not above the law.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there something that you haven’t done yet that you want to do?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I’ve thought about that. And the answer is not really. I’ve thought about, do I want a branding project? Do I want a book? Do I want…? When I really was performing and servicing, I ran hard for my clients. There were projects I really wanted and I just knocked on those doors until I found the project. I worked for my portfolio. And I did the best, the absolute best I could do in the area and the era of performance that anyone could do.

And I say that because I came through pre-civil rights, civil rights, and post-civil rights era. And some of these anthologies and biographies and stuff I read online, I’m not far from Thomas Miller.

Thomas Miller has a clip I use in my lectures. You find them on history.org. I use them in my lecture when I’m talking about corporate designers A1, number 2. Week 2, symbols.

I got a YouTube university in him. He’s 80 some odd years old. He just got a posthumous AIGA medal, and I just met his daughter because he won the award the same year with me. But they got a clip on history.com and he’s 82 years old. And the pain in his eyes, I felt, and I knew. He said before Gold Shark Associates, his voice was frail, but you could see it in his eyes. “I just wanted to open a little place” – he’s talking about Chicago – “And I wanted to open a little place and do little brochures and logos, but no one would patronize me.” And I saw it in his eyes.

And he was awarded the medal for endurance or persistence or something like that. And when they were reading his bio and his daughter was there to accept posthumously, my mind flashed back to that history.org clip. And I saw the pain in his eyes and I said, “Mr. Miller, I get it.”

I’ll tell you on this other side of this story, I have so many answers to stuff I was going through when I was younger. I’m like, “Where’d that come from? Why am I doing this? Why is this so difficult?” This, that, and the other.

Here’s an example. I won’t call his name. Out of respect, because I don’t know whether he’s alive or not with us. But a gentleman on Dorothy Hayes’ list. See, I’m young enough and old enough to be in New York at the same time and many of those on the list, I knew personally. One in particular, I won’t call his name, had a studio downtown. And he called me one.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
… I had a studio downtown, and he called me one day. I knew him personally, and he said, “Cheryl, I want to give you my studio.” I’m like, “What?” He says, “Yeah.” He says, “I want to give you my studio.” I said, “Well, where you going?” He says, “I’m leaving New York.” He didn’t give me an explanation. I didn’t understand it. He said, “Have Philip run in a truck and come down and take it all out of here.” I said, “Are you sure?” And he said, “I want you to have this. In other words, maybe you can do something with this because I’m pulling out of New York,” and I’m like, “Wow. Okay.”

So, Philip rented the truck, we went down and I pulled out this guy’s studio. Sometimes, depending on where I zoom, I have two plants. They were loft plants. I have one in my living room and one in my office. They’re 40, 45 years old with these plants, I took out of this gentleman’s studio. Every time I see those plants, it reminds me of how difficult it was for us to make it in New York City, and I never understood why in the world he closed his business and pulled out in New York, until I started working with the history and working with systemic racist practices, and working on my research. I said, “Oh my god, none of us were scheduled to live.” One of my favorite questions I answered, why did Milton Glaser get all the black work? That thing was driving me nuts, so Cheryl, you’re going to figure that out. Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Hugh Masekela, all of these black… How’d he get all the black work? Dorothy Hayes’s people are hanging all around.

For me to realize, Cheryl, you were living in that. You were living in that era, and this is why your friend, who’s on Dorothy’s list, who was in the show, why he called you up. You’re a young kid, okay? Next likely to succeed, he’s just going to give you his stuff and pull out. I didn’t realize that till I saw his name on the list. And then, I dropped into history, and then I dropped into Jim Crow. I dropped into the cannon. I dropped in… I said, “And, now none of them could… How far could they get?” He gave me everything. Library books, equipment, chairs, drafting tables. I picked it all up. Two plants that remind me of the story. One is in my office here, it must be eight feet tall of… Yeah, one of those scheffleras, and then I have a ficus, it’s gorgeous. It’s very comfortable in my living room, about seven, eight feet tall, was in his loft.

See, this is the kind of stuff I live through. You’re not going to find a footnote unless I make it. I don’t have time to compile footnotes. I have time to make footnotes. I just made you a footnote. Okay? I just made your footnote. This whole conversation is a footnote. Anything I’ve, said recorded on this… You know The Chicago Style?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah, the whole conversation’s footnote. So, success for me, is that I lived to see it happen. I lived to see you all prosper. Congratulations on your 10 years. I listened to your anniversary.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
You’re doing what someone should have done for you, which is the key to this. You interviewed yourself. Somebody should have interviewed you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes, yes.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Maurice, tell me something about this. I don’t know. Okay, so this is at, you threw you all an anniversary party. I’m like, “No. Somebody, I won’t call names, should interviewed you.” I don’t do podcasts except, I fill up a studio room. Okay? That’s not what I do. I don’t make them, but I’ll talk. Don’t invite me if you don’t want me to talk. That’s not what I do, but I know who’s doing them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
So, whoever’s listening to this one, y’all should have interviewed him and see, I’m crazy enough now I say that. Y’all should have interviewed… Maurice got to interview himself for 10 year victory. Okay, so guess what? I enjoyed your anniversary interview.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
If I had a all that design show, I would’ve interviewed you. I would’ve known to interview you.

Maurice Cherry:
I appreciate hearing that. Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I enjoyed the story, and I enjoyed… Thank you for having me for the 500, thank you for 248. I know my number. I’m 248 and I’m in the Smithsonian. I am proud of you. Okay? Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and listen, I just shouted out, somebody with all that podcast show, needs to interview you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been quoted as saying, “My motto is to live your life is your story, to live your life for others is your legacy. Leave a legacy.” I feel like so much of this conversation has been about your legacy. What do you want the next chapter of that to be? What do you want it to look like?

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I just have… My writing needs to be done. Please don’t ask me about it. Okay? Don’t ask me, I’m not going to tell you. I need my writing to complete, and I have investigated places I should be, I mean, I could be. There’s no should, there ain’t no should in life. Places I could be. I want to just give my gift in the right place, for the rest of my time, and Maurice, I don’t know where that is, but I can feel it. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m supposed to be leaving the footnotes, collecting the archival work from dead designer estates. I was so touched. I met Reynold Ruffin’s son. He went out to Stanford to see his father’s collection. For the heirs, to say thank you is a blessing for me. I think being someplace high and mighty would take me off course.

High and mighty is… What? Don’t you want to be a dean of this or this, that, and then I’ll be doing so much administration, I wouldn’t be there for you. I can’t change what I’ve been doing, I’m just going to keep doing it. I’m there for you, Maurice. I’ve always been there for you. I’m leaving footnotes. I’m there for you, and if you all remember me, I’m touched, and all of the accolades helping my visibility so I can do more of that in places that want me. There are still places that do not want me, and when they don’t want me, they don’t want us collectively, they’re still there. But, like I said when we started, “Oh, I see you.”

But, there are plenty that want me in my community, and want to share this center stage of design and experience. That’s it. I want to finish my journey, and I think I’m also in a place, where the expectancy of surprise is, I don’t know where I’ll be led and where I’ll be invited, but my heart has been good about this for 50 years. So, I have an expectancy that God will reward openly, what I have done secretly, for the body of Christ in this, and for the body of designers, wherever they come from. I’m good, Maurice. I’m good. And by the way, I’m waiting on the MacArthur because… I’m waiting on the MacArthur.

Maurice Cherry:
That needs to be on the next chapter, for sure.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
The reason that I want it is, it will just help me finish. That’s it. It’ll help me finish. Because imagine doing all of what I’ve done with no payment. It is a heart’s desire because it will help me finish my work.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up, and I know, of course, people can Google you and find you in many, many places, but are there any places in particular, that you want to point people to, so they can keep track of what’s going on with Cheryl? Cheryl Miller everywhere.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Cheryl Miller, everywhere. No, I post every… I don’t like Twitter, so you don’t find me much over there. I’m on Instagram, I’m on LinkedIn, and if you want to support the NFTs, I’m on foundation. I’m painting, I paint in the summer. That was an empty nester, right before pandemic exploration. I left DC to go paint at RISD, and life’s pivot got me sophomore year signing up for graphic design at MICA. So, I always… In the empty nesting era, right before all of this took flight again, I said, “Charles, is anything left of your painting?” I paint in the summer and I paint during the break, and I would like a good gallery. I hate all these rules and regulations, Maurice, when it comes to art and design. You got to have this, you got to have that. I’m like, “Oh man, I can paint.” Really?

I can design with my eyes closed. Really? I would love a gallery to just get in relationship with me and let me just send you paintings, and you do what you do. If you ask me what I want, it’s like can’t this be a touch easier? That’s all. Because I’ll put in the hard work, man. I’ve done the work. This is not been an easy tour duty. I did all this with the design studio and my family, and all this, the advocacy, the legacy part, so I have worked some and I continue to work. So, anything that gives me grace and favor, I’m appreciative.

So, when the schools invite me, “Would you like a teach a class? We’ll figure out the tech.” I’m like, “Thank God. Thank God, University of Texas. Thank God, Howard. Thank God ArtCenter. Thank God, somebody…” “Miss Miller, we’ll make it easy for you. All you got to do is beam in with your lectures and grade and read, and do whatever you have to do. Come visit every now and again.” Just make my path a little easier. So, when I say the MacArthur, “Yeah, just make it a little easier, a gallery.” Oh, I’m not going all over New York, querying for a gallery for my paintings. Philip’s got a catalog. You want to see them? He’ll send you a catalog. You want to do business or what?

I’m not doing that. No. You want to do business? I’ll give you some paintings. I guarantee you, you take my paintings, you’re going to make money. This is what this is about. I know how to make money in art, but I just don’t have the patience for the hurdles, and the exclusion, and what the industry does something so simple. Kids just want to draw and paint and make a living. And so, it can’t be that difficult, so if you ask me anything that will make my life easier with what God gave me to do, from the time I was a kid, would be a blessing in my life, Maurice, and you guys just remember me when you go to the conference, “Does somebody get Miss Miller? Does she have a seat?” Do like Professor Teressa, “You want to go dinner?”

Yeah, I want to go dinner. I want to hear what y’all are doing the road ahead is, think about your retirement people. We can come back and talk about that. Think about it. Make decisions now, because your clients will get old with you, they won’t be there. Hiring managers are your age, they won’t be there, so you’ve got to plan that out, and we can come back and talk about that we need the industry, we need professors. Oh my god, we need professors. If I get a call once, I get a call a hundred times a day. “Cheryl Miller, you got any more Cheryl Millers?” I’m like, I got professors, associate professors that can get… Who can… Associate professors, not adjuncts, associates that can… Ready for tenure. We need them up the ranks terribly. The opportunities are there, but they’re not many of us. They’re not many of us. Silas, Pierre and Tasheka can only teach a couple places, at a time.

I’ve been like, get your paperwork. Let’s get going. We need professors. Integrate that with your practice. Figure out your retirement, live happily ever after. Stand up, show up on these teams. Don’t drift back. Be outstanding and stand out, Maurice. I’ll say that one again. Be outstanding and stand out from the rest. When you can, make your gift the first. You won’t be the only one, but you’ll be most memorable. Don’t imitate. Don’t duplicate. Create. Prosper the God-given gifts in you, and don’t take no for an answer. Sometimes you got to wait. Have some patience. God knows if I can wait 50 years for the wind of change, y’all can wait 50 weeks. You can wait 50 days. I still meet people today. Cheryl Miller, I didn’t know anything about it. I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you didn’t read the article 35, 40 years ago.”

You know why they didn’t read it? Because the books used to come in the mail, and if you didn’t see your picture in the front of the book with an award, you toss it to the side. But, I was right there writing. The article’s in the back of the book, and I shout out and thank everybody, and always thank. Thank you, thank you, thank you to my allies in this season. Both Ellen Lupton and Brian Collins have been a blessing for me, and I just want to make sure that I thank them openly and I thank them for their favor and their grace. I always thank everybody who’s helped me. Michelle Spellman, I acknowledge her in my lectures, she’s first black female art director, Time Inc. I didn’t know what I was doing. No Sports Illustrated. I didn’t know what I was doing. She gave me my first job for Time Inc, and next thing I knew Time Inc. Corporate was my client, and I had Cheryl Miller Design.

I thanked Michelle. I always thank Fo [Wilson]. Yeah, 50 years, Hip Hop graphics. Listen, Fo said Cheryl Miller to McDonald’s, one of the best jobs I had while she was art director of YSB. We helped each other. I was in seminary and Michele Washington remembered me, when they were doing those design before. They weren’t giving us any design medals and stuff, she wrote one of those profiles for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Design Journeys. I remember that.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yeah. So, we helped each other, we did what we could. I gave everybody work. Then, I’ve had some wonderful allies in this season. Professor Sansone, and all of my professors at UT, Doreen Lorenzo, and Kate Canales, and Kelsey Gray, and Sean Adams, and Bruce… I mean, I’m thanking everybody like I’m getting an Emmy here. When I met you with former president, Julie [inaudible 01:46:21], she said, “Come on out of here. Get out of the woods. I’m going to take you to Chicago.” Regina Roberts came all the way, and beautiful allies, brought me all the way, came all the way over here, get my boxes. Philip said, “Cheryl, how many times we got to move these boxes?” I said, “Until I figure out where to go.” I saved everything. The whole Cheryl Miller, I don’t dare put up all my work on the internet, y’all got a sample.

So many people, all of the awards people, all of the Smithsonian, and there’s so many people to thank, and so many people to remember, my allies and everybody who’s asked me for lectures, there’s so many people to thank. And so, I’ve had grace, in spite of, so expect the grace. Expect favor. Live well and life will be well to you. This is the last time we going to have this conversation. I want to shout out to Pratt. We’re keynoting their graduation and they’re honoring me with… I guess they’ll be announcing it soon, by April. I’m sure that by the time this runs, it’ll be announced. Yeah, they’re giving me an honorary degree. I’ll be keynoting at Radio City musical, for their graduation. And so, Maurice, it’s really simple. Whoever will love me, well, I will love well back, and when you love me, you love my community I represent.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, amen to that.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
And, I love you.

Maurice Cherry:
Amen to that.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
I love you and I’m proud of you. Congratulations for your 10 years. You’ve been a blessing for me. I wish you well in all of your endeavors, and all of your segues, victories, transitions, your writing, the podcast, God will smile on you.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
We keep doing this and I’m honored to be number 500. I know for sure this will be, unless we’re doing this again, and I’m a hundred years old and you’re like… I expect a long life, but I don’t expect that you’ll interview me again, but maybe so. We don’t ever know. We don’t know yet. And so, I’m just listening. I think there’s some places where I’m yet to arrive. God doesn’t show it to you all, and He doesn’t give you everything that you want. When your gift, you get sent and you get placed. So, each and every day I pray, “Okay, lead me, guide me what you want me to do next.”

I think there are other schools, I think there are other projects. I think there are other kids and scholars, and I’m proud of everyone’s life that I’ve touched. I’m grateful for all my allies in this season, who’ve helped me, and they’ve helped me greatly. For everyone who’s supported me, over the years, clients and the stories are truthful. I pray a special prayer that God would thank you, because I can’t thank you better than when the God can touch your life and say, “Oh, well, that thank you came from Cheryl Miller. She prays for you.” So, that’s what you want. You want God to thank you for how your kindness and open door to me has blessed me.

Once again, I want to thank you for always supporting me and having interest in everything that I’ve been doing, and I’ve been thanking everybody, and I just want to make sure that I shout out to my universities that have accepted me and brought me into my new work. And, of course, we mentioned University of Texas, Austin Design with Doreen Lorenzo and Kate Canales, and everybody in Austin there, has been great to have me and my new scholarship. It all really started rolling with Nikki Juen at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, and Professor Kristina Sansone at Lesley Art and Design in Boston, and put me on the faculty there. I want to shout out and thank Bartley and Howard University, I was blessed to win an award for my new class there, and that’s been exciting and a real, real big shout out to ArtCenter, and Sean Adams had a vision to have me join out there.

And so, it’s crazy, but this new hybrid scenario is allowing me to reach all of the universities that would have me, and so I’m very, very grateful and thankful for that. Everyone that nominated me for all these great awards, Ashley over at AIGA and everyone at Cooper Hewitt and the One Club. Oh my goodness, everybody has just blessed me, all my friends at the Poster House keep remembering me. A special shout out to, not sure if I mentioned before, Regina Roberts over at Stanford has been helping me with our collections and making sure all those footnotes are in place for the next generation. And, the universities that have honored me with our honorary awards. And keynote speaking. I’m going to shout out to Vermont College of Fine Arts, MICA, RISD and I’m going to be keynote and receiving honorary from Pratt for this graduation 2023.

I think I’ve gotten everybody, there’s so many people to thank over the course of a 50-year career, and especially no one had to remember me, Maurice, and pull me out of the card catalog in this season of Renaissance and resurrection and restoration, or whatever we want to talk about Cheryl D. Miller 2.0 since the pandemic, it’s really been a blessing. Everyone who has had me write, speak, lecture, teach something, it’s all keeping me alive, and we’re moving. Especially you, Maurice, I’m so, so appreciative of everything that you’ve done and from remembering me from the very first, back when you were doing South by Southwest presentation, you came looking for me. I was definitely in the card catalogs of the decimal Dewey system and you brought me forward, so there’ve been a lot of people that have been instrumental. I don’t want to forget anybody, and if I have, please trust me, I remember every good will and wish toward me. I just am appreciative of the path of revision and vision that you have given us. I just want to say thank you.

And so, one more shout out to ArtCenter and Howard and UT, I’m just really grateful for the universities that are having me. Of course, all the clients that put up with me, and my designers that put up with me over the years, it’s been really… What a crazy journey. But, I’m living to see it happen, and in the next generation of those who seek this to embrace this career. So Maurice, thank you. God bless you, God keep you and keep revisioning the past, over and over again for us, and thank you. This is your buddy, Cheryl on [inaudible 01:53:37], and we thank you. So, with that, congratulations. Thank you for having me. Once again, you have my permission to make this one collectible. How about that?

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you for… I mean, I don’t really even know where to start. Just thank you for being you, for being an example, for being a trailblazer, for continuing to write and rewrite the canon, to show that we are here, we’ve done the work, we’ve existed, and we can continue to be here, and we have you as an example to show for that. So, thank you. Thank you again for coming on the show, for our 500th episode. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl D. Miller:
Yes, Maurice. To everybody, just keep going and compete. Just compete. That’s all I have to say. And, don’t shy back. You have to be in it to win it, so go for it. There’s so many more now. There were only a few of us back in the day, Maurice. But now, the tribe is an army. All right? And so, we can move forward mightily, and I pray that blessing upon us all, and don’t resist AI, go get your certificate. Okay, my love.

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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.

Manuel Godoy

It’s no secret that stories from comic books and graphic novels have dominated the pop culture landscape since the early 2000s. However, the heroes in those stories that you see often don’t represent the true diversity out there in the real world. That’s where Manuel Godoy comes in. As the CEO of Black Sands Entertainment, he is the engine behind one of the most exciting and barrier-braking publishing houses in the nation. And with over 5,000 investors and over 200,000 books sold, it’s easy to see why!

We started our conversation fresh off of Manuel’s recent Shark Tank appearance, and he talked about how his company stands apart from other indie publishers, and how he’s leveraged social media to build a massive base of supporters and investors. Manuel also spoke about his time in the military, how he’s scaled Black Sands Entertainment over the years, and where he wants to take the company in the future. Hollywood, watch out — Manuel has created a movement that has no signs of stopping!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Manuel Godoy:
My name is Manuel Godoy, the CEO of Black Sands Entertainment. I am a writer, I am a publisher, and I also run an animation studio, so I have a lot of things going on. But my goal is to make black history before slavery a relevant thing, and we’ve been doing that pretty well over the last five years. So I’m thankful for you having me today.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has this year been going for you so far?

Manuel Godoy:
It’s been going pretty good. I mean, we started the year off with a Shark Tank episode so momentum is definitely on our back right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to just go ahead and just jump right into Black Sands Entertainment. I spent a lot of time yesterday and actually over the past few days just checking out the app, checking out the titles and everything. For those of who are listening who may not be familiar, can you give an introduction to what Black Sands Entertainment is and what it’s about?

Manuel Godoy:
Yes. Black Sands Entertainment is a comic book publisher who also does different mediums. So we also have digital content on BSE comics. We have animations and stuff like that. But our bread and butter is comic books, and most of our comic books are about black history before slavery. We have plenty of titles about that. We expanded significantly last year from three or four different titles to about 16 now. And we’re just on the move, like constantly moving forward, trying to tell the story about our people that’s not always negative. I felt like there’s too much negative content out there for black Americans to consume and that we need to have something more on a positive side, some kind of legacy that we could live up to. So even if you have very humble beginnings, you can still see a great path forward in your life.

Maurice Cherry:
I love, love, love that whole message of doing that. And I mean, in a way that’s kind of what’s… I mean, I don’t want to say that what we’re doing is the same, but I think in terms of trying to make sure to uncover the history that people may not know about, I totally completely vibe with that idea. What does a typical day look like for you? I mean, it sounds like you’re juggling a lot of stuff.

Manuel Godoy:
Oh, it’s chaotic. There’s no typical day. That’s why I need to hire some staff, right? I’m currently looking for an editor-in-chief. Well, not an editor-in-chief, but a lead editor for our company so they could take that side of the publishing side of my life off my hands. But yeah, we’re definitely looking for ways to break up my days, because my days are purely chaotic. I think I spend maybe 10% of my time actually making content because I’m in charge of so many things. So I would love to get that to 40% if possible. But my typical days are purely chaotic. We have a lot of press, we have a lot of scouting and recruiting and negotiating. Of course, I have to be very relevant on social media, so that’s also a big factor in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I see you are super active on TikTok. I watched probably most of the videos that you’ve got up. How has social media helped you as you build Black Sands Entertainment?

Manuel Godoy:
Well, it just gives me independence. One thing is it’s a new age nowadays, that’s why I don’t really knock companies like Milestone Media, right? It’s like I’m not a fan of their business model, how they originally started, but I don’t knock them for it because there was limited options in the 90s. It’s not like they had much of a choice, right? But to work with the industry. Social media nowadays allows us to completely circumvent the traditional gatekeepers of this space. And so we can make our own customer bases, we can get our own investors without having to basically go through the…

Manuel Godoy:
Also, big shout out to Barack Obama for allowing Regulation CF to even exist in the first place, because prior to that, you had to be basically rich and white to invest in any small company. You weren’t going to get investments from people unless you had significant connections already. And now with Regulation CF, companies like ours and even other businesses, black-owned, can actually go out to the community and raise capital through unaccredited investors, right? So that’s a huge thing that happened recently. So I think the technology, the ability to go directly to your consumers, gives people with the drive to really scale and grow and make a difference without having to basically change their fundamental beliefs in order to be successful. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And just for folks that are listening, Regulation CF is Regulation Crowdfunding. And one of the rules for that is that you can raise, I think it’s like a maximum of $5 million through crowdfunding over a 12-month period. I know that’s one of the rules of it, right?

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. That’s for unaccredited investors. So after that you go into Regulation A and then you have to do only accredited investors, right? That’s a lot of money for most people. Companies that are raising $5 million rounds, they tend to be ready to go at that point. They’re not struggling anymore. Now they’re in market and they know what they’re doing and they’re trying to scale. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean the advent of crowdfunding overall I think has really helped a lot of independent creators to get their ideas out there in the market. I remember… And I mean, this didn’t start with Kickstarter, but I know Kickstarter was probably one of the more prominent platforms that was really trying to build on this sort of… I guess, build on this idea that creatives can fund their own ideas through their fans and Patreons and stuff like that. But I remember when it came around 2009, 2010, it was hard to get people on board with even the idea of crowdfunding. And now it’s pretty common to use Kickstarter or use similar platforms to be able to raise money like that.

Manuel Godoy:
It’s definitely something that just gives us freedom. So I think that’s what was the downfall of Milestone Media. I think they had great IP. They probably had great numbers: sales, but it wasn’t to the liking of DC and Diamond, so they killed them, right? DC and Diamond said, “Die.” And they had no choice, they had to die because they had signed deals with them, right? And now they’re trying to revive them because of the Black Lives Matter movement, right? So they’re like, “Hey, this is a great time to have a black imprint,” right? But at the end of the day, they let them go away for 30 years. So why should you believe them now and their generosity, I mean and their genuineness for the revival of Milestone?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I just heard recently, Milestone was supposed to have like a black history comic that came out during Black History Month and now they pushed it back until June. And I’m like, “Well, that’s not Black History Month, but whatever.” But yeah, when you’re beholden to like these larger corporate interests, it does stifle innovation in that way.

Manuel Godoy:
Absolutely. Yeah. So we’re lucky that we never have to deal with that. And as a result we’re pretty much not only successful, but now we know our customers. So the big part about it is with social media is you know your customers, right? It’s not like it’s some, “Oh man, I wonder what kind of customer I have?” That’s something you have when you go to someone like Diamond Distribution or go to comic book shops, you still don’t know who the heck your customer really is. But with social, you know exactly who your customer is, so you can refine your acquisition over time. You know how to sell, you know who to sell it to, right? You know how to message. It’s all powerful just because you’re doing the right distribution.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, this feeds into my next question which I feel like you may have just sort of answered, but how are you ensuring that Black Sands really distinguishes itself from other indie publishers out there?

Manuel Godoy:
Well, one thing is I don’t feel like we’re in the indie publishing space anymore to be considered another indie publisher at this point. Last year we did 1.2 million in sales, sold 120,000 books, right? And we’re just bringing online a whole bunch of new titles from our creators. So it’s going to be a huge year for us. Our main niche is history before slavery. We don’t do superheroes much at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Really.

Manuel Godoy:
That’s not our thing at all. I think we have like one superhero title and that’s it. Only because the creator has a sizable audience already, so we gave him a shot. We were like, “Hey, you a got a sizable audience. Let’s see if we can make your comic into a reality. And see if your audience will tap in.” And they really have been tapped in, so that’s a good one.

Manuel Godoy:
But for the most part, we wouldn’t try to do superheroes because that market is closed with Marvel and DC. It’s just closed. There’s no point even trying to compete with them. That’s them. They own that genre. I wanted to go for a genre that was 100% ours to own, and that is history before slavery. So mythology, fantasy, history, drama, all that stuff in an ancient setting or an ancient location or something like that is what we do. It’s not just Egypt, we have stories about Madagascar, the Mali empire, Moorish Spain, the Inca, right? The Malaysians, right? We just got a whole bunch of anticolonial rhetoric. That’s our power. That’s where we make our content, and that’s why everybody buys our stuff because it’s more of the good stuff, right? When they buy our books, they know it’s not going to be different or a different kind of vibe. It’s more of the stuff they want to have. More exposure to indigenous people, to people from diaspora and their actual culture, as opposed to the indoctrination of European powers.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I really like that. Years and years ago… God, I’m trying to remember when that was. Maybe 2015, 2016, we had an African comic creator from Cameroon who was making a… He had, I think it was a line of comic books, as well as a video game that was around African traditions and African mythology and stuff like that. And I remember him giving a similar reason as you just had in terms of like, it’s a lot more relevant to the audience that they’re trying to serve to talk about it in terms of history or to talk about history, than to create some superhero kind of aesthetic, which I think at the time he was saying was really more rooted in the west. Again, this is coming from an African perspective, but yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. Well, that’s the one thing about it. It’s I know for a fact that it’s a good thing for us to have this stuff, right? Without nobody messing up our power. We got to have our power and people really underestimate how much it matters for us to own the narrative and stuff like that. I mean, there’s too much crap they add to our stories just to go and control the narrative. One of the biggest examples I have is the recent movie that’s probably going to be played all across America. In every single school in America there’s probably going to be Harriet coming on. They’re going to be like, “Hey kids, let’s watch Harriet. It’s so great.” Talk about Harriet Tubman, right? They’re not going to use any other content for Harriet Tubman. They’re going to use the movie Harriet as the example, and that one is 100% fictional.

Manuel Godoy:
They had a black man who was the main villain of the story, a bounty hunter armed to the teeth in the South, because I guess they didn’t just Lynch black people who had guns in the South, right? Who’s the mythical villain that’s the main threat to Harriet Tubman. That’s some wild… They get 1,000 pitches a year for Harriet Tubman films, and they’re like, “You know what? The one that we’re going to spend $10 million to produce is this one,” right? And you just got to be like, “Wow, this is probably the only one that had that situation in it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember there being a big criticism of that movie. For folks that are listening, it’s the Harriet movie with, I think Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman. I heard that was a big criticism of it, that the part you just mentioned about having a black antagonist as well.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah, and it’s not even real. He’s not real.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they manufactured him for the movie.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. It’s like what is that? That’s them sabotaging a very… Like to me, even my fans, right? And a lot of people, there’s a reason why Yasuke flopped on Netflix, right? It’s like, all you had to do is tell the story of Yasuke. You didn’t have to make it about mecha robots and supernatural aliens. You didn’t have to do all that. Just tell the story of Yasuke, it would’ve been great. You know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying? It’s like they go so far over like we just can’t have history connected to black folks, right? In a positive light. We got to make it different. We got to make it more marketable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there were…. That’s funny because I remember when that came out and a lot of people were like, “Oh man, this is so good.” And I remember watching and being like, “Really? It’s not good.”

Manuel Godoy:
That was media hype, right? But once you actually got people who actually watched, they were like, “Why are we doing this?” They were like, “He’s not even the main character.”

Maurice Cherry:
He’s the main character there. There is like you said all these weird supernatural elements to it. And then I also think it was just too short. They tried to put too much into six episodes and it just… I don’t know. I didn’t think it was good at all.

Manuel Godoy:
And the littlest part was the actual historical parts.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
Where there was flashbacks of his time with Nobunaga. It was like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” And then all of a sudden it’s back to, “Okay, trash story.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would imagine probably one benefit of you using these historical stories and mythology and stuff like that is it takes out that comparison element. If you’re doing superheroes, for example, people might look at this and be like, “Oh, well this is just like, blah, blah, blah from Marvel.”

Manuel Godoy:
You can’t do that. And that’s a huge power to us. They can’t compare us, right? So the critics have to actually make a well-informed decision. They can’t just say, “Oh, this is just like this except you…” Or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll tell you a story. I think I told this story on the show before maybe like, I don’t know, hundreds of episodes ago. But when I was younger, when I was a teenager, I really was into… I mean, I’m still into comic books now, and maybe not in the same fervor, but I was really into comic books and was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make my own comic books.” And I was in rural Alabama just drawing stuff up or whatever. And this is back when Yahoo had these user groups online, like Yahoo groups. And they had one that was dedicated to black comic books. I think it was called Black Comix with an X, like B-L-A-C-K C-O-M-I-X. And I remember going in there and I was showing off my stuff like that. And one of the people who had responded, one of the people who responded was the Dwayne McDuffie, had responded back to it and trashed it.

Maurice Cherry:
But he trashed it, I mean, not in a good way, but certainly trashed it in the way of like, “Oh, this is just like, blah, blah, blah from Marvel.” It was that sort of comparison, which honestly I was literally basing it off of that. I was looking at Marvel comic books and trying to make the Black Cyclops or whatever. You know what I’m saying? He trashed it. I was like, “Oh, shit. I can’t believe I was trying to do that.” And then I didn’t really know who Dwayne McDuffie was then. Of course people know who he is now in terms of his contributions. But yeah, I can see how not going that superhero route is a definite unique selling proposition and advantage for you in the market.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. You definitely don’t want to get caught in that bubble where you end up basically doomed from the start.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
It’s like you can’t get market cap because it’s already taken up. And what we’re trying to do is the exact opposite. We’re trying to basically develop a market from the ground up and then dominate that to the point where if you make anything they’re going to be like, “Oh, like Black Sands or like this title from Black Sands Entertainment.” And it starts being like we’re the gatekeepers, right? So they’ve been avoiding this topic for 50 years, so nobody better complain at all when we dominate this space and then gate keep. “Oh, man, listen…” “Nah, bro. Y’all had 50 years to do this. Y’all ain’t never did it, so we got to gate keep.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve talked a good bit about Black Sands, and we’ll talk more about it later, but I want to know about your origin story since we’re in the vein of comics here. Tell me about where you grew up.

Manuel Godoy:
I was born and raised in New York, right? Queens specifically. And also some time in Alabama as well. Pretty cool. At the end of the day, New York is a different kind of place, man. You got to really embrace new ideas. Everything changes in freaking two years in New York, nothing stays the same, right? So that was always a huge thing for us was that times change a lot faster in New York than anywhere else. I was also in the military for a while. So I spent about six years in the military army. Just been a pretty crazy ride. Not really knowing what the heck you were trying to do in life, so I went to the military early, like right after high school.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Manuel Godoy:
And it was good for me. I probably would’ve stayed in the military if my knees didn’t blow out. But at the end of the day, destiny calls. Things changed. I did some high, big brain stuff outside the military. I was a freaking, oh yeah, a telecommunication engineer. So it was a really big brain job, very lucrative. And then it got all outsourced to India, right? This was the Great Outsourcing in 2010. Everything started getting outsourced. That field just disappeared off the face of the earth. I moved around to San Diego to get a degree. Finished it up in New York, Queens College as a economics major. And in about 2016, I finally got my first comic done: Kids 2 Kings and that’s when the actual business started happening.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s bring it back to, again, those early days, when you said growing up in New York and you spent some time in Alabama. Were you so rounded by a lot of comics and comic books growing up?

Manuel Godoy:
No, no, no. I was a big anime guy. So me and all my friends and stuff were anime dudes. So we were the old Toonami peeps watching Dragon Ball and Yu Yu Hakusho and all the other stuff. That was my vibe. Also, video game fanatics. We were huge video game fanatics back then. That was our thing though. I wasn’t really a comic guy at all. Still ain’t to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
So back then, were you thinking, did you want to start your own anime series or anything like that back then, because you were around it all the time?

Manuel Godoy:
I wanted to make a video game series, a video game franchise based off Black Sands.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Manuel Godoy:
That was always my goal over time. In fact, I tried to do that first, get a degree in video game design. Didn’t work out for me, but that’s what I wanted at first, right? And that’s what the original idea was made for. And then I realized it was so expensive to make a video game and pivoted toward comics.

Maurice Cherry:
And now when you say you wanted to go into that, was this when you were looking to go to San Diego State?

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah, because I was going to the Arts Institute in San Diego first.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Manuel Godoy:
That was the first place I went and that was for video game programming or something like that. I think it was video game programming or design or something. And it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for me, so I switched up, went into creative writing at San Diego… Yeah, San Diego State. And then eventually ended up in economics. I did the smart thing. I didn’t do all the writing classes up front. I went to all my general studies so I could transfer over. So I didn’t waste too much time when it came to changing my degrees and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it sounds like you were at least building that foundation, and then I think even that trial and error part with first studying games or going into game development and realizing this wasn’t what you wanted to do and then going into something else. I mean, college is the time where you can figure those things out, where you can decide what the path is that you want to take. Even if it may not suit the goal then, you’re still building that foundation, at least from what we can see now in hindsight is to where you are now.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah, for sure. Definitely was. But probably the biggest important thing was the economics, right? It’s like I can’t build a freaking chart or graph to save my life nowadays, right? Because I haven’t used it in so long, right? But the fundamentals of economics is what led me to the success I am today, right? Because I always think of things from a supply and demand perspective. I was never trying to do things in oversaturated markets. I knew how to get my proper price points, right? To figure out… Because the thing about it is I mean, the logic doesn’t even make sense of how I do business. I avoid comic bookshops as a comic book publisher, right? I avoid them like the plague. Don’t market to them. Nothing I care about that.

Manuel Godoy:
That right there is a conundrum unless I have some kind of evidence behind it, right? It makes no sense if I’m doing that from an outside perspective, but that’s what I do. I have the most expensive books in the black community. My books are just straight up more expensive than everybody else’s by far, yet I sell 10 times more than the next person up. So I sell more units than everybody else while also having the most expensive books. And these are all decisions that I’ve come to based on the actual field. For me, from the economics perspective of this community is that black people have no problem supporting things that matter to them. So that part of it is people think that black people are all poor, and it’s not true at all. There’s a whole bunch of wealth in our community and they buy very expensive things for their families. When they do it, it’s to make sure that their kids have a great upbringing, right? That they have a legacy built for them and everything else.

Manuel Godoy:
So what we’re providing for them is really high luxury products that they can be proud of, both the parents and the kids, and we could price it out to match that and they have no problem with that. And it kind of reminds me of I don’t know if you’ve had time in New York, but there’s a restaurant in Jamaica, Queens called Margaritas Pizza. Their cheese slice is like $3.50 for a slice of cheese. Everyone around them in the entire area has dollar slices. They’re like, “Hey, these poor black people, they can’t buy anything. This is a poor community.” Whatever, right? The one place that always has a line out the door with all the black people is the one that sells for 3.50 and everybody else won’t listen to the evidence. They won’t see the evidence saying, “Just make a superior product, that people will support you.” They don’t see that. All they simply do is just focus on their preconceived notions of what is the proper thing for the market.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s an interesting word that you used as you were describing that, that I’d like you to maybe talk about a little bit more, just in terms of how you’re viewing your product in the market. You said luxury, which I don’t think when people hear about comics or really anything like of this sort of caliber in this realm, they don’t really think about luxury.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m just curious. Talk about that a little bit more.

Manuel Godoy:
I’ll expand on that. I’m sorry. I just saw something from my wife.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Manuel Godoy:
Basically, what I mean by luxury is at the end of the day, we do hard cover. We do hard cover anthologies of our books. They are library-bound. So in other words, you can’t break them apart if you wanted. It’s really tough to damage to them permanently, which is great, right? Especially if you give it to younger kids. They’re so easy to destroy things. The paper quality is very thick, so it’s very hard to crease. Even if you’re turning the pages like a crazy man, you won’t crease the pages. The art style is absolutely phenomenal, and that’s across the board in our entire company. You look at all the titles and you’ll be like, “Wow, these are all super high level professional stuff,” right? Basically we’re like Shōnen Jump. Shōnen Jump is basically the elites of Japanese Manga, right? If you’re in Shōnen Jump, you’re not going to be a bum. You’re not going to have basic stuff. You’re going to have the best content in the entire Japanese market. And that’s basically what we’re doing with our brand. And we price ourselves as such. We’re the best.

Manuel Godoy:
So people, they price what they think they should be at. I see people making comics for $5. $5 to sell a book for $5, because that’s what the comic bookshop does. But I’m like, “Our customers don’t shop at comic shops.” The overwhelming majority black consumers don’t shop at comic bookshops. They start at Target or whatever. $10 book is normal to them. $20 hard cover is normal to them.

Maurice Cherry:
I know you just said earlier, you were like, “I don’t go to comic shops.” You avoid comic shops. And I would imagine part of that reason is because of what you just said, that’s not where your target market is going to be. But then also I would imagine talking to those comic shops, that’s probably what some other publishers would do just in terms of just trying to get their books on the shelves.

Manuel Godoy:
Absolutely. That’s their only way of knowing how to sell, right? That’s the thing, they just don’t know how to sell any other way. So they use the traditional means to sell. And the thing about it is you got to deal with pricing and stuff, right? Why should they buy Black Sands for $10 when they could buy Black Panther for four? And I’m like, “Because Black Panther is not about history, how about that?” But they still… There’s that preconceived notion of what the market is. Why should you worry about a middle man when you could do it yourself? Just cut the middle man out because they’re already out of touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Did your time in the army help influence you when it came to just the idea of building Black Sands Entertainment?

Manuel Godoy:
Mostly the management side. So I’m a big believer in having subject matter experts, people who actually know what they’re doing and can handle operations without my guidance. So over time I’ve gotten employees or officers that really knew how to take things on without my help while I just do minimal amount of information to get the product done. And that has significantly helped us to scale compared to other people.

Manuel Godoy:
We’re very hands off in productions, and the people who are in charge, they know what they’re doing. They have a lot of skin in the game, and as a result, they really know what they’re doing. They learn the principles of management through me. And I might help in the initial recruitment of their team, but once that’s it, all I got to do is cut some checks and comics come out. I don’t want to have to think about what they’re doing. As long as our standards are up-to-date, right? But I’m not trying to figure out their story. If the fans like it, good. That’s all I care about, right? I’m not here like, “Well, I don’t think this story should go this way.” That is not my responsibility. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think also like you said with the number of titles that you have and that they focus even on different cultures and stuff, and forgive me for this reference, but you can’t Tyler Perry it where you’re like, your name is over the whole thing and you’re overseeing and micromanaging every part of the production.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah, you can’t do that. You got to let people do what they want. Just as long as they’re in the ballpark, you’re good to go. Because at the end of the day, this field is completely open, so it’s not like you have to be super freaking precise, right? You just make good stories. For instance, I’ll give you some examples. Grenada’s Shadow, that’s our Moorish title that’s coming out very soon in the next month or so. It’s already done. And that one is about an assassin who’s a Moor, who’s basically trying to undermine the Crusaders. When Spain was basically… When basically European powers and the Pope specifically was trying to take back Spain from Moorish occupation, which has gone on for 400 years. So this guy who got killed by… His whole village and stuff got killed by Crusaders is now an assassin taking out really high level leaders of the Crusaders. It’s dope. It’s a dope story, and it’s very different from what you would normally expect when people make these titles, right? No superhero powers, nothing, just straight up Assassins Creed type joint.

Manuel Godoy:
We have Lion’s Game: Masters of Mali, where it’s a martial arts tournament in ancient Mali. We have all these fighters from all across Africa coming together to fight in the capital. And one of the fighters is somebody who was the great grandson of a previous Mansa who was basically assassinated and usurped. So he has a legacy he’s trying to reclaim in secret, so he joins this martial arts tournament. And it’s crazy, it’s like one of those… It’s just like Baki or something like that. It’s really freaking hardcore, hyper masculine, martial arts tournament type stuff. And it’s a different vibe, but it’s still the same thing. We’re showing culture. We’re putting stories that will be dope in modern day settings and just putting it in an ancient culture. So you can always have a good connection to great ancient civilizations prior to slavery. That idea that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Everybody in America says that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Whenever we have any type of adversity. “Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Where’s our Rome?

Maurice Cherry:
Of the titles that you have now, is there one that really stands out to you as a favorite?

Manuel Godoy:
Out of the ones that are not made by me, right? I would say Lion’s Game is probably my favorite just because the story is crazy, first of all. You’re going to have a lot of martial artists from all across Africa, with their own cultures, their own martial art style that’s real. And a lot of characters that people may have never known before, but actually were real people in the old times. It’s just culturally fun. I mean, it’s just culturally amazing and while still being a hit for the parent, for the fathers specifically. This is not a title for the kids. They’ll probably watch it. The teens will probably watch it anyway, but the parents, specifically the dads, them 30 to 40 year old dads are going to be like, “This is the best comic I’ve ever read in my life.” It’s going to have that vibe.

Manuel Godoy:
Super hyper masculine, forget your feelings. This is raw. And we haven’t done any titles like that at Black Sands, but this is one that I felt like it would definitely work. And even though it’s written by Kevin Brown, it was originally my idea because what I do is I do competitions in my Patreon community and I have like a topic. I’m like, “This kind of topic would really sell well to my fans.” I automatically know what kind of topic it is. And I’m like, “Who’s going to give the best possible pitch for this story?” And then I judge them and I say, “The one that does the best, who has the best possible pitch, they’re given an opportunity to get published by us, and we do everything,” right? We mentor them. We get them the artists. We pay for their production. We give them royalties on the book sales.

Manuel Godoy:
They’re starting their career on the Black Sands all because they won a competition. But the competition has 100, 200 applicants. So it’s not like they’re just a random guy with an idea. They had to beat out a whole bunch of other people who had the same marching orders. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
So this story was heavily curated before it ever got a chance to start being written and this guy killed it. So I was like, “Yeah, this one right here has super longevity. This one is probably going to get to screen very fast in the future after comic books come out. I think this one’s going to be very quickly picked up as a, either a live action or a show of some sort, because it’s never been done. It’s perfect for the time we’re in now. The Bakis, the Syngins and all these other martial arts tournament type shows are very in right now. So this is going to fit perfectly.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me some more about this Patreon community. How did that come about?

Manuel Godoy:
Well, it’s always been something that we’ve always had. A large community. Our community wasn’t that big, maybe two years ago, but once we started raising capital, it ballooned out of control like really big. The way we give back to the community, besides the comic books that we make and stuff like that is we give them opportunities. Opportunities is what we do. So voice acting opportunities, publishing deals through competitions. They do a competition, they get in there. Early access to investment rounds, so when we do our investment rounds. Patreons and the previous investors always get two weeks or more of the exclusivity where they get to buy up as much stock as they want before we open it up to the public. And that can make a huge difference in the world when we have early bird specials.

Manuel Godoy:
Most of our Patreons are actually investors already, so they have stock. They get a 10% discount on their stock. So if you were investing $5,000, you got $500 worth of stock for free. So it makes a huge difference if you’re on the higher side of investors. If you’re investing $100, it ain’t going to matter much if you get early access or not. But when you’re investing thousands, it matters a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
And so that’s been the huge reason why people join us. The future opportunities that we give them is like the call. And usually what happens is when we’re raising capital, we have a downtick, so we lose a lot of Patreons over time when we’re at raising capital. And then when we’re no longer raising capital, and now we’re preparing for the next round, we drastically increase in Patreons. So it’s like a huge ebb and flow. Everybody’s basically flowing into the investment round, the one that wants that’s done. Everybody who didn’t make it into that investment round is like, “Dang, I can’t miss the next one.” So they start flowing back into the Patreon, right? It’s like it’s just the way the ebb and flow of the Patreon community is now.

Manuel Godoy:
So right now we’re about 1,500 members in and we have over 20,000 a month in donations. So it’s pretty big. It’s a pretty big community, much bigger than other people for the same amount of Patreons. If you go on the website, Grafion, you’ll see that in our category, most people’s average pledge is 2.50, something like that. $2.50. Our average pledge is about $14. While we might have much less subscribers than some people on the list, we still collect way more than them, even though they’re higher on the list, just because our community is in. They’re like super in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay, so you built this on Patreon. Okay, I was trying to… As you were sort of mentioning that, I was like, “What platform are you using?” But you’re using Patreon. Okay. All right. Yeah, Patreon has been, I think really for a lot of artists and creators, Patreon has been a pretty good platform for them to be able to at least have those kinds of different tiers and things like that. But if you’re bringing in that much per pledge, that’s great. That’s great. I had Revision Path on Patreon for years and it was not that good. We ended up getting off of there, but –

Manuel Godoy:
The main thing about growth of Patreons is it’s not a monthly thing. I think the whole preconception of Patreon is bad because it messes up the way people should be strategizing growing Patreon communities, right? It’s all about opportunities. So in other words, let’s say you’re a video game… Video game companies do great on Patreon. One, here’s why. They get betas. Betas all the time, right? Beta access. “Hey, this is what we developed this week. Download it.” Boom. But two, “Oh, you want to be a side character. You want to write a line for certain characters who’s a side character in the story. You want to write a paragraph, right? Submit your stuff.”

Manuel Godoy:
People are getting opportunities to be a part of the production all the time, which is why those communities grow so fast, because they’re saying, “Hey, next week we’re going to be getting some designs. We’re going to put some Patreons in the community into the game. If you’re active at this date, you’ll be able to apply.” And then people flood in, right? Because they want their opportunity to shine. Or, “We’re about to have voice acting for our thing. We’re about to do some casting. It’s going to start on January 1st. So if you’re a Patreon on January 1st, you’ll be able to apply,” right? Don’t even do no open casting, just straight up only Patreon casting. Boom, hundreds of people sign up.

Manuel Godoy:
This is the way to get… Converting people to sign up on Patreon is super freaking hard. So you got to give them a very high incentive to do the first month. They’ll stick around. About 60% of all the people who sign up for some kind of special event even if they don’t make it. About 60% will stay long term. So 40% will die off pretty quickly when they don’t get the job or whatever the heck opportunity is happening. But about 60% will stay because they see that there’s always a new opportunity is coming eventually.

Manuel Godoy:
That’s the idea. Pump and… It’s not pump and dump. It’s pump and freaking like pump and hold. There you go. Pump and hold, right? It’s like you try to hold on to as many people as you can after you pump it. And then the next pump, you got to get another push. It’s never monthly. Some months I’ll just lose 50 Patreons and I won’t gain a single Patreon that month. It’ll be a net negative 50. So I’ll gain Patreons, but it’s not at the rate to replenish the people that left. So I’ll have negative 50 on that month. And then some months I’ll have 400 new Patreons.

Maurice Cherry:
So that’s a nice, I mean, for folks that are listening, hell, for me too, that’s a nice lesson on how to man manage doing some sort of like a Patreon type of a community like that, if you’re using Patreon. But no, that’s good information to know. I mean, I think certainly, you mentioned having this background in economics, that’s probably something a lot of independent creators don’t have when it comes to approaching the mechanics of how you build equity and build money for the company in order to do the kind of things you want to do.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. I just don’t think people understand that. I mean, they don’t even take the examples that are clearly in their face. Netflix doesn’t get subscribers by having a whole bunch of shows they can watch. Netflix gets subscribers because Squid Game is the number one talked about series in the country and it just came out. Because Bird Box is the number one story in the country right now and people want to see it and they can only see it through Netflix, so they sign up and that’s the first time they ever sign up and then they might stick around. You understand? But they got to have some big win to get people to sign up because people aren’t just signing up. They aren’t signing up because they have a service, right? They’re signing up because of a specific thing they absolutely have to see. And then they’re like, “Eh, might as well stick around.” You know what I’m saying?

Manuel Godoy:
So, but people don’t look at that and say, “That’s the business model for subscriptions.” It’s what’s going to get people to sign up? World of Warcraft spends $100 million on just expansions because they have to get those people who might have lapsed, those people who are not subscribing to resubscribe or become a new subscriber. They got to have some big, giant ridiculous event. They can’t just be, “Hey, we’re the number one freaking MMO in the world.” That’s not good enough to get new subscribers. It’s good enough to keep them, but it’s not good enough to get them. You know what I’m saying? So you got to have big, over the top things in order to get people to be motivated to subscribe, because subscription is the most difficult purchase in the world. They’re in a contract. So it’s not like, “Hey, I just bought some food, right? People have no problem giving you a $100, right? But if you said, “Hey, just give me $15 a month, they’re like, “Ooh, wait. Whoa.”

Maurice Cherry:
That is the truth. That is the truth. Absolutely.

Manuel Godoy:
They’re like, “Wait a minute, a month? Can’t I just give you a $100?” They’re like, “Yeah, but it’s going to take you seven months, eight months to…” “Yeah, but 15 a month though, I don’t know.”

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about Shark Tank because you did mention at the top of the show, starting off the year with the Shark Tank appearance. Please, I want to know how did it come about? What was it like facing Kevin Hart? Tell me all about it.

Manuel Godoy:
He’s brutal, man. He’s brutal. He’s a lot taller in real life, and I don’t mean height. He’s a very dominant dude. And that fight went on a lot longer than what y’all saw. People were like, “Man, you should have countered for this.” I did. I did. I did. There was other offers on the table. But at the end of the day, Kevin Hart knew he had veto power. He just knew it, right? It’s one thing about you got to know who you are and what you’re worth. So he knew he had veto power, right? And even the other Sharks admitted it too during the debate.

Manuel Godoy:
Like for instance, Kevin O’Leary, he accepted my counter. He said 10% and a 25 cent royalty on books. He was like, “I’ll take that deal for 500,000.” He was like, “I’ll take that deal.” But he understood that the more we talk is like Kevin Hart is Kevin Hart. He’s saying he’s going to make this show. If he’s saying he’s going to give you this, that and the other, that’s not a normal resource that you’ll ever get. That’s like you’re saying this and he said… That’s a lot different from what… That 30% you’re paying, you’re not giving up 25% equity for $500,000. That’s not what you’re doing. You’re not giving up more, 25% more equity than you came in for, right? For the money. The money doesn’t matter at all. In fact, you didn’t even need the money. The reality was you were doing that for Kevin Hart’s specific direct involvement in all of your productions from now until the end of time, and that’s a very strong person. Plus mark Cuban, right?

Manuel Godoy:
Plus mark Cuban and his resources. But specifically Kevin Hart, who’s like a top five paid actor in the world, like independent productions and businesses that he’s just straight up done himself who understands the idea of owning as opposed to, “Hey, let’s give this to Hollywood and have them make a show.” He’s like he doesn’t believe that. He believes in owning. He’s already done all that. It’s time for him to own it himself. So this is huge when it comes to what it means on the deal side. So a lot of people look at it, they just think 25%, you got robbed. And you’re like, “Do you know how much it costs for Kevin Hart to endorse your company?”

Maurice Cherry:
Right?

Manuel Godoy:
“The real dollar implications of that endorsement.” He said, and then Chase’s like, “Hey, check out the new card,” right? When Kevin Hart does the commercial, that’s $3 million minimum. That’s $3 million minimum for, to use a commercial with Kevin Hart doing it. That super bowl commercial probably cost them $10 million minimum. It was like a 30 second commercial, right? It is like that is the reality of just the endorsement side. Not even his actual real like work. His real actual involvement in productions. So the implications is way more than 25% is what I bought.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have things changed since the Shark Tank appearance?

Manuel Godoy:
Well, one, we’re getting a lot more publicity. We’re getting our verifications and stuff like that. We’re starting to get that. Sales has jumped. We still haven’t gone public with the deal yet just because we’re still negotiating. But we’re about done. We’re very close to making announcements on our actual go-to-market strategy. But once that happens, that’s when the stuff will really hit the fan. We have a huge amount of major press things happening right now, so that’s going to be coming out for the next two weeks. We’re going to have stuff like that happening. So it’s going to be huge rolling success. The idea is don’t lose your 15 minutes of fame. He is like, “Get on it and keep getting the press. Keep getting the things. Keep staying in front of the camera as much as you can in order to stay relevant. Be the top story.”

Manuel Godoy:
So that’s what we’re doing. We’re lucky that we’re still capable of doing that even though a lot of other Shark Tank companies don’t have this kind of follow up, right? They don’t get on the big major shows or anything like that. So the fact that we are is freaking huge for us. We’re doing that before Kevin Hart says, “Man, Black Sands is like the best thing ever. We’re about to make billions,” right? Once he starts saying that publicly, that’s when it really will start becoming like an unstoppable force. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Because you’ll have that endorsement and then coming from him like that, a lot of other people are just going to check it out from there.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. Not just an endorsement, but big money people will start gravitating towards you. Not everything has to be made by us. Black Sands is clearly going to be made by us. We want to control it and we want to own everything of it, right? But there’s some titles that we just don’t have the manpower for, but we don’t want to stop these creators who are under our brand from having their own shows. So we might have more traditional deals out there for some other IPs in our company, which makes like three, four, five, six different shows all being under direct development at the same time, all because of Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions and everything else. So that’s the crazy thing about it, right? Is this is about to be a black Renaissance when it comes to content and ownership because I have investors, regular small investors.

Manuel Godoy:
And this is the thing I always tell people too, if we get to a billion dollar valuation in say five years, which isn’t impossible, it’s not impossible at all. Two seasons of Black Sands would’ve already came out. Licensing and merchandising deals with Walmart and everything else would’ve already probably happened by then. And these are like really big licensing deals.

Manuel Godoy:
So if this is already happening within five years and we get to a billion dollar market cap, right? And go IPO. Somebody who invested $5,000 at my $5 million valuation back in 2020, they’ve maxed out, that was the max that the government said they could do, because they’re unaccredited. So they $5,000, the max you can give. And they gave 5,000 because they just were hardcore believing in Black Sands. They’ll be able to flip that 5,000 for a million dollars, 200 times return because that’s the valuation we’re at now. We’re at a million dollar market… I mean a billion dollar market cap, and they invested at five million, they basically are getting 200X roughly around there if they sell their shares. That’s huge, that’s real generational wealth. And there’s a lot of people who did it. There’s a lot of people who invested at the max in the first round.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the toughest thing that you’ve had to deal with since starting all of this?

Manuel Godoy:
Fighting my own personal frustrations not blowing up. I mean, online, they see my bravado, right? And my toughness, but I hold a lot back. I hold a lot of my hating back. I’m a huge hater, right? I just don’t let problem go. But I believe if you’re not a hater, you ain’t really… You don’t really care about life. You got to be mad when somebody else gets an achievement that you didn’t get, especially if you’ve done more than them. So I’m a huge freaking hater. Holding that energy back, not to disparaging other colleagues, even though I know that their claim is completely bogus or their achievements should have been my achievements, I should have been on certain list or whatever. That was the thing that I felt was the hardest thing to do over this entire time. Because you can really make yourself as this super negative force in this space if you wear your emotions on your chest. And I try to, even though people see me all the time bashing Hollywood. Hollywood’s not a person, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Manuel Godoy:
I used to always articulate things to not make it personal, not try to burn any specific bridge. So if you still were hurt by what I was saying, the main thing was you probably were somebody that I didn’t want to be in colleagues… I mean ever work with in the first place because you’re one of those people. So that was the hardest thing, controlling that, because like I said, we’ve probably been the best independent publisher for three years now, yet we were never on a top 10 indie black mangas or indie black comics you need to read, right? We never got any kind of accolades or something like that, regardless of what the numbers said. They just didn’t care. They didn’t like any research. You Google black comic books, you’d find us. So how the hell did you avoid us?

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll tell you because I’ve been doing this now with Revision Path for nine years, and I share that frustration that you’re talking about with you put in all this work and you don’t feel like sometimes everyone sort of recognizes that or gives you the credit that you feel you deserve for it. That’s just, I mean, unfortunately that’s just the media. The media’s always going to glam on to whatever the newest thing is, whether you’ve been in… Especially like if you’ve been doing this for a while and you have longevity, they really only care about the new stuff. They’re like, “What’s the new thing that’s coming out? What is it that is keeping you motivated to continue? I feel like I might know the answer to this question, but I’d love to hear you sort of. Where does this drive come from?

Manuel Godoy:
I just want to see Rome burn. Like that’s it. I just want to see Rome burn to the ground. I’m Hannibal at the gates. I always think of that whenever I think of what my mission is. I’m not here to be successful. I’m not here to tell my great story. People always trying to make it so indifferent. “Oh, I’m just trying to tell a great story. I just want to be a creative person. I love this and I’m so humble.” No, I want to see Rome burn to the ground and that means we have to have absolute veto power and control over our own stories. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to stop Hollywood from dictating what is acceptable black history, because we don’t need 10 new black slave and civil rights stories a year. I don’t need to see the new ways of lynching people like, “Oh man, I just need to see that. I need to see a new way.”

Manuel Godoy:
“Oh, we’re about do a Emmett Till documentary.” “Yeah, I definitely want to see Emmett Till die again. That would be great.” “Oh, you know what? You know what? This black history we’re deciding we’re going to talk about the Black Wall Street Massacre. Yeah, we’re going to do a whole series on the Black Wall Street Massacre.” I said, “How about do a series on Black Wall Street before the massacre? How about that?” It was like but we don’t control the budget. We don’t control the means. We don’t control any of it. So if we don’t take that control and show that we can actually do numbers with that control, then they will always be able to dictate what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable for black people to consume. And I’m tired of it. I want to see that entire infrastructure burn to the ground. And the only way that’s possible is if we dominate this space and be complete tyrants once we get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that influence you?

Manuel Godoy:
There’s three, right? And I said this in a previous interview. There’s three that influenced me. You’d be surprised, one of them was Kevin Hart, which was kind of ironic. Tyler Perry and George Lucas. Those three people. What I respect is not success. I don’t care about success, because you can be successful and a complete tool at the same time. Your whole career can be canceled out. Everything could happen overnight because you are still a product of the system. So boldness is the stuff that I respect more than anything. People who’ve risked a lot in order to be successful.

Manuel Godoy:
For George Lucas, it was holding onto his IP rights, making moves to make sure that he never lost them. Over decades of freaking negotiating with Hollywood elites and stuff like that, he was like, “No, I’m not giving up these rights no matter how much y’all pay me.” And that made him the only billionaire who wrote a story. There is no other billionaire who wrote a story in the world. Period. Everybody who’s written a story don’t even have $100 million to their name. The creator of Naruto, Kishimoto, he’s worth $40 million today. If you believe the highest estimates of his net worth. But the man’s IP: Naruto, has brought in $15 billion, so he is not even worth 1% of his brand. Stan Lee died with less than 1% of Marvel’s brand.

Manuel Godoy:
This is the reality of all these people. They simply they’re considered successes by the world’s standards, but at the end of the day, they got robbed. They made everything. They worked nonstop for their entire lives and they didn’t even have 1% of the thing that they created. And only George Lucas was the one that ran the table. He basically kept 50% of everything Star Wars ever made. And that’s power.

Manuel Godoy:
Tyler Perry, everybody hates him in the industry because he’s going to make his stories whether you like it or not. You can say, “Am I a fan of Tyler Perry’s movies?” Eh, sometimes. For the most part it doesn’t really matter what I think. All I know is if Tyler Perry feels like making a movie, he’s going to do it. You can invest. If you don’t, he’s going to make it anyway and release it right on your freaking network whether you like it or not. He’s going to do whatever the heck he feels like. He’s going to cast whoever he feels like. He’s going to buy whatever he feels like, and you can’t stop him. And the reason why you can’t stop him is because he did all this. He was rich before you ever met him. Before Hollywood ever gave him a chance, his shows were already generating millions of dollars locally through the fans.

Manuel Godoy:
Build the infrastructure, and then these people in Hollywood can’t dictate nothing to you. When they were like, “We want to buy Madea.” They were like, “No. You can fund some of it, but you ain’t owning Madea whether you like it… I’m just not giving it to you. I don’t care what you offer me. I already make millions of dollars.” That’s the grind. And Kevin Hart, he said, “Why the hell am I going to get less than 5% of a tour or 3% of a tour or 3% of a tour’s proceeds if I’m the fucking main attraction. If the tickets are being sold because of me, why do I get only 3% of the total amount of money? Everybody else is making money off of me. So how about I pay for everything? I hire everyone. I get the venues. I do the marketing. And then if I sell out, I keep freaking 80% of everything made.”

Manuel Godoy:
He went into massive millions and millions of dollars up front. You can’t do that stuff after the show is already done. You got to book tours half a year in advance. So he had to go real deep into the red before his first show. So that’s power to me to make plays like that and just trust it. Say, I trust myself to make this happen. I believe my fans truly believe in what I’m doing. And I’m going to finally flip this industry. I’m not going to be an actor for the rest of my life. I’m not going to let people dictate my career and if they feel slightly offended by what I did, they can cancel out my entire career. You can’t cancel them now. You can’t cancel Tyler Perry. You damn sure can’t cancel George Lucas. You can’t cancel them no matter how much you care, you can’t do nothing to stop them. And that’s the people that I really respect, people who have done enough, built enough of their own fan base that they cannot be stopped by conventional means. You can’t stop them.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Where do you want Black Sands Entertainment to be? Where do you want to be personally as a business owner? Talk to me about that.

Manuel Godoy:
Well, I just want to be in the top 10 animes in the world, period. So top 10 animes in the world for Black Sands, maybe some video games down under our belt as well. But the idea is if that happens, we’re basically going to dominate the entire space, right? Because we’re independent and that’s never happened before. It’s never happened before. An independent production get into the top 10 in the world and do massive licensing and merchandising. It’s never happened. And when I prove that model, it proves that black consumers are no longer something that can be measured by Hollywood, because they’ve never seen it before. They’ve never seen somebody just do it without any of the metrics they normally would use. And that is where I would like to be. I would like to just be a king maker in this space, I decide what’s hot, what’s not.

Manuel Godoy:
And because of that, they all have to work with us. Not just me, but all the other creators under my umbrella and give us the best possible deals or they don’t work with us, period. Because we’re just automatically the king makers in this space. If you want to do anything in this space, you have to come through us, right? So that’s the idea of what I want the company’s position to be in, right? That’s the idea of where I want Black Sands, the anime to be in, right? And for me, I’d like to relax a little bit in five years. Probably can’t but it’s very intense right now.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds intense. Yeah.

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. But for me, I’m in my Thanos mode right now, right? I’m trying to get the stones. I’m trying to get the stones and I don’t care who I got to crush to do it, right? I just can’t wait for the day when I finally rest. “He’s done what he was supposed to do. It’s now broken. The system is broken.”

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

Manuel Godoy:
Yeah. So follow us on all platforms: black Sands Entertainment. Manuel Godoy on LinkedIn if you want to work with me. Blacksands.com is my store, right? So you want to buy some books, go ahead and get them from there. BSP Comics is my app. So you can download a whole bunch of freaking black comic books there. You don’t actually have to download it. It’s server side. So it’s about 70 megabytes for the app. So you don’t have to worry about that. It’s 45 different titles from all types of creators. Really cool stuff. And lastly, if you want to be an investor. Investor round is over. We just raised a million dollars for BSP Comics. Our next investment round is for the Black Sands Anime. In order to participate, it’s probably best that you just sign up for Patreon at patreon.com/blacksands, because they’re going to be the first investors. And that investment round should happen in the summer. So there you go.

Maurice Cherry:
Manuel Godoy, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean your passion and your drive behind what you’re doing with Black Sands Entertainment is super infectious. I’m hyped up just listening to you talk about this. This just felt like a masterclass in how to build an empire. So I hope for people that are listening, they definitely will check it out and will get behind you. I mean, it sounds like you already have a very strong community behind what you’re doing, and I hope that with what we’re doing here with Revision Path by having you tell your story, we can get this out to even more people. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Manuel Godoy:
Thank you. Appreciate it, man.

Zariah Cameron

September means it’s time for back to school, so what better way to kick off the month here on Revision Path than by talking with a design student? Meet Zariah Cameron, a soon-to-be graduate of North Carolina A&T and an up-and-coming voice in the design industry.

We talked about going through her senior year and working as an intern during this pandemic, and we also spoke about the AEI Design Program, an initiative she started to foster and establish relationships with partner companies to create a pipeline for Black college students. Zariah also shared some of her future goals, current obsessions, and what she’s learned from her internships throughout college. Keep an eye out for this young designer — she’s definitely going places!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Zariah Cameron:
Hi everyone. My name is Zariah Cameron. I am a senior graphic design student at North Carolina A&T State University. Within the past two years, I’ve been independently studying UX design, which is now the space that I’m in. And I’m now evolving into a UX equity strategist. It’s now my evolving role.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the summer been going for you?

Zariah Cameron:
This particular summer is definitely been an unexpected turn of events in the best of ways I could say. Of course, just the opportunities of being able to speak and be in spaces where I definitely feel supported by my black community, specifically Black Designers has been great, but it has been hectic. I’ve been working my internship as a UX designer and then preparing for my last semester of school and just with my program and all the things we’re gearing up for. So it’s been a very busy summer. I’m trying to find ways to prevent burnout and exhaustion, especially again in the middle of pandemic. I’m currently home. I haven’t really gone anywhere in a year and a half, so I think that mental exhaustion is hitting me a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. This whole year, I mean, especially I think this summer in particular, it is probably harder than last summer, well for two reasons. One, we have a vaccine. And two, people aren’t taking it. COVID rates are going back up. And so, I really feel for, I mean, not just parents right now that have unvaccinated children, but also students right now. This is such a pivotal time in your development right now, from 18 to 21, 22-ish, you don’t really get this time back. And for it to be take in place during such a very stressful time in the world right now is really tough. But I mean, given all of that, what are you kind of doing for self care? How are you maintaining yourself while taking on all these responsibilities?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I feel like I always tell people sometimes it’s not enough time in the day, but I’ve been trying to force myself to implement that time and schedule that time because for a lot of people that do know me, I am a scheduler. If it’s not on my calendar, it pretty much doesn’t happen. So I’ve been trying to schedule in that time, whether it be through writing, whether it be through even binge watching. Just to have some mindless TV to just get my mind away from all the other responsibilities that I have. Going outside for a walk. I love hiking and going in nature whenever I can. And also, just journaling has been another way of me kind of releasing and relaxing from everything.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve changed over the past year?

Zariah Cameron:
Gosh, I’ve changed a lot, but I really didn’t think that I’d change within a year being in the same exact place that I have been since March of 2020. But it’s surprising what a year will do. And within a year, I feel like I’ve gained so much confidence within myself and been able to really vocalize a lot of the things that I was maybe apprehensive or scared or anxious to express, whether it was me as an individual designer, as a person, as a community leader now. Those types of roles, I never really saw myself being a part of a year ago. And now, I’m leading the community. I’m advocating for other black design students. I’m being able to speak on that work through various different speaking engagements, which, one, I never at all saw myself as being that person to kind of go up and speak. But now I’ve just definitely seen myself evolved with being more authentically myself and being able to be comfortable doing that even if other people may have their own negative opinions towards that, and also being okay with that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, speaking of opportunities, you spoke at this year at Where are the Black Designers Conference that they had back in June. I mean, that was a pretty stacked panel that you were on. The panel was called Navigating Different Design Professions and Levels as a Black Designer. And you’re on there with people that have been on Revision Path before; Kevin Bethune, Timothy Bardlavens, Gabrielle Smith, Raja Schaar, who I think is a professor at… I think she’s at either at Temple or Drexel.

Zariah Cameron:
Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the two. I get the-

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, at Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
At Drexel. I get the E in Temple and Drexel mixed up, but yeah, she’s at Drexel. And then moderated by Omari Souza, who someone else has been on the show. I mean, you held your own in that panel. Those were some really heavy hitters. I mean, to be able to really speak about the work that you’re doing and you’re still a college student is great. I mean, I think that’s wonderful.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. One, they’re all amazing people. Raja, I’m very close with. And so, to just be on the panel with her was just amazing, and just having that community. And I tell people being able to speak at the Where are the Black Designers Conference was really a full circle for me because I was an audience member just last year watching that. And so to be able to have that opportunity to speak on that panel and speak about my experiences was definitely an honor.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned this internship that you were doing, or you just finished up. That was at Ally Bank. How was that experience?

Zariah Cameron:
It’s definitely a surprising experience. I did not know what to expect. I mean, I had gotten accustomed to… Well, I got a feel for the culture of the company with a few of events that I had been able to participate through my university and just Ally being a connected company. But I really didn’t know how that experience was going to be virtually. And from my past experiences, I kind of mixed the idea of interning or working at another financial institution. And so, I really wasn’t sure what this experience would be like.

Zariah Cameron:
I had expressed to my recruiter before I even accepted the offer and even when I accepted the offer that I really want to focus on inclusion work, equity work within the design space. Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to do that in a bank and what that would even look like, but I definitely had a really good experience and just being able to not only connect with other interns that look like me, that went to other HBCUs and even non-HBCU students and just the closest we had together in that virtual space, but also having like, I realized how important it is to have a manager that really supports you in your growth and your goals. And so I was very grateful to have a manager that did that. He kind of helped me to maneuver through that summer. And through that, I was able to get connected to this inclusive design team that was actually just starting up within our design organization.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, being able to be a part of that and lead a lot of discussions that I believe needed to happen, it allowed me to kind of realize or see what role I fit best within design, and also to see the importance of how design fits into helping marginalized communities reach that economic mobility and financial freedom. And so, it was definitely a great moment for me, and also just to have people that were supportive with me during that process too.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how financial institutions are starting to become sort of the vanguard of that kind of equity center design. We’ve had several people on the show before from Capital One. That’s such a huge part of their design ethos, is making sure that as you’re saying about underrepresented or marginalized communities have that financial freedom, but just the level of care that they put into all of their interactions to make sure that equity is part of the goal from conversation design, to even how they sort of lay out the physical layout of their banks and everything. It’s really interesting how that sector has been sort of a forefront when it comes to that.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I definitely agree. I think I was able to see that from a financial lens and being able to have those conversations of like, “Hey, we really need to focus on the culture of our customers and focusing on working with our communities” and being able to provide this assistance, or, “Who are we actually excluding in these conversations?” and uncovering what our biases are or our assumptions are of our customers, or even people who could be potential customers of our bank and being able to create that organic relationship because we are an online bank. And so we have to be able to foster some type of connection to them, especially if we’re not going to be face-to-face.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, look, my money is at Ally. So I trust that they’re doing the right thing. They’re doing something right. Let’s talk about the AEI Design Program. I first heard of this actually at the Where are the Black Designers Conference this year when you were speaking about it. But tell me more about the project. I mean, you started this while you were still a student. I mean, you’re still a student now, but you started this while you were at North Carolina A&T, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I started this right after actually Where are the Black Designers last year, and I was just very empowered and inspired by [inaudible 00:13:45]. I was able to connect with so many different black designers and have that support in that community. But unfortunately, I realized that a lot of what I was seeing, they were professionals. And I wanted something where there was a space just for us as students. Looking at my own journey, I realized that there were so many gaps that I was missing, and not just within my own education, but just the support whether it be mentorship, sponsorship, things like that, that were hindering me from really fully being successful or having access to certain resources or just knowledge in general that would help me get myself in that door of even just landing my first internship.

Zariah Cameron:
I realized there was a lot of other students, whether they went to a PWI or an HBCU, were experiencing those same challenges and they really didn’t have any type of community. No matter where they were, they didn’t feel any sense of belonging. And I wanted to bring that element to this space. And of course, there are tons of design student communities that were out there, but I wanted there to be a community just for us. And so we’ve evolved. I’ve evolved ever since then. I think AEI has definitely helped me to evolve into a leader that I never expected. I’ve always wanted to be some form of a leader, I just didn’t know what. And being able to have this program outside of just school has allowed me to flourish and have my own space and create a freedom to put all of these things out here with our programs, our events, all those different things. And also to be able to reach a larger audience than just the students that are within my school.

Zariah Cameron:
And so I was leading a team of three other students. And now we’re growing. We just added a few more team members to our group. And so I’m really excited of what we’ll be able to accomplish this upcoming school year too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, as far as when you’re doing all this organizing and you’re getting students and stuff together, are events kind of part of this as well? Are you staging any sort of virtual events?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. All of our events are virtual because I realized, again, there was that access component, and I want students to be able to access us even beyond this pandemic if we get out of it, and just being able to have access to those resources whether you’re in our state, whether you go to our school or you’re not. And that’s what I want to be, provide through this program. Actually, within the next few weeks, we’ll be actually launching our Fall Design Bootcamp where students will be able to work with our company partners and create a design solution based on their stated problem. And so I’m really excited for this because it not only gives an opportunity for students to connect with each other, with other black students, but also for them to connect with companies and for them to see firsthand on a more personal level of how these companies operate, what their processes are like, and to ask those hard questions and for the companies to just see that talent that’s there. So I’m really excited for this, in particular for this year.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you like to see AEI continue to grow? I mean, it sounds like you’re already on a good path right now.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I’m really excited. I mean, of course, I’m hoping to have more company partnerships of course. But I mean just this year, this year in January, three or four of my students got landed their very first design internships. I think two of them are at Facebook right now. One of them’s at Spotify, and one of them landed a full time gig at Allscripts. I basically help them to transition through their interview process. And so, to see them land those interviews and land that offer was so thrilling for me. That’s one of my goals that I want to do this school year, as well as to continue to allow students to receive those offers and find a place where they feel comfortable and safe.

Zariah Cameron:
I also want within this next year to transition into our mental health initiative. A lot of students, especially during this pandemic, have definitely had burnout, have had several different experiences where their mental health has been at risk. Especially as a creative, I feel like we sometimes burn ourselves out even more because we’re exhausting so much creative energy. And so, I think one of my goals is to really start implementing different sessions or conversations around the importance of mental health and just finding that joy in our lives as black people and helping to separate ourselves from all the trauma that we have to endure and see and experience. And then I think my final thing is I’m in the process of making us an official nonprofit. So our main goal is the bootcamp, this mental health initiative, and leading into our nonprofit status.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I mean, I’d take my hat off to you for being able to accomplish all of that even while you’re in school and doing these internships. I mean, that’s really admirable. I mean, I have to say you’re getting your career off to such a fantastic start right now, like you said, just helping out with community, it’s one thing to be able… Of course, you’re doing internships and being able to speak and stuff like that, but then to also give back to that community at the same time is, I mean, that’s really admirable.

Zariah Cameron:
Thank you. I definitely appreciate it. I think the reason why I wanted to start this out while I was in school is because I can see it from the lens of the student and I understand what those struggles are and what I’ve experienced. And I’m able to really advocate for what is a need. And not that people who are outside of school or far moved from school can’t advocate for those things, but I think within my current generation and just being within in the know of what really is going on and the realities of these educational institutions, I’m able to really speak on those gaps, those issues, and what solutions need to be implemented to move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Students know what students need, you know? I mean, I couldn’t possibly guess what students now would want. I’m 20 something years removed from that so I couldn’t tell you. I mean, to be able to do it from that perspective is also a really added benefit.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of switch gears a little bit here, because I’m curious where that spirit of volunteerism and everything sort of comes from. Tell me about where you grew up.

Zariah Cameron:
I grew up about… I always say I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, because a lot of people, when you say somewhere else, they’re like, “What? Where are you from?” So I’m about 30 minutes on the south side out from the city of Atlanta.

Zariah Cameron:
Design was never really a thought in my mind, that I would ever major in design. I’ve always seen myself as creative with writing, being an outlet, whether it be poetry, things like that, or even just expressing myself in a lot of different ways, but never really saw myself going into design. Because I was such a strong writer, I actually had in my mind all the way until my senior year that I was going to be a journalism major. That’s what I wanted to do. Everyone was always telling me that I was a strong writer and that was the direction that I was going to take.

Zariah Cameron:
But I was very fortunate enough to have the opportunity, for those that don’t know me, I went to a year-round school. That allowed me to have breaks in between the year when other students were in school. During that time, I was able to be around my dad who works in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. And I was submerged in technology. I was just completely at awe by computer science and how tech was able to just change and impact lives. And through that, just being around there, I was able to work with Black Girls CODE and work with students and teach them and volunteer in those different ways. I think through that, it was like, “Wow, I’ve really liked doing this type of work.” I don’t know how I’m going to do it or what I’m going to do, but I really do like the space. And I also really love working with children and teaching them in some capacity because I love just when their eyes light up when they’ve learned something new, especially when it relates to technology.

Zariah Cameron:
And so at the time, design really wasn’t this great big… Especially UX design, it was not this great big buzz word or exciting space to be in that people were talking about, especially within academia. And so everyone was like, “Okay, if you want to be in technology, go into computer science. That’s the only way. That’s the only possible way you’re going to be in technology if you want to impact tech.” And so I was like, “Okay, well I guess this is the path that I want to go into.” And I always tell this part of the story because I think it’s important for students and anybody else to know and understand the path is not going to be perfect. It’s definitely not going to be linear. And just because you get one rejection doesn’t mean that is end of your journey.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, I applied to our Computer Science Program at my school, and I got rejected. I thought it was the end of the world and that I was not going to be able to make the impact that I wanted. But I’m very glad that I did get that rejection because I don’t think I would be where I am right now in my journey. My school has a Graphic Design department which explores elements of game design and obviously the foundational elements of graphic design. We learn a little bit of CAD and modeling and all these different areas. I decided to kind of go into that space because I’m like, “Okay, well I can go into design, and maybe still somewhat have an impact in technology.” Through that, I was able to transition into UX design very easily through just like me researching, doing things on my own.

Zariah Cameron:
UX design isn’t offered a part of our curriculum. But through that foundation that I did have through my school and just the support of my teachers, specifically my black teachers, they were able to kind of help me and guide me into this new space that I am now in, which is UX design. Like I said, this path was definitely not linear. It took me a long time to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. But I think with UX design, it allows me to get the best of both worlds of working in tech if I want to and being able to still be in that design space while also just being able to understand people and implement their stories and understand who they are to implement within the experience. I think that’s probably one of my favorite parts about UX is, it’s really is all about people. And I think being a writer, I’m a natural storyteller. And so I think it always resonates with me when I’m able to connect someone’s story to the experience that we’re creating within design and tech.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really great way to sort of tie those two concepts together. For a while, Revision Path had a kind of this writing initiative, we called it Recognize, where it was sort of like an essay submission sort of thing. People would submit essays around a certain theme, but they would have to be designed focused. For last year for example, the theme was Fresh. And so you would write design essays that sort of in some way encompass the theme of Fresh. My goal with it is actually kind of the goal of what you were sort of alluding to. It’s about using writing and using texts and using storytelling as a way to kind of also put forth these certain design concepts or things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Unfortunately, Recognize was not super successful. We have to kind of shut it down this year. I hope to bring it back at some point in the future. But I like how you’re able to kind of tie into what writing does for you as a designer and how that storytelling ties into what you do with UX design. I think that’s a really powerful connection to make.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. Like I said, I think I finally found my space. Just because I think even within computer science, there is that level of strategy and critical thinking that I had the knack for. And now to be able to kind of have that skill set or mindset and implement that ideology within design has been just really great for me. I think now I’ve definitely seen myself evolve from just an individual contributor, like an individual design contributor, to this person that is really being able to lead conversations about how we think about design, in again as I mentioned before, that inclusion equity space.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the program at A&T. I think when folks look at HBCU and then they think about design, I’m not sure of North Carolina A&T is a school that they may readily think about. But can you just tell us like a little bit about the program and sort of what you’re going to remember the most from being at A&T? Because you’re about to graduate this semester.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I wish that our program was a little bit more marketable. I wish they marketed us a little bit better, because I think a lot of students would benefit from just having black teachers that really want you to succeed and do well. And I think also, I wish that our particular department sat in a different space because I think sometimes we can get overlooked. So we sit within the College of Science and Technology. And so when a lot of people think of science and technology, you think of biology, chemistry, mathematics sits within that space too. And then you’ve got IT, informational systems, all those things like that. So you’ve got all these other majors, and then we have graphic design. And so, a lot of people whenever they think about the College of Science and Technology, they don’t think about that graphic design technology space being an option for them to major in especially because North Carolina A&T is especially known for agriculture, in the name, Engineering especially is one of the largest areas that we’re known for.

Zariah Cameron:
So again, design is really second priority. But I wish that it wasn’t, because again, like I said, I’ve had really great professors that have really helped me grow as a designer. Some definite tough love that’s been given to me and brief anecdote. I had a professor. I failed his class in my first year. I really just didn’t do well and had to retake it. And the second time, I got a B+. He had written and I told him, I was like, “Thank you. Thank you for helping me to get to this point.” And he was like, “I already knew you could do it. You just have to really prove to people that you can do it and you have the capability because I know it’s already in there.” And just him really believing in me and giving me that tough love that I needed, just helped me to appreciate not only him more but the space that I’m in, and really been able to push myself that much harder and see what I can achieve.

Zariah Cameron:
I think having those people in your corner that are looking out for you in that way is one of the best experiences. Now, reflecting and looking back, now that I’m getting ready to graduate, it’s something that I definitely love and will miss. Yeah, I have some more thoughts, but I’ll stop talking [inaudible 00:31:10].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I have to say that’s one thing about HBCUs that… I don’t know. You just don’t get that at other schools. The professors really do care. And that’s not to say that at PWIs and at other schools, other professors don’t care. But I mean I can only speak from my experience also going to an HBCU. I went to Morehouse. I mean, there’s just a certain different level of care. They’re really looking out for you in ways that you may not even really be considering. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There’s some professors that are like, “You’re just another student, just another number, et cetera.” But I think once you get into your degree program, you’d be surprised just how much the professors are really rooting for you and wanting to make sure that you succeed, because it looks good on them if they have graduates that come out of the program. So it makes sense that at HBCUs that they would just be more open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then of course, it’s just as black people helping black people. I’ve had several other folks on the show that when they talk about their time at other design institutions that I won’t name, but they’re not HBCU, but at other design institutions, it’s rough. Their educational experience is rough. There’s no mercy. And certainly not anywhere their having black professors or even really able to design towards their culture in the work that they do. I mean, you have all these different inherent benefits that come with being able to study at an HBCU. And just from what you’re sharing about the program, sounds like it’s a really great program. I mean, NC A&T overall is a great school. I think it’s one of the biggest research institutions in North Carolina. I’m guessing probably second to UNC.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, [inaudible 00:32:59]. I mean, of course, every school has it’s… I really had to advocate for myself and try to reach out to certain people and do certain things that I was like, “Hey.” That I actually saw everything that these companies had to offer, the realities of what things were, and being able to kind of bring that back to the students within my program and show that like, “Hey, there actually is great black designer talent that needs to be sought after.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Duke is the other school that I was thinking about.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Folks that went to Duke don’t kill me, I was like… But I know that North Carolina A&T though, is one of the big research institutions in the state. So that’s good to know. And also while you were at A&T, you worked at a number of internships. I mean, you mentioned Ally. But you worked at what? Like two or three other companies while you were there, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I worked for Wells Fargo last summer. It’s kind of weird because all my internships that I’ve had have all been virtual so I have no idea what this corporate world will look like once we go back in person. That’s going to be a whole another, I guess, hill or road we’ll have to cross to get there. But yeah, I interned at Wells Fargo. I wasn’t a designer, but it gave me the perspective of just how things work, how systems work, how corporate space work, how financial institutions are run, and in some ways being that fly on the wall of seeing the realities of what things were. But it gave me perspective of not just… Even though I wasn’t a designer for that particular role, I was a QA, I was a quality assurance analyst. And so that role taught me how to really pay attention to the details, the importance of how things work and how things function within a platform, a tool, and pointing out those shortcomings of how we can really better improve those products for the user.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, that really helped me to analyze a lot things better when it came to actually designing. And then recently what this is, I worked for a startup. It was really small. That was really catered to black women’s hair and finding the right hair regimen for them. And that was a really great experience to kind of work on it from the ground up and being able to work with other black women that had natural hair and just pouring my own experience, my own stories, and other people’s research and hair journeys into that. So that was a really fun experience. It’s also challenging in that quick, fast paced type of environment.

Zariah Cameron:
And then recently, before Ally I worked at PepsiCo as sort of a UX, UI designer, which I focus more on UI. And so, I realized I’m a better UX designer than a UI designer. I think people definitely should understand the difference because I think sometimes we group it together, but they definitely are separate things and have their own responsibilities. And I think people are stronger or, I guess, weaker in certain spaces. I definitely saw myself as more of a UX designer. But through that experience, I learned so much. I learned about the responsibilities and the job of a UI designer and how much work it takes in the input and all the different intricacies that you have to think about when developing certain things.

Zariah Cameron:
So that was a really good experience as well. And then I think just as I’ve grown, I’ve evolved and figured out what’s the best space for me to be in through all these different internship opportunities that I’ve had, and just where do I not only feel the most supported but also safe because I’ve definitely thought a lot about myself as a black designer. I’m not just a designer working at a company. But really just caring about the impact that I make. And does that company actually, or the people really care about my wellbeing and not just my individual contribution to the product?

Maurice Cherry:
And you say all these internships that you’ve done have been virtual. What is that like? What is a virtual internship like? Just kind of give a brief example of what that’s like.

Zariah Cameron:
I’m not going to just say, oh my gosh, it sucks, but it is a lot harder. Because, one, with PepsiCo for example, I was working or having to interact with working on a project with a physical product. And so it was a lot harder because it was like, “Okay. I’m designing for a physical product that I can not see, feel, touch anything. I can’t interact with to see how it functions to better make improvements on it.” And so it was more or less like, “Okay, well I have to watch videos. And I have to figure out, watch customer reviews on this product to see what are their pain points without me actually being able to physically interact with it myself, which was definitely harder.

Zariah Cameron:
I think if I was in the office, I could just go to that room, look at the product, be like, “Okay, this is what’s wrong.” And I think it’s even more crucial for black people because you do want to make sure that this is a safe and healthy space for you. I heard a lot of people have very toxic experiences from companies. I think that’s the one big fear because you can easily hide behind a screen and you don’t really know what that culture is like, and they could be portraying something that may not even be realistic. And then you get in the office and it’s something completely different.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting. The conversation in tech over the past, I don’t know, maybe like six or seven years has been around, of course, making sure that these tech companies and design focused companies are safe spaces for black people and people of color to work in. And now with the pandemic and it’s driving people to have to work from home, how do you make sure that that same feeling is also existing in the virtual space? I mean, I just know from the past few places where I’ve worked at that have been sort of a hybrid of remote and even in the office, and then of course with the pandemic driving it to be fully remote, it’s amazing how different sort of microaggressions can kind of pop up or just different sort of ways that you can feel left out in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s something that companies are still going to have to deal with and try to figure out as it looks like this is not abating anytime soon. We’re still going to be on this kind of hybrid/fully remote sort of workforce thing. But how do you make sure that those digital spaces are also going to be safe and accommodating for your workers that are people of color? That’s the best way to put it.

Zariah Cameron:
I definitely agree. I think working with Ally is probably one of the best [inaudible 00:40:36] so far, just because, like I said, I’ve never been able to connect with other interns in this way. I think that was a big thing. The way that they’re recruiting was… I don’t even know how they did it, but they just chose a really good intern class that reflected the culture of the company that they were really trying to promote. Of course, again like I said, every company has its shortcomings and things like that, but I believe like from the top down, everyone was welcoming and really wanting to promote that culture where you can email an executive and they would reach out to you and they would meet with you and answer your questions or talk to you and have a brief conversation.

Zariah Cameron:
I think that openness is something that you don’t always get a chance to have and get exposure to. And so, I think not only having a intern class but also having your recruiters really just help you have that personal experience as best as you can in this virtual space. Again, like I said, it was hard not being able to be in the office and collaborate. Especially as designer, it’s so hard. You’ve got to find all these alternative ways to collaborate together to design, to communicate virtually, that it can make things a little bit more difficult. But I mean, if the people are good, I think the collaboration will kind of fall in line with that energy and that team chemistry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now is your… I mean, again, you’re at this very pivotal point in your educational career as well as just your professional career, about to get out there in the working world. Do you feel supported as a black designer?

Zariah Cameron:
There’s many different ways we can take that. I want to say yes, but I feel like yes is such a short answer. I think depending on what area of my life that I am a black designer, it could go yes, or maybe, or even no. I think with my Black Designers community, I’ve been able to find amazing mentors/friends who have really supported me and been like, “Hey, if you want to take a break, it’s okay if you want to take a break. We’re still going to be here when you come back and we’re going to be holding down the fort till you get back while you’re gone.” And being able to be comfortable and also vulnerable with these people has been such a privilege because I know a lot of people don’t get a chance to do that or don’t feel comfortable enough to.

Zariah Cameron:
So I think in that way, this community like Where are the Black Designers, my Black Ignite community, those people have really allowed me to be comfortable being my authentic self and also being vulnerable enough to express certain concerns or issues that I may have that’s going on in my life, whether it be personal or within my career. So I think in that way, I feel supported. I think in a corporate setting, I’m still navigating through that. I would say yes from certain people, but of course, I’m still getting a feel for what that is and what people’s intentions are. I think for the most part, I would say yes.

Zariah Cameron:
But then again, it’s just been something I’ve been thinking about. Even looking at Simone Biles and her deciding to leave the Olympics because of her mental health. And people just giving so much backlash to her making that decision because she was prioritizing her mental health and just the exhaustion energy that she was giving out and probably just how tired she was. And just seeing how people only appreciate your skill and the value you bring over your actual health and you as a person. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m concerned about is like, “Are you really caring about me and my self as a human being? Or is it just the value that I bring to this company? The value that I bring to this community? The value I bring to this school?” or whatever it may look like. That’s where I’m trying to find what that balance is, and who are those people that I should have in my corner, and who are those people that will have access to those versions or sides of me. So that’s kind of where I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s really tricky now. I mean, I say that as someone that’s been in the industry for a while. I mean, certainly within the past 10 to 12 years or so, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in really just black spaces at design. There’s podcasts like this, but there’s conferences, there’s meetups, there’s initiatives like what you’re doing with AEI Design Program. A lot of that stuff really didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was hard to find. And so it can be interesting now, especially if you exist among different identities. Like, if you’re just like a cis black man, and there may be one thing. But what if you’re a woman? What if you’re a member of the LGBT community? What if you identify a different part of the gender spectrum? The level of support that you would get as a black designer can even vary within all of those spaces and so. It’s still evolving like you said, I think. It’s a big question with a not so simple answer. So I feel you there.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. That’s kind of where I’m at with all of this. It’s like in certain places I could say, yes, that I do feel supported. In other spaces, it’s like you’re on the fence and you’re not really completely sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Zariah Cameron:
You still have to only give one element of you. I guess that’s where code switching comes in. But even then, it’s like code switching is this element of losing a sense of your identity. That’s a whole another thing that I’m trying to navigate through.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are you obsessed with right now?

Zariah Cameron:
In terms of personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say you can answer that any way you like. Personal, professional, whatever.

Zariah Cameron:
I would say… What am I obsessed right now? I think right now it’s maybe a weird answer, but I’m honestly obsessed with the friendships that I’ve gotten to have over this past year. It’s very overwhelming. I’ve never had friend group of black designers or even designers that have really been so overwhelmingly loving to me, not only my career but just me as a person, and really being that support system that I needed. I think for so long…

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, even the people that are like, “Oh, well you go to HBCU. Of course, you have support.” And I’m like, “Yes, but even within that HBCU, there are groups.” There are groups. And so, sometimes you don’t always fit into those groups. Or even within those groups that you may be a part of, you still don’t completely feel a sense of belonging. And so to be able to go in a space, be around people that care about me and love me for just who I am and whether I change or evolve or whatever phase of my life that I’m growing into, that they’re there to support me and guide me through those different shifts, those different transitions.

Zariah Cameron:
And I know, like I said, weird answer in terms of being obsessed. But I think, like I have my own podcast with Heatherlee who’s the founder of Black Ignite, and just how our lives cross within a year, I would have never imagined for our friendship to be where it is, going from professional relationship to this very personal friendship that I value very deeply and to be able to work on this podcast with her and hear her story and how much our stories literally are parallel to each other. And so being able to have people like her and other people like Mitzi, like my Design to Divest Community as well. Having them in my corner is something I’m truly become obsessed with and want to continue to be around and want to just have that energy around me, that healthy energy. Because sometimes being around your own people still isn’t healthy, so having those people in those relationships has been really great for me within this past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Aside from those friendships, have you had any mentors or anyone that have really kind of helped you out either over this past year or just along the way in your journey as a designer?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of different people, some that I’m very, very fortunate and very grateful to have in my life. And they’re all for different reasons. At first, at the start of my career or even school experience, I thought that I could really only have one said mentor, and that’s what it is. But as I’m evolving, I realized I need different mentors for different things, different spaces in my life. And so, I’ve had mentors that have taught me about just how to run my program, guiding me answering those questions as we’re moving into becoming a nonprofit, understanding elements of brand strategy for our program. Then I have mentors that who I now can call friends as well, who have helped me, guide me as a person and just where I need to go on my life.

Zariah Cameron:
And then of course, I have two of my really close professors. One in particular that has become a very good mentor to me, that actually was the one who got me into UX design that just I go for not only personal advice, but of course career advice as well. So I think over this past year, I’ve definitely had some great champions and mentors in my corner that are designated to different areas of my life to help me to flourish.

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

Zariah Cameron:
Getting my PhD.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, yes, that is a goal of mine. I’ve expressed I will not… a lot of people have told me like, “Oh, why don’t you just go ahead and get your PhD now?” I’m like, “I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I do not want to go through school again at the moment.” But I think eventually, right now I currently see myself leading a community, wherever that may be in, whether that be in the corporate space, I definitely see myself leading those conversations surrounding equity within the design space and growing in that, because that is a space that I want to continue to be in, in various different areas, whether it’s like I said, in the corporate space, leading my community, or even teaching. I think eventually I want to get my PhD within this element of design and psychology in understanding people. And to be able to eventually [inaudible 00:53:17] down the line teach to students, teach to that next generation college students that are coming in.

Zariah Cameron:
I think by then I already have that experience of being in the corporate world myself, and I can be able to instill that wisdom and have those connections to people through my community to be able to give back to those students that I’m teaching. That’s eventually where I want to evolve myself into.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, and your work, and everything you’re doing online?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, one, they can find me on Medium, in terms of my writing. By the way, an article will be coming out, not through my Medium, but through the Ally Tech Blog on inclusive design being more than a buzz word. So definitely look out for that. And then you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m very active on there, and it’s of course just my name. And then you can find me at Instagram. It’s just my name, zariah.cameron. And then of course our program, our program’s Instagram, aeidesign_. You can find me active on all of those. Definitely feel free to follow me and stay connected, especially those who want to get plugged into my community, my program, and even companies wanting to work with us, and just people just wanting to connect and definitely open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Zariah Cameron, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, for taking time to come out on the show. Like I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a design student on the show, particularly one from an HBCU. But when I first heard about you at Where are the Black Designers and heard you speak and everything, I was like, “I got to get her on the show just to have her talk about what she’s doing.” I mean, just the fact that you’re accomplishing this much as a student, I think bodes so well for your future career. I’m really excited to see what you’re able to accomplish once you graduated and really got out there in the design world, and are able to make an even bigger impact. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Zariah Cameron:
No, thank you. It’s been such an honor, and thank you for asking such great questions. I love being able to share my story with you and the audience.

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