Roshanda Cummings sits down to talk human to me about not taking things seriously, community, meaningful work, caring for each other, breaking rules, what matters, and life worth.
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Our Conversation with Roshanda Cummings
[Please add 00:00:16 to each time stamp for accuracy. Thank you!]
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:01:27] Alright, her we go. So, we're just going to kick off our conversation by, I wanna ask you, you know, what about human strikes you the most.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:01:37] Mmm. I love that question. So for me, what strikes me about humans, and I've talked to a good friend about this today, when anyone asks me about community. What strikes me about humans is how much people want to follow the rules. And a lot of people don't think that that would be true especially as being, as Americans. You know, it's like we're independent and we do what you want, but that's not true. I mean everyone wants to follow the rules when we're driving down the street. We want people to, sort of be courteous to us as we're courteous to them, or when we're going into a new sort of place of business, or whatever--we really want to fit in really fast. As kids we just want to fit in. So for me I've been really interested about the human compulsion to follow. I'm like, why it's important to follow, and when is it important to follow.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:02:41] Right. I mean, talk about more about why following or just the act of following interests you.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:02:52] I mean in the ways that we follow each other sometimes it makes things easier. So here's a really great example. If you've never been to a particular place before let's say, a movie theatre, and you've never been to a movie theatre before, it's your first time ever going to a movie theatre, and you walk through a movie theatre, and you go in with your friends, and you bought a ticket, and you're seeing other people line up, and it's like: "Oh, well OK I think I need to line up". And, you line up, and you buy your ticket. Just as they bought a ticket. And then, you can go into the lobby, and you're like: "Oh there are people all over the line getting food. Oh, you can get food here. I'm going to stand in this line and I ready to go into this room and I'm going to watch this big thing". You know, it's like, instead of trying to figure out how to do everything yourself. You can use other people and you can use groups to find your way, much faster than you could just as an individual. And so I think there are lots of things in our lives where following makes work a lot less for us but also we can feel supported. So if we get lost at any point we can just ask somebody versus if we were like in a vacuum we're trying to figure out: "Where are the resources, what do we do and what."
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:04:00] Do you think people culturally grow up thinking in different ways in terms of following though? For example as an Asian-American right, my parents, growing up in Taiwan, following was actually a virtue. Right, so do you see it as a virtue? Did you grow up seeing it as a virtue, or do you see it as a lemming behavior and that you needed to be an individual instead.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:04:29] I mean I think it really depends on what kind of culture you come from. So, my background is African-American culture and for us we're collectivist, not to the extent of the Chinese or other Asian cultures, but we have got on, over history, relying on each other. And, so there's a sense of support that's required, but not necessarily following. When I was growing up, my mom -- I was like a hyperactive kid and I was really really creative and really really curious -- and so I would do things that she just wouldn't like me to do. Like I'd be playing with my food, or you know just kind of acting up, and she would say to me, "Roshanda, look at other people around here and see how they're acting. Do you see anybody else standing on the chair? Do you see anyone else playing with their food?" And so, I learned over that time to just kind of look around to see what was accepted. Now, I understand what's underneath that question, like, well isn't it bad to do what's accepted sometimes, and sometimes not. Like, I don't think that I would not necessarily say that it's a virtue to follow, but I think that sort of thinking about society, and just who we are as people together, that sometimes we have to rely on one another for instruction.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:05:52] Right right.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:05:53] And also if we're all going our own ways. Chaos. Literal chaos. So I think that there's like a sheep behavior that is actually underneath your question, like, is it OK to be a sheep. I don't think it's OK to not question, but I do think it's ok maybe to rely on each other and to intentionally rely on one another.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:06:21] OK. I guess -- let's continue this conversation. Do you think in terms of this option between, and balance between following, and being an individual, and taking ownership of yourself, right -- Is our next generation screwed or I guess more appropriately is our current generation screwed?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:06:55] Hm. Say your question again.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:07:00] Kind of in line with what we're talking about, with how, with this viewpoint, how you're seeing humans right now. Do you feel that our next generation is screwed, so not the generation we're in, I wouldn't even say the generation coming out of middle school and high school. Do you think seeing the direction that they're going they're screwed? Or, even just looking at our generation we're pretty much going to be screwed within our lifetime.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:07:37] Hm. I mean, it's a good question. No, I don't think the next generation is screwed. And I think what some people would, sort of allegations against millennials, but also the upcoming Gen Z, is that they're narcissistic and they only care about themselves. But, I also think that we're in a completely different time, right? It's like our earth is a completely different space, it's in a completely different health and we need each other now more than ever and I think those things are really going to become evident in the next generation. So I think the world and where we are will require the next generation to depend on each other in a way that we haven't before. So I think that really the next generation is going to inherit our lessons and realize: "Oh -- like, this short sightedness, this only thinking about me, this only doing what I want to do, and using the things that I wanted to use and buy what I want to have and have it right now. Oh that's screwed us. That's what's screwed us. And we have to change that."
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:08:48] Well, this is going to come off slightly confrontational. Does the stuff you're working on right now even matter. I mean no stock answers here. I want you pretend that this is confessional, not a boardroom, don't pitch me or anything. Does the stuff you're working on actually matter? Cause I think with a lot of entrepreneurs, they get very, they have to be confident with what they're doing, right, they have to think that what they're doing is important, but...
Roshanda Cummings: [00:09:23] I think what I do right now matters, but I think what I do right now matters in a larger sense, in a more richer sense, and a more deeper sense. So it's not so much that like it matters for me in making my life meaningful. The work that I do now is in service to who is coming next. I will pass my work on and the questions that I have or the insights that I have feed into the insights of who's coming next. what I love so much about more collectivist cultures and particularly the African-American community is that there is no separation between the past and the future and now. Typically the way that we think about it as Americans is that all of these things are separate. So -- "I do what I'm doing now and then whatever happens later." Oh no -- in the African-American community you are responsible for what comes next. So I think the work matters because without my work the work that's coming next might not be possible. So I, I only think about myself as a part of the future and then I give it away you know and then I really have to relinquish. So it's not mega maniacal and my work and the mattering is not about me.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:11:02] Even in the grand scheme of the direction of the world. How do you see your work mattering? So the grand scheme meaning the direction that you see countries relating to each other, the way that you see us in relation to space, right? The way that our environment is in a destructive downturn right now. Do you, how do you see in that context?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:11:44] It's a good question. It's a humbling question. Right off the bat it's like, I don't know. And, but my hope is something different. So a lot of the work that I do is making smaller cities proud of where they live again because a lot of smaller cities have experienced the fallout of the modern era. They're asking themselves a real question which is what does it mean and look like to thrive in the new millennium and why I think it's important right now to do the work of bringing smaller cities together and giving them something to be proud of is that maybe if they feel and then develop a pride about where they live, then they can see their neighbors in a new way, and they can problem solve in a new way, and they can create in a new way that they wouldn't have before. Which we're really disconnected, you know suburbs and things like that we didn't know anybody. And I'm hoping especially with the challenges that we see on the global level that coming together in these communities are incredibly important because then you have like a different kind of stewardship of resources locally, that my hunch will have an impact on a greater scale especially in terms of economy things like that. But maybe that it might just create a different, I don't know, maybe you, like maybe society looks different when people in cities and small cities are different. We're not talking about like the big ones that typically get talked about like San Francisco and Oakland and stuff. It would change the conversation from what are the, what are the big dogs in the landscape doing too, what are we as nations doing. And I feel like that's a different conversation and a much needed one to have.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:13:48] So does, does continuing to push innovation matter in the grand scheme of things, in kind of, in line of what you're saying? Do you think along with thinking in these new ways, do we have to continue to push innovation or is there a stopping point ever?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:14:13] Yeah I mean what I love about that is if you like you're underscoring something really. True about being western which is, do we develop forever, and the assumption right now we have is yes we do. Of course we do. We just make a make and make it make and make them make and make it make make, what is there besides making. And I'm not of that. And I think, it gets interesting that question you use about innovation. Do we continue to push innovations? No I don't think we need to continue to push innovations. I think we need to be asking different questions.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:14:51] It's such a culture here like the Renegade Fair, the Maker Fair.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:14:54] We make make make make make it's like what happens to all the stuff we make after we made it? And so for me it's like to ask ourselves better questions like "When do we need to make?" and "When do we need to stop making?" and see what that does because I think that there needs to be more reflection and more intentional making. And without the two, we make a whole bunch of stuff we regret later and which we regret right now. We regret a lot of the stuff we make like plastics and all of that. It was a good idea at the time. And so right now it needs to be a lot more mindful for sure and we need to be doing that in groups.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:15:45] Let's keep this keep going in that direction. What does it mean to a fulfilling and better life then?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:15:54] What does it mean to have fulfilled life. I was really challenged by this question actually.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:16:02] In what way?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:16:03] So what my gut instinct was I like shared this article on Facebook. No, it was a quote, it was a quote that I felt inspired by which the heart of this quote was that a woman should have the right and the freedom to decide and to decide what she wants to do when she wants to do it and that there should come a point in a woman's life where her work is her play and its, it might be difficult to discern between the two but when she gets to that spot where her work is her play, then is a, I don't know, like an arrived being or whatever. And I got a reply from a really good friend of mine who is like but what about mothers who are single mothers and have four kids, like sometimes their work is not their play, sometimes or work workers their work. What about those women, are they included in your ideal or you know sort of like model woman. I was like what and I actually struggle with answering the question. I think there was a part of me that didn't want to be challenged in that way. Where I was like some things can like she needs to take care of herself in some way. Well you know I had gone on and on around it. So all of that to say is like, I think the way I typically would have asked that question which is what does it mean or look like to live a fulfilled life, I would say to be of purpose and to have meaningful work whether it's hard or not. But it asked is greater question which is like what about those billions of people on earth who don't have meaningful work who are just working to make it work, to make ends meet, they don't get paid nothin', they work hard but it's the only way they can support themselves and their family, what about them. And, I think now to a caveat to what I was saying is I think a fulfilled life is to have meaningful work because I think work, work is good and work is sacred. Even after that, I think work is sacred. To use one's hands and one's abilities is a human thing. To work is human, but my caveat here is that there are things going on in societies that we have that now sort of like reign societies, which is capitalism, which is someone has to be on the bottom and maybe that's why work is this way. Maybe that's why you have to struggle to make ends meet because our communities no longer work how they should.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:18:40] That striking. Do you think that's how you would respond to that single mother with four children? How would you explain it?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:18:48] How would I explain it, I mean I think it's interesting. Would I ever have to explain it to this person. And, I think what if I were talking to a woman who was a single mom and she had four kids and she was trying to support them, socialize them, nurture them, and also remember who she was as a person. I would recognize and validate the work that she's doing and I would also say it should not be this hard for you. You should not be doing this by yourself. You should not be balancing three jobs. You know my mother at one time balance three jobs to raise children. It should not be that way for her. But she was far from her family. She was far from her community and I was saying there should be people here to help you out.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:19:40] Why should humans care about each other's well-being and survival?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:19:47] Well I think there's the self-interest of mutual support. Right. It's like you want to be in an area and live in groups where you know that you can be supported, so you have peace of mind but also I think as groups it makes us healthier and to think about it from a sociological point of view it's like we have stronger families, stronger cities, stronger whatever when the people in those communities are in those groups see themselves as interdependent on each other. And also as a group you can advocate for different conditions for yourself, which is what I think activism is and how I see activism in Oakland which is just a lot of people who don't know one another but can identify with each other's struggle, and are committed to advocating for things that benefit the whole. And it makes better places to live. It makes healthier people but it also makes healthier individuals when you reflect back to yourself, to be like, am I proud of where I live? Hell yeah. Do I love the people I love around? Hell yeah. And do I know we could support each other if things get hard? Hell yeah. And that's a good life to me.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:21:09] Do you think that's unique to Oakland?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:21:12] No, I wouldn't say it's unique of Oakland. I think, maybe in the American context there are not as many places that are as diverse that are doing that but I think that there are communities all around the world that are doing that and we can talk about them in a sort of larger groups like especially in smaller places and villages, east Africa and in my experience and also in Asia particularly, and I'm sure there are other instances in South America. I think we can really, I think there are more examples than not outside of the Western world where we can say these communities are healthy.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:21:50] Right, and I agree with you, especially in the beginning of the conversation. I would say there's actually a lot of similarities between the Chinese-American and the African-American culture in growing up in that community-based sense. Whereas, I think in a lot of Western cultures, Western driven cultures it's very much different pathway or mindset that you're given especially as a white kid growing up you're very much given that individuality, be yourself, carve your own path mentality, right, beat the other kid.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:22:32] Totally. I mean, I was, just speak on that just really quickly. I was dating a man who was a white man like a few years ago. He was really passionate about like living on farms or whatever and he wanted to choose intentional poverty and it kept coming back to this question of like you know: "Rowe, like you and I should do this, we should live on a farm and we should give up on our possessions." And I said that's nice and I love that and I you know, cause I love farms, but I was like, but I have to do something because when my parents get sick it will be time to take care of them. And he was like I don't understand why you're so worried about that. And I said because it's my responsibility as a person to take care of my parents when they're sick. That is responsibility and he could not get that because the commitment that he had made to his parents was that no, I'm not gonna say his name, that that's not your responsibility. We want you to put us in a home and we want you to live her life. So we fundamentally could not get down on that reason , and that was the reason why we split, is because I was like: "No, I have to take care of because they would take care of me it's my turn." And for him it was like my parents are not obligated. And I think that if I were to talk to a Chinese-American or another Asian-American and be like: "So you have to take care of parents too right?" We would have lots to vibe about because we be like: "Hell yeah we take care of our parents cause that's our responsibility." And what I wish like and what I like it's like this thing that I really hope for and I grew up in an asian community, I feel like I know Filipino community better than I know my own cause like 18 years of my life was in the Filipino enclave. I really wish the Asian community knew that we had more similarities and that we are like a collectivist in that way and we see it as a responsibility and it breaks my heart to see kind of how we're pitted against each other in some way that we just don't take care or we just don't identify the other group as having similar issues or needs to support our communities instead we just, I don't know, we're just a different side, so it's like there's with the like one group as thugs and criminals than the other group is like well they don't care about us, they rat on us and we actually have more similar in this context than maybe other American's experience. Right.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:24:46] And I think the majority of that observation is true and I think where history has tried to throw a wrench in that collective mindset we're just like moments like the L.A. riots, like you know you have Asian Americans staying on top of rooftops shooting black Americans and the black Americans setting Asian American stores on fire. But that was some incident that unfortunately happened, but beyond that you know one of my best friends is Jamaican American, and where we're like brothers, brothers from another mother. And he, he and I vibe on so many things that we thought we were joking with each other like, "Did really happen to you?" and it's all the same. So we felt like we were twins for even some brief moment that we're completely different. So that was interesting meeting him and we instantly became you know he's one of my best friends for life. So kind of this talk about relations with other humans. Why do you care how fellow humans are treated or how they're going about life? Do you feel, with the way you are wired at an above average entrepreneurial level, that you have some obligation to improve other's lives.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:26:14] Yeah, I mean I would say that. I would think I was, I was born with the care that I wanted or didn't want but I have it anyway.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:26:21] As an obligation or?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:26:22] No, as like a natural inclination that I've always empathize like that no one taught me how to empathize with others or have a curiosity about why other people were doing things that they were doing, I always had it. And it was quite clear to me as a young person to be like that stuff's not right. I don't know why are they doing that like why is that different than that, why are they having that different kind of experience but I think it's been amplified. Like I think as I've grown, there are things that have happened in my life that has really made me look at things differently like being put in a completely new context I was, you know, raised here in the Bay Area and once you get out of the Bay Area for college as fast as I possibly could because of some of my very conservative beliefs I had at the time. It's like I had to get out! Like yeah if you're born here, it's like oh no I've got to get out, I'm an inner-townie. And so I went to Indiana and was like, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, y'all are different. Totally different, and we don't think this way at all. And so that was a new lens that was like oh somethings that we thought we had settled like racism in America that's not over. It's happening right now. And then from there going to East Africa like, whoa whoa whoa whoa, concept of time, crazy. I call a meeting at 11 and everyone shows up at one, like they were meant to be there like three hours later. Woah right, or like the different relationship with weather which is: "No, we don't travel in the rain, we will wait until it stops." I was like what!? Americans always travel through the rain and my mind and then come into grips with my own beliefs about what was productivity versus There's...
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:28:11] Sorry, random question why, was there a reason why they don't travel through the rain?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:28:16] No, I mean the brief story about it was that I was supposed to do field assessments hadn't been able to do work all week, Ppissed about it. It started raining at the end of the week, my last day to get it done and I asked one of the field staff. I was like: "Paul, when are we going to field? I got to conduct these things." And he looked at me with his sweet smile and he says: "Rowe, we will wait for the rain.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:28:38] It's just a thing.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:28:39] It's just the thing. It's like why would we travel through the rain. We will wait until it stops and the uncertainty that it was like illuminating in me was like: "But when!?" Like I needed to have control over the situation and I didn't know when the rain was going to stop. I needed to jump on it, drive in the rain, get my stuff done, feel proud of me.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:29:00] Was she like, was he like you silly American.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:29:02] He didn't have to, his smile sent that and he put me in my place and I have thought differently about rain ever since.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:29:11] That's a great, that's a great little story. OK, sorry I didn't mean to interrupt.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:29:13] So, I mean so it's like those things that now create a sharpness to my discernment and also to my questions when I'm thinking about what other people might be thinking. I automatically do not, I do not expect people to think the way that I am or that I do and I know that's different for a lot of people maybe because they haven't had as many situations around them to, I don't know, to be confronted with their world view and other people's world view and like the limit of my own world view or their world view. So, yeah that makes me endlessly curious about people that's why I'm always think about them.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:29:56] That's great, so in terms of what you're thinking about people what does success for humans look like to you then?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:30:10] Success for humans. Humans. Success for humans to me has a lot to do with their relationship with nature. Like a different relationship to nature that's more similar to Paul's. For he respects nature and his power and he doesn't want it to do anything else than what it's doing right now. And that to me marks a healthy person but also healthy communities and especially when we're thinking about our innovations now like how can I command nature to do what we want to do. It's like a successful humanity is one that respects nature and acts appropriately. And the other is like I think that it's so too quickly tied to nature which is the remembering and the restoring of rest and time and having a different relationship to it where we're not so pressed every time by every second where we just are. And to me, the people that I've met and the places where I've been who seem to have that stuff down that is success to me and I am no longer impressed by creations. I'm no longer impressed by buildings. I am no longer impressed by large cities or buses or trains. I am impressed with villages in East Africa and I am impressed by smaller cities throughout America who come together to watch the local football team play. That is a successful community to me and that is what is impressive to me.
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:32:08] That's an amazing observation because especially the way the, quote unquote developed worlds, define success, what does it actually lead to. And there's sometimes the argument of: "We're able to actually scale resources what's available to more people." But then I ask: "Why in certain villages in Nepal, everyone in that village has available resources, not one person is hungry?"
Roshanda Cummings: [00:32:43] And everyone eats. It's like why do we need sky farms. My partner is really about sky farms, loves it, will share me things like big skyscrapers that can grow food from the walls but for me it's like : "But why, oh why is that important?" To be like well to provide more things like more food but I'm like "But why?" there's enough food there and there's enough land, there's enough land too. You know it's like I feel like something really important would be taken away if we stop touching the earth, and if we stop putting our hands in soil, and if we didn't feel the rain. So I think it's a great question like: "How can everyone in this village, in this area and this town have something to eat?" And I think it's a really good question. Do we need to scale? Do we need to become more efficient? Or do we need to be asking different questions?
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:33:39] So this leads to my final question. Ultimately, what's the goddamn point of all this?
Roshanda Cummings: [00:33:47] What do you mean by this?
Jeffrey Shiau: [00:33:50] This, I'm actually not going to say what I think it means. I'm just going to say this and I want you to come from your perspective.
Roshanda Cummings: [00:34:03] Well, I think I can go a few ways. There could be. Well what is the point of this innovation culture and I think the point of this is to teach us that we don't need large institutions to be incredibly creative about the things that we're facing. But in the longer like this or the shadow of this, we can easily become intoxicated on our, in our own desire to create and to be significant which I think if we're honest with ourselves, this is really what that's about. So if we asked a different question which is "What is significant right now?" and "What if we are meaningful and worthy right now?" then "What can we create?" and then "What is appropriate to create?" because it's less driven out of trying to impress or trying to be recognized or trying to feel like your life was worth something at the end. Life is worth something right now. And the point for me, is for us to remember each other but also to let, to live the experience right now, in all of its fullness, and all of its importance, because now is an important time to live, so we can best damn figure out why.