Member of CAC Board of Directors
Actor, Writer, Rapper, and Producer
College Adviser Fellow
University of California, Berkeley
Nicole Hurd: Hi everybody! Welcome back to the Knowledge for College podcast. I have two very special people with me today. As you know, this is the College Advising Corps’ podcast to bring light and love into the world, to bring some practical advice into the world, and to amplify voices. I can’t imagine two better voices to amplify than the two gentlemen we have on today.
Real quickly, when I was thinking about how to introduce them and what we want to talk about today, I was thinking about—since we’re in an election year—when did I get the courage to start using my voice? These two gentlemen have a lot of courage and use their voice in ways that inspire me. I will tell you, it’s been a hard COVID year, and I will tell you, I would not have made it through the summer without Daveed. He was my Zoom partner and kept a lot of light and love going on in my life this summer. And whenever I feel like I can’t do something, I think of Cam because Cam inspires me all the time. So, you’re about to meet two people who inspire me.
Again, I thought about when I started using my voice. It was in fifth grade. It was before these two gentlemen were born actually. 1980 election. I remember this: in my fifth-grade class, I had to be one of the two candidates. I will not tell you which one it was, but I had to stand up and be that candidate. And I think there were like 30 kids in my class and I got 29 votes and I knew that I could use my voice. So, this all started in fifth grade for me.
But I want to ask these two great men, when did they start using their voice? So, everybody welcome to Daveed and Cam, our two Advising Corps family members. Thanks for both of you for joining us today.
Daveed, when did you start using your voice?
Daveed Diggs: A pretty similar story. In fourth grade, I think. I don’t even know when that was. That would have been ’91, ’92? My teacher, Ms. Angemen, I still remember, used to make everybody in the class memorize and recite these poems once a week. So once a week, she would hand out a poem. Everybody had to memorize it. Then everybody had to recite the same poem. Incredibly useful exercise for my life as it would turn out, but so boring to listen to 30 kids recite the same poem. And one time I just decided I was going to act it out.
I don’t even remember what that meant, and I don’t remember what poem it was, but I got up and I did something while I was saying it and everybody laughed when I wanted them to laugh. I was a very shy kid and so I don’t know what really possessed me to do this, but it was the most powerful I’d ever felt because it was causing effect. I wanted a thing to happen and I did this thing and it happened to a bunch of people all at once. And I still remember what that feels like, and that’s still kind of the reason I’ve been chasing this, the reason I still do that.
Nicole Hurd: So Cam, you’re an adviser. You’re in your second year. It takes a lot of courage to be an adviser. You’re calling, texting families and parents and students. When did you start using your voice, Cam?
Cam: Honestly, for me, I feel like that’s still in development, right? That’s still in progress. I think we’re still trying to find the confidence every day to make sure that we can use our voice as much as possible.
I think that the thing that makes me think of one of the first times… I was pretty introverted all the way up probably until community college. And I remember in community college, that’s really when I started learning about just issues going on in life. I think for a long time I was very much in this place of life is just life, it is what it is. I haven’t been outside of my own community so I don’t really know too much else, and I started to really learn about inequities and stuff like that.
Shout out to the Umoja Program at DVC. We watched 13th, the documentary, and that really didn’t come out that long ago, right? And so again, it’s a development process. But me and a group of people watched 13th, and from that conversation we all had a circle and we kind of debriefed about the film. And from that conversation came the founding of this club called the Men of Color Association at DVC.
And so, I think for me that was one of the first times where I kind of went from “What am I doing with my life?” and kind of very much thinking on this individualistic level to what does my community need and what do other folks need for us all to succeed. And so, I was the vice president of that club, co-founder of that club, and then went on to do more activist-like stuff throughout my life and trying to do the same thing now. So I think that was probably the point in my life that actually got me probably to where I am today.
Nicole Hurd: Cam, that’s incredibly inspiring. I’ll use this word for myself, but I think all three of us now have confessed we’ve been introverted. I was a very shy, awkward kid and did not want to be kind of out there, but then like you said, I got to see people react to this voice and I thought, “Wow, I better use this.”
Daveed, you’re at a point now where a lot of people are listening to your voice. So again, you’ve got decisions to make about when you use it. You obviously made a decision to join the College Advising Corps family. How do you think about using your voice now that you know that people are listening? Has it changed at all?
Daveed Diggs: It’s really interesting hearing Cam talk about sort of his journey with becoming a public-facing person. Cam’s an activist first and an artist by extension of that, right? Because you have to be in order to stand up in front of people and move them. And I’m the other way around. I’m an artist first and happened to have like an activist sensibility in some way or happened to have realized that some of what I do can be useful towards activist purposes. But the complication about that is that my voice is sort of intimately tied up with my career, and so there are all kinds of… Right now, I’m at a point where I am very fortunate; I’m sort of in rarified artist air where I can pick and choose things that I do. I don’t have to say yes to anything that hands me a check. The flip side of that is that now it means something when I say yes to something, right?
So, it gets complicated because the fact that I am supporting something says something. Enough people listen to what I’m saying now that having my voice or name attached to something means something. And I get a lot of offers from a lot of places in those directions and some of them are offering tons of money. So, it’s always like a balancing act of: What am I sacrificing in order to support this thing? What is the thing I’m supporting actually promote? And then what am I getting back from it? And what does that do for my family? Or what does that allow me to do in the future?
Something like College Advising Corps is an easy yes because our goals line up so much and because I’m a product of a lot of people who are the same kind of carrying forward thinking and encouraging of students that you are, Nicole. So, it was a really easy thing to get behind an organization that I believe in and where I can see all of the good that it’s doing. CAC is one of the things that lending my voice to is sort of a no-brainer in any way that I can be useful because I think the organization is doing great work and so I only get positive things back from that, right?
Nicole Hurd: So Cam, let’s talk about your story and using your voice. Now you’re actually actively talking to advisers, talking to families. I know you’ve got an event this evening with families. What do you want them to hear in this time of disruption? What do you want them to take away from you as you think about using your voice for this college access work and thinking about advancing opportunity for thousands of young people?
Cam: [00:09:57] Yeah, that’s a super deep question. Especially for parents and students, one of the biggest things I try to convey is that their student and the students themselves, they have an enormous amount of potential, and I think that’s because we just don’t get that messaging all the time from a lot of different places. And it’s actually crazy how much faces will light up or just be surprised when you tell them, “Oh, you can go to college,” or not even necessarily just college, but just, “You have the potential to do so much,” because I just don’t think that they necessarily hear those things as much, right?
And for parents, it’s great for them to hear, “I am here for your student. Parents or guardians, I am the person who is advocating for them.” [It’s] more than just they’re on my roster. I very much care about each one of these students.
And so I think especially in a time like this when we’re talking about pandemic, we’re talking about the Movement for Black Lives, and we’re talking about just things coming up and finally having the systems of oppression actually being put to the forefront because of all of the backlash that it’s actually getting from certain administrations, right?
I think that that is very good to hear right now. It’s like, “Okay, there is somebody in my child’s life,” or, “There’s somebody in my life that believes in me and that very much is rooting for me.” But it’s not only “rooting for me,” but it’s “going to push me to do this thing that I want to do,” and it’s “making me believe I can do.” Because they know they have the potential. It’s just, are they confident enough to continue with it and to actually go for it? So yeah, that’s the messages that I really want them to hear.
Nicole Hurd: Cam, this is why when I want to be inspired, I think about you and Daveed. Because you both just… The light and love, you can just feel it radiating from both of you.
And I want to point this out: I do think place matters. I’m a big believer that place matters and it’s not a coincidence that both of you are from the Bay Area. I frankly claim the Bay Area because I was born there and then my parents made the tragic decision to leave. I will claim the Bay whenever I can. But there’s something very Bay about both of you in terms of, I think there’s a sense that Bay people tend to be brilliant and humble at the same time. They tend to have this incredible ability to change the world and there’s just something to it. There’s also a lot of gentrification, a lot of important things going on in the Bay Area. And so Cam, you’re in Antioch doing this advising. Daveed, I know your heart is still very much in the Bay Area.
Can you both talk about why this work matters and also, what the Bay Area, what does place mean to both of you? What does home mean to both of you?
Daveed, you want to go first?
Daveed Diggs: I mean, I think that thing that I certainly recognize in Cam—I say this all the time about the Bay Area—that virtuosity is treated as commonplace. That’s what I grew up around. I grew up around like people who are still the most incredible artists and thinkers in the world as far as I’m concerned. And it was always just like, “Yeah, that’s how you supposed to be. You’re from here. This is what you do. Of course you’re great at it.”
I cite a good friend of mine, Ambrose Akinmusire, all the time, who is inarguably one of the greatest trumpet players in the world. Won the Monk Competition at 29 years old, signed to Blue Note, and he’s now composing for our TV show actually, which I’m so thrilled about. But he told me 10 years ago, 15 years ago, maybe. I was hanging out with him and I was like, “I hope to be as good at anything one day as you are at playing the trumpet.” And he said, “Aim higher.” He was like, “I’m good at playing the trumpet because I practice playing the trumpet all the time. I’m supposed to be good at this, you know?”
And that’s Bay shit to me. That’s like, if this is what you do, you should do it great. And so, I grew up around a lot of people who did what they did really, really well and didn’t expect anything back from that. That’s just what you do. And I think that permeates through everything. So yeah, that sense of place for me is a really important one.
And what’s interesting about it in response to gentrification is it becomes sort of a memory play, right? Like the Oakland that I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore except in my head, but it’s so important in my head. And there’s a set of core values that exist, that exude from it, that I think a lot of us of my generation are hoping to figure out ways to pump back into the Oakland that exists now and to kind of recreate at least the energy and spirit and feeling of protection that the Oakland we grew up in offered.
So yeah, I’m mostly interested to hear kind of how Cam thinks about this as someone a little bit younger than me. And also, the way that communities have played out in the Bay Area—I don’t know where your peoples are from, Cam—but everybody I know in Antioch used to live in Oakland.
Cam: That’s how it goes.
Daveed Diggs: Right? Because you end up moving out to the outskirts. So now those communities that we didn’t go out to very much, that actually is where the cultural centers are and where it’s sort of the heart of this kind of Bay Area that I grew up in is now moved out to places like Antioch.
Cam: Yeah, definitely. And I can definitely attest to that. I grew up in the flatlands of Oakland. I grew up in East Oakland before moving out right there in 2008, when so many other people came out to Antioch, right? And I think, just to go back to Nicole’s point, to both of your points really, it’s so much genuine but so much unapologeticness that comes with this and that’s something that I will always embody. There’s very much a balance between like living this quote, unquote, professional lifestyle, but also maintaining yourself and people knowing, “Yeah, he’s from Oakland.” You know what I’m saying? That’s something that we’re always going to feel because of that unapologetic-ness, but also trying to be as genuine as possible and just help as many people as possible.
The legacy of Oakland is that I think. And the Bay Area really. And so, it’s crazy to me because I have so many friends out here and I grew up with so many people out here. Grandmas. My grandma still lives in Oakland. We have people out there. But Antioch and Pittsburg and those kinds of things are very much starting to look at what like old Oakland, what old Richmond, look like.
But nevertheless, like we said, those things don’t leave you. Those days don’t leave your parents. Those things don’t leave the people around you. So, it’s a legacy that you carry, but it’s also a legacy that you put into your work. We see that every day with Daveed as an artist, right? He’s super unapologetic about where I am from. You’re gonna know where I’m from, right? I’m the same way. You’re going to know exactly.
And I do that with my students. You’re going to know exactly where I come from and the communities that I come from. Because professionalism to me, I put that to the side because at the end of the day, it’s a real connection. And you need to know where I’m from in order for us to connect, because you need to know that I’ve been where you’ve been. I am you really in reality, right? So, I think that plays a part in our lives, in our work, and those things aren’t separated. They’re very much the same thing.
Daveed Diggs: I’m just going to piggyback on that right quick. That’s super important I think for young people. It was for me, and I find this in the work I do with young people too. Like an acknowledgement and a deep desire to understand where they are from and to value that, ‘cause your world especially if you’re… We couldn’t afford to go on long family trips or vacations or anything when I was a kid, so my world was relatively small. ‘Til I started running track, I never traveled really outside of the Bay Area.
So, valuing a place that you are from is super important. And the thing about the Bay Area is, all the rappers who I admired were from the city, the same city that I lived in, and I didn’t know that they weren’t as famous as everybody else. ‘Cause there was like this… You know what I’m saying? So, I was totally starstruck trying to talk to the Gift of Gab in Amoeba Records every Tuesday ‘cause he was also at the record store every Tuesday. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know that that guy wasn’t as famous as Jay-Z. You couldn’t tell me that. I listened to his music way more.
I know, Cam, you’ve got a lot of great artists at your school too. I know this because I’ve been watching the dailies and stuff. And supporting those scenes, those kinds of creative movements that take place from a young age in a particular place and honoring those as if they are the biggest thing in the world. I find that kind of thing really important. And particularly for young people, because you have to value the beginnings of it.
I was talking to Ethan Hawke the other day, and he’s been famous for a long time, right? He was talking about some of the mistakes he made when he was younger, when he was like 18 and in the public eye. And we were talking about this sort of necessary hubris in a certain way, as a young person doing whatever you’re doing. You’re only going to keep doing it if you get some sort of positive reinforcement for it and if you think that it at least has the potential to be really great, whatever that is.
And so, I find it really important to encourage that for young people. Whether or not it’s great right now, the potential for greatness is there and that’s what keeps you going. Then a few years later, you can add in the humility that comes along with that. The world has no problem crushing your dreams. We don’t need to assist in that. The actual more difficult thing is to realize that the dream is what keeps you working at the thing and that’s what actually makes you great at the thing, right?
Nicole Hurd: Part of this podcast is to give advice to students and advisers and lift them up. And so Daveed and Cam, as we get short on time here, let’s talk about what’s the one thing you want—2020 has been a difficult year—what’s the one thing that you would say to a student right now or to an adviser right now to lift them up?
Daveed Diggs: I would say that your success in making it through this moment, it’s going to put a ton of perspective on things later in life. It is unprecedented what we’re going through, I think. Everything’s going to be different after it, but because of your unique positioning in it being a student right now, being someone who is sort of trying to figure things out and coming into their own right now, you’re actually going to be more equipped to deal with the future than I think the rest of us are. Because that’s what this time in your life is. It is about developing tools for the future. I’ve already developed my tools and they are irrelevant for the moment that we’re in. Whereas you’re creating a brand-new toolbox in a way that we haven’t seen before.
So, I hope you are encouraged by that. It sounds exhausting but the flip of that is that really, those of us who are older are going to be turning to you for advice I think, if we’re smart. We’re going to be looking to you to tell us how to really navigate the future of things, because we didn’t learn how to. We didn’t come up in this time. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And you did.
Metacognition is a term I learned in college. That’s a very Brown University-ass term that is not really worth getting into but think about what you’re thinking. Pay attention to the different ways that you are thinking right now and sort of just take note of them because I’m going to be mining them from you in the near future. I need to know how you think right now. It’s important.
Cam: Yeah, and I’ll piggyback off of that. Perseverance right now is definitely what we all want to see. I think, like Daveed said, getting through this moment is going to… Really, if you can get through this right now, you’re going to be able to get through anything.
At the same time, I also want to give the message of take care of yourself. Do not fall into this capitalistic thing of “I have to be grinding all the time. I have to always be working. I have to be ultra-productive.” Please take care of yourselves because what we are going through right now is not normal. And so as long as you can get through the day, as long as you can get through the week and be okay, then that is okay. Everything else after that comes second.
That does not mean that those things don’t have consequences. Of course, as an adviser and as a person and as a person of color, I want to tell everybody: do the best that you can because we’re already in this place of… It’s already harder. You know what I’m saying? It’s already harder for people like us, for young people, for people of color, et cetera. But at the same time, I cannot say, “Don’t take care of yourself.” And if doing ultra-productiveness means you’re not taking care of yourself, that’s second. You’re human first.
So, do as much as you can. And after that, we’ll get it all later. 2021, 2022. We’ll make up for it hopefully, but just take care of yourself right now and get through the year, get through these times.
Nicole Hurd: Cam, that was beautiful. Let me just close by saying this is why I want everybody to spend some time with the two of you. One way to get through this is self-care. The other is just to rely on each other, right? To lean on each other. I will confess that Daveed’s phone will show you that I lean on him way too much ‘cause I’m blowing up his phone all the time. And Cam, again, you’re one of those people that keeps me going. So, I’m glad that the rest of the podcast world, the rest of the College Advising Corps world gets to spend some time with the two of you because you two are the reason why I do what I do.
So, thank you for the light and love you bring. Thank you for spending some time on this podcast. Any final goodbye you want to say as we wind down here?
Daveed Diggs: Thank you everybody for listening. Students and advisers, keep doing the thing. It inspires me and we need you out there, so thank you. As always, just thank you. And Cam in particular, thank you. It’s incredible watching your work from afar. I think you know because you keep doing it, but the real world-like difference that you’re making in the lives of a lot of people, it’s really inspirational.
Thank you for doing it and for putting it on for the Bay and for helping keep our kids safe.
Cam: Most definitely. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate all y’all do. And I appreciate all my advisers out there, all my students. Like I said, keep pushing. Keep pushing through these times. We’ll get through them together.
Nicole Hurd: All right. Well, until next time. Thank you both so much. Please follow us and please check us out at collegeadvisingcorp.org.