Roshanda (Roe) Cummings and Erin (E) Johnson // Brownkids
For Roe Cummings and E Johnson, living simply is about getting free. Together, they live in a teeny, tiny Baltimore, Maryland apartment and chronicle their journey toward liberation on their Instagram account, brownkids. Here’s their perspective on striving toward debt-free living, emboldening communities of color, generational trauma and healing, and thriving in a truly tiny space.
ERIN: We’ll get into specifics, but let’s start with you sharing a bit about yourself with RMTL readers who might not be familiar with your work.
ROE + E: Hi, Everyone! I’m Roe and he’s E and we’re Brownkids. Minimalists? Uh-yeah, you could say that. Intentional Living Advocates? No doubt. Debt-free folks? Almost there. But more than anything, we are two brown people who looked at each other a couple years ago and decided we were going to live our liberation now. Not tomorrow. Not someday. Right now.
So, that’s what we’ve been doing: ditching the stuff that doesn’t matter and figuring out how to make powerful of all our moments, while we host the wildest-open-hearted Instagram community interested in doing the same.
I asked E once what he hoped for these Insta-squares and he took a long moment to think before he spoke: “I want to embolden communities of color economically and financially….with the end game being a more perfect union, in the face of inequality.”
And this, to me, brings that all home—makes ‘our work’ make sense. What we’re up to in the world is this: freedom for all of us through mind, body, and minimalism.
This is the story of us empowering ourselves. We’re so happy you’re here.
ERIN: You’ve recently moved across the country into a tiny space in a new city. People often think of living in small spaces as being confining, but what are the ways that you’ve found it to be liberating, close quarters aside?
ROE: (Oh my gosh…I’m realizing I want to call you, reader, “Family”, just like I do our community every day) Everyone, I want you to know I own a copy of Erin’s book, Simple Matters. It lives in one of the hallowed book boxes waiting to be unpacked and placed on shelves in a place of honor. I read that book and thought to myself, “She gets it. She really actually gets this small living stuff.”
And now that we have downsized from 800 square feet (74 m2) to ONE-HUNDRED AND FORTY SQUARE FEET (13 meters square for our International Loves), I find myself clinging to its principles: Don’t rush into buying anything until you know how you’re using the space; every item counts; look for antiques and wood pieces you can keep with you for a lifetime.
Because right now, as I wait, I’m feeling downright claustrophobic. It doesn’t have a kitchen (long story) and the row-house situation custom to Baltimore is like sharing a room with your brother but your brother is your neighbor and he does Riverdance in the evenings.
The whole reason, however, we decided to make such a hilarious leap is we’re training for van life actually—to spend time in the daily lives of everyone who’s followed us over the past 6 years ( or at least that’s what we keep reminding ourselves, hahaha) and we knew it was going to be harder to jump for 800 to 75sq feet than from 150 to 75, so we chose to go for this.
The liberating feeling rushes in when we remember the end goal, make creative plans for small space solutions we would N E V E R have come up with had lived somewhere larger, and, we spend more time outside, period, getting to know our new neighborhood.
ERIN: Liberation, freedom, unapologetic living, empowerment—these are words you guys often use to describe your journey. They sound like words—and destinations—that most folks would find appealing, but no doubt they have specific and special meaning for Black folks. Can you talk a bit about that?
ROE: Oh, yeah! Favorite question!! Oh man oh man oh man oh man…I could go so many dorky, nerdy ways with this.
Alright, let’s get nerdy. Why these words mean something profound to Black Folks these days is because we’re entering an age where we don’t have to taste them as concepts on our tongues, we can live them.
And, when we do live them, something happens in us. And our children.
It’s no secret that Black Americans have been systematically boxed out of economic opportunities, property ownership, and the social freedom to do as they wished (In Baltimore, freed slaves were exclusively kept from trades; e.g. carpentry, blacksmithing, cobblers, gunsmiths, milliners, etc., until the 1940s. These jobs were higher paying jobs, setting back 2 to 3 generations of men and women from not only stable forms of income, but also passing on legacy vocational skills to their children. Imagine how that could affect upward mobility). So, black folks alive today carry those implications not just historically but genetically.
But this is where it gets exciting: Studies have shown, in the emerging field of epigenetics, that what was possible for our parents came with us in our DNA and that whatever we ourselves heal and unleash in our lifetimes becomes healed and unleashed in our children’s DNA.
Meaning: That for anyone marginalized in any way historically—if you dare to live liberated right now, that new possibility actually passes down to the next generation. So, for Black People, why not go all out? Throw off all chains, heal yourself, and free yourself from the ways you may have been held back—fault of yours or not—if it can lift us all up to the next level. The question, “What do I want to make possible?” when I wake up every morning as a black woman in America, takes on an all new, profound meaning.
ERIN: Can you share what it’s like to be a couple doing this work and why you’ve chosen to share your journey publicly?
ROE: I’ll punt this over to E for the beginning of this answer because he’s so good at things like this.
E: For me, this started as a chronicling of our relationship and nothing more than that! And now this is just the story of us freeing ourselves paired with the information we receive that we feel isn’t ours to have alone. We have a saying, “We all gettin’ free,” and that means that the lesson of freedom isn’t ours alone.
ROE: Me, what it’s like? Surprising. Shocking. A whirlwind, most times. We seriously were just taking pictures of ourselves for our friends and our account exploded. It feels heartwarming to know there are so many people rooting for you as much as they are rooting for themselves; who’ll do anything for you (when we shared all of our design challenges for the tiny space, I received 300 DMs from people that day who took the time to GO OUT on the internet and find bed options for us, I kid you not). I take my responsibility as this internet person very seriously: If I’m learning something that’s helpful, I want our IG family to know about it. And that takes a lot of personal work on my end, making sure I’m filtering out any crap, resisting the temptation to be another excuse to “buy stuff”, and keeping myself clear about where it is I am going in life.
If you’re going to lead, lead with integrity, spirit, and generosity. In that order.
ERIN: You guys are both infectiously good spirited. How do you guys stay cheery even in the midst of doing things that, frankly, a lot of folks would find to be intensely stressful? (Letting go of worldly possessions, hiking through the California wilderness, moving into a tiny place in a new city—on a new coast!, etc.)
ROE: HAHAHAHAH. Ohhhhgodddd, I think it’s just too much work to be anything else.
E: Of all the possible lives I could choose to live, it just doesn’t make sense to me to choose the life where I’m stressed in it.
ERIN: You developed the Jar Method and coach folks on how to integrate it into their lives. Can you explain a little bit about how it works, but especially how it hits that sweet spot of simplicity and frugality that makes up so much of your work?
ROE: Oh, gosh, totally! I decided I was going to get out of debt. But instead of trying to get a higher paying job, I came to the conclusion that I should get rid of my debt so I wouldn’t have to have a terrible job to pay off my debt. So, that meant: “Girl, you gotta get your money right.” And, by money, I meant expenses, and my expenses were all going to food.
E was and is vegan and we’d go to Whole Foods for fresh vegetables and watch our hard earn money wilt 3 days later. I made a decision: if you can keep your vegetables longer, your money will go farther, and you won’t spend as much.
The Jar Method was an accident. I O B S E S S I V E L Y researched food storage (because, dammit, I’m going to figure this out) and made a connection to glass and cold circulation. Our refrigerator was a crappy rental fridge, so I bought 64 oz mason jars to store greens and smaller jars to store chopped vegetables, and bought all of our food for a MONTH in one shopping trip (since I read from Linda Watson, this one smart). E was agog. “Why are we spending $350 on groceries?!? At one time!!” I told him to trust me.
By combining glass and methods, our fresh vegetables went from 3 days of freshness to 3 weeks. Before, we spent $850 on food every month as a city couple. The first time we tried this, we saved $500, eating produce we no longer had to rush to eat. I perfected it and created The Jar Method to satisfy our community who hounded us about it for 2 years.
It’s the simplicity and frugality sweet spot because you no longer spend your money in a way that doesn’t multiply. You eat your values, to your health, and to your sanity. Expediting your financial goals, not impeding them, which feels SO. damn. Good. And, once you learn it, you want to tell everyone, it’s so awesome, and you have command over your home and money in a way you didn’t think possible — so you can do other things you a c t u a l l y want to do. (But most of the time walking around feeling like I’m adulting well is actually what I’m here for.)
ERIN: I imagine that you might hear from some folks who are fascinated by following along with your story, but who feel, for whatever reason, like the kind of freedom that you enjoy wouldn’t be accessible to them because of jobs, family, kids, health, or any of the other kinds of things that tend to keep folks from, in your words, getting free. What would your message be for these folks? How can people who aren’t ready to take the whole plunge still manage to get their feet wet?
ROE: E and I lived under the poverty line for 6 years.
We’ve never made over $40,000, combined.
We don’t have a car. We don’t own property quite yet.
We’re from an historically marginalized group, where in some situations in America, we have to watch our behavior or it could mean our lives.
I came from a traumaaaatic background and I never thought I’d get out of the cycle of being chronically overworked and underpaid.
And today, I blink with wonder at the life I get to play in every day.
It’s not luck, it’s not chance, it’s not limited, and it’s not elite.
I think the guy on the Bigger Pockets podcast is spot on:
When you decide these things, in this order, your life is going to pick up speed:
(1) Know what you want and (2) do something about it.
Really. Consistently. Gently, but with determination.
Say it out loud. Tell people about it. Make it plain. Then watch what happens when your will meets your magic. Hold on, kiddos.
To see more of Roe and E’s work, follow brownkids on Instagram.
To learn how to slash your grocery bill, consider The Jar Method.
The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own Simple Matters story came out in January of 2016. It’s still available where most books are sold. (Signed copies are available locally at Stories Bookshop!)