The Actor, Activist and Certified Yoga Instructor on turning pain into purpose
Within minutes of watching Etienne Maurice lead his weekly yoga session in Hancock Park, it’s evident that you’re not just watching a health enthusiast encourage the crowd to breathe deeply while stretching, you’re experiencing someone who’s walking in their purpose. Through WalkGood LA, Maurice leads weekly donation based yoga classes that are family and beginner friendly.
As the son of legendary actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, it would be easy for Maurice to simply rest on his laurels as a Hollywood socialite. Instead, he uses his influence to be vocal about racial injustices and social action. This includes using his Instagram page to encourage his nearly 32,000 followers to vote by publicly endorsing Los Angeles Mayoral Candidate, Representative Karen Bass.
As WalkGood LA celebrates its two year anniversary, the brand has built a loyal following of approximately two hundred weekly attendees. While the number may seem intimidating, Maurice and his team which includes his sister Ivy Coco Maurice and cousin Marley Rae have curated a space that feels warm, welcoming and inviting.
Following a recent yoga session where Maurice candidly shared a powerful testimony regarding his own mental health journey, he spoke exclusively with the LA Sentinel about the personal events and racial injustices that led him to create WalkGood LA.
LA Sentinel: What was the catalyst for creating the WalkGood LA?
Etienne Maurice: When Ahmaud Arbery was killed, I was really frustrated and anxious. He was running in his own neighborhood, he looked like me, he was doing things that I would do in my community and was murdered in the middle of the street. I was wondering why no one out there was coming together. We were in limbo trying to figure out if we should protest or stay home. Then after George Floyd [was killed] I decided I had to do something. So I’d attend other people’s protests and I felt something, but I also believed I could do it myself, I could bring people together. I had grown my social media following and I felt like I could organize on my own [protest]. So that’s when I started “Walk Good, Run Good: Twice As Hard To Protest”. I then decided to call it “WalkGood LA”, to make it more inclusive, so that we could build a community around it.
We went to LA High Memorial Park which is down the street from my house and we started protesting every Saturday. The first protest, we had over 400 people show up in solidarity, to get their bodies moving and to also fight for those who were no longer here with us, taken at the hands of racial injustice.
When my cousin Marley, who’s a yoga instructor began leading stretches, it was like a light bulb went off, ‘We should do yoga in the park!’ And the next week, the day after Juneteenth, we did “BreatheGood” and about 35 people showed up. That next week we doubled in size to 50 people, then 100 people the following week and then we were taking over the entire park. At that point, we knew we couldn’t just stop and here we are two years later continuing to breathe for those that are no longer able to breathe with us. WalkGood is a living, breathing memorial to all those that we’ve lost. And it’s definitely been a resource and a tool for me and so many others to grieve and mourn those that we’ve lost on what seems to be a daily basis at the hands of racial injustice.
WalkGood is also a homage to our loved ones. My grandmother would remind me to ‘walk good’ everytime I would leave the house. She was Jamaican so ‘walk good’ is a Jamaican euphemism that many of the elders actually use on a daily basis to remind their children to take care and be well. So I thought what better way to honor my Jamaican grandmother and my heritage than to call my community, WalkGood.
LAS: You’re also an actor, a producer and Founder of WalkGood Productions. How does filmmaking intertwine with yoga?
EM: I feel like the best flows happen when you tell a story, when you figure out what is the intention that you’re trying to convey to your audience and I think the same goes for filmmaking. When you’re shooting a film, acting, writing or producing, what are you trying to say? What are the words or actions that you want people to leave the theater with? I’ve been able to tell my story much clearer because I’ve been taking time to be still, reflect and really access the memories and experiences that I tried for so long to forget. I think [yoga] allowed me to be open and honest about who I am and where I’m going in life. I think yoga, filmmaking and storytelling are really one in the same.
LAS: I appreciated your vulnerability during the yoga session in sharing that a decade ago, you were placed in a 5150 hold for your physical and mental wellbeing. What led you to be so transparent about your mental health journey during the yoga session?
EM: If it’s one thing I learned from my mother, it’s being able to stand in your truth and be able to be the voice for those who think they don’t have a voice and help them realize that they do. You never know how many people may have come to yoga that day that have also gone through what I went through in being placed on a 5150. Through WalkGood, I always want to speak out about what I’ve been through in hopes that someone will be inspired to tell their story and get that weight lifted off of their chest because that’s what it is, a weight, an anxiety. You may feel ashamed that you’ve gone through something because you might feel like it’s taboo when really it’s not. You never know how you might help someone just by sharing your story.
In celebration of Mental Health Awareness month, I thought it was appropriate to share why we’re here and why I built the WalkGood community because I remember when I didn’t have a community to fall back on. Yes, I had family and friends but no one could really understand what I went through. Which is why I believe WalkGood has become so successful and grown in number and size. People connect with what we’ve been doing for the last two years because it comes from such a genuine, honest, open place and people feel safe. I honestly believe I went through all my trauma to be a vessel–to be able to share my story and tell people that I’m not defined by my past or my trauma.
LAS: Can you give more insight into how being a victim of gun violence impacted the way you move through life?
EM: Of course. When I got shot, a lot of people saw me and thought, ‘Wow, you dont look like a survivor of gun violence.’ That just goes to show you it could happen to anybody. It happened eleven months after I went on the 5150. The 5150 was caused by a brain injury I sustained after getting into a car accident. I fell asleep at the wheel because I was drunk. Eleven months later I got shot because I was drunk even though the doctor had told me not to drink or smoke but low and behold I woke up with two bullet holes in my leg and a grazed bullet, not being able to recollect anything that happened the night prior. It was definitely a wake up call to move differently because obviously what I was doing wasn’t working.
I talk about advocacy and being able to be a voice for others because you don’t know how many people have called me or reached out to me via social media who are also survivors of gun violence but were too ashamed to share their story. I recently had a friend tell me they had gotten shot and they’re still learning how to get through it. I told them the only way you’re going to be able to get through it is getting to a place where you’re able to talk about what happened. And that’s going to take time. I learned very early on that I have to share what I went through, because it may help someone and I think I’m doing a pretty good job at that.
ZD: I can tell from your social media (@WalkGoodEtienne on Instagram) that you’re really passionate about what you’re doing.
EM: That’s what it’s about, being able to turn your pain into purpose. It does no one any good when you sit in that pain and wallow in anger and frustration. Think about how you can be a blessing to someone and how you’re able to show gratitude for being alive. When I look at all of my life experiences, I tell God, ‘Thank You.’ You spared my life and I’m here for a bigger purpose’ and I think WalkGood is that purpose.
To learn more about WalkGood LA and attend a yoga session, follow @WalkGoodLA on Instagram.