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How Protest Birthed A Wellness Movement

How I Got Started: Community Builder Etienne Maurice

A year ago I went to my first public yoga event hosted by the wellness group WalkGood LA. It was in Kenneth Hahn Park on a Sunday and, for a Black woman like me in Los Angeles, it was a breath of fresh air — a sip of an ice cold Arnold Palmer on a breezy day.

Picture this: dozens of Black and brown folks of all ages — some with young kids hanging around their necks — doing sun salutations and warrior poses on a wide, green lawn surrounded by trees. Everyone was breathing in and out in unison. It was a special moment — and not something I would have expected even five years ago.

Several brown-skinned people engage in a yoga pose at a park.

WalkGood LA hosts a weekly yoga session called BreatheGood every Sunday at Kenneth Hahn Park.

To be frank, when I was growing up, you didn’t see a lot of Black people in yoga class; it is — or was — often seen as something for “other” people …white people, wealthier people. Yet here we were in Baldwin Hills, the Black Beverly Hills. What a calming balm for my soul.

WalkGood LA is born

WalkGood LA was started three years ago in June of 2020 by filmmaker and actor Etienne Maurice, driven by a need to connect with the community — and to protest. It was the height of the pandemic and George Floyd Jr. had just been murdered by police. A few weeks earlier, the nation saw the leaked video of three white men killing Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, for simply jogging through the neighborhood earlier that year.

Looking back on that moment, Maurice says he was sad, angry and scared. But instead of wallowing in that pain, anger and frustration, he wanted to do something.

“We are inundated with nothing but information and news where trauma is just becoming the norm and none of us have an outlet to release that pain, to release that frustration, to release that trauma and face that trauma in a healthy way,” Maurice says.

He sent out a flier to people in his community to meet at a Mid City park on June 13, 2020. A lot of folks showed up. They did yoga. They worked on their breath. They marched.

The rest became history.

Now WalkGood LA has expanded its reach throughout the city. It’s all run by volunteers and organizers who host yoga sessions (BreatheGood) , run clubs (RunGood) , group hikes (HikeGood) and wellness sessions (YouGood?) with a goal of creating a community for Black and brown folks to get outside and into their bodies. Classes are free, although there is an option to make a donation.

“I didn’t think yoga and mindfulness and wellness was for me because I didn’t see it in my community,” Maurice says. “And now what we’re doing with WalkGood, we’re showing that there are people of color who really care about this.”

To learn more about how Maurice got this movement started, the How to LA team met up with him at the park where it all began: LA High Memorial Park. My colleague Brian De Los Santos and I had an extended conversation with Maurice that you can listen to here. Or read the excerpt below.

Five questions for Etienne Maurice

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe that first day you started WalkGood …

My cousin Marley Ralph just got let go from a yoga studio. I thought it would be a good idea to have her just guide everybody in some stretches and some breathwork and meditation before we did this protest. I remember seeing a sea of Black and brown folks doing these yoga poses and it was like, a sense of calmness and stillness that hadn’t been experienced or felt in a while. I just remember being very present in the moment, and I was like “We need to do this every week.”

We would have like 200, 300 people here in this park. People would donate water and snacks and masks. We’d raise money and we’d donate to families who had lost loved ones at the hands of racial injustice.

Then we’d walk and we’d all kneel for five minutes in a moment of silence, a moment of protest. It’s crazy even thinking about this now, like, how bold we were just to stop traffic. A lot of people were finding their voices through these protests, people who were afraid.

Where does the name WalkGood come from?

“Walk good” means to take care of yourself. When you’re out there in the world, be good. Take care of yourself. Make sure you come back.

I was inspired by my grandmother, who’s of Jamaican descent, who, you know, she was always telling me to ‘walk good’. {It’s} what the elders tell their children, their nieces, their nephews, their grandchildren in Jamaica whenever they leave the house.

Two brown-skinned Black men engage in a yoga pose at a park.

WalkGood LA’s weekly yoga session, BreatheGood, is usually held on Sundays at Kenneth Hahn Park.

Who inspires you? 

I’m truly inspired by my mother’s (Emmy-Award winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph) strength and her courage. She’s very outspoken. And she’s always been the same person you see in the interviews, the person you see on stage and when she’s accepting her award. My sister and I always laugh because, sometimes, when she does her speeches, we mimic her a lot. She speaks with such bravado and such strength and courage.

I would ask my mom, “How are you able to just speak to a whole crowd like that with no pen and paper with nothing prepared?’ She’s like, “Etienne, I just stand there. And I envision all the people and I just feel the spirit. I just feel the energy in the room. And I just let it come out of me.”

She’s been through the ups and downs of Hollywood and life. And she knows that we’ve all experienced some type of pain, some type of hurt. But there is still hope, we must still have faith. My mom has instilled those same values in me.

What has been your greatest challenge? 

I think the first challenge we had was not getting support from the city. When we were at (LA High Memorial Park), we didn’t have permits. Obviously people live here. We did have the support of the community. But there were one or two people that just did not like the fact that we were coming together here at this park.

We’re no longer here because the city kicked us out. And so we had to fight tooth and nail to find a new park that was going to welcome us. But we got the support and the help from L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell to be at Kenneth Hahn.

That was a blessing in disguise. We’re now in a neighborhood that’s being heavily gentrified, that is a predominantly Black neighborhood, where now we can be of service to that community that needs us the most. It just fits. We’re in a space where it’s private, it’s safe. People don’t have to worry about the outside energy.

We were able to put together a proposal and we were able to receive a grant from Supervisor Mitchell … so that now first 150 people that come to BreatheGood on Sunday, they get a free parking pass.

People now have access to participate in these things where they don’t have to pay $80 a month or $120 a month to go to a yoga studio. They can now participate in their backyard … we’re introducing them to something that is beneficial to their mind, body and spirit. I think that’s the shift that we’re seeing, for communities of color to engage more into these wellness practices.

Why is WalkGood LA so important for communities of color? 

I feel like people need people. Black people need to be inspired. There’s no inspiration for us to feel good about ourselves. Given the media, given the tools, the resources, we haven’t been given enough. In every aspect of life, we are lacking. I’m praying that what we’re doing will inspire another community. And it will be a trickle down effect, where we will be able to support each other. There is a need for us to engage in these mindfulness and healing experiences that we never had access to.

The fact that we got Black people coming outside to do yoga shows that something is working.

A brown skinned adult and a brown skinned child engage in a yoga pose in a park.

WalkGood LA holds BreatheGood, a weekly yoga session on Sundays at Kenneth Hahn Park.

I want us to take another step forward. I want us to thrive in this life. Because we deserve it. So the most important thing I want for us to do as a people is to breathe. A lot of us forget to do that one simple thing in through our nose and out through our mouth. The first thing that we have when we come into this world is our breath. The last thing we’re gonna have when we leave this world is our breath. So while we’re here, living on this Earth right now, you might as well learn how to use it.

What’s next for WalkGood

Maurice told us WalkGood LA has secured a studio in the Arlington Heights neighborhood near Mid City. It’s expected to open in September thanks to support from the Propel water company and actor Michael B. Jordan. The goal is to provide yoga and wellness class every day, and not just on Sundays “where,” says Maurice, “people from all walks of life are welcome and can heal.”

Listen to the rest of the conversation on the latest How To LA podcast episode. For more information visit WalkGood LA’s website and Instagram.

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