The actor, activist and certified yoga instructor on turning pain into a goal
Within minutes of watching Etienne Maurice lead his weekly yoga session at Hancock Park, it’s clear that you’re not just watching a health enthusiast encourage the crowd to take a deep breath while stretching, but you’re experiencing someone pursuing their goal. 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 speak out about racial injustices and social action. This includes using his Instagram page to encourage his nearly 32,000 followers to vote by publicly supporting Los Angeles Mayor Representative Karen Bass.
As WalkGood LA celebrates its two-year anniversary, the brand has built a loyal following of approximately two hundred weekly visitors. While the number may seem intimidating, Maurice and his team, including his sister Ivy Coco Maurice and cousin Marley Rae, have put together a space that feels warm, welcoming and inviting.
After a recent yoga session in which Maurice candidly shared a powerful testimony about 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?
Stefan Maurits: When Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, I was really frustrated and anxious. He ran in his own neighborhood, he looked like me, he did things I would do in my community and was killed in the middle of the street. I wondered why no one gathered there. We were in limbo trying to figure out whether to protest or stay home. Then after George Floyd [was killed] I decided I had to do something. So I went to other people’s protests and I felt something, but I also believed that I could do it myself, I could bring people together. I had grown my followers on social media and I felt like I could organize it on my own [protest]† So then I started “Walk Good, Run Good: Twice As Hard To Protest”. I decided to call it “WalkGood LA” then, to make it more inclusive so we could build a community around it.
We went to LA High Memorial Park just down the street from my house and we started protesting every Saturday. At the first protest, more than 400 people showed up in solidarity, to get their bodies moving and also to fight for those who were no longer with us, taken by racial injustice.
When my cousin Marley, who is a yoga instructor, started stretching, it was like a light bulb went out: ‘We should be doing 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 took over the whole park. At that point we knew we couldn’t just stop and two years later we continue to breathe for those who can no longer breathe with us. WalkGood is a living, breathing memorial to all those we have lost. And it has certainly been a resource and a resource for me and so many others to grieve and mourn those we have lost on what appears to be a daily basis at the hands of racial injustice.
WalkGood is also a tribute to our loved ones. My grandmother reminded me to “walk well” every time I left the house. She was Jamaican, so “walk good” is a Jamaican euphemism that many of the elderly use on a daily basis to remind their children to take good care of and be healthy. So I thought, what better way to honor my Jamaican grandmother and my heritage than calling my community WalkGood.
LAS: You are also an actor, a producer and founder of WalkGood Productions. How does filmmaking intertwine with yoga?
EM: I feel like the best flow comes when you tell a story, when you figure out what the meaning is that you’re trying to convey to your audience, and I think the same goes for making movies. What are you trying to say when you shoot, act, write or produce a movie? With what words or actions do you want people to leave the theater? I’ve been able to tell my story much more clearly because I’ve taken the time to be still, think, and really access the memories and experiences I’ve tried to forget for so long. I think [yoga] allowed me to be open and honest about who I am and where I am going in life. I think yoga, filmmaking and storytelling are really one in the same.
LAS: I appreciated your vulnerability during the yoga session by sharing that ten years ago you were placed in a 5150 grip for your physical and mental well-being. Why were you so transparent about your mental health journey during the yoga session?
EM: If there’s one thing I learned from my mom, it’s to be able to stand in your truth and be the voice for those who think they don’t have a voice and help them realize they do. You never know how many people came to yoga that day who also went through what I went through when I was put on a 5150. Through WalkGood, I always want to share what I’ve been through in hopes that someone will inspire you to tell their story and drop that weight off their chest because that’s what it is, a weight, a fear. You may feel ashamed that you have experienced something because you may feel that it is taboo when in reality it is not. You never know how you could help someone just by sharing your story.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, I thought it was appropriate to share why we are here and why I built the WalkGood community, as I remember not having a community to fall back on. Yes, I had family and friends, but no one could really understand what I was going through. That is why I believe that WalkGood has become so successful and has grown in number and size. People feel connected to what we’ve been doing over the past two years because it comes from such a genuine, honest, open place and people feel safe. I honestly believe that I went through all my trauma to be a vessel – to be able to share my story and tell people that I am not defined by my past or my trauma.
LAS: Can you provide more insight into how being a victim of gun violence has affected the way you go through life?
EM: Naturally. When I was shot, a lot of people saw me and thought, ‘Wow, you don’t look like a survivor of gun violence.’ That just goes to show that it can happen to anyone. It happened eleven months after I went on the 5150. The 5150 was caused by a brain injury I sustained after a car accident. I fell asleep at the wheel because I was drunk. Eleven months later I was shot for being drunk, even though the doctor had told me not to drink or smoke, but softly and lo, I woke up with two bullet holes in my leg and a worn bullet, and couldn’t remember anything happened the night before. It was definitely a wake-up call to move, because it was clear that 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 called me or contacted me on social media who are also survivors of gun violence but were too embarrassed to share their story. Recently a friend had told me that they had been shot and that they are still learning how to get through it. I told them the only way to get through it is to go to a place where you can talk about what happened. And that will take time. I learned very early on that I have to share what I’ve been through because it can help someone and I think I’m pretty good at that.
ZD: I can tell from your social media (@WalkGoodEtienne on Instagram) that you are really passionate about what you do.
EM: That’s what it’s about, being able to turn your pain into a goal. It does no one any good if you are in that pain and wallowing in anger and frustration. Think about how you can bless someone and show gratitude for being alive. When I look at all my life experiences, I say to God, ‘Thank you.’ You saved my life and I’m here for a greater cause” and I think WalkGood is that purpose.
Follow @WalkGoodLA on Instagram to learn more about WalkGood LA and to attend a yoga session.