You can’t create space for the “Hell yeses” if you don’t give the “Hell nos.”
These words of wisdom belong to Cierra Kaler-Jones, who is speaking about the importance of setting boundaries and saying no “as a full sentence – period, full stop” to the things in life that don’t excite you. The movement and meditation instructor, social justice educator, and creative entrepreneur – among an impressive list of other titles – notes this as one of many forms of self-care she strives to practice with intention on a daily basis.
The New Jersey native, who moved to the District six years ago and says the city has always felt like home, has built her entire career on weaving together social justice education, storytelling, dance and meditation/yoga into one space. While this may seem like no easy feat to most of us, she says they all seem to flow together within her trajectory.
“I feel like the universe works itself out so that you’re always aligned toward your purpose,” she says. “You might have different job titles and be in different places, but at the end of the day, it’s the purpose that grounds and guides you forward.”
She began dancing at 5 years old, and says it became a way for her to take up space as a Black woman in an oppressive society. She even went on to dance professionally for the NBA for a time.
“I could physically make myself larger through the practice of dance, and that was the one place where I felt like I could be my most authentic self.”
As a shy student with fears of speaking up and sharing her thoughts and opinions, who felt stifled because of her identity in the classroom, dance became the vehicle through which she could express herself and tell her story. Fast-forward to present day, and Kaler-Jones is now a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park focusing on how young Black women use art-based practices like movement, music and hair as forms of expression, resistance and identity development.
She also works as a fitness instructor for cardio dance studio 305 Fitness, where she’s currently teaching classes both virtually and outdoors. When a friend through 305 offered her the opportunity to run a workshop on storytelling, the final puzzle piece began moving into place. She continued leading workshops and laying the groundwork for her coaching and consulting business, Unlock Your Story, which she founded in October 2019.
She credits a program she launched while pursuing her master’s in education at George Washington University with helping her build the framework for Unlock Your Story. The Speak Your Truth program, which used a storytelling for social justice framework, provided a research and evidence basis to the work she currently does: writing and public speaking coaching, storytelling workshops, and storytelling for social justice consulting.
In addition to coaching sessions, Unlock Your Story hosts two to three events per month, virtually at the moment, and sends out a weekly newsletter. Her business has multiple arms that run parallel but remain interconnected. Sign up for a workshop on developing a strategic plan for your creative project and then spend the first Sunday of the month in a story flow, a yoga practice that includes journaling and meditation – with proceeds benefiting organizations like The Loveland Foundation, which is focused on showing up for communities of color. This month, Kaler-Jones is offering a three-week live series featuring one-hour sessions around heart-centered storytelling.
“It also includes access to a yoga asana practice, a meditation and journaling prompts that support you throughout the week,” she says of the series. “It’s all centered around this idea that in order to tell our stories, we have to be in tune with our heart. That’s where I bring in some of my yoga and meditation background, and thinking about the heart chakra and what lights that up, so we can then lean into radical vulnerability and develop and deepen our relationship with self to then be able to develop and deepen our relationships with others.”
Unlock Your Story has experienced continual growth over the past year, adding people to its collective community through a range of experiences. And while the pandemic weighs heavily on all of us, she says much of her work has already been about creating and holding space for people to process and reflect in this moment.
“Our lives are about shifting and adapting and changing,” Kaler-Jones says of being both an entrepreneur and a creative.
She notes that the results of one activity in particular, free drawing paired with journaling, is beautiful to see.
“We have so many thoughts in our minds. Sometimes, it’s scary to verbalize them because it’s safe within the comfort of our mind. Then when we put it out, it is subject to our own critique – and outer critique. Being able to see [drawing and journaling] together almost gives it a sense of permanence, like, ‘Wow, those are my unconscious thoughts, my feelings put down on paper.”
Ultimately, relationship building and sense of community are the backbone of Unlock Your Story. Each workshop starts out with guiding approaches to how the participants come to the work as well as community agreements – how they would like to show up and how they would like other people to show up for them. One agreement is, “Throw sunshine, not shade.”
“Someone might say something that might not resonate with you. It might not be your experience and you might not agree. In those moments, you ask clarifying questions to learn more about where someone else is coming from and their perspective.”
Another community agreement was inspired by the idea of cookie dough.
“Half-baked ideas are totally welcome in this space. I use that all the time in my professional and personal life. I’m like, ‘This is a cookie dough thought,’ because cookie dough is just as good as the cookie. I try to share it as much as possible so that we can all live in a society where we start to feel more comfortable. sharing our cookie dough thoughts. We offer those community agreements to make people feel comfortable, especially because we can’t be together in person [during Covid].”
When it comes to how she practices self-care, Kaler-Jones digs deep on her response. She’s researched the history of self-care extensively, learning that it was in large part revolutionized by the Black Panther Party and civil rights activists.
“This idea that if the government doesn’t take care of us and if the healthcare system doesn’t take care of us, at the end of the day, we all we got. We have to take care of one another.”
She encourages us as a society to recognize that self-care has to happen in community and we have to reclaim it for ourselves, noting that the practice is often talked about in a way that’s weaponized because it’s viewed as very individualistic by many.
“If meditation doesn’t work for you, don’t meditate. If journaling doesn’t work for you, don’t journal. Find that thing, whatever that is for you. But then also realize that you don’t have to do it alone. Really lean into community, lean into other people, and remember that self-care doesn’t have to be just within yourself. It can be in community, too.”
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