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This 27-Year-Old Left Corporate To Be A SoulCycle Instructor

BOSS UP

The room was a kind of sticky warmth that hinted that nobody was leaving without a good sweat.


I clipped my shoes onto the pedals and began to cycle slowly, warming up my stiff calf muscles as I mentally prepared for the workout ahead. The door closed shut, leaving me and a handful of others in a nearly dark room, lights dimmed and candles flickering at the front of the instructors' stage. Dani Robertson paced back and forth, warmly greeting individuals with smiles and promises of a judgment free zone where old and new comers could relax and unwind. There were no real rules but one—you had to quiet the negative thoughts for the entire 45-minute SoulCycle session and “choose happy."

“In my classes I like to call it 'happy hour,'" Robertson says. “It's basically a time where you go to class and set your own intention. You want to go and get some things off your chest. You want to sweat."

The idea of choosing to be happy—choosing to live a life that you love—may seem foreign to some and impossible to many, but for Robertson, it's become her life mantra. At 27, she's chosen a path where many fear to go, one where you eradicate self-doubt and ratify possibility. A year ago, Robertson wouldn't have guessed that she'd leave behind her "traditional" job in ad sales to venture into a career path that is still somewhat undefined, and three months ago you couldn't have told her that she would be leading a room of others on their own individual journeys of freedom and self-awareness.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Robertson didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. She tried sports and various activities in hopes of finding the one thing that made her feel “full," but all came up short when it came to fulfillment—or purpose.

What she did know was that she wanted something that made her feel alive and motivated her to wake up every morning in anticipation of the day ahead. Although money was important, it wasn't the motive. Living with just her mom and twin brother she understood the hunger for it, but refused to feed into it. “I realized at a young age that money is just a means to an end; it doesn't really complete anything internally," Robertson says. “I knew that people feared money. I knew it was something that was needed in order to do good and live a certain lifestyle. But I knew I wasn't going to allow that to bully me into a lifestyle that I didn't want."

"I realized at a young age that money is just a means to an end."

After graduating from Georgia State University, she took a job in New York at a publicity agency that she interned with the previous summer, but after two months of waking up to a job that robbed her of her joy, she quit. “I was like I can't be this miserable. I can't look forward to another week of this misery."

Thanks to a few connections and a surprisingly good interview, she snagged a position in ad sales at Nickelodeon. But like the previous job, she had a gnawing feeling that she was settling for a steady paycheck. “I've always believed in my heart that everybody knows how they feel within themselves," says Robertson. “It's nothing that they can describe. Everyone has their thing that they know deep within their heart, and one of the things that I knew was that I always felt like I was supposed to be happy. I always thought that was something I was supposed to always feel. I expected to feel it."

Thinking that a change of scenery would do the trick, Robertson left behind her New York lifestyle and transferred to the L.A. office under the assumption that the more laid-back atmosphere and sun-filled days would be just the antidote to her career woes. “I thought that would do it. I thought that would break the chain, and it didn't."

Robertson was unsure of her next steps, but remained opened to new experiences that would reveal the answer. When a friend invited her to the gun range she obliged (though she firmly states that she's against gun violence), and found herself gripping a shotgun, too scared to pull the trigger. “I was petrified. I did everything that you had to do and all I had to do was pull the trigger. It was probably the most symbolic moment of my life. I remember telling my friend I'm not ready; I don't think I have a good grip. And all I had to do was make my index finger move, and I was afraid. I somehow told my finger to move and I did it and then it was like everything was fine. It was like trusting what I believe in my heart and that I should be happy, and that if it doesn't make me happy, then for lack of a better reference, pull the trigger."

But as the experience showed her, firing the proverbial gun was easier said than done. She left Nickelodeon at the end of the summer, and by fall she was working in ad sales at Quantcast—a company that she describes as good, but not good enough. “Good is awesome, but in my life it's not good enough. I should reach for great and excellent, and I should literally max out what I can do. Good is cool, but if there's more, why don't I deserve to get more?"

Robertson stayed a few more months but her mind had already left the job, and as one door prepared to close, signs lit the path to another that stood open. The first came in the form of a friend, who encouraged Robertson to try out a SoulCycle class. The session proved to be both physically and emotionally challenging, forcing her to push beyond her limits as tears streamed down her cheeks. After one session she was hooked. “There were certain instructors who could literally call that out of me. They would inspire me to work harder, and I was moved, but I was scared. It was like I would love to do that, but I can't. That's not even my vibe. It just wasn't me, but I kept riding as rider."

Robertson quieted the thought of leading the pack until once again purpose gave her a nudge while attending a SoulCycle session at Oprah's “Live the Life You Want" tour. “I don't believe in coincidences; I believe that everything happens on purpose and with reason, and so it was there so I was like okay cool. It's a sign."

"I don't believe in coincidences; I believe that everything happens on purpose and with reason."

She took on a part-time position as a front-desk attendant at the Santa Monica studio while continuing to work full-time at her job and attending class as a rider, but by the spring she once again felt that it was time leave her full-time position to pursue the one thing that brought her fulfillment. “I remember being on the bike like this is fun, this is ridiculously fun. It was an amazing pressure to literally figure out what I wanted to do and what I loved, and what I cared enough to wake up early in the morning for. “

In her downtime, she also focused on finding happiness within herself through reading and meditation, what she refers to as training. “Sometimes your mind is so chaotic that it just won't settle down. You go to bed at night and you can't focus. You want to fall asleep but you can't fall asleep, and you have to be able to calm yourself down and get your mind to be at peace. So I learned a lot about that. I really just got in touch with me and what I wanted and what I thought I wanted, and I was riding more. I could tell that I was just feeling better."

During one particular session she unknowingly rode next to a scout. A week later she ran into the same woman on her way down the escalator when the scout stopped and asked if she ever considered being an instructor. “It was such a moment of validation and I was extremely shy at the moment. It's the sweetest compliment you can ever get, like you can do what you never thought you could do. It really opened me up emotionally."

After going through an intensive training program—one that challenged her core values and gave her an even deeper understanding of who she is—she was ready to guide others on their quest for finding their own happiness. “I've had certain riders tell me, 'Wow you really made my week' or 'I never thought I'd cry,'" she recalls excitedly. “Like this is real life. This is how life should feel. We should be moved."

And in Robertson's class you'll feel just that. As I pedaled feverishly over the next 45-minutes, I challenged myself to be present, to tap into the thoughts and emotions that often spill onto the pages of my journal and in the occasional text message to a confidant. As she sporadically shouted out affirmations I reflected on my own dreams and goals, and asked myself the same question that she did just a year ago: Why don't I deserve to get more?

“So often I was held back by fear. A beautiful quote that I heard is 'feel the fear, but do it anyway.' Don't run from fear but go deep within it. That's how you get rid of it and that's how you get better.

If you sit there and your life becomes average or not what you want it to be then it was your decision. And I just always felt that I was more powerful than fear."

Likewise, girl. Likewise.

Want to #chooseHappy and ride out with Dani? Head over to the SoulCycle location in Downtown Los Angeles.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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