Someone You Should Know: Former Miss New Jersey, Cierra Kaler-Jones, On Taking Leaps and Making Change

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Cierra Kaler-Jones’ accomplishments are not by mistake.

Each and every milestone she’s reached was calculated and designed in order to reach her end goal: making a larger difference in the lives of little girls of color everywhere.

Even as a junior in high school, this has been Cierra’s goal.  At a time when most of us were mainly concerned with Homecoming and college applications, Cierra developed and executed a free arts program that focused on visual and performing arts for girls of color in her hometown.  

Fast forward years later, and she’s recently graduated from Rutgers University with her Bachelors in Social Work, concentrating on Women’s Studies and Race and Ethics Studies.  This degree led her to George Washington University in DC, where she plans to graduate with her Masters in Education and Human Development focusing on Curriculum and Instruction for Elementary Education.  And in the fall, she will begin her PhD program in Minority and Urban Education at the University of Maryland.  And that’s just her educational accomplishments! I failed to mention her previous Miss New Jersey title!

All with the intention of changing the world through reforming curriculum to be more relatable for girls of color. You go girl!

In the midst of her very busy schedule, I was lucky enough to sit down with Cierra (on my couch, with her on the phone) to hear more about what she’s doing to turn her dreams into reality.  

Listen in, this is someone you should know.

You have a laundry list of accomplishments.  To many people, especially those our age, they’d say “Cierra’s done it all!” Do you consider yourself successful?

I do consider myself successful, but I don’t like to rest on my laurels and just wait for the next opportunity.   There’s always room for improvement. I’m always thinking, “Okay, I’m here now, but what’s my next move? How can I be better? What can I do next? What am I really passionate about? How can I harness that passion to make a larger difference?” I really struggle with living in the moment, this is telling. But for me it’s always like, “how can I use this next thing to get to the end goal?”

How can I harness that passion to make a larger difference?

And, what’s that end goal?

My whole goal in life is to make curriculum more relatable to today’s students, specifically girls of color.  

I originally wanted to be in the classroom, but my education experience is a little bit different.  I’m really interested in the structures that help what goes on outside of the classroom – specifically art programs for girls of color.  

Starting in high school and continuing into undergrad, I ran a free arts program that focused on visual and performing arts for girls of color.  The Arts Empowerment Project creates and delivers a research-based arts curriculum that is tailored to the unique needs and interests of students. Our mission is to use arts programming and curricula as a strategy to empower students to be change makers and leaders of social justice.  Basically a strategy to empower them through the arts.

I’ve been dancing since I was 5 years old and I wanted to ensure that other young girls had the opportunity to grow, develop and thrive through being able to participate in the arts. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for low-income girls to participate in arts programs, just because dance is expensive! I wanted to offer them that opportunity.

Is this arts program still running?

We are currently looking to partner with community organizations and schools who want to infuse arts-based programming into their after school and weekend programs. We are also looking to work with teachers who want to incorporate arts activities in their classrooms. The Arts Empowerment Project has partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs/YWCAs, Girl Scout troops, and has given workshops and talks at schools along the East Coast. Please follow @artsempowerproj on Twitter & Instagram and find us on Facebook! If you’re interested in booking a workshop, email artsempowerproj@gmail.com.

I’m baffled because I’ve never personally heard of someone so young being so driven to do something that would directly improve the lives of other people.  How does a high-schooler even come up with this idea and find the resources to execute it?

My junior year of high school, they had budget cuts in the state of New Jersey.  Of course, one of the first places that they always go to is education.  My high school cut the arts program’s extracurricular programs, including the dance program.  I just felt really passionate about it.  I’ve always been quiet, very introverted and soft spoken – but that was the first time in my life that I felt like I had a voice and like that voice was important and could make some type of change.  

I started going to Board of Education meetings and I started writing articles to local newspapers about how important the arts were and how important it was for a girl like me.  I’m a first generation college student, from a low-income family – both of my parents were casino workers – so, dance was the one place outside of the classroom where I could express myself in ways that I couldn’t otherwise.  

Even though my programs were reinstated after the fact, I started to wonder, “what about all of the other young people that don’t ever get to experience being a part of the arts?”  Especially if you look at the professional realm – if you go to the ballet, you barely see any men or women of color. If you go to a Broadway show, unless the show is specifically focused on people of color, you don’t really see people of color in the show. That’s because the arts tends to be very expensive and stratifying.  I wanted to create a program where students were able to have that kind of experience without the stress on the parents for having to pay for it.

It’s awesome that you were able to take a situation unique to yourself, and apply it to the socio-economic issues happening everywhere.  You saw the bigger picture and created a solution.  

You mentioned being a soft-spoken introvert… this is hard to believe after your time in the spotlight as Miss New Jersey!  How was your experience in the Miss America pageant?  

The reason why I competed for my first local title was because I wanted to display my talent on a larger scale.  The Miss America program focuses on scholarships for young women, and I wanted to showcase my talent in order to earn those scholarship dollars.   

I competed four times before I won Miss New Jersey and went on to Miss America ! So, four years later, I won.

Being introverted kind of helped me reach people who normally wouldn’t see themselves in that position and on that platform. I’m only the second woman of color to ever win the title of Miss New Jersey in the history of the organization, which has been around since 1920.  Also, as a first generation college student, without the cultural and social capital available to others, the pageant helped with my interview skills. Now I’m able to walk into any interview for a job or school or anything and just feel comfortable talking to people just because I had so much practice in doing so.

I’m only the second woman of color to ever win the title of Miss New Jersey in the history of the organization, which has been around since 1920.

I vividly remember watching you rock your natural hair on the show – it seems like such a small action, but that was such a big deal! Especially for little black girls sitting at home watching it.

Absolutely! My favorite part about being Miss New Jersey was going into the schools to talk to students about the importance of being involved in extracurricular activities.  I made it a point to show that I am a normal person – just like them – who loves dancing and being involved in the arts and sometimes binge watching Netflix! I’m a normal person!

I remember walking into classrooms and them being like, “Wait, this girl is just like me!” Especially the little ones, they’d sometimes touch my hair and be like “oh, I like your hair! It’s just like mine!” I want to pave the path for other people so we don’t have to hear “I’m the first, I’m the second” – this should be the normal thing.

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I want to pave the path for other people so we don’t have to hear “I’m the first, I’m the second” – this should be the normal thing.

Like the photo of Obama with the little boy touching his hair!

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Exactly, I love that picture! It’s really difficult to be what you can’t see. Even if you’re trying to shatter glass ceilings or be ground-breaking.. There were so many times when I was ready to give up because there were people telling me I needed to move to another state, or that I needed to change my hair, or fix this or that – and there were many times where I was frustrated, but the end goal was to make sure that other girls felt like they could be in that position someday. And eventually it paid off.

It’s really difficult to be what you can’t see.

With all of these appearances, how did you live like a normal 21-year-old at the time?

[Laughing] That’s a good question… I don’t know how I lived up until that point since I was also in school at the time. Most state-title holders take a leave of absence during their year of service.  Instead, I decided to go to school full-time so I could graduate and continue on with my life. But that’s also because I wanted to be a normal person and I wanted to be able to go to class. At the time, it’d be funny because I’d find tweets from people that were sitting behind me in class and they’d take a picture of the back of my head and be like “I’m sitting behind Miss New Jersey!”

That’s so crazy! You’re like a celebrity!

It’s really funny how people react. But at the end of the day, I was still Cierra – I still had the same friends and did the same things.  I was still making appearances and showing up to class and doing what I always did.

Even then, I think of the stereotypical 21-year-old… you can’t do the same things or make the same mistakes when you’re in that spotlight and you have that title.  Was that a heavy burden on you?

I’m always cognizant of what I’m doing, where I am and who I’m with. Even outside of being a former Miss New Jersey, at every given moment, I’d wonder, “Am I making my mother proud right now?” “If some of the girls in my arts program were to see me in this situation, would they still look up to me?” So, there was never really a time where I felt like I was compromising myself or my ability to be a 21-year-old just because I think that those are things that are constantly in the back of my mind regardless of where I am or what I’m doing.

That was a good answer! Good advice for anyone – even those without a public audience.

It’s really cool to watch you pursue your passion, especially within your career path.  Do you have any advice for anyone who may be struggling to do so?

There are many times when I feel stuck.  Oftentimes I tell people, “Jump, and build your wings on the way down.” I think that sometimes we’re too afraid to go after what we want because we’re unsure of how it’s going to pan out or even how we’re going to be able to do it.  When I was applying for my PhD program, I only applied to one school because I had this “all or nothing” mentality.   I’m really strong in my faith and beliefs, and I really believe that things come together for a reason.  You are your own biggest opponent and fear is what holds a lot of people back from reaching their full potential. So don’t be afraid, just jump. Take that leap and then figure it out on the way down.

Jump, and build your wings on the way down… You are your biggest opponent.

That’s great advice! A lot of people struggle because it may seem easier said than done to “just go for it.”  But there are so many stories of people who’ve done that and succeeded – just like yourself!

What do you struggle with the most that you think other people could relate to?

I am a worry-wart. I worry about everything, sometimes it even keeps me up at night.  Even though I take risks to achieve my goals, I am also very calculated in how everything is done and why it’s done. So, it causes me to worry. I worry about little stupid things but it’s because I like knowing that I have some sense of control.

What are you doing now that you’re not traveling along the East Coast fulfilling your year of service?

I’m still in graduate school at the George Washington University. In my current role at The George Washington University, I’ve started a new initiative called Speak Your Truth which aims to give students a space to use storytelling as a constructive way of talking about social justice issues on campus. I developed a research-based curriculum for the program, which includes art exhibits, panel discussions, dinner dialogues, art journaling spaces, film screenings, and more, which I am hoping to distribute to other colleges and universities at the end of the academic year to help facilitate more social justice conversations on campuses across the country.   

What’s future Dr. Cierra Kaler-Jones doing 10 years from now?

I don’t have a dream job. But what I want to do has dreams – my dream is to have a job where I’m able to speak publicly and work and interact with people directly and where I’m able to write and read and do research and put new knowledge into the world. I’m not quite sure what that looks like in terms of a job but I’m a firm believer that we create our own jobs and destinies.

I don’t have a dream job. But what I want to do has dreams… I’m a firm believer that we create our own jobs and destinies.

I love that message. I hate that it’s ingrained in our brains to fit into these molds and be doctors, lawyers, teachers – those occupations are great, but we’re not encouraged to think outside of them.

Absolutely.  For so long I wanted to be a lawyer just because I thought that was the only career option I had to be successful. Then as I got older I realized there were so many opportunities to do things that I never even imagined or things that people never even put into my brain.

Just run for president!

If there’s anything you could have possibly learned from my time with Cierra, it should be to seriously consider your passion and apply it purposefully to every endeavor that you pursue.

That may not include a dream job and there will likely be nay-sayers discouraging you along the way, but do it anyway.  It is never impossible to make change – even in the case of a 17-year-old high-schooler with a passion for dance!

Cierra, thank you for inspiring me – I know that you’ve also inspired those who will read this. Keep working for your dreams!

 

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