Amber Starks just wanted to volunteer to braid the hair of African American and Native American girls in foster care; both groups are over-represented in the system, and carers are desperate for help with the kids' culturally-specific hair needs.
But despite the solid backing of the Oregon Department of Human Services, Starks isn't allowed to do it because it's against the law.
So she's taking it to Salem – and she's already got the attention of lawmakers ready to craft new legislation.
"Currently the state of Oregon requires anyone who's going to do hairdressing – that means touching the hair for any reason – to attend the cosmetology program, which is 1,700 hours specifically just for hairdressing," Starks says. "So that's what is required, if you want to braid hair, put hair in a ponytail – even volunteer to do hair or put it in a ponytail."
What's more, standard beauty schools don't teach Black hair care. So getting licensed by the Oregon Board of Cosmetology takes a couple of years, thousands of dollars and involves learning about hairstyling chemicals, heat equipment and more -- practices that she, and other natural hair champions, never plan to use.
After getting shut down in her attempt at volunteering, Starks – a model and actress who braids hair at the Lock Loft in Vancouver -- saw a column in October about hair braiding license disparities written by Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute in Seattle.
Sightline is a think tank that analyzes economic and community demographic trends in the Pacific Northwest.
Durning's research highlighted that seemingly random requirements for hairbraiding, kickboxing, timeshare sales, concert promotion licenses and more in some states are far more costly and time-consuming to fill than are those for food handlers, gun owners, emergency medical technicians and firefighters.
"I emailed him and I said I'm going through the same thing in Oregon, what can I do? I think it's unfortunate that I can cross the river and I can do ponytails for foster kids but I can't do it in Oregon," Starks says. "He said the best thing you can do is to contact your legislators."
That's exactly what Starks did -- she says Sen. Jackie Dingfelder and Rep Alyssa Keny-Guyer responded to her queries immediately.
"And to my amazement they were both like, we're right in the middle of session right now – this was February -- but as soon as this is over we will want to talk, we want to have a meeting about it.
"From there we've been very proactive about discussing what a law in Oregon would look like." Starks said. "We want to look at different options around the country and what different requirements would best fit Oregon."
Women are suing state cosmetology boards around the country over laws that haven't been updated in decades – and make no mistake about it, in every case reviewed by The Skanner News, the entrepreneurs impacted were female.
In Las Vegas, Nev., two female entertainment-industry make-up stylists want to start a school to teach others their techniques, including air-brushed special effects; their lawsuit claims Nevada requires them to essentially start up an entire cosmetology school, with a 5,000 square-foot facility and shampooing sinks that have nothing to do with their area of expertise.
In Arizona, a business hooks up homebound clients – some with terminal illnesses -- with masseuses, hairstylists and manicurists who take house calls; the state says the business owner who contracts with the cosmetology artists must herself also be a licensed cosmetician even though she herself never performs the services, but rather only dispatches them.
Durning, in his report on occupational licensing, says it doesn't take much effort by states to change how they do business.
"In 2005, after getting served with a public-interest lawsuit from the libertarian Institute for Justice, Washington's Department of Licensing exempted hair braiding from licensing by issuing a simple statement of clarification about its regulations," Durning wrote. "That's how easy it can be to remove barriers to work."
Natural Hair Movement
Starks says that not only are the state licensing rules a barrier to African and African American women who want to build a career around creating braids, twists and curls, but it's also a barrier to the natural hair movement itself – which is promoting healthier living by getting away from chemicals and hot irons.
"Yes I acknowledge that cosmetologists go through a lot to be licensed," Starks says. "What we're saying is that what we do does not involve the cutting, the dyeing, the perming. What we specifically want to do is twist or braid. We're asking the state to acknowledge that this is different and that we're not doing the same things that are in cosmetology schools.
"At the same time we want the state to acknowledge that a lot of us with natural hair find it hard to get services in traditional salons because our hair isn't the dominant hair," Starks says.
"A lot of the time if you want to learn how to do natural hair care you either have learned it growing up or you have to go take a specialty class," she said. "And our hair isn't a specialty – it is our hair."
Starks says most of the braiders she has spoken with around the country suggest a self test option, which would allow for braiders and other natural hair stylists to take a test online and receive some type of certification allowing them to legally open a business.
"We don't want this to be a burden on the state but we also want it to break down those barriers for people who might want to go into business in hair braiding," she says.
The issue of cultural competency in such a test is a key issue, Starks says, because currently the Oregon Cosmetology Board only offers its tests in English, and the requirements for obtaining a translator for the test are themselves a barrier.
"The spectrum of hair braiders and other natural hair stylists includes individuals who are just coming over from Africa, or who have been here most of their life but maybe have a language barrier," she said.
Durning, of the Sightline Institute, has a word for these requirements: racist.
"Hair braiders—most of whom are African immigrants or native-born African Americans serving African-American clients—do not cut, straighten, curl, or color hair, the skills taught in beauty schools. What hair braiders do is braid hair," Durning wrote in his report last year. "They weave in extensions and decorations, in keeping with traditions that originated in Africa. Licensing keeps skilled hair braiders from legally earning a living."
Durning traces the "onerous" licensing requirements to systematic efforts by industry insiders to control their competition.
"Washington's statutes give authority over beauty occupations to a Cosmetology, Barbering, Esthetics, and Manicuring Advisory Board. By law, the board must include nine members: one unaffiliated consumer and eight representatives of segments of the trade," Durning writes. "This isn't just foxes guarding hen houses, it's the state passing a hen house law that reserves eight of nine posts on the Hen House Council for foxes.
"These cartel-like politics are what lies behind outrageously divergent licensing rules: 1,600 hours of instruction to get a hair-cutting license in Washington, for example, but only 130 hours to become an Emergency Medical Technician. In fact, you can earn certification as a fire fighter in Washington after just 385 hours of coursework—one-fourth the time it takes to become a stylist."
Seven years ago, Washington state officials issued a "clarification" of the state's rules on cosmetology licenses which now exclude professional hair braiders from the old requirement – a process that did not involve changing any laws.
"What we're trying to do is remove some of those barriers so that people can actually have access to becoming an entrepreneur and using their braiding skills," Starks says.
"I think that it's a movement, and I think it's one of the movements that wasn't intended to be political, but somehow it is political."
Connect with Amber Starks online at the Conscious Coils Facebook page, and on Twitter @ConsciousCoils