In the beginning, Amber Starks just wanted to work with kids in foster care. So she called the state’s Department of Human Services and asked if she could volunteer her time braiding kids’ hair. “I grew up braiding hair,” she says. “My hair, my brother’s hair, my friends’ hair—it was just part of me.” Then she ran into some red tape: even to braid hair for free, she’d need a cosmetology license, which would require 1,700 hours of training—most of it entirely irrelevant to African-style braiding.
“I was pretty much told that the only way around it would be to change the law,” she remembers. “And it just struck that rebellious chord in me, and I thought, ‘OK, it’s on.’” She quickly found out that there was precedent for her battle: in Washington and California, plaintiffs had successfully filed lawsuits challenging laws governing natural hair care. The consistent argument was that natural hair care (African-style braiding, twisting, and locking) does not require most of the skills (cutting, coloring, straightening) taught in cosmetology school; meanwhile, cosmetology coursework does not cover natural hair care. “The industry marginalizes our hair,” she says. “It’s seen as this specialty. But if everyone is under the same umbrella of certification, you have to teach it!”
Starks pushed her case on social media, organized town hall meetings, and persuaded her state rep, Alissa Keny-Guyer, to sponsor a natural hair care bill creating a separate, less onerous license. For three months straight, Starks traveled to Salem three times a week with the Urban League of Portland to lobby for her bill. (“I learned that if you don’t show up, decisions will get made without you,” she says.) In June 2013, the governor signed into law the Natural Hair Care Act—Starks was first in line to get her license, and seven months later, she opened her own salon, Conscious Coils, in downtown Portland. “There are so many things that happen in this space that are far above hair,” she says of her clients. “It’s about solidarity and culture. This is my leadership, this is my community activism. I can’t imagine my life without it.”