It’s Not Just an Aesthetic, It’s Deeper Than Hair
The Master of Arts in Social Journalism program at the Newmark J-School requires its students to select a community of their choosing — it can be geographical or a group of people that have something in common — to listen to, engage with and amplify for 16 months.
When I started my first semester at the J-School in August 2019, I had a general idea of what I wanted my community to be: people of color with natural hair and the injustices they face. Sure, that is very similar to what my community ended up being, but it took a lot of work with my community before I solidified it.
The community I am currently working with (and am a part of) is Black and brown people who are subject to or have lived experiences of hair discrimination at work, school or society in general. As a woman of color with a big curly afro who has received micro aggressions in the workplace and in the world outside of it, I instantly recognized that there are many other people who share the same experience. Some of the comments I would get from former bosses/colleagues were, “Wow, your hair looks very different today!” when I would wear my afro. Another one was, “Nice bird nest!”
At the time, I didn’t think of these comments as micro aggressions, but more of a joke. It wasn’t until I started learning more about different Black, Indigenous and Persons Of Color (BIPOC) experiences when I realized that this is deeper than hair.
One main thing I learned through my research and the conversations that sparked after the murder of George Floyd was that Black people do not fall into the category of “people of color”. This was very integral in me changing my language for my community focus: instead of using “POC”, I changed it to Black and brown people. A light-skinned Latino with wavy or straight hair will not share the same experiences as a dark-skinned Black person with coarse hair. Western beauty standards affect Black and brown people tremendously, to the point where it became a law in certain states in the U.S.
The basis of my community came right on time — on July 3, 2019, the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair, was signed into law by California Senator Holly J. Mitchell. The CROWN Act is a state law that protects Black people from race-based hair discrimination at work and schools. The law is currently available in seven states and three municipalities. It was also recently passed in the House on September 21, 2020.
Black and brown hair should not be politicized because it affects the well-being of these groups of people. Hair is a major part of one’s cultural identity so employers or school staff asking someone to change it strips their right to freedom of expression.
Hair discrimination affects BIPOC in many ways like physically, mentally, financially and emotionally. These are concepts I learned more about when I had the amazing opportunity to meet the women of the CROWN Campaign.
I remember getting a Facebook message from my classmate, Jake Wasserman, with a flier regarding a CROWN Conference at Rutgers University in late January. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to meet people in my community but, I had class that day and the school’s location was a bit far from where I live in The Bronx.
I thought about it for a few days and decided that missing class was worth it, so I let my professor at the time know.
My goal with the event went exactly as planned — I networked, listened to the panelists and introduced myself at the end and asked a question. Two of the panelists, Dr. Bernice B. Rumala and Shemekka Ebony, are co-founders of the CROWN Campaign and after learning about their mission during the panel, we connected.
I even had the opportunity to meet New Jersey legislators, Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight. Being in a room with CROWN Act champions told me all I needed to know — change doesn’t have to be inaccessible, it can start with people who look and think like you.
The CROWN Campaign is an interdisciplinary grassroots organization that advocates against hair discrimination and supports legal protections like the CROWN Act. The team is comprised of legal, research, and advocacy experts who all have lived experiences of hair discrimination.
Following the CROWN Conference, the CROWN Campaign co-founders asked me to serve as their inaugural fellow, which I accepted(!). Joining forces with an organization that has the same goals as my community focus and has similar experiences of hair discrimination was an integral part of my work for many reasons.
I made a lot of connections throughout the U.S. in states like Alabama, Colorado and Oklahoma because of the CROWN Campaign. There’s a quote that suggests luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity and I couldn’t agree any more. If I didn’t attend that CROWN Conference, I don’t think my community reach would have been as successful.
Following my inauguration with the CROWN Campaign, we immediately got to work. COVID-19 did interrupt what could have been in-person events, but thanks to the internet, we were able to reach people from different regions of the world such as South Africa.
In May, we hosted our first virtual event on Zoom, The Deeper Than Hair Conversation.
The event was a requirement for my final project for my Reporting II class during my second semester. This was an intimate conversation about the disparities women of color face due to their hair at work, school and society. At this time, I still hadn’t solidified my community, so I didn’t really include men or people of other genders.
However, for the sake of being inclusive and giving every single person a voice, I changed my community at the beginning of my last semester to Black and brown people, which encompasses all genders that exist in the groups.
That led me to create my final product and service, The Deeper Than Hair Newsletter.
The name was inspired by CROWN Campaign co-founder Dr. Bernice B. Rumala’s song, Deeper Than Hair, which brings awareness to things like systemic racism. She agreed to let me use the name which instantly made my vision come to life.
The Deeper Than Hair Newsletter is a monthly newsletter in collaboration with the CROWN Campaign (and powered by Mailchimp) that serves as a resource for Black and brown people subject to or have lived experiences of hair discrimination.
The newsletter provides CROWN-related updates (e.g. the House passing the CROWN Act) in order to keep my community up to date. These news don’t really live in one place so it’s very important for me to curate them so my audience doesn’t feel they need to search different websites to get an update.
I built trust in my community since inception because I am a member of it, so oftentimes, members message me with their own updates, which I can include in the newsletter. One example is a community member from Oklahoma emailed me about the status of a hair discrimination bill she is working on.
The Deeper Than Hair Newsletter also offers resources like sample advocacy letters and examples of proclamations created by the CROWN Campaign. The sample advocacy letters are an example for those who want to address their employer, school district, or legislators regarding natural hair policies.
The CROWN Campaign also does pro-bono legal work, so if a community member is interested in having us advocate for them, that is something we can help with.
My service also highlights a Brother or SiStar of the month, which is meant to highlight individual efforts in the community.
For my first issue, I chose Alabama community member LaShawn Hill (whom I was connected to via the CROWN Campaign). LaShawn has been a supporter of my work since I was introduced to her and has kept the CROWN mission alive in her community. She made change in her community in two ways: leading efforts to pass the CROWN resolution in Alabama and she is one of the only owners of a natural hair salon in Homewood, AL — Natural Elements.
Lastly, my newsletter offers is a safe space for my subscribers to submit their hair discrimination story. My newsletter has a Google Form linked to it where they can submit it.
Not only will filling out this submission form keep my reporting skills alive, it will give victims an opportunity.
Once I receive submissions, I will follow up with the victims via their preferred mode of communication and we will set up an interview. Then, I will begin crafting the story and publish it on my blog, KarleezysWay.com, or at my summer internship’s publication, KultureHub.com. In order for me to keep the conversation going, it’s important I don’t just provide people with updates; it’s also important I give them a voice.
But to find out if voices are being heard, you must have a system to measure impact. I launched Deeper Than Hair in November 2020 alongside 50 subscribers and I now have 58. Most of these subscribers (roughly 25 people) were people in the CROWN Campaign’s network, which were added manually with their permission.
Others learned about the service on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and Facebook. I didn’t know everyone who subscribed personally, so I knew my service had impact when I received messages like this:
There is also a number that spoke to my newsletter’s impact: 51.5%. This is my current open rate which surpasses the Mailchimp average of 21.33%.
Initially, I thought my newsletter was not performing well because not enough people opened it. However, after research of the industry and learning from a professor that 51.5% is actually a high open rate, that gave me confidence.
As a newcomer industry, I felt a lot of pressure to make this product perfect. However, it wasn’t until my Startup Sprint professor humbled me and told me that nothing is ever in its final form when you first launch it. This took me a few weeks to grasp because I am a perfectionist (sometimes). So, it’s difficult to not think of products in their final form.
But through researching brands and seeing how something as simple as their logo changed throughout the years gave me assurance. This taught me that even the big names started somewhere. So, I learned I had to give myself grace.
Once I accepted that this is my first ever newsletter, I began creating and curating content and everything just began to flow. When I first released it, I got feedback within the first 30 minutes; one subscriber told me she enjoyed reading it and how organized it was.
The positive feedback kept coming in throughout the hours and the days — especially when the feedback was random people subscribing. Minor wins like this gave me a lot of hope for my next newsletter issues and beyond.
If you’re wondering, I am already in the process of creating my next issue. I look forward to seeing what a regular newsletter issue will garner versus an introductory one!
I plan to keep this service running for at least one year through my work with the CROWN Campaign. Through working with them, I want to help empower potential CROWN champions in states that don’t have the CROWN Act. The CROWN Campaign’s expertise has helped me tremendously in my work at the J-School so I’m confident in their ability to help others.
I also want to continue partnering up with like-minded organizations such as Interracial Activists and Curls on The Block to expand my work and uplift my sisters in the process. After all, it’s all about passing the #CROWN.
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