Locking In Knowledge: Shop owner focused on education around hair care | News

It was about seven years ago when Deta and Nancy Wilms, of Wentworth, adopted 7-year-old Tavari. During their first phone conversation — well before the adoption was finalized — Tavari, who is Black, had two pressing questions to ask of her soon-to-be mothers.

“One of her first questions was: What’s your color?” said Deta, who, along with her wife, is white. “And then she asked: ‘Can you take care of my hair?’ And I said: ‘sure.’”

Tavari, now 15, said her memory of that moment is fuzzy because she was so young. But she surmises that while in foster care, the families she was placed with knew how to care for her mane, and she wanted to make sure that Deta could as well.

“I don’t really know why I would ask that,” Tavari said. “I assume that I was just making sure that I still had someone that would take care of my hair the way I liked.”

Initially, things went well. The pair had developed a Sunday hair care routine involving brushing and various oils. But, as Tavari got older, her hair texture became more coarse and difficult to work with.

Then, two things happened. Deta received a cancer diagnosis and began chemotherapy treatments which exhausted her, often leaving her unable to stand up to complete the Sunday hair routine.

Then, on a trip to Syracuse, New York, to visit members of Tavari’s birth family, she visited a hair salon specializing in natural hair. That’s when Deta learned that she might need a little more help with natural hair care than she initially thought.

“I sat down in the chair and they were looking at my hair and they kept saying how really horribly taken care of it was,” Tavari said. “I heard someone saying that they might have to like, shave it and then have to let it grow because it was that bad.”

Though that did not happen, it was around that moment the Wilms’ realized they needed to find a more sustainable solution closer to home.

The complexity of natural hair

Natural hair tends to be rougher and coarser than other types of hair, and has tighter curls, according to Shaquwan’Da Allen, a natural hair care specialist.

“Natural hair is hair that has not been processed with any chemicals,” Allen said, noting that it avoids chemical processes and cutting to focus on dreadlocks, braids, blow drying, and other methods of hair care and style. “It’s for textured hair.”

Generally associated with women of color — though there are white populations which fall into the category as well — natural hair is more susceptible to drying and becoming weaker than smoother textured hair. According to Allen, this prompted the community to create protective hairstyles that did not require the use of outside chemicals.

“You have to have protective styles because you can’t just leave it out any type of way,” she said. “So, over the years, we’ve learned to braid our hair, dried our hair, weave it, put fake hair on top of our hair just so that we don’t have to manage our curls every day and wear it out and let it get dry.”

Yet for a long time, options for those with natural hair were hard to come by. The laws in New Hampshire — and in other states — required cosmetology licenses to open formal natural hair shops. To obtain a license people needed to complete either a 3,000-hour apprenticeship over two years, or 1,500 hours of what the Institute for Justice calls “irrelevant cosmetology training.”

Allen said that when it comes to natural hair, she agrees with that assessment.

“A lot of cosmetology schools don’t really touch base past that certain texture,” she said. “A lot of times a lot of stylists don’t know how to work with the curls, so you have to seek out someone that’s specialized in that and, nine times out of 10, it’s a natural hair salon because we keep our curls nice and tight.”

Yet for the longest time, the barriers to entry into the formal economy were excessively high, prompting many — especially women of color — to offer informal services in their own home. While this served a purpose and provided extra-income for many, it harmed in two ways. First, the state was unable to tax the under-the-table revenue. Secondly, service providers were unable to expand their clientele effectively and efficiently for fear of punishment from regulatory authorities.

At first glance, the demand for natural hair care may appear to be slim in the Granite State, where more than 93 percent of the population is white. Yet hair care was a problem for many families, such as the Wilms.

In 2017, passage of HB 82 turned New Hampshire into the 23rd state to remove licensing requirements for natural hair care providers. Since then, at least six shops — two in Manchester plus one each in Concord, Nashua, Lebanon, and Londonderry — have begun operations.

One of the first was Allen’s Rootz Natural Hair Shop, which is where Deta and Tavari began a monthly sojourn to.

Even with a nearby option for hair care, it was a necessity for the Wilms’ to learn how to work with Tavari’s hair. Allen made that process easy.

“I was just really comfortable meeting up with Shaquwan’Da,” Deta said of their first visit to Rootz. “And what was nice was the educational point … Shaquwan’Da would walk through why we brush, why we do it this way, etc.”

Deta said that the explanations Allen offered helped her understand better her daughter’s hair needs, a difficulty in the past simply due to her own lived experience.

“I have never been able to blow dry my hair being blonde because it breaks,” she said. “I see my hair is so thin and it’s completely opposite [of Tavari’s]. It was really helpful to have somebody walk through not just the how, but the why.”

Indeed, the education has been helpful not just to them, but to Allen as well. She said that when Tavari first became a client she spent as much as eight hours on her hair.

“Now, it doesn’t take as long,” Allen said. “They have to take care of the hair together. Now Deta knows the schedule and Tavy knows now to oil her hair. They’re not just waiting for it to knot up and dry out.”

These days, Tavari cares for her hair on her own mostly. But according to Allen, there are plenty of other families like the Wilms. She is considering launching a separate business venture focused on teaching mixed-race families how to care for natural hair.

“That’s the plan because I’m starting to see the pattern and the same questions,” Allen said. “The need and the want for it is so high.”

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.