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Amber Starks: Empowerment Advocate

AmberAmber Starks is  a model, a business owner,  and hair braider who’s a proud champion of natural hair.  Amber is also a leader and advocate who fought– successfully– to change Oregon law to increase economic opportunity for people who practice traditional natural haircare, focusing on the braiding, weaving and locking of hair without the use of chemicals. Starks, 32, of Portland, is a graduate of the Urban League of Portland’s Social Justice and Civic Leadership Program‘s 2012 cohort.  Tools gained during that program empowered Amber to successfully navigate the legislative process.  

Starks, in 2011, offered her services to the state foster care system to volunteer to braid hair for children placed in foster families.  She noted how over-represented African American children are in the foster care system– seven percent of kids in Oregon foster are African American despite making up only three percent of the state’s overall population,  and many adoptive parents are unfamiliar with natural hair care.   Starks, who grew up braiding hair, heard back from the Department of Human Services that while they were appreciative of the offer, she would still need a license to braid hair, even as a volunteer.

A full cosmetology license would require over 1200 hours of classroom time, and 500 hours of Safety and Sanitation training, most of which would be irrelevant to traditional African American braiding.  Starks reviewed the state cosmetology exam and its suggested curriculum to cosmetology schools and found a third of the questions dealt with chemicals. “They’re requiring people who want to do the most basic natural care for African-American women to learn all sorts of things that will never be relevant,” Starks said in an article in the Oregonian. “It’s like the entire system is designed to marginalize my community.” Feeling strongly that the laws were too restrictive, Starks appealed to lawmakers with her proposal to ease the licensing requirements shortly after completing the 2012 Urban League program.  

hb3409 signingAs a result of Amber’s leadership, state representative Alyssa Keny-Guyer introduced HB 3409 to created licenses for natural hair stylists on February 27th, 2013.  Ms, Starks saw this as a personal issue and was heartened when the Urban League approached her to ask to support HB 3409 as a priority bill.  Starks lauds the support she received from the Urban League, such as helping her with creating a one page issue brief, but she was quick to mention that the Urban League never took the reigns from her.  “They let me lead,” says Starks, who noted that the Urban League’s services helped lesson any intimidation she may have felt, “Support from the Urban League empowered me to lead bravely, and boldly.”     The bill, with strong bipartisan support from the Urban League of Portland and the libertarian-leaning Cascade Policy Institute breezed through the house and senate with support across both aisles, was signed into law by Governor Kitzhaber on June 4th, and will go into effect in early 2014.  HB 3409 will help remove barriers to the growing natural hair care industry, paving the way for more jobs and increased opportunities for African immigrant and African American businesses. Amber Starks plans to launch her business, Conscious Coils, in Oregon, early 2014.