Extraordinary Women: Celebrating Amber Starks

For The Black Portlanders and The State of Black Oregon

The Law Was Against Her. So She Fought The Law…

Someone had to do it. Amber Starks did.

It’s about time women of colour were allowed the freedom to care for natural hair to their best capability.

Over the years, the world has simply accepted Caucasian hair standards and hair products as the predominant or go to standards leaving a tiny segment of natural coloured hair care salons, products  or hairstyles for women to access.

Now that more and more women of colour are going back to their roots, loving their natural hair and seeking to ‘own’ the African look more they are beginning to realise just how limited access to hair care salons and products are.

One of the reasons these services and products appear to be so limited could be because some states in America have laws preventing women of colour from practising Afrocentric hair services.

What this means is that there would be few if any legally functioning hair salons focused solely on natural African hair care.

Well Amber Starks has turned all that around for the citizens of Oregon.

This determined young woman had one single dream ambition in her life – and that was to work as an African hair stylist.

Amber did what no other black woman thought of doing over the centuries – fighting the law for the freedom to operate as a natural African hair salon without being forced to go through the beauty school that teaches only how to care for Caucasian hair or skin.

If you think about it, it’s quite mind blowing and impressive.

It’s a perfect example of how much one person can achieve when focused and passionate about something. We often tend to forget this and simply live on passively without ever questioning the rules or wondering – ‘what if we give it a try?’

You never know what you can achieve unless you try.

How inspiring to see someone try for a positive cause and win.

So what more can be done if we try? If we make the effort? If we show up? If we write that letter?

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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 to 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!”

 

Amber 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 travelled 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, Oregon passed the Natural Hair Care Act, finally making it legal to braid and style natural hair. Amber began donating her skills to kids in the foster system. Seeing a need for natural hair styling in Portland, she also opened her own salon, Conscious Coils.

“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.”

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All Amber Starks wanted to do was braid hair for foster kids. How could she have known it was against the law? Turns out, it used to be illegal to style hair in the state of Oregon without a special cosmetology license.

When filmmaker Christian Henry caught wind of what Starks was doing, she was immediately inspired.

“I read about Amber’s legal fight and thought it would make a great documentary and something that more people should know has been accomplished,” Henry told OPB.

But like many independent filmmakers, Henry also has a day job. Or in her case, a night job, producing the news.

“At the time that I filmed [Starks], I was working a graveyard shift so I would film on my days off and in the mornings when I got off of work,” she said.

The result of Starks’s fight and Henry’s late nights can be seen in “From Salem to the Salon,” a documentary about how one Oregon woman fought the law and won.

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Amber Starks

Born in Watts, CA ..
Portlander since age of 10

…  I wondered what I could do. I could braid.

 

Amber Starks is the owner of Conscious Coils, a natural hair care company and salon with a mission of “encouraging people of African descent to love and embrace our hair, ourselves and our diverse culture.” Importantly, Amber was the catalyst, spearhead, and organizer for the passing of OR HB3409, the Natural Hair Care Act.

Formerly, individuals who wanted to perform simple natural hair care services such as braiding, loc’ing, and twisting outside of the home had to get a full cosmetology license. The license included 1700 of coursework, much of which did not apply to natural hair. Passed in June 2013, the Natural Hair Care Act established a distinct natural hair care license that allows natural hair care practitioners to become licensed to perform services for others.
Amber said that The State of Black Oregon 2009 was instrumental in her work with Conscious Coils. There she read that African American youth are overrepresented in Oregon’s foster care system. Wondering what she could do, she thought she’d volunteer her time to braid the hair of Black youth in foster care. However, she discovered that under the cosmetology laws of that time, it would be illegal for her to do so. Amber believed the law could and should be changed, so she set out to change it.  And she did.

So many people look up to this woman so much. She is a heroine, actually changing the lived experiences of Black Oregonians and in doing so forging a path for the celebration of all unique identities.

.. And she was  Rose Festival Queen in 1999!

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Amber speaks about her salon – conscious coils – “My ultimate goal is to inform and support individuals and families who choose natural hair.  I desire that anyone choosing this journey will feel bold and comfortable while rocking their curls in all aspects of their lives.  We LOVE natural hair and celebrate it in all its’ glory. We genuinely believe that beauty comes in a variety of colors, backgrounds, and hair types.  Therefore we highlight the beauty of natural hair and promote it as an option so individuals know they have choice when it comes to hair styling.  In addition, we provide support and encouragement to those who are currently natural, those interested in transitioning, and families with children of African descent. 

for The Black Portlanders and The State of Black Oregon

We have a range of services for all ages and backgrounds including braiding (cornrows, singles with or without extensions, tree braids), twisting (Senegalese twists, kinky twists, Havana twists, flat twists, twist-outs), Bantu knots (and Bantu knot-outs), locking (Sisterlocks and traditional locs), general styling (pony tails, up-dos, etc.), detangling, and product use.  In addition, we specialize is assisting families with multi-racial, foster, and adopted children of African descent with hair care and basic “how to” skills.
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Conscious Coils’ Products- We’ve developed products specifically for natural hair, however, our products are formulated for all hair types.  They contain ingredients (Aloe juice, essential oils, Jojoba Oil, Avocado Oil, Shea butter, and more) that are wonderful for anyone who loves natural, simple, and quality products.

Demonstrations, Trainings, Classes, and Consulting- We provide a variety of ways to assist and support individuals, families and organizations around natural hair and cultural awareness.
The Conscious Coils’ Movement
Conscious Coils is more than natural hair, it’s a movement.

This movement is about changing our minds and our thoughts about ourselves so we can be free to love who we really are.

The point isn’t to judge an individual’s aesthetic choices, but to liberate and empower them to choose deliberately.

“Be Free!  Love Your Hair!  Love Yourself!”

-AmberFounder, Owner & Natural Hair Stylist

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For The Black Portlanders and The State of Black Oregon

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 Biggest Challenge 
“Time. As a business owner, I’m it. And that’s stressful. When I get sick, there’s nobody else to fill in.”

5482ec371c15a_-_mcx-single-girls-media-002-s2Well done amber!

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