May 27, 2016

Liberty in Action recently scored a major victory for African-style hair braiders in Kentucky when the Commonwealth passed a law that exempts braiders from needing to get a government-issued license to braid hair. Previously, braiders were forced to take 1,800 hours of unnecessary cosmetology training and spend six months as an apprentice before they could work legally.

“When I asked them why they came to the U.S., every
answer was the same: ‘I was in search of a better life.’”

I traveled to Louisville to meet with braiders and organize them into an effective voice for braiding freedom: The Kentucky Hair Braiders Association. The women I met are passionate about their craft, entrepreneurship and freedom. They are first-generation immigrants from West Africa; most came here within the past 15 years. When I asked them why they came to the U.S., every answer was the same: “I was in search of a better life.”

Imagine their surprise when they were then told that something they brought with them from Africa—something they learned from their mothers and have been practicing since childhood—was illegal without a cosmetology license.

Braiders do not use heat or chemicals. Braiding is a perfectly safe practice. Yet to work legally, braiders were forced to spend thousands of dollars and thousands of hours learning practices they do not do—or else work illegally.

Their new country made them outlaws. These women were forced to work out of their homes and in the shadows. All they want to do is earn an honest living, open up shops and employ people.

IJ teamed up with Americans for Prosperity to introduce our bill, which exempts braiders from the state’s cosmetology requirements, and we found strong champions for our cause on both sides of the aisle.

We rallied a dozen braiders at the hearings before the House and Senate Licensing Committees in Frankfort. One state senator remarked that a braider’s testimony was the most beautiful story he had heard during his years in office. The Senate committee, House committee and full Senate all passed our bill unanimously. 

Then Rep. Hubert Collins—whose wife chairs the Kentucky Board of Hairdressers and Cosmetologists—introduced a last-minute floor amendment that would still have made it impossible for braiders to work legally.

But in the face of overwhelming support for our cause, Rep. Collins did not even bring his amendment up for a vote—he simply voted no. Our bill passed the House 86–8 and was signed into law by the governor.

The braiders are overjoyed that they can now work legally, and Kentucky is now the 18th state to deregulate hair braiding. We look forward to watching the braiders grow their businesses as they enjoy the opportunity that freedom provides. And IJ will continue to untangle braiding regulations until braiders in every state can enjoy the right to earn an honest living.

Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.

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