It’s no secret that in recent years, natural hair has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. From on-screen visibility, to in-store availability, Black women have all but demanded that natural hair be treated not as an anomaly, but as mainstream.
The popularity of Black women returning to natural has resulted in an increased demand for natural hair stylists and salons. This is a great benefit for naturals who are not as adept at styling (raises hand), who just want to ensure that their tresses are properly cared for, or still prefer the salon experience.
But there’s only one problem – in many states, the regulations guiding the practice of braiding, locing, and natural hair styling are archaic, outdated, and irrelevant.
Enter Essence Farmer, who in 2003 challenged the State of Arizona Cosmetology Board – and won.
Essence, like many Black women, who possess the talent and skill set to style, braid, and loc natural hair started learning in the home – practicing on family and friends.
Fast forward to the year 2000, and Farmer is working and earning a living as a professional hair braider in Maryland. Maryland is one twelve states that do not require formal licensing for hair braiders. In what she describes as a divine call, Farmer packed her belongings and moved from Maryland back to her home state of Arizona – setting the stage for her groundbreaking case challenging outdated cosmetology regulations in Arizona.
4c Hair Chicks had the opportunity to sit down with Essence Farmer, and learn her story about bringing suit against the state of Arizona.
What is your background experience in braiding?
I’ve been braiding for as long as I can remember. I can’t really recall the age. I would say 9 or 10…from there, I started doing my mom’s friends kids, doing hair on lunch break in high school…
It’s definitely something I consider a gift – I never had any formal lessons or anything, [I just] had a knack for braiding.
What was the call – what made you decide to even consider pursuing a case against the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology?
I remember reading a Vibe magazine article – maybe in 96 or 97 – I remember a lady getting arrested for braiding hair. I remembered it had information about some law or issues with not being able to braid. That [article] was really ahead of me thinking to braid professionally. Fast forward, I’m living in Maryland for a few years – in Maryland you didn’t have to have license to braid hair. I was working out of salons and barber shops with no issue. My spirit motivated me to leave Maryland and move back to Arizona… but I was talking to God like, “what we gonna do? The law says I need a cosmetology license.”
I wasn’t feeling cosmetology school because I knew the route I was going – braiding – wasn’t going to be taught. It wasn’t a part of the curriculum.
I called the State Board of Cosmetology and told an administrator that I was a professional braider. They told me that [anything involving] hair period required a cosmetology license.
After you received confirmation from the State Board of Cosmetology that you indeed needed a license to braid hair, how did you get started on this legal path? How did you get connected to the Institute for Justice?
I was led by the Holy Spirit – [I asked], “You brought me out here for what?”
I was led to search online for a law firm. I typed in anything braiding involving, law firms – all kinds of stuff. Then I came across the Institute for Justice, who had already set a precedence in California for the same case. I called them, and they had just opened a Phoenix office. I knew then that this must be divine.
What made the Institute for Justice say okay, green light – let’s do this!?
The Institute for Justice is a law firm that fights for economic liberty. My case automatically qualified because it impeded me from being entrepreneur. When I met with my lawyer, it wasn’t [a matter of] “will you”, it was, “are you ready?” I met with my lawyer in November and we filed in December – it was done within a couple of weeks.
What was the process of building your case like? Describe it in detail. What sort of evidence or support did you have to provide?
There wasn’t a lot of evidence. It was more so an interview [about] my history – what I do, what don’t I do, and what is defined as cosmetology. It was really about cross-referencing what I do with what cosmetology school teaches and licenses – and seeing there was a gap.
What were some of your thoughts and feelings as the case went to trial?
There was… a little apprehension. I was young. I didn’t know what to expect, and I thought the case would take forever. But what happened was, the trial never had to go all the way to court. We never actually set foot into courtroom. Janet Napolitano (governor of Arizona at the time), heard about the law (as it pertained to braiders) and said it was ridiculous. She signed off and exempted all braiders, locticians, and natural hair stylists.
We filed in December (2003), and by April (2004) it had been signed off. But the bill didn’t take effect until August (2004). The whole process took about a year.
After that my emotions switched up. My lawyer at the time, just saw this vision for me… he didn’t see me doing this to go work in somebody else’s salon. More like, I’d have my own business. I liken it to the walls of Jericho…falling down – and now I had to take siege of the city.
At any point were you concerned about the outcome of the trial?
Never. Because the urge for me to move back to Phoenix was so strong… I knew it had to be more than something trivial. God said it, so He’s going to fulfill it. As soon as the ball started rolling, I said, “God, this is all You.” There was never a concern as to ‘what if’ this (me being allowed to braid) doesn’t happen.
What was your reaction when you received the verdict?
I guess because I received it long before it actually manifested, I was more excited to meet my lawyer initially. Because I knew at that point, it was done.
It was more like – I’ve got work to do. Understanding on the flip side, there is work for me to do – but at the same time, I also didn’t really see or understand the magnitude of me changing history.
Ultimately, the state’s goal (under the tutelage of Napolitano) in passing Senate Bill 1159 was clear – to lift the restrictions against braiders, locticians, and natural hair stylists that prevented them from earning an honest living. With such expeditious judicial action and such favorable results, it begged the question –
Why do you think no one had previously challenged the cosmetology licensing requirements in Arizona prior to you?
My situation was more proactive. Instead of me having a salon, and having someone come after me… I pursued it proactively. It was me coming after them like, let me try to fight this because this is what I want to do.
What impact do you know of (if any) that your legal victory has had on hair braiders in other states?
I have had people familiar with the case reach out in other states for advice. However, this movement started before my case. There were several other cases – DC, California…I really look at [my case] as another piece of the puzzle.
Any advice for hair braiders in other states looking to proactively fight laws requiring licensing and other regulation?
Ultimately, be patient and understand that there is an injustice. But I also temper that with the fact that I do believe in education. I don’t want (to) give off the impression that there’s no need for cosmetology school. If there was an option for a limited license to actually apply what I’m learning to braiding hair, then I’m all for it. Looking at cosmetology as a whole – they don’t teach how to do our hair in its natural state – they only teach how to chemically process or straighten it.
Yes, challenge the state – but there’s a responsibility for you to know what you’re doing. The community is looking for you to be a professional. You can self-teach, but at the same don’t go against the state ignorantly. Also be patient and be strong. If it’s already been done, then there’s no reason why it can’t be done again.
Do you think that natural hair styling period should not require licensing – or just braiding? Why or why not?
That’s a hard one. I sit on both ends of the pendulum – with the fight I fought and the doors it opened. But on the flip side, I understand that there’s a need for education and for a standard. I would not be opposed to a licensing for natural hair styling. Otherwise, everybody is just running wild. Because with how popular natural hair is today…I feel like people jump in because they see money. But they have no understanding, no history with braiding or locs. I feel like there should be a standard.
How is your salon Rare Essence doing?
The fact that I’ve been in business for 10 years speaks volumes – a lot of business doesn’t make it past 2-year mark because they’re not able to sustain financially, or the market isn’t right. 10 years is a testament and blessing, but being a salon owner does not come without challenges. It’s not all roses – I came from a position where I didn’t go to school for business. All I knew was braiding and getting money. Things like getting a business license, cash flow – I had to learn by trial and error. There was a period of growth and progression. Being a boss and owner comes with its own set of challenges. But I couldn’t see myself doing anything else – because that’s what I was born to do!
Thanks to Essence Farmer’s divine mission to challenge cosmetology licensing laws in Arizona, her efforts have helped pave the way for braiders, locticians, and natural hair stylists in her city and across the country seeking to earn a living in their craft.
Since victories held in Washington, DC, California, and Arizona, braiders and hairstylists in Iowa, Arkansas, Washington, Texas, Utah, Minnesota, and Mississippi are now free to pursue their craft without penalty. In the most recent case in Missouri, a federal judge upheld the licensing requirements for hair braiders, in spite of noting that much of the traditional education and training is not directly relevant to hair braiding. An appeal has been planned.
Even though the path to progress is not linear, the practice of collective empowerment is beautiful. When one is courageous enough to take a stand against an unjust system and is victorious, we can stand on their shoulders, one after another, until we methodically dismantle the entire system.
For additional information about Essence Farmer’s fight against the State of Arizona Board of Cosmetology, check out the following links:
- Institute for Justice, Farmer v. Arizona State Board of Cosmetology: http://ij.org/case/farmer-v-arizona-board-of-cosmetology/
- Rare Essence Academy, Meet the Founder: http://rareessenceacademy.com/team/
- Institute for Justice, Farmer v. Arizona State Board of Cosmetology Press Release: http://ij.org/press-release/arizona-hairbraiding-release-4-22-2004/
- Untangling Regulations: Natural Hair Braiders Fight Against Irrational Licensing, Report: https://www.scribd.com/doc/234269747/Untangling-Regulations
To learn more about the cases that followed Essence Farmer across the nation, visit the following links:
Arkansas – http://ij.org/case/arkansas-hair-braiding/
Missouri – http://ij.org/case/missouri-hair-braiding/
Washington – http://ij.org/case/washington-african-hair-braiding/
Texas – http://ij.org/case/txbraiding/
Mississippi – http://ij.org/case/armstrong-v-lunsford/