City of Lawrence may consider adopting version of the CROWN Act

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Lawrence’s Human Relations Commission on Thursday voiced support for the city to adopt a version of the CROWN Act, a law that blocks race-based hair discrimination.

Michele Watley, founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, presented to the HRC on why Lawrence should implement the CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”

Watley is the founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a Kansas City-based organization dedicated to advocacy for Black women. The nonprofit is named after Shirley Chisholm – the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress. Through Watley and Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet’s work with city leaders, Kansas City, Missouri became the second municipality in the country to adopt a version of the CROWN Act, Watley said. Lawrence could be next.

“What we’re hoping to do is to work with local municipalities like we did in Kansas City, Missouri to clarify anti-discrimination language that is already in the books, to ensure that it provides full coverage and protections not only for African Americans and Black people but other communities of color who have the same experiences when trying to wear their natural hair or wearing their hair in culturally reflective styles and being punished, admonished or suffering consequences for doing so,” Watley said during the meeting.

There are negative social, emotional and economic outcomes to being discriminated against for natural or cultural hairstyles, and it happens locally, Watley explained. 

In Lawrence, a former Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center employee in September 2022 alleged that her supervisor implored her to change her natural hairstyle because it appeared “messy and unkempt.” That case is ongoing in federal court. A Black former student-athlete at Ottawa University in January 2021 said she was removed from the cheerleading team because she refused to remove a hair bonnet that kept her braids in.

“I think we’ve all seen the stories time and time again of students who are participating in competitive sports and having to have their hair cut on the mat because of rules against locs, braids and twists,” Watley said during the meeting. “You’ve probably seen the stories of children as young as 5 and 6 being suspended from school for wearing braids. You’ve heard the stories of young people being denied employment because they wear locs. And these stories have taken place right here in Kansas and Missouri.”

Commissioner Kay Emerson thanked Watley as she could relate to the hair journey Black women often go through.

“I was definitely one of those individuals that you were speaking about tonight,” Emerson said during the meeting.

Commissioner Christina Haswood (Diné) said hair holds significance within many Indigenous nations. In the Navajo Nation, she shared, long hair is “sacred” and “shows our knowledge.” Some other tribes or nations only allow hair cutting when a family member has died, she said.

HRC members discuss the CROWN Act, Feb. 23, 2023. (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

“Certainly a lot of discrimination still happens today, but there’s also a lot of ignorance,” Haswood said during the meeting. “Me and Michele got to work together a little bit at the state level, and we got to see that ignorance, and to make sure that we pass this not only will help make our communities better, but to also improve the well-being of our Black and brown brothers and sisters in our community.”

Watley said there are current bills regarding the CROWN Act pending at the state level — in fact, she and her team have gotten a House and Senate bill introduced every year since 2020, but they have yet to see any meaningful movement, so they shifted their focus to cities.

“In the event that we are again unsuccessful in being able to get this passed at the state level, we wanna ensure that there are at least protections in the municipalities where issues like this are more likely to occur and where there are significant communities of people of color – Black people, Indigenous communities and alike,” Watley said.

HRC Chair Katie Barnett said Lawrence should not be dependent on state-level bills; rather, she said, this is an opportunity for Lawrence to serve as an example to surrounding cities and take leadership on this legislation.

“I think it’s important we take action on this from the city level, similar to everything that we’ve done in Chapter X (local housing, public accommodations and employment discrimination prohibition laws) to protect other classes of people and provide that protection that the state doesn’t provide,” Barnett said during the meeting. “That’s why this is important from my perspective.”

Many commissioners spoke in support of the proposal during Thursday’s meeting but said they needed to see the official language up for adoption before making a motion. 

Watley said next steps would be for the Human Relations Commission to consider, either through recommendation or resolution, to amend the city’s definition of “race,” which is a protected identity, to include hairstyles and hair textures, such as locs, braids, twists, afros, bantu knots and more. 

After having time to read over the official language, the HRC will call a special meeting to consider recommending the ordinance change to the Lawrence City Commission.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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