Lawrence Human Relations Commission votes to advance CROWN Act

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Commission says goodbye to member Kay Emerson

Lawrence’s Human Relations Commission on Thursday voted to ask city legal staff to draft an ordinance to implement the CROWN Act, a law that bans race-based hair discrimination.

Michele Watley is founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a Kansas City-based organization dedicated to advocacy for Black women. She presented to the HRC in February about why Lawrence should implement the CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”

“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 February meeting.

HRC Chair Katie Barnett said Thursday that the Lawrence City Commission had referred the CROWN Act to the HRC, and the HRC’s role was to consider and review the language and send it on to the city’s legal department, who would then do more research, review, and put together an ordinance.

Barnett said the proposed language would modify city ordinances on discrimination. The change would add to the definition of “race,” “including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” Further, it would define protective hairstyles as including but not limited to braids, locks and twists.

Watley said since the last time she spoke to the HRC, the states of Texas, Michigan and Nebraska had passed the CROWN Act.

“I’m sure that we can get it done here,” Watley said.

Commissioner Joseph Le made a motion to send the ordinance on to legal staff, first joking, “I refuse to be upstaged by Texas.”

HRC members approved the motion on a unanimous vote. After city legal staff members draft an ordinance, it will go before the Lawrence City Commission for consideration.

Thursday was Commissioner Kay Emerson’s last HRC meeting. Emerson, who also served on the Lawrence school board, stepped down from her position to move out of state.

Kay Emerson

“We’re just losing a tremendous advocate and community leader, so I just wanted to say thank you, Commissioner Emerson, for your service, and good luck with everything,” Barnett said.

Commissioner Christina Haswood said she had been impressed when Emerson first spoke to the HRC as a community member — and shortly thereafter joined the commission.

“You saw a gap, a need in our community and raised your hand and said ‘I’d like to make that change,’ so it was very inspiring for me,” Haswood said.

Emerson said she’d miss her fellow commissioners.

She said regardless of what community you’re in, service matters, and people need your help.

“When it comes to advancing civil rights, and just being able to feel like you belong in the community, our commission matters; you guys matter,” Emerson said. “And I just want to say thank you for the time that we’ve had, and on the work — let’s get this done.”

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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