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Creating community and confidence through hair

Her Natural Wreath volunteers Bandel Wane (top left) and Evemita Brisenold (right) prepare a client for styling by blow drying her hair. (Courtesy of Rachel Eloy)
Her Natural Wreath volunteers Bandel Wane (top left) and Evemita Brisenold (right) prepare a client for styling by blow drying her hair. (Courtesy of Rachel Eloy)

Bouncing hair beads, bright bows, braids, and bubble ponytail holders are a rite of passage for most Black girls.

Most have their own satin hair bonnets as soon as they begin to grow hair. And “wash day” for Black hair is an experience, whether that be good or bad, not just a task.

But, for Black girls in Gainesville, simple maintenance can be an alienating experience. A lack of representation and resources makes black hair care especially hard. Compared to other major cities like Orlando or Jacksonville there are less hair stylists, less stores with inexpensive Black hair care products and less awareness of these problems.

“There’s definitely a lack of resources for Black women and girls when it comes to our hair,” Tehannah Matthew, an education major at Sante Fe, said.

As of the latest U.S. Census count, the total population in Gainesville was slightly over 141,000, with the Black population accounting for 20.71%.

“I’m from Miami and when I first moved to Gainesville it took me forever to find stylists that did Black hair,” said Matthew, age 20,  “I kind of went through a funk because finding hair stores that actually sold products I needed was hard.”

Dr. Patricia Hillard-Nunn was an African American Studies professor at the University of Florida who died from cancer in August of 2020. Before her death, she curated the Black Hair Show, which was a celebration of Black Hair and its roots. The last show was in 2019.

Earlier this year, Naiyla Durand, an environmental science student at UF, and president of the Gator Chapter of the NAACP decided to create a continuation of Hillard-Nunn’s Hair Show entitled the Dr. Hillard-Nunn Black Hair Expo.

“It's definitely very important to make sure that we're highlighting and uplifting black hair in a society where our hair is seen as unprofessional,” Durand said. “Sometimes it’s even treated as though its unladylike when it’s in our natural state.”

Durand currently serves as head director for the expo and is planning on making sure it is bigger and better next year in order to highlight natural hair and Dr. Hillard-Nunn’s legacy.

“I want this event to continue to flourish so that the black students on campus and in the community here know that their hair is their crown and it's one of the most powerful aspects of them.” Durand said.

Co-directors for the expo share Durand’s passion for uplifting Black hair within the Gainesville community.

“Natural hair is the foundation to so many African-American children’s confidence, including my own” Amayah Foster, talent director for the expo, said.

“Once I began to understand and nurture my hair,” Foster said, “my confidence skyrocketed.”

The unique textures, kinks and curls in natural hair are what make it interesting when it comes to figuring out a proper care routine.

“Natural hair is like a very diverse language,” Anani Blakey, media director for the hair expo said, “Everyone has their own routine and not everything will work for your hair.”

Each bend in the hair follicles represent a weak point in the hair shaft, which makes them more prone to breaking.

“I grew up seeing mostly straight hair which always led me to think that since my hair was different, I wasn’t the standard of beauty,“ Foster said, “Many don’t have the representation they need to understand they are beautiful the way they are created.”

Rachel Eloy, 20, a behavioral and cognitive neuroscience and women's studies student at the University of Florida, noticed this and decided to take matters into her own hands.

Eloy was volunteering at the local Child Advocacy Center, where she would come across children who were in therapy for neglect, abuse or living in foster homes. These children would come to the center as a safe space to interact with others.

“A lot of the foster children at the center were Black or interracial,” Eloy said, “and sometimes the foster moms have 10 or more girls under their care, so it’s hard to focus on each girl’s hair, especially if their hair is a different texture from the mom’s.”

Eloy began taking whatever free time she had while at the center to do some of the girl’s hair, with little to no resources.

“When I began to do hair in the center sometimes it would still be dirty and I wouldn't have all the products I needed,” Eloy said. “I didn’t have enough time to give the girls the attention they needed and deserved.”

Eloy then decided to present the idea to her program coordinator at the center to take a day to wash and style some of the girl’s hair, with permission of course. Her coordinators jumped on board with the plan and Her Natural Wreath was born.

Eloy knew she needed a team to pull off her idea. She reached out to Evemita Brisenold, her roommate from freshman year.

“I don't know a lot of Black girls in Gainesville,” Eloy said, “Eve and I randomly matched as roommates, and I was so surprised considering the environment at the school we go to. I was really happy though.”

Through Brisenold, Eloy was able to form a full team of five, including herself to execute the free hairstyles.

“I really rely on the few Black girls that I know for help,” Eloy said, “it's been really nice as well having that like support.”

This sense of community is at the heart of how Eloy runs the days Her Natural Wreath operates. She posts a monthly booking form for interested clients and it’s there where the entire process begins.

Eloy takes hours to correctly plan out her sessions so that they go off without a hitch for her volunteers and her clients.

“Through Her Natural Wreath I’ve been able to use my natural hair skills to help young black individuals feel better about themselves” Brisenold said.

On the day she does styling, Eloy begins by picking up any volunteers that may need a ride to the salon where she works on her clients. She picks up snacks for the day and then takes about an hour or so to set up once the other volunteers arrive. She tries to decorate the salon to make the girls feel special and welcomed.

“We have balloons, streamers and the hair all prepped, so when the first client comes in, it’s showtime and the black girl magic can begin,” Eloy said.

If a new client comes in, a volunteer will typically talk to the parent and let them know that they can stay with their child through the whole process or leave if they want because they’re in good hands.

The group of girls then get a tour of the salon to help ease uneasy feelings and then get introduced to each other and the volunteers that are helping for the day. From there you can see girls at different stations with hair being washed, blow dried, braided and styled.

“It’s honestly an amazing feeling,” Brisenold said.

The UF Black Hair Expo and Her Natural Wreath have the same goals at their core, uplifting a community through natural hair and embracing natural hair in spaces where those that have it might not feel the most confident about it.

“Black hair, every single strand is perfectly coiled,” Eloy said

Eloy wants to make sure that the girls that come to her through Her Natural Wreath leave believing that they’re already beautiful without her team touching their hair, they’re just adding some special touches to make girls feel even nicer.

“It was really hard to pick a name that was really symbolic and embodied what I wanted the program to be,” Eloy said, “I was like, “what are other words to like signify Crown?”

By now you might be wondering how exactly did Eloy come up with the name Her Natural Wreath?

One of the hundred results that came from her search was the word wreath.

“I was like, that is so true. A wreath is like an ornament it's not necessarily a crown because you’re not saying the crown is the masterpiece or the center of attention. It's just supposed to add to what's already there, which I think is really what her natural wreath is about.”

This month instead of hosting her styling day, Eloy instead held a Zoom call with interested parents so they could learn to recreate the styles her team does. She wants them to be able to start creating personal bonding experiences with daughters through hair.

Eloy said that she plans to grow her organization and have it as section of a larger, established local organization so that it can continue to operate in Gainesville after she graduates from UF.

She also wants to be able to keep pouring into young girls and helping them build their confidence.

“We’re not making your hair pretty,” Eloy said.

“Your hair is already gorgeous”

Keziah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.