We Love Illinois Schools

How a Preschooler Made Illinois History

February 01, 2022 Illinois State Board of Education Season 1 Episode 7
We Love Illinois Schools
How a Preschooler Made Illinois History
Show Notes Transcript

Jett Hawkins wanted to wear his hair in braids. His school said that hairstyle violated the dress code. So Jett's mother, Ida Nelson, began working to change the school's policy. Less than a year later, she and 4-year-old Jett had transformed school dress codes throughout Illinois with the passage of a new law. 
In this podcast, Ida explains why hair has such profound significance in Black culture, and why she's still working to help change laws in other states.
Our theme music is by José Rivera.

Jett Hawkins Law 

Dusty Rhodes 0:02 

Hello, we are the Illinois State Board of Education, and we love Illinois schools. February is Black History Month, so we are featuring someone who made a historic change in Illinois law. Her name is Ida Nelson. If you haven't heard of Ida, you may have heard of her son, Jett Hawkins, because this historic new law is named after him. But since Jett is only 4 years old and busy being a kid, we chatted with Ida instead. I started with a pretty easy question: So, on a scale of one to 10, how tired are you of hearing that Jett is adorable? 

Ida Nelson 0:44 

Oh, I never get tired of hearing how adorable he is. Jett is what we call our sekani. And sekani means joy. And so although Jett is a handful, he's pretty darn cute to us, too. So I mean, to answer your question, with one being sick and tired and 10 being I never get tired, I'll give it a nine. 

DR 1:09 

So for people who may not be familiar with his story, give me kind of the short version of it. 

Ida Nelson 1:17 

The short version is: Jett asked for me to braid his hair on March 2 of 2021. And I entertained that request, because I am a parent who believes in nurturing children's creativity and fostering self-expression, so I braided his hair. And he was excited. I sent him to school, and I got a phone call from the dean stating that his hairstyle was not acceptable for school. And I looked at the phone crazy, because I thought that she was just pulling my leg. Ms. Ward was pulling my leg. But no, she was serious. And I took that time to try to educate her about what the CROWN Act was and expressed my disappointment that we were having this conversation at all in 2021. But I did not move her with my words at all. I escalated the situation to the president of the school. That also kind of fell on deaf ears. As I was, you know, going through this process -- and what I'm talking about right now is the process of advocacy for my child. I was attempting to be a voice for my child within the school, and I was taking the steps that I believed were the proper steps to take by starting with the dean and escalating to the principal and then to the president of the school, asking to speak with the school board and being denied, denied, denied ... 

DR 1:46 

While she was going through this advocacy exercise, Ida made sure that she and Jett were following the school's rules, even though it was painful. 

Ida Nelson  2:54 

And so I do take my son's braids down, as requested, because I just, I'm not a troublemaker. I like to go along to get along if things make sense. But when they told me that I needed to take my child's hair down, I felt like that was a threat to his creativity, his mental health. He cried as I took his hair down. I put his hair in a ponytail like a man bun kind of thing going on the next day for school, and I got a phone call again saying that, "Ugh, I hate to do this, but that is also an unacceptable and unauthorized hairstyle." At that point, I'm like, "OK, let me get the rules. Send me the rules!" They never did send me the rules. I ended up getting the rules from former students, after I took my story to the court of public opinion, aka Facebook, and folks shared my story and got over 200 responses, you know, about how ridiculous this, this rule was and how they could not believe that, you know, the school was discriminating against a 4-year-old's hairstyle. From that point, it got escalated to the media, and Senator Mike Simmons saw the story in the paper and reached out to me and expressed his support for and his disappointment with that rule being in place. And unbeknownst to me, he was in the background writing a bill to try to make this change for not only Jett, but for all the children in Illinois. 

DR 4:27 

And you got that legislation turned into law pretty quick. It went into effect already January 1st.  

Ida Nelson 4:33 

It did! 

DR 4:34 

I remember my son getting a mohawk, like about the same time that James Harden had a mohawk, and I asked him: Are you getting a mohawk because of James Harden? And he said, "No. If I wanted to look like James Harden, I would grow a beard." My son was 11 at the time. And then he said, "Well, it would take a while." But anyway, Jett ... Was he inspired by someone in particular to want braids? 

Ida Nelson 5:06 

I don't know that it wasn't anyone particular. But clearly he had, you know, seen someone within our community with that hairstyle, because that is not something I pick. I was actually getting ready to take him to the barbershop to have a haircut on the day before this happened. And he didn't want it. He said, "No! I don't want to have a haircut." He went to Google. And he knows how to do like the voice to text. And he said, "Black boys hair braid." And he showed me (the images): "I want my hair like that." OK! 

DR 5:41 

Wow. OK. All right. And you mentioned that, that when the school called, that you told them about the CROWN Act. So did you already know about the CROWN Act? 

Ida Nelson 5:53 

I did know about the CROWN Act.  

DR 5:55 

The CROWN Act, which became law three years ago in California, addressed racialized hair discrimination in the workplace and in public schools. Jett's Law expands upon this concept by including private schools. 

Ida Nelson 6:08 

I discovered the CROWN Act through the news that was happening in 2019. And I was very familiar with the CROWN Act, because I had an incident where I felt like I needed to change my hair in order to get a job. Not that they told me that I did. But it was just that, how do you call it, just that understanding that I should change my hairstyle, in order to be appropriate and professional. I had had a faux locs hairstyle installed in 2019, and then I got a phone call for an interview. And I changed my hair. And I felt horrible about it, and it inspired me to kind of do some just research on it. I just, I just didn't feel very good about myself, and so I started doing research, and that's how I found out about the CROWN Act. 

DR 6:51 

Did that surprise you? When you changed your hair for a job prospect and started having these emotions about it? Did that surprise you? Or did you, did you expect it?  

Ida Nelson 7:05 

I feel like I was going through an evolution as a person, whereas I started thinking and considering who I am and who I show up as in white society in general. And I was thinking about all the ways that I have to alter myself in order to fit in, and even thinking about my hair. So I don't know that I'm surprised, because I was in a place and a space for self-reflection. 

DR 7:28 

OK, but just to be clear, you didn't send Jett to school with this hairstyle just to try to kick up trouble about the CROWN Act. 

Ida Nelson 7:36 

Oh, no! Hell no. I didn't even ... that's an all-Black school. And so, I just, I sent him to that school because I thought and believed that they would be culturally sensitive, considering that it's an all-Black school in his community. I didn't even think about the hair. I didn't even think about the hairstyle as being problematic at all.  

DR 8:04 

You weren't trying to cause trouble.  

Ida Nelson 8:06 

So no, I didn't, he's a 4-year-old in preschool. I didn't even … I really literally didn't think anything of it. 

DR 8:14 

Right. And the people who called you were also Black? 

Ida Nelson 8:19 

Well, the person who called me was Black, yes. She is one of the few Black administrators at the school. 

DR 8:28 

But isn't the principal also Black? 

Ida Nelson 8:31 

The dean and the principal and a couple of teachers are Black. The faculty makeup of that school is 85% white; the student population is 100% Black. 

DR 8:43 

You use the term "loc journey." Explain that. Why is it a journey? 

Ida Nelson 8:49 

It's a journey because, again, first of all, to make the decision to do it is a long back-and-forth decision that we go back and forth with within our minds, because again, we have been conditioned in a way -- even, you know, within our own community -- we've been conditioned in a certain kind of way. The stigma around the locs is that it's dirty, matted, looks unkempt. You know, there's always a negative connotation around the locs. But we have some sort of connection with them that we just don't even understand. Again, unless you've educated yourself, you don't even understand why you have that connection to that or that you're drawn to that style. And then when you first get them, it doesn't look how you think and imagine it's going to look. You don't walk out of the salon with perfectly locked hair that you can style or anything like that. Quite different. We go through what we internally and affectionately call "the ugly phase." And so, you know, we say it, we can say it to each other, but you know, nobody else better say, "Woo, you're in that ugly phase!" No, no, no. But, but we go through that phase where it's not exactly what we think it's going to be. And it takes a long time for it to happen, like, it can take them a year for your hair to lock. So like, I started my loc journey in November, but I started making the decisions that I was thinking I wanted to lock my hair for about a year, before I actually pulled the trigger, because once you do it, you're, you're stuck, you're locked into it. So there's no going back or reverting to getting your hair straightened or doing all these other different types of styles that you're used to ... No, you're committed to that. 

DR 10:04 

Exactly. Because your hair literally, the little coils, just, it would be like putting a bunch of Slinkys together. And, and so they're bound together and they're not going to come apart. The only way back from a loc journey would be to cut it all off, right? 

Ida Nelson 10:59 

Cut it all off or it takes weeks, because you can unlock it, but it will take weeks to un-mat your hair. So, yeah, you have to be ready, you have to be committed, you have to know that people are going to be curious, you know, and the stigma around it, you have to be, you have to be prepared for that. And you have to really love yourself and love your hair in order to go ahead and commit to doing that. 

DR 11:22 

And you have to envision yourself at every potential social setting, from then on. How am I going to feel with my hair like this?  

Ida Nelson 11:35 


DR 11:36 

And you're going to decide that, I'm going to feel great. 

Ida Nelson 11:40 

Yep, that part. And I'm ready for whatever. So, yeah, it's not something that typically children are comfortable or confident enough to do. Because it's hard. 

DR 11:52 

I've long believed that hair has more significance in Black culture than in white culture, but I cannot articulate why. Can you help explain that? 

Ida Nelson 12:07 

Well, for us, again, the hair has always been our protection -- protection in the way that it protects our head from the sun; protection in the way that it has symbolized like which tribe you are from, if we look at it historically; protection in the way of there were documented instances of the road to freedom or a map to freedom being stitched via braids, cornrows into slaves attempting to get to freedom. And so we have a deeper connection to our hair, that almost is like kind of stained in our DNA that a lot of us are not even familiar with why we are, you know, so attached to our hair. But also the history of the fact that even our hair was enslaved, we had to cover our hair, you know, they didn't want to see that. And to the point where they created laws that specifically said that our hair was so offensive, that by law, we had to cover our hair, that's the Tignon laws. But since we have been so oppressed, as a relates to our hair, for us, the liberation of our hair is just a very important thing to us. It's a way that we express ourselves, it's a way that we, we don't have very much in terms of connection with who we are and who our ancestors are. You know, a lot of times white people can say, "OK, I am Irish." And they can trace this back to Ireland. Or they can say, you know, "We are Italian" or whichever, you know, culture, they affirm and take pride in that. We don't really know. All we know is that we are African people, but Africa is a continent. And there are many countries, many tribes, and we just don't know exactly who we are and where we are from, except that we're from this continent. And so this is our way of expressing ourselves and taking pride in our culture. So I think that's why the hair is so important to us.  

DR 14:17 

OK. I know that, traditionally, Black people have gone to great lengths to try to conform to white culture's expectations of hair, and you know, use chemicals and irons, all kinds of painful processes is to try to make their hair look like white hair. I just have like, passing knowledge of that, but I remember watching Chris Rock's movie "Good Hair." And I remember a scene where, I think they put relaxer into soda pop cans, and they melted. Have you seen that movie?  

Ida Nelson 14:59 

Years ago. 

DR 15:00 

Yeah, years ago, I saw it when it first came out, but that scene like made a mark in my head. Talk about that -- what have people tried to do to, I guess for lack of a better term, assimilate? 

Ida Nelson 15:17 

So the Eurocentric standards of beauty have been ingrained in the minds of Black people, again, since we arrived here. And it's something that we pass down, we have passed down from generation to generation, starting with, even with babies to teaching babies what "good" hair is, and what "bad" hair is. We start teaching children that their hair in its natural state is not good enough by pressing their hair and perming their hair at a very young age. That even happened to me. I got my first perm when I was about maybe 6 or 7 years old. And it's taken me until now I'm ... I won't say my age, but I'm older -- to finally actually know what my hair texture, my true hair texture, feels like. Because I've abandoned all things that change the natural texture of my hair. So I stopped perming my hair when I came to the knowledge and understanding that perming your hair is, you know, that goes into your pores, that has affected so many Black women of colors' reproductive systems, in terms of we have terribly bad fibroids and things of that nature, and then it can be traced back to perming. And then there is the flat-ironing of the hair. It seems that when we used to get our hair pressed with a hot comb -- and we were talking about this with my friends -- hair used to be healthier, it would revert back to that curl pattern. But something about that ceramics flat iron on the hair kind of destroys the hair. And then a lot of us have heat damage, like my hair had become had literally become naturally straight from me ironing so much. 

DR 16:58 

You said that that Jett cried when you took out his braids. And I saw in another interview that you mentioned that your daughter had experienced some trauma around changing her hair, and you talked about your own trauma in changing your hair to conform to these anti-natural hair standards. I don't know that white people understand. I'm sorry, I'm making you explain things to white people, but... 

Ida Nelson 17:27 

No, this is my new life's work is in a non-threatening way -- because I'm gonna assume that there are some people that just want to help, you know, or they're, you know, they are unfamiliar with because it just hasn't affected them and now that they are coming to a different awareness that they're curious, and we need for them to know and to learn. 

DR 17:27 

So is it deeper than just hair? I mean, why is it so traumatic? 

Ida Nelson 17:58 

Oh, yeah, for us, it is definitely deeper than just hair, because this is about confidence, it's about body autonomy, it's about the fact that we are all going through something and if you talk to just any Black woman about their hair, or a hair experience, everybody has story. I can just about guarantee you that every one of us has a story. And so for us this is deeper, it's our connection with self-love. Like we're all on this journey. That's why so many Black women are turning to the natural hair or just having this natural hair movement because we're trying to get a better understanding of who we are and how we show up in this world and have a more authentic connection with ourselves. 

DR 18:52 

I've noticed that when people decide to go with natural hair, they announced it. It's like you know what, I've quit smoking or quit drinking or I've quit ... like it's a whole lifestyle change. It signifies some kind of profound evolution.  

Ida Nelson 19:14 

Yeah, it's our hair liberation is what it is. So you're absolutely right. 

DR 19:26 

OK, all right. I can't get over the irony of, like you said, you sent Jett to an all-Black school thinking that they would value his culture, and they even have and enforce a policy that's very anti-Black. They even ban the high box fade. So what is the good intention behind this policy? I know that schools don't make policies with bad intentions, they must have had a good intention. What was their good intention with this? 

Ida Nelson 20:06 

Oh, that's a loaded question for me, because I feel like as educators, they ought to know better. And I think that, especially when working with children of color that, you know, understanding the experiences that they've had, they definitely should have been more culturally sensitive. But I think that they are so caught up in teaching these children that they need to assimilate in order to be successful, teaching them that they need to conform to the Eurocentric standards of beauty, which, again, we are getting more to an understanding that this is detrimental to the mental health outcomes for people of color, I think that they just should have done better. And when we talk about the policies being innocent, I just no longer believe that, because I know my history. And Malcolm X says what? If you don't know your history, then you are doomed to repeat it. Policies and laws are the same thing. We know the history: They were created to ensure Black subordination. I think -- I don't think; I know -- that white people in power know and understand the dangers of Black people understanding and stepping into their power of who they are. 

You know, after this uprising or upheaval that happened, the summer before last, we saw a surge in Black-owned businesses, Black people realizing that they had to do it for themselves. And I was one of those people. And this hair journey, all of these things, are lock and step. Me empowering myself, from the perspective of liberating my hair, which is surrounding and covering my mind -- well, I liberated my mind first, then my hair -- then I started realizing who I am and what my what my abilities are, I stepped into my confidence. And wow, I was able to start a business, I've been able to take care of my children, educate my children, based on this business that I've started, you know, I've been able to support my community and create resources for my community and my family. I was able to change the law, all because literally, because I stepped into my power and had higher self-confidence and a higher level of self-love, which gave me the ability to have love and compassion for other people. So all of these things go hand-in-hand. And be ye not deceived that the powers that be notice and understand this as well. 

DR 22:44 

OK, you tell me that you've gotten this legislation passed, but you're not done. You've got other goals in mind. What are those? 

Ida Nelson 22:54 

Oh, so many goals in mind. But as it relates to this, one goal is to introduce other parents to their power and the power of their voice and learn how to advocate for their children. Another goal that I have is to work with children, as I believe that they are the next leaders up, and educate them about hair, and for Black children, educate them about, you know, dispelling the misunderstanding and misconceptions about Black hair and helping them to affirm themselves and step into their confidence. And then for non- Black children ... just giving them an understanding. I think that children are curious. I do not believe that children are racist, or born racist. 

But I also do know that all of these people that I'm mentioning, now, these little people, are the next leaders up. And my goal is to hand down health, and, you know, a healthy mental capacity to these children, and a healthy understanding of how the world works, and you know, these types of things and educate them on that so that they can help us to not, you know, have a racist society in the future. And then also work with teachers who are curious about what they could do to help to create this change, you know, that we want to see for the future. I assume that teachers are in the role that they're in because they have a common goal for nurturing the children. And so I want to help them to do that for all children that they come in contact with. And then on a personal level, also, I'm working on changing the law nationwide, getting rid of some of these policies to help other people who are battling with these issues and other states. 

DR 24:40 

OK, cool. So my last question is, does Jett understand what he has done? 

Ida Nelson 24:49 

Yeah! Because we talk about it all the time, you know, and so I don't know if he understands it on a high level, but the maybe he does, because when people start talking, he can engage in a conversation with you about the hair bill and what his thoughts are on it. 

DR 25:06 

What does he think? 

Ida Nelson 25:07 

He says "I am so grateful for the hair bill." And he'll tell this story about what happened and how it made him feel. But the story always ends with him being happy and proud that he can now wear his hair the way that he that he likes to wear it in his little braids style. 

DR 25:29 

So when it comes to school today, what did his hair look like? 

Ida Nelson 25:32 

His hair is braided in, just the braid styles is that it's shaved on the sides and in the back, and the top part is, is braided. And one thing that I would love for you to do is to, you know, let people know that if they are curious about this, I'm an open book and I'm wanting to go to the schools and go into the community and talk to people about this, so that we can start changing society. 

We can't even just say, hopefully, we have to be intentional about doing our part to ensure that our grandchildren don't have to go through this. Because I asked my grandmother if she thought that -- she was around, she was alive, she was, you know, a youngster during the marches and Million Man March and all of that during (Martin Luther) King's time. And I asked her, "Did you imagine or did you envision that your grandchildren would be experiencing this uprising and having to march in the streets to say their lives matter? And she said, “No.”  

Now, is it OK if I ask: Are you mixed? 

DR 26:43 

I am. I did not know that for sure. I'm adopted. So I didn't know that for sure until I met my birth father's daughter, and she told me. 

Ida Nelson 26:59 

So I think that Black people have the ability to see or connect with the Blackness in somebody else. Like when I looked at your (social media) page, and I immediately said "This looks almost like a light-skinned Black woman." 

DR 27:14 

I've been told that all my life like, like Black people have all my life, even as a little kid asked me, you know, they say, "Can I ask you something? Are you mixed?" And I'd say I honestly don't know.  

Ida Nelson 27:29 

So my other point too though is: This is a big problem with racism too, because it's like other people don't even know they probably have some Black in them somehow, someway. You know, but the reality is we're all just people trying to, you know, trying to get through life the best way that we can. Hopefully, by us doing what we're doing, we will, you know, instill some confidence and restore the power to Black people who have been so oppressed and repressed for hundreds of years. And then, you know, incite some compassion in the folks who don't even realize and know that, you know, that they need to have some compassion for people who are just trying to be. That's kind of my hope and my intention for doing all of this so that we can, you know, make the changes for the next leaders up. 

DR 27:49 

That was Ida Nelson, mother of Jett Hawkins, the preschooler who inspired a new Illinois law to end discrimination targeting Black hairstyles in all schools. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and share it with your colleagues and friends. Thank you for listening.