University of Texas at AustinDivision of Diversity and Community Engagement

Former Longhorns Use Natural Hair Conversation to Educate, Empower and Evangelize

July 8, 2014

Four Alumni Drive the Conversation of Inclusion in the Blogosphere

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Nikki Green (09), Evelyn Ngugi (11), Cristina Cleveland (08), and Susonnah Barklow (11)

Hair care isn’t exactly the industry that most imagine when envisioning platforms to drive the diversity and inclusion conversation or to enact social change, but for four University of Texas at Austin (UT) alumnae, their individual expertise and passions have come together to drive forward important dialogue, where inclusion and cultural acceptance is at the center through the online platform, naturallycurly.com.

Nikki Green (09), Cristina Cleveland (08), Evelyn Ngugi (11) and Susonnah Barklow (11) each came to UT looking for a unique experience. Nikki, a communications major, desired a campus where she could get a great education in the state of Texas, whereas Cristina, who studied advertising, transferred her sophomore year from a prominent private Texas institution, believing that UT’s large international population could provide the cultural diversity she was missing in her college experience prior. “I couldn’t imagine graduating in four years and only knowing one type of person, I wanted an environment that offered people with different life experiences and perspectives.” Having grown up in Brownsville, Texas, Susonnah thought UT offered a refreshing opportunity to explore life outside of her Latina roots, “I was just amazed by all the languages I heard every day walking around campus. I grew up in a majority Hispanic community and I appreciated getting to know people from different backgrounds.” Dallas-Fort Worth native Evelyn, who majored in journalism, gravitated to UT for the big university experience, providing just enough people and things to do that she could challenge herself to try new things and meet new people.

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It was at The University of Texas that these alums discovered their interest in observing social patterns and cultural dynamics. As women of color, they were each uniquely challenged and groomed to take on tough conversations about identity, access, space and place on campus and in the larger world. For Cristina such social politics were defined by space, “there was always a feeling that I didn’t belong in West campus, I didn’t understand being a part of such a homogenous world, everyone dressed the same way, everyone straightened their hair. It was strange and uncomfortable.” Nikki’s interaction with the diversity conversation started in the classroom. An active member of the Black Student Alliance, Nikki felt that student organizations like the BSA were essential to providing African American students with a platform to explore their shared experience; likewise, the organization served as an invaluable resource for many African American students who felt isolated on campus. “I recall that the only time I wasn’t one of the only African American students in my class in the comm school was when I ventured outside the department to take Africana Studies courses. It was there that I felt like I got to study myself and feel a certain connection with classmates and professors.” These types of experiences translated to life outside the classroom as well, and although at the time only prompted personal reflection, ultimately in partnership with their fields of study and academic interests would guide their professional pursuits.

Although Cristina, Nikki, Evelyn and Susonnah all landed jobs in their respective fields after graduating, not one of them felt truly connected to their work. That desire to fuse their intrinsic cultural understandings with their work in communications, journalism, and advertisement attracted them to the work of NaturallyCurly. A “dynamic social platform that empowers and engages a multicultural community of female influencers – the largest in the world of haircare,” the brand offered each Longhorn something they didn’t think was possible, the ability to empower, educate and evangelize in their 9 to 5 life.

The conversation of beauty in the context of the billion dollar hair-care and beauty supply industry has always created a damaging definition of social standards and division. The work of NaturallyCurly goes beyond providing hair tutorials and tips, for many women, it is a platform that helps to reaffirm their place in the beauty conversation.  A reincarnation of the fashion evolution of the “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful” movements of the 1960s and 1970s that offered opportunity for women and men of color to proudly wear their natural hair styles and not surrender to the chemicals or straightening practices globally encouraged and advertised, NaturallyCurly is leading a new movement that is bringing about an important cultural change in attitudes towards standards of beauty, social dynamics and self-empowerment. “It is so exciting to me to be a part of a company that is selling an idea of empowerment, rather than a product,” Susonnah, the company’s SEO strategist offered, “we want to be a safe space for woman to feel comfortable.”

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For these four UT alumnae NaturallyCurly’s motto, “where curls come to life,” is also where understanding and power come to life for many. They believe NaturallyCurly helps women, particularly women of color form new appreciation and admiration for their natural locks and therefore self. Nikki, who serves as Naturally Curly’s email marketing manager recalls her own hair journey of self-discovery being challenged while at UT. “I always felt that I needed to straighten my hair or wear weaves to be considered approachable, trendy and most importantly professional. There are so many women of color who have been told their natural hair, whether it’s big curls, fros or braids is not acceptable in the work place or professional looking…that’s like saying who you are naturally isn’t acceptable.” This conversation of social acceptance has driven much of the work of NaturallyCurly and continues to dominate the online community space.

The decision to “go natural,” i.e. the decision to wear one’s hair in its natural state free from chemical straighteners, can be both empowering and daunting. The mere fact that even deciding to wear one’s natural hair is regarded in some circles to be a revolutionary act speaks to deeper issues of race, class and the idea of beauty. “The hair care is a billion dollar industry that spends much of his advertising dollars telling women how they can change their hair to meet a certain image of beauty standard. At NaturallyCurly, we are empowering women to share their stories,” shared Evelyn “and as the social media manager I have the power to transcend the hair conversation to speak to broader issues of visibility and self-empowerment. Just in posting a photo of a woman who is wearing her hair natural, I’ll see other women commenting about how that photo or story helped encourage them to feel comfortable to rock their natural hair at the their job…we are walking advertisements and spokespeople for a movement that is fighting for inclusion, visibility and diverse thinking.”

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As each of these women continue to forge their own voices and contributions to the conversation, they confirm that this ongoing collective effort to break down infrastructure, institutions and industries that tend to marginalize women of color is a profession and passion worth pursuing. “Working in the advertising world, I realized I was just subjugated to being a product pusher, I wasn’t helping to promote anything of substance,” Cristina, whose role is to create stimulating content for the website as the senior content creator, shares, “at NaturallyCurly I get to encourage an idea, an idea that empowers women to be themselves.” Likewise, this forum challenges the world to reconsider concepts of culture and boundaries of beauty. Cristina, Evelyn, Nikki and Susonnah are part of a millennial movement that continues to demand a paradigm shift. “Media still dictates what’s the societal norm and some of my fondest memories on campus was challenging that societal norm,” Evelyn reflected, “I hope that the work we are doing at NaturallyCurly is taking form in other ways on campus to provide students of color and just any and all students with outlets to be themselves.”

- Virginia A. Cumberbatch

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