As the CROWN Act takes effect, an Illinois boy celebrates his hair

Gus “Jett” Hawkins is only 6 years old, and already his name has been used for a law in Illinois.

The Jett Hawkins Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2022, prevents school boards, local school boards, charter schools, public schools, and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools from creating dress code requirements based on hairstyle and to prohibit hairstyles historically associated with any race. or ethnic.

What started as excitement over the 4-year-old girl’s new braided look heading to school in early 2021 has blossomed into something Hawkins’ mother Ida Nelson says her youngest child associated with “getting in trouble”.

A call from the private school in Hawkins’ West Side, Providence St. Mel, would lead to Nelson removing the braids from Jett’s hair because her look violated the student handbook’s hairstyle policy. Nelson has advocated for his son’s free speech, and State Senator Mike Simmons, a Northside Democrat, sponsored Senate Bill 817, which was signed into law Aug. 13, 2021.

Jett Hawkins, shown in 2021, asked his mother, Ida Nelson, to braid his hair.  Nelson received a call the next day from Providence St. Mel informing him that the braids were against the school dress code.

While Jett’s law affected schools across the state, hairdressing discrimination extended beyond educational institutions. A 2019 study showed that people of color with natural hairstyles experienced prejudice in the workplace.

The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, came into existence through this scrutiny. The CROWN Act prohibits race-based hair discrimination in the workplace, in homes, and in public places such as stores, restaurants, parks, and movie theaters. Illinois’ CROWN law went into effect Jan. 1, a year after the Jett Hawkins law. Nelson said she and her son know the weight of her history in Illinois.

Nelson said Jett loves doing interviews, watching videos of the interviews, and smiling while watching them. An ABC-7 news segment about his trip was nominated for a 2021-22 Chicago/Midwest Emmy.

“He was never shy. He was never anything but bold and confident,” Nelson said of Jett. That’s why she worked with Aurora-based photographer Jermaine Horton to get photos of her son for Horton’s nonprofit project, “The Art of Confidence.”

Jett Hawkins, 6, at Studio 28 in Aurora on January 7, 2023.

The project, launched in 2019, is focused on building confidence and empowering any child through art and imagery, Horton said. Horton photographs children who are bullied or struggling with health issues as they release their frustration and seize their power.

“I knew his confidence wouldn’t be broken, but I wanted to do the work to make sure his confidence was never broken,” Nelson said of Jett’s photo shoot a year ago.

On January 7, Horton took photos of Jett, commemorating one year of his law. Horton’s project has already captured at least two dozen individuals across the country facing societal rejection for their hair, whether from their schools or sports teams. He says most of the stories come from Texas and Florida.

“We will always have enough of these stories because there will always be people who treat other people like that,” Horton said. “I’ve received thousands of emails from families saying, ‘You’ve given us hope. I didn’t know it was OK to fight back.

Horton, a Naperville resident who photographed iconic student Marian Scott in Michigan in 2019, said the overwhelming response to her Art of Confidence project “was unexpected, but absolutely justified.” Horton lists the names of elementary and high school students across the country who have experienced backlash from the community over their hair. Threats, punishments and intimidation surround every young person’s story of self-expression; and there are lots of stories – too many, he says.

Horton flies out to as many young people as he can to empower them, to show them through his photography and their self-image that they are seen, valued and beautiful.

Jermaine Horton, left, prepares 6-year-old Jett Hawkins for a photoshoot at Studio 28 in Aurora on Jan. 7, 2023. Hawkins' mother, Ida Nelson, is right.

“If you can play in the NBA, NFL and have locs, what’s the deal with the kids? It doesn’t make sense,” Horton said. “It’s like these institutions are creating these tedious things of control when it comes to children so that they can mold and manifest these children into something in their image versus what they want to see themselves because , if we’re being honest, schools have way more issues to deal with than hair.

Both Horton and Nelson work individually with national organizations to pass Crown laws in each state. Illinois is one of 19 states to pass the CROWN Act. A national version passed the United States House of Representatives but failed to advance to the United States Senate. Horton will continue to travel the country to help children. Donations can be made via its website.

Since Jett’s name became law in Illinois, Nelson, a North Lawndale resident, said her advocacy has become a full-time job. The mother of five and owner of Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream juggles her parental and professional responsibilities with her activism. She regularly receives phone calls from families in other states who have heard of Jett’s story and have been inspired to impact change in their area or who want advice on what they should do in a similar scenario.

In response, Nelson starts his own community organization to teach black boys and girls to be proud of how they present themselves in the world. It targets school-aged children as Ice Cream Social… Awareness, talks about bullying, self-esteem and voice activation.

“I talk to kids about dark hair and confidence and amplifying your voice,” Nelson said. “I want people to walk away understanding that it’s not okay for any entity – government, educational institution or anyone else to control other people’s bodies or govern how they present themselves and they shouldn’t Want it. People should ask themselves, “Why are the senators rejecting this CROWN Act bill? Why is it acceptable in 31 states for black children to be excluded from school or activities because of something historically associated with them? Why is it OK for them and why is it OK with you? »

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