Portland woman changes law, lives with natural hair salon

Multnomah County

Conscious Coils is located at 1033 SW Yamhill Street

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A woman who took it upon herself to change a state law is now changing people’s perception of natural hair at her Portland hair salon.

It used to be illegal in Oregon to be a natural hair stylist without a cosmetology license, even though they usually just use combs, brushes and rubber bands. Amber Starks decided to change that.

Inside her small Portland studio, Amber sees about 80 clients a month. They aren’t spending hours under a dryer as you see in movies — instead, they’re celebrating what’s already there.

“For a lot of people, it’s a display of who they are, a personification of their personality or their culture or their heritage,” she said.

She opened her salon, Conscious Coil, around 5 years ago. The salon provides only natural hair products, classes and styles.

“They’re grateful for a space that is for them, that caters to them,” said Amber.

There are examples of real-life consequences for black people when they choose to wear their hair in a certain way. The styles have been considered “unpolished” at work — and women, in particular, feel pressured to buy expensive wigs or chemical treatments to straighten their hair.

Wearing braids, locs and cornrows is as much a cultural tradition for some African Americans as it is to practice them. Amber learned the techniques as a child — but didn’t plan on growing up to be a hairdresser. She ended up working in a science lab.

However, the self-professed “scientist at heart” got bored in the lab and began working for a non-profit having to do with foster care.

“One of the things that popped up was the overrepresentation of Native American kids and black kids in the foster care system and often times they’re placed in families that aren’t of their background,” she said. “[I wondered] what can I give to the kids and I just thought, ‘well, I can braid hair.'”

Amber Starks works on a client’s hair at her salon. Oct. 20, 2019. (KOIN)

Her talent took off but building a business can be expensive and time-consuming — not to mention the hurdle of Oregon’s cosmetology law.

“Out of stubbornness, somebody says you have to change the law, and I’m like, ‘fine,'” she said.

In 2013, Amber convinced lawmakers to create an exemption to Oregon’s cosmetology license and allow natural hair stylists to take a test on safety and sanitation instead of classes about dyes, straighteners and scissors — things they don’t traditionally use.

A year later she opened Conscious Coils — and maybe even people’s minds about the beauty behind natural hair.

“It’s not just [that] I’m doing your hair and collecting your money,” she said. “It’s oftentimes about somebody’s own person and how they’re choosing to exist in the world.”

Amber also provides consultations, blogs and classes to encourage self-esteem and a healthier lifestyle. Conscious Coils is located at 1033 SW Yamhill Street., Suite 103.

KOIN 6 News anchor Jennifer Hoff’s series, Women Crush Wednesday, highlights women who are crushing it. Who do you know breaking the glass ceilings, inspiring others, doing good?  Send a message to Jennifer Hoff.

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