Creating Legacies for Living Together: Ending Hair Discrimination to Advance Well-Being

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Inaugural CROWN Conference in New Jersey with distinguished panelists. From left to right: Hon. Sandra Cunningham, Senator and New Jersey CROWN Bill sponsor; Angela Mcknight, Assemblywoman and New Jersey CROWN bill sponsor; Dr. Bernice B. Rumala, CROWN Campaign Co-founder; Shemekka Ebony Coleman, CROWN Campaign Co-founder; and Karen Thompson, ACLU-NJ, Senior Attorney.

Dr. Bernice B. Rumala and Shemekka Ebony Coleman are the co-founders of the
CROWN Campaign: Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair. A team of interdisciplinary professionals, CROWN Campaign leaders seek to ensure everyone is treated with respect—and is able to wear natural or styled hair in a way that reflects personal choice or cultural tradition.

“Like all members of CROWN, and more than 90% of the attendees at the inaugural CROWN conference, I have experienced hair discrimination,” Dr. Rumala states.

“After graduating from Columbia University, I was informed in a professional development workshop that ‘You do not want to draw attention to your hair and distract from your excellent qualifications.' I received the message that my hair in its natural state is unacceptable," Dr. Rumala continued.

Dr. Rumala is the Director of a new short animation film My Hair, My Crown, My Freedom. The film is designed as a resource for communities to have guided discussions on ending hair discrimination.

The explicit and implicit bias Dr. Rumala experienced reflects a much larger system of policing appearances, with legacies of exclusion and trauma continuing to shape our policies and practices today.

Dr. Patricia O’Brien Richardson's recently conducted study, The Case for Hair Health in Health Education: Exploring Hair and Physical Activity Among Urban African American Girls, describes the history of hair discrimination that we have all inherited:

Hair is seen as a symbol of expression for all cultures and for all hair types. In American society, hair has historically been used as a tool of systemic violence against black women who have been socially penalized and stigmatized for their hair.

During the middle passage, slave traders shaved the heads of new slaves and, in doing so, removed their identity of hair as a cultural marker, erasing the relationship between Africans and their hair. Later, during the colonial period, hairstyles came to represent social order among female slaves because hairstyles for house slaves differed from those for field slaves. […]

As a result, these words and related words such as kinky, rough, hard, bad, and ugly became synonymous with slave hair culture and became embedded in the history and vernacular of America used to this day to describe hair that is not styled, orderly, or neat.

As Dr. Rumala and her colleagues travel back and forth to provide advocacy, education, and content for policy hearings around the country, they witness firsthand how the legacies of the past continue to impact the health and well-being of communities today.

“In Texas, a young boy was found by Child Protective Services isolated in a classroom away from any social contact. These young children, 4 and 5 year old boys who should be playing with their friends, have instead been isolated, removed from school, and discriminated against for hair that grows naturally out of their scalp. This is a deep injustice and unacceptable. The families have faced severe primary trauma with this injustice, and the community has suffered from secondary trauma,” Dr. Rumala reports.

Black youth across the country have been suspended, placed in school detention, and expelled from learning environments, after school activities, and community enrichment activities due to the way their natural hair grows out of their head.

“There is a huge problem with grooming policies that were written, in some cases, over 30 years ago and institutions refusing to change them. We must acknowledge that time and cultural awareness should have improved along with our societal efforts towards diversity, inclusion, and equity,” Shemekka Ebony shares.

The CROWN Campaign is a People with Lived Experience partner affiliated with Well Being and Equity (WE) in the Well Being in the Nation (WIN) Network. WIN is a learning and action collaborative of organizations and communities advancing well-being and equity by expanding the Vital Conditions everyone needs to thrive. WIN Network partners believe that, together, we can secure intergenerational well-being for all.

WIN begins with a recognition that the legacies of the past shape our present—and the decisions we make today will impact future generations.

Committed to creating legacies we can be proud to pass along, CROWN formalized its volunteer efforts and launched a campaign to enact policy change. Moving from an informal network to a targeted campaign was not an easy shift, but necessary for the transformation the CROWN leaders know is needed.

“Many communities face injustices. From food sovereignty to affordable housing, we know the voices and experiences of those most impacted by discriminatory policies must shape our policy work,” Dr. Rumala shares.

“One [CROWN Conference] attendee when asked what she is walking away with said she is walking away with the fact that her voice matters, so she will no longer stay silent on discriminatory policies.” 


The CROWN Campaign’s strategy centers people with lived experiences—and combines research expertise with policy recommendations. From meaningful work to lifelong learning, boys and girls, women and men need support when it comes to changing the systems that dictate access to the Vital Conditions we all need all the time to reach our full potential.

“Public policy must be coupled with advocacy and changes in practice-based implementation to advance systems transformation and build a culture of health and equity from theory to practice,” Dr. Rumala states.

The CROWN Campaign has already demonstrated success in nationwide grassroots advocacy efforts by illuminating the work and collaborating with communities to support legislative wins.

The CROWN Act was recently passed in New Jersey on December 19, 2019, exactly one year after a high school wrestler was forced to cut his locs--or forfeit his match. Two states and two municipalities preceded New Jersey's win, passing CROWN Act legislation.

For a new organization, this immediate impact brings exciting momentum—and a conviction that now is the time for nation-wide transformation.

“We know this discrimination needs to end. We are committed to creating new legacies of health and well-being for our communities,” Dr. Rumala states.

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