PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and hair braider Jocelyn DoCouto have at least one thing in common. They are both part of a national movement to deregulate the business of African-style braiding.
DoCouto is pushing for legislation in Rhode Island that would exempt her from the cumbersome and expensive occupational licensing requirements for hairdressers and barbers.
“It’s something that’s taught through generations,” said DoCouto, who has been braiding her hair into Senegalese twists, also known as rope braids, since she was 11. “It’s part of my culture.”
She is supported by the Koch-affiliated libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Virginia, which through lawsuits and lobbying in more than a dozen states has been fighting to deregulate the practice of natural hairstyling.
The group’s 25-year battle has found new momentum in the past year, most recently in South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill this month that exempts braiders from cosmetology licensing rules. Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad also signed a law in the summer exempting African-style hair braiding from the 2,100 hours of training it takes to get a cosmetology license. Democrats have supported similar measures, especially after then-President Barack Obama launched an occupational licensing reform initiative last year.
“We’re now at 21 states that do not require a license,” said Christina Walsh, the Institute for Justice’s activism director. The Koch-supported group has been heralding what it calls “braiding freedom” along with the non-profit Virginia-based education group Charles Koch Institute, and Koch himself, as part of a larger fight against occupational licensing regulations.
“Charles Koch and Koch Industries are committed to pursuing policies that can help all Americans realize their potential and improve their lives,” said Dave Dziok, a spokesman for Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries, in a written statement. “Occupational licenses required for hundreds of occupations have restricted the creation of millions of jobs and inhibit entrepreneurship, harming low-income individuals and communities the most.”
Beauty schools and some hairdressers generally oppose the deregulation efforts and argue braiders shouldn’t be excused from training and oversight in sanitation and safety.
But African-style braiders such as DoCouto are increasingly finding bipartisan support from lawmakers in many states.
DoCouto, whose family comes from Senegal and Cape Verde, said Rhode Island’s cosmetology schools don’t teach what she learned how to do from her aunt. She describes it as “protective styling,” using braiding and weaving to promote natural curls without using dyes, reactive chemicals or chemical hair-joining agents.
DoCouto does some braiding from her home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and would like to open her own salon, but the 26-year-old said parenthood and her day job at a bank don’t leave her enough time or money to take irrelevant and costly cosmetology classes.
A Republican-sponsored braiding deregulation bill got little traction in the Democrat-controlled Rhode Island General Assembly last year, but this year a Democrat has enthusiastically taken up the cause.
In New Hampshire, the state Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics is warning against similar legislation. Jeanne Chappell, a board member and owner of Keene Beauty Academy, said it’s possible to pass diseases with the tools used for hair braiding if they aren’t cleaned properly, something taught through cosmetology programs.
“It’s really easy to pass that kind of thing from one person to another,” she said.
But Chappell said the board is willing to work with lawmakers to modify the bipartisan bill. Hair braiding is not a skill tested by the licensing board, and she thinks there could be a middle ground for registering braiders without requiring the full licensing process. That way, Chappell said, the board could still discipline practitioners who don’t follow the proper procedures.
“We’re not suggesting,” she said, “that somebody who wants to braid and just do braiding or just hair extensions or sew-ins or weaves go through the entire 1,500-hour program.”