As Illinois’ CROWN Act goes into effect, we catch up with Jett Hawkins, a boy who made legislative history with his hair

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

The Jett Hawkins Law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2022, prevents school boards, local school councils, charter schools, public schools and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools from creating hairstyle-based dress code requirements and banning hairstyles historically associated with any race or ethnicity.

What started as excitement over the then-4-year-old’s new braided look heading to school in early 2021 turned into something that Hawkins’ mom, Ida Nelson, said her youngest child associated with “getting into trouble.”

A call from Hawkins’ West Side private school, Providence St. Mel, would lead Nelson to remove the braids from Jett’s hair because his look was in violation of the hairstyle policy in the student handbook. Nelson advocated for her son’s freedom of expression, and state Sen. Mike Simmons, a North Side 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 got a call the next day from Providence St. Mel informing her the braids were against the school dress code.

Jett Hawkins, shown in 2021, asked his mother, Ida Nelson, to braid his hair. Nelson got a call the next day from Providence St. Mel informing her the braids were against the school dress code. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

While Jett’s law affected schools in the state, hairstyle discrimination extended beyond educational institutions. A 2019 study showed people of color with natural hairstyles felt bias in their workplaces.

The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, came into existence because of that scrutiny. The CROWN Act bans race-related hair discrimination in the workplace, housing and places of public accommodations like stores, restaurants, parks and movie theaters. Illinois’ CROWN Act just went into effect Jan. 1 — a year after the Jett Hawkins Law. Nelson said she and her son know the weight his story carries in Illinois.

Nelson said Jett loves doing interviews, watches videos of the interviews and smiles as he’s watching them. An ABC-7 news segment about his journey was nominated for a 2021-22 Chicago/Midwest Emmy.

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

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

Jett Hawkins, 6, at Studio 28 in Aurora on Jan. 7, 2023. (Mike Mantucca / Chicago Tribune)

The project, started in 2019, centers on confidence and empowerment of any child through artistry and imagery, Horton said. Horton photographs children who have been bullied or are struggling with a health issue while they are releasing their frustration and grabbing hold of their power.

“I knew his confidence would not be shattered, but I wanted to do the work to make sure that his confidence was never shattered,” Nelson said about Jett’s photo session a year ago.

On Jan. 7, Horton took pictures of Jett, commemorating a year of his law. Horton’s project has already captured at least two dozen individuals across the nation dealing with societal pushback for their hair, be it from their schools or their athletic teams. He says most of the stories are from Texas and Florida.

“We’ll always have enough of these stories because there’s going to always be people that treat other people like this,” Horton said. “I’ve gotten thousands of emails from families that say, ‘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 his Art of Confidence project “was unexpected, but absolutely warranted.” Horton lists the names of elementary and high school students across the country who endured community backlash over their hair. Threats, punishment and bullying surround each youth’s story of self-expression; and there are many stories — too many, he says.

Horton flies out to as many youths that he can to give them their power back, to show them through his photography and their self-image that they are seen, valued and beautiful.

Jermaine Horton, left, prepares Jett Hawkins, 6, for a photo shoot at Studio 28 in Aurora on Jan. 7, 2023. Hawkins mother, Ida Nelson, is at right.

Jermaine Horton, left, prepares Jett Hawkins, 6, for a photo shoot at Studio 28 in Aurora on Jan. 7, 2023. Hawkins mother, Ida Nelson, is at right. (Mike Mantucca / Chicago Tribune)

“If you can play in the NBA, NFL and have locs, what is the issue with children? It doesn’t make sense,” Horton said. “It’s like these institutions create 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 as because, if we’re being honest, schools have way more issues to deal with than hair.”

Horton and Nelson are both working individually with national organizations to get CROWN Acts into law in each state. Illinois is one of 19 states to pass the CROWN Act. A national version passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed to advance in the U.S. Senate. Horton will continue to travel the country to help children. Donations can be made through his website.

Since Jett’s name has become law in Illinois, Nelson, a North Lawndale resident, said her advocacy has became a full-time job. The mom of five and proprietor of Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream juggles herparenting and business duties with her activism. She routinely receives phone calls from families in other states who heard about Jett’s story and were inspired to impact change in their area or want advice on what they should do in a similar scenario.

In response, Nelson is starting her own community organization to teach Black boys and girls to be proud of how they show up in the world. She speaks to school-age children under the moniker Ice Cream Social … Awareness, talking about bullying, self-esteem and activating one’s voice.

“I talk to kids about Black hair, self-confidence and amplifying your voice,” Nelson said. “I want people to walk away with the understanding that it is not OK for any entity — government, education facility or anyone else to control other people’s bodies or govern how they show up and they should not want to. People should be questioning: ‘Why are senators rejecting this CROWN Act bill? Why is it OK in 31 states for Black children to be excluded from school or activities because of something that is historically associated with them? Why is that OK for them and why is that OK with you?’”

drockett@chicagotribune.com

Chi,Feeds,News,City: Chicago

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January 16, 2023 at 05:15AM

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