Why this hairstylist transformed her salon into a wellness hub for Black women

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“We’re in a pandemic. Now we have to respond to trauma in a pandemic”: Why this hairstylist transformed her salon into a wellness hub for Black women

Before the pandemic hit, Allison Hill started a wellness series for Black women out of her Riverdale hair salon. In the past couple of weeks, she’s discovered her clients need those services more than ever. Toronto Life spoke to Hill about the pressures experienced by Black women and how hairstyling is about more than just beauty. 

As told to Pacinthe Mattar

“My parents moved from St. Kitts and Nevis to Canada and got married here, settling in Scarborough, where I grew up. My dad owned his own mechanic business, and my mom stayed home to raise her seven children. I would always hear her bragging about me to her friends. She always used to say to me, ‘Whatever you’re going to do, just do your best.’

“I saw examples of being the best when I went to Oakwood University, a historically Black university in Huntsville, Alabama. It was a space where Black education and Black excellence were the standard. My experience at Oakwood gave me examples of Black people in positions of leadership and business ownership. I’d always wanted to do hair, but I didn’t have a lot of examples of what a successful hairstylist looked like. Young Caribbean children are often told to do to ‘make it’ and ‘be successful,’ so when I graduated school at 21, I took a corporate job in health care management.

“Around my 25th birthday, I realized I wasn’t happy. I would wake up and dread going to my job. I wanted to do work I cared about, and what I cared about was doing hair. I’d done hair in high school and all through university, but I let it go once I entered my professional life. I wanted to get back to it. And it took a long time for me to reckon with that because I was scared to go out on my own. My mom encouraged me, saying that I could do whatever I wanted as long as I was the best at it. I quit my job, and didn’t even take a week off before starting to do hair again. I spent the next five years working at two different salons, strengthening my craft and building up my clientele. I was back in my element.

“One day in December 2012, my mom asked me to come over and comb her hair for a Christmas banquet at our church. I remember saying, ‘Mom, seriously, you could just do it yourself.’ But she insisted that I come over, and I went to her house that night. She had bought this silver clip with little pearls and diamonds, and she was really excited to wear it. I did a low, sleek bun and I pinned it up using the clip. She looked at herself in the mirror, beamed at her reflection, and said, ‘Thank you. I’m going to dance at your wedding.’ That was something she said to me whenever she was really happy with me. That night turned out to be the last time I ever saw her. She passed away suddenly a few days later. Looking back, in that moment, she was guiding me toward what I needed to do. That was her final message to me to be a hairstylist.

“In 2016, I opened my own salon. My mom’s name was Gladys Hill, so I named it Hill Studio, as a tribute to her. We opened near Queen’s Park, but outgrew the space within a year and moved to a bigger space in Riverdale, at Broadview and Queen. A lot of nice salon spaces don’t cater to Afro hair. They don’t understand curly hair. I wanted Hill Studio to be a space where Black women and their hair were going to be seen and understood and celebrated.

“Black women have a complicated relationship with their hair. We are taught from a young age that certain textures are beautiful and others are not. These days, women have started to change the narrative around what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is, seeking out natural styles that don’t need harsh chemicals and relaxers. Our focus at Hill Studio is on giving Black women an equal experience. Our slogan, printed on the wall at the studio in big black capital letters is, ‘Good Energy, Good Hair.’ At Hill, every kind of hair is good hair. And there’s good energy here.

“That’s what my clients and I feel every day. At Hill Studio, I spend entire days on my feet with my other stylists, talking, laughing, socializing, doing hair. There’s incense burning, art hanging on the walls, R&B on the speakers, plants that I water and tend to. Our clients come in and out all day: students and professionals and young moms and older women. The women who come to Hill know what they’re going to get good service. Their hair is going to be taken care of. And they’re going to leave feeling beautiful.

“Two years after I opened my doors at Hill, I realized I was incredibly sad. I was working relentlessly, I was putting other people before myself, and I was thinking about my mom a lot. She was the classic example of a Black woman who was too busy caring for others to care for herself. I realized I could spend my whole life thinking, when I stop, I’m going to take a break. And that break could just never come. And I want Black women to enjoy their life as they’re going along, to tap into happiness, to tap into joy. Yes, you’re a Strong Black Woman. But you are also entitled to rest.

“I realized I knew a lot of Black women who also have trouble getting rest and support. Many Caribbean women came to Canada to work in homes and hospitals so that others could rest, and we’re taught that we should always be working. We are taught that self-care is indulgent. Those ideas are so ingrained in us that when we go to look for help, when things get really stressful, we feel guilty. We don’t take stress leave from work. We hesitate to go on vacation. We fight through our exhaustion.

“So in January 2020, I launched Restore out of Hill Studio: a year-long wellness series focused on restoring love, joy, happiness back into our lives through yoga, meditation and counselling. Restore classes took place every Sunday, led by Black yoga teachers and therapists. We sold out every class: every week, Black women packed into Hill Studio on Sunday mornings, seeking a brief reprieve. I wanted Restore to normalize rest for us. I wanted to give women an opportunity to come into a space where where people understood, almost at a glance, what they were going through. Sometimes having to explain your trauma is traumatizing. We tell the women who come to Restore events, ‘If you just want to lie down and avoid your kids for an hour, we got you.’ I recruited Black yoga teachers and mental wellness experts to lead the sessions.

“By March, Hill Studio and the Restore series were thriving, my appointment calendar was full weeks in advance, and Restore classes selling out. When Covid hit, I was blindsided. We didn’t want to take any chances, so we decided to close immediately. It just wasn’t worth our lives. We thought the shutdown would be two weeks. When I how long this was going to last, I got scared. I was worried about my business, but also about myself. Was I going to get rent relief? Did I have enough savings to tide me over? Did I have enough groceries? Should I have stocked up on toilet paper? My father’s older, and I worried about getting him sick.  Days into the pandemic, I found myself crying while out on my daily run. I had to ask myself, what is my real job now? Not the day-to-day stuff. Not combing hair or paying bills or calling clients.

“Soon it dawned on me: if I wasn’t feeling right, it was likely that my community was also feeling shitty. I realized that hairstyling is a way to give women a feeling. I make women feel that they’re understood and that they’re beautiful. I realized I could provide Restore services on Zoom. Now instead of filtering through the doors at Hill, women could log into Restore from home and get yoga, guided meditation, conversation and breathing exercises led by Black women health practitioners. I stopped charging for the classes, paying the instructors through proceeds from my online store, donations from clients and out of my own pocket. It was awkward at first—people were hesitant to show up to this online space, reluctant to turn their cameras on—but the trust and comfort quickly came back.

“Just as I was launching Restore online, we heard about Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old Black man in the U.S. who was killed by two White men while he was out for a run. I felt a kindredness with him—not just being Black, but also being young and a runner. Then came the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old African-American emergency room technician, shot eight times by police while she slept. Breonna looked like me. You can be out running and you’re murdered. You’re in your house sleeping and you’re murdered. I thought, what do you want us to do?

“Then, in May, George Floyd was suffocated to death when a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Video of his death was everywhere. I still haven’t watched it. And later that same month came the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old woman in Toronto who fell from a 24th-floor balcony. Her family had called police for help with a mental health crisis, and the police were in the unit when she fell. Her death put me over: you should be able to call the police for help and not end up dead.

“The weekend after Regis died, I went to a protest in her honour at Christie Pits. It was beautiful to see people I hadn’t seen in a while. I was encouraged that it wasn’t just Black people out there, that others were starting to understand that something isn’t right. Why can’t we feel safe?

“We’re already in the middle of a pandemic. Now we have to respond to trauma in a pandemic. And now we’re responding to racial injustice, civil unrest, panic in a pandemic. And it’s all just too much. It became clearer to me more than ever: right now, if your mental health is not intact, you’re out of luck. People are out of work. People are sick and dying. We’re witnessing violence every day.

 

“During this time, I’ve been inspired by Restore. You can be surrounded by people you love, get help from professionals. You can feel happy to feel sad or whatever it is. You can stand in your blackness for an hour. In the last class I held, in partnership with staff and faculty at U of T’s Anti-Racism and Diversity Office, enrolment shot up from the usual 30 to 200 people. That included a nurse who finishes her night shift and comes directly to Restore for relief. She has never missed a class since we launched. It included the social worker who counsels women and holds onto stories of their pain and has nowhere to take it. She’s a weekly fixture at the courses.

“I’m doing necessary work right now. The revolution needs cooks. It needs the bandager, the person writing the signs, the person carrying the water. And my lane is Restore. We need wellness spaces where Black people can feel safe and get better. Hill Studio and Restore are bigger than me. They’re for all of us. Our generation hasn’t been at the beginning of anything. We’ve always inherited things that are already built. This time, I feel like we’re at the beginning of the new world.

“When my mother was 18, she quit school to get married and raise children. Forty-five years later, at age 53, she enrolled in an early childhood education program. She had to learn how to use a computer, and struggled with a lot of things. She took the final exam twice and failed. Then she took it a third time—and passed. She called to tell me the news in disbelief, leaving a voicemail: ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I did this.’ I have a tattoo on my wrist—an imprint of a sound wave of my mother’s voice leaving that message.

“Every time I feel like I can’t do something, I look down at my wrist, at the visual representation of my mom’s last accomplishment, and I remember that nothing is out of reach. That’s how I feel about this moment.”