Hairstyling: Community Based Organization Style

Who you calling a girl?  Oh, never mind…

I used to pride myself on not being a girly girl.  I had never visited a hair salon.  I feel day spas violate my personal space.  A pedicure would be an exercise in mortification.  It’s pointless (and possibly toxic) for me to get a manicure since I incessantly bite my nails down to the cuticle.  My mother put hot sauce on my nails when I was young to try and stop me from mangling my nails.  I simply developed a taste for spicy food.  I don’t read Vogue or Elle, or any of the high fashion magazines, although I do have a certain fondness (some describe it as an addiction) for “In Touch”-style celebrity magazines – I tell people its social research, but I’m really looking for hairstyles, cocktail recipes, and dresses I think I can pull off.

I was therefore shocked when in a rare moment of self-evaluation, I realized my self-concept wasn’t necessarily matching up with my behavior.  Somewhere along the way, I had indeed become the dreaded girly-girl.  I wear dresses everyday with heels.  My passion for shoes is well documented, possibly even listed in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual under hoarding.  If you look under my desk at work, it looks like someone robbed a DSW.  I love dangly earrings.  And a few years ago, as the nail in the coffin of my assumed non-girly-girlness, I became a relative regular at a hair salon in Manhattan.  My natural Puerto Rican hair is extremely long and curly, and when it is hot and humid it pretty much doubles in size.  Most men get $20 haircuts in under 20 minutes in places where they can simultaneously watch baseball.  Women’s hair salons are another universe.  The high end salons can cost upwards of $800, and depending on what you have done, can be full day events.  About 4 years ago, I decided it was time for a more professional look (I was going to be appearing on TV for first time) and decided to straighten my hair, but something in my South Bronx genetic makeup just couldn’t stomach the idea of spending nearly a grand on it.  So I did some comparison shopping.

At the time, I lived in between Battery Park and the Financial District in Lower Manhattan.  For non-New Yorkers, that’s about as far south as you can go in Manhattan without actually swimming in the New York Harbor.  For Men in Black fans, the building they used for the entrance to MIB headquarters was about 50 feet away from my apartment.  Very suspicious.  At any rate, I found my ideal place, not outrageously expensive, but not cheap, tucked away near Wall Street.  The owner is a nice middle-aged Jewish man, who was so welcoming and made me feel so comfortable that I daringly decided to entrust them from then on with a girls most prized feature (after of course intelligence, accolades of her peers, money, power, and world domination), her hair.  Now, curly haired Caribbean women will back me up on this – cutting our hair is not like cutting straight hair.  You Scandinavian and Northern European ladies don’t know how easy you’ve got it when it comes to hair care.  Anyhow, they endearingly pronounce my biblical name (a very typical Jewish girls name) with a vaguely Hebrew intonation and although they had not exactly had a lot of experience with curly Caribbean-type hair, they considered it an intriguing challenge, and I have been their guinea pig ever since.  I think we’ve all learned a lot from the experience.

As I’m getting my hair straightened, feathered, and colored (god, how did I become such a girl), I’m sitting here reflecting on why I like this particular salon so much and came to the shocking realization–its strikingly similar to a non-profit/community based organization.  I have seen the staff meltdowns (my hair straightening process is 8 hours long–I have done it four times now); the sharing of food at lunchtime; the gossiping; the mother-hen clucking over her brood; the nutty incomprehensible just-do-one-type-of-haircut person.  It’s is the same array of weirdness, family, and conflict that one sees in the typical community-based organization.  It is also an exercise in cross-cultural competence.  The staff is a virtual United Nations: Irish, Trinadadian, Puerto Rican, Russian, Chinese, African-American, and they all work together – not without conflict – but also with true affection for each other despite enormous cultural differences.

When I come in, the owner’s mother-in-law greets me with a hug and a kiss and asks after my family. I am then welcomed by the other staff.  My hairstylist is top notch, not just an artist with hair, but socially functional and gregarious, knows when to gives you your space and attentive to customizing to your specific needs.  I sometimes wonder if there are continuing education courses in capacity-building for hair stylists?  As I mused on the similarities between non-profits and hair salons, the correspondence was reinforced when a very sweet, but somewhat loopy stylist, in the midst of an intricate operation on a customer’s hair, had a mental lapse, forgot what she was doing, sat down, and proceeded to cry.  Having experienced similar situations in my office, I had a strong sense of déjà vu.  And just as in your typical non-profit, the other hair stylists rallied around her, calming her and offering support.  Unfortunately, as this was the last in a long line of breakdowns, her time as a stylist was likely done.  Whispered commentary between other stylists was eerily similar to discussions about line staff vs. management that I hear in evaluations of community based organizations on a regular basis.  Had management expected too much from her?  Was she simply not cut out for customer service?  What was management’s responsibility for a loyal employee who simply couldn’t function in the job anymore?  Who would get her chair?  Once the crisis had passed, it was back to normal work.  Who has the hairblower?  Can I borrow a hairpin?  Has anyone seen my #4 shears?

Maybe it’s not just community based organizations, but anywhere that the lines between work and life, employment and cause, co-workers and family are blurred, that the potential for drama increases, but it is the sense of being part of something bigger than all three that makes the community based organization such a valuable asset in society.  It is also what lends to the soap opera quality of the daily work experience in a CBO.  The best advice I can offer is Judy Garland’s recommendation that “if you have to be in a soap opera, try not to get the worst role.”

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