In March 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, prior to the lockdown and school closures, something happened at my child’s school that changed the trajectory of my life forever.
My then four year old son, Jett, was the victim of a discriminatory policy that disrupted his schooling and caused social isolation, something I understood as a threat to his mental well-being. Jett was told that if he didn’t change his hair style associated with his culture and heritage, he would be suspended from school.
That day, Jett had worn his hair in braids, something that made him proud and happy. That hair style somehow broke school policy, but it also ignited me to fight to eliminate policies that can hinder children’s achievements and negatively impact their social emotional development.
The incident with Jett forced me to refocus my advocacy efforts. I became my own press secretary, my own coach, and my own self-motivator. After Jett’s situation gained some local recognition in the media, I partnered with Illinois State Senator Mike Simmons as he sponsored a bill that bans hair discrimination against children in all schools – public and private – in our state. We fought every step of the way until that bill, the Jett Hawkins Act, passed the General Assembly and was signed into law. It took effect on New Year’s Day this year.
That was a watershed moment for me, but I also knew it was just the beginning. Now, I’m partnering with Stand for Children as a Payton Parent Fellow, deepening my community engagement and carrying forward the legacy of Kim Payton. I am also working with Stand’s Community & Family Partnerships Director, Tommorrow Snyder, and other stakeholders, pulling together tools and resources for the State Board of Education to help schools implement the law.
As I look to make the most of this opportunity, I’m branching out and working as a professional speaker. My typical audience is at schools and educator convenings, where I aim to activate and elevate student voice and engage them around issues related to self-esteem and confidence – things reflected in Jett’s love of his hair, identity, and culture. Additionally, I plan to continue working to eliminate policies and procedures that threaten the academic achievements of children, cause emotional disruption, social isolation, and adverse mental health outcomes.
Not only am I a fierce advocate for my five children, I’m also a social entrepreneur, parent advocate, and a North Lawndale native. I’m a walking, talking testament to why you should not count anyone out. My parents struggled with addiction but thankfully my extended family stepped in to raise me. Despite being a teen mom, I completed high school in the top five percent of my graduating class. Today, I know that the multitude of adversities that I have faced are what motivates me to make a difference and inspire others to step into their power.
During the pandemic, I became very reflective and introspective. That internal reckoning was the catalyst that compelled me to extend my advocacy reach even further, which led me to create my business: Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats. During the civil unrest of summer 2020, although I was disheartened and overwhelmed by racial injustices and ignorance, I refused to sit silently on the sidelines; I did not intend to be a victim of my circumstances. I was determined to be a facilitator of positive change. That was the moment that I stepped into my power.
That shift in mindset allowed me to think freely and creatively about how I show up to improve outcomes for my community and beyond. Obstacles aside (social isolation, at an economic disadvantage, physical limitation based on proximity to resources), I have found a way to marry my passion for advocacy with my business.
I see, my handmade ice cream as a great uniter, not just a product for sale. I leverage it as the conduit to engage and interact with diverse populations throughout the city of Chicago. Creating Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats elevated my platform and expanded my local advocacy reach to one that is now worldwide, with contacts across Africa and the United Kingdom. This ice cream social campaign has granted me access to a vast network of community members and like-minded folks who understand and embrace the power of collective impact. My ice cream socials create a safe space for hard but necessary conversations.
I love my neighborhood community, but the reality is it is an economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised place. It lacks resources and investment. The more we work together the more impact we can make for our communities. We can improve education outcomes, improve economic security for our fellow Illinoisans, and we can make the world a better place for our children to inherit.
I hope you’ll join me in this work.