State Representative Shelia Stubbs and Wisconsin Act 60: A Civics Lesson on Persistence and Collaboration


State Rep. Shelia Stubbs with a signed copy of Wisconsin ACT 60, which deregulated African hair braiding.and posters celebrating the signing of the law by Governor Tony Evers

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By Jonathan Gramling

Social change doesn’t happen in sudden leaps and bounds. Often times it is created through the slow grinding of the gears of state government to achieve an outcome that may benefit generations of African Americans.

Take African hair braiding, for example. It is a natural hair-caring technique that harkens back to Africa and the time when Africans were enslaved in America. But it was regulated by the state in a way that people needed to spend $15,000 or more for cosmetology school to get certified by the state.

Through an unusual coalition of African American Democratic legislators and White Republican legislators, a coalition where everyone got what they wanted, a bill shepherded by State Rep. Shelia Stubbs and others made it through the state legislature after two years of ups and downs and was signed into law in July 2021 by Governor Tony Evers. Stubbs was ecstatic.

“I’m the first Democrat in this building to have a lead author bill pass the Assembly and the Senate,” Stubbs said. “I’m the first Democrat. It’s my first bill that I’m lead author on. And so it is very, very special to me. I will never forget this bill. I didn’t know if it would be my first. I just knew I was working hard. And it just happened to be the bi-partisan bill.”

The bill is now Wisconsin ACT 60. Wisconsin is a part of a larger movement.

“We are now state number 31 to deregulate barriers for natural hair braiders,” Stubbs proclaimed. “When we started the work in 2019, we were going to be state number 30. Somebody slid in between us. I think it was the state of Virginia. Nevertheless, this is an issue that has gone on across the country. Many Republican states are having a very hard time. We know that hair braiders are moving from state to state. If there are barriers, they get up and move to another state. We didn’t have the fight that Tennessee is having. Tennessee is doing a petition. I didn’t have to do a petition. We were able to get it done in a very common sense way. It made sense. I think relationships make a difference in this building. Governor Evers knows my heart is right, so he signed the bill into law. He could have signed the law, veto the law or it would automatically become law over a certain amount of time. He made the right choice and he signed it into law. That means so much to me. He actually gave me a copy of the bill.”

At a celebration on the passage of the bill and it being enacted into law, Stubbs praised her partners in getting the bill through.

“Rep. Baldeh was very instrumental in passing this bill,” Stubbs said. “He was one of three Democrats on the licensing committee. He stood very strong with the bill. He understood the merits. He was the one Democrat to vote for the bill that got through. When we got on the Senate side. Senators Johnson and Felzkowski carried the load. On the Assembly side, it was Rep. Sortwell and Baldeh did an outstanding job getting this through. I was able to get Sally who was the manager at Diva’s Salon to come and talk about what it means to an immigrant population who are already dealing with ICE and other factors. Now we have the chance to give them an opportunity they never had. I think her speaking brought the whole aspect of immigrants’ concern into the conversation that most people probably wouldn’t have thought of. And I think Rep. Baldeh did an outstanding job speaking about that as well. They were major partners in getting this across.”

Outside of having the right to braid hair, is the hope that it will lead to increased employment and job creation.

“I think it gives so many women a chance to be an entrepreneur,” Stubbs said. “They no longer have to hide out in their homes, in their communities, in some storefront and nobody knows who’s there outside of people in the neighborhood. But legally they don’t have a sign up on the storefront. Now they can come out of their homes, wherever they are doing the work, and it is legal in the state of Wisconsin.”

All of this would not have happened if Stubbs hadn’t stay focused during the ups and downs of the legislative process.

“Nothing is guaranteed in this building,” Stubbs said. “You can have all of your boats lined up and something happens. When we got to the Senate side, the Senate side usually doesn’t move things as quickly. There was a moment when I wondered, ‘Is this bill going to be a reality?’ When it became a reality, it was a different feel because it showed my determination. I never quit. I would say, ‘Okay, what’s the new strategy?’ I’m learning to be very strategic in this building because this isn’t about me. This is about the community. This is about a community that has been so disenfranchised for so many centuries finally able to get something done.”

Nothing comes easy, but when it does, there is little that feels finer. Rep. Shelia Stubbs knows. And so do the hundreds of African hair braiders who live in Wisconsin. It’s a small step, but it is a positive step indeed.