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Nichola Watson and Catherine Woodely are celebrating the opening of their salon, the Afro Diva Salon in Victoria. Woodley, left, and Watson pose in their salon, which caters to African ethnic hair types.
Photograph by: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist
Catherine Woodley hasn’t visited a local hair salon in more than 30 years of living in Victoria. Not because she didn’t want to have a new “do” for holidays, the latest cut in high school or a perfect coif for a job interview.
She would have loved that.
“There were no salons here equipped with products or stylists for black women’s hair,” she says. “It was very difficult.”
It was a shared dream of Woodley, 41, and her best friend Nichola Watson, 34, to see that change. A serendipitous timing of unemployment, supportive friends and investors made their dream come true.
Afro Diva salon opened its doors on March 27, with about 500 people stopping by to celebrate and check out the new digs at 1820 Oak Bay Ave.
“It was so emotional,” Watson says at the shop with Woodley. “You could feel the excitement.”
At the opening, I saw women sharing hair horror stories, poring over shelves of products featured in beauty magazines for women of colour that are rarely available in Victoria and booking appointments from a roster of styles, including braids, extensions, weaves, cornrows and chemical perm-relaxing. The salon caters to all hair and skin types — with a full menu of esthetics — but specializes in afro textured hair.
“Before the launch, when we handed out cards to people they’d look at them, their eyes would widen and then they’d lean in for the hug,” Woodley says. “This kind of place has been a long time coming.”
Woodley’s family settled in Victoria from Barbados when she was a child. Moving to a predominantly Caucasian community was difficult, especially during her school years.
“It was very hard on my self-esteem to feel that I was ugly, not attractive, compared to other girls,” says Woodley, who attended Colquitz and Spectrum schools. Part of that alienation came from not having the resources to care for her hair.
“It was easier to just cut it off. I was tall, lanky with short hair so I looked like a boy,” she says, adding that she compensated by excelling at sports like basketball and track and field.
After high school Woodley returned to Barbados to study and play sports, and reclaimed her long hair with access to equipped stylists. She moved back to Victoria to work in government and raise her son, relying on herself and friends to style her hair.
Woodley met Watson just a few days after the Jamaican-born Torontonian moved to Victoria in 2003 to work in social services after studying criminology at Carleton University.
“One of the first things I asked her was where do you get your hair done,” Watson says. “She just laughed and said, ‘This is Victoria, you’ve gotta do it yourself.’ ”
Since that meeting the two friends often talked about opening a salon here, not just a place to get hair done but a hub for the growing community of black women who’ve spent years scouting home stylists, remedies and products.
As we chat we overhear new client and longtime Victoria resident Myrtle Cumberbatch tell her stylist how she used to heat combs on the stove and brush her hair straight.
“You wouldn’t dare go in the water or it’d be kinky again,” she says, and the women laugh.
When the business partners found themselves in need of new career paths about a year ago, they brought their salon plan to a few friends and investors, who eagerly jumped aboard.
“Everyone we talked to thought it was a great idea,” Woodley says.
According to the last census in 2006, there are more than 35,000 members of visible minorities in Greater Victoria, and of them 2,400 are black. Thousands of new immigrants and residents have come since.
Watson and Woodley want women of all colours and hair textures to have a place where they feel safe having their hair done and where they see women like themselves, clients, stylists and in magazines.
“It’s especially important for young girls to feel proud of who they are,” Watson says. That’s why they convinced Watson’s stylist sister to move from Toronto to work at Afro Diva. Several of the stylists came to them, wanting to utilize their skills in textured hair. They’ve also chosen products for black women that range from traditional brands to organic and the latest buzz brands.
The women have reached out to the local Black History Society, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Society and Antidote, an advocacy group for racialized girls that Watson has worked with.
“This is more than a hair salon,” says Manjeet Birk, executive director of Antidote. “It’s an opportunity for a community that doesn’t have a space. Its impact on multiculturalism for Victoria is historic.”
Woodley hopes the salon becomes a space for education as well.
“We’d like to teach classes and reach out to parents who’ve adopted a black child but might not know how to care for their hair — like don’t wash it every day,” she says, citing the time a child grabbed her leg in Wal-Mart and said to her white mother, “I want hair like her.”
Watson and Woodley look forward to feedback from clients and the community, especially women from various cultures who are not getting their hair needs met in Victoria.
Afro Diva is a welcome and warm addition to our city’s fashion, female and cultural collectives. Stop by and say hello. I plan to sample their many conditioning products for curly hair types.
antidote has recently been been awarded the BC Representative for Children and Youth Awards of Excellence 2009. antidote has won the Cultural Heritage and Diversity Award. An intergenerational team took the ferry over on November 4th to accept the award on behalf of our membership. We had a great day in Vancouver and got a chance to wow all sorts of people with the amazing work that we do. Stay tuned for more information on the celebration we will be having at the First People House at the University of Victoria on December 3rd.
I accepted the award of behalf of the group and shared the following words:
BC Representative Award Acceptance Speech by Manjeet Birk
As an intergenerational network we try to practice what we preach and as a result you will see us travel in pacts of intergenerational teams. This intergenerational team is honoured to accept this award on behalf of the hundreds of girls, women and allies that are part of our Victoria area network.
We would like to acknowledge the traditional Coast Salish territory, known as Vancouver, that we accept this award on. As well as the traditional Coast Salish territory that we work, play and organize on. It is in deliberate partnership with our Indigenous daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers that we work across our commonalities of displacement, violence and discrimination to build a better space for our next generation.
It is a truly humbling experience for us to accept this award. Despite the fire that exists in our hearts and fuels the work that we do, much of it is done quietly or in silence. It is in the quiet support, mentorship and shoulders that we provide to one another that gives our network the strength for us to continue fighting against the social injustices that we see and live everyday. Whether it be in helping our girls give a name to the racism they experience, supporting our sistahs in negotiating the fine line between theory and practice, loving our aunties as they experience the challenges of negotiating careers with families or witnessing our elders tell the stories of their past we listen, support and love. And it is through this love across age, race and experience that we become the change we wish to see.