When Mayor Steve Adler recently did an instructional video on how to make welcome kits for incoming evacuees from Hurricane Harvey, everyday items like pillows, soap and a comb were included, but there were some items that weren’t considered.
“You know the basket that I packed is a basket that was going to be absolutely the perfect basket for lots of people," Adler said, "but it was not going to be the perfect basket for a lot of people too.”
Adler and others making the welcome kits didn’t forget toothpaste or deodorant; they forgot personal hygiene products specific to black skin and hair. So over the weekend, Austinites turned out at an event to donate black hygiene products to evacuees.
“My niece, who has very kinky hair, if I open the care pack and there's some natural hair product in there I'm probably going to be in tears,” said Mona Allen, one of the the 50-plus people who volunteered Saturday. “Because that's what I need.”
Members and volunteers donated and packed items into boxes to donate to the local Austin shelter this weekend at Operation Warm Welcome, which was hosted by the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce.
Organizers made a point to collect essential items, including black hair moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner and lotions. Shea Moisture, a natural hair and skincare line with close ties to the black community, also made donations.
“The whole point is to make sure that if there are people of color in need, their needs are reflected in what it is that we're doing,” said Gregory Gibson Jr., president of the Austin chapter of the National Black MBA Association, one of the event’s organizers.
Gibson said some of those needs include everyday products like leave-in conditioners, natural oils and bristle brushes. Afro-textured hair is more susceptible to damage and breakage because of its kinkier and curlier texture, which inhibits natural oils like sebum from working its way down the hair shaft.
“I hope that we provide some level of comfort in an extremely uncomfortable circumstance,” Gibson said.
Many of the evacuees arriving in Austin are coming from places like Houston, which has a 24 percent black population, and Beaumont, which has a 47 percent black population. Volunteer Anita Parrish of Round Rock said something as simple as having products for hair may seem superficial, but it’s not about looks. She said it’s about the complexities.
“I think there's a lack of understanding,” Parrish said. “A lot of these volunteers that are coming out to help – while their intentions are good – they would not necessarily know that.”
Allen said considering unique hair and skin type needs may help many of the black children transitioning into new school districts and black parents looking to piece their lives back together.
“It speaks to our value. It speaks to helping us to walk into a place feeling confident like ‘I can start over,’” she said.
And for those thinking about packing kits in the future, Mayor Adler has some advice.
“Be a lot more sensitive than I was when I was putting together my kit,” he said. “I think that the whole issue of cultural sensitivity is something that, as a city, we're focused on.”