Ashley-Roxanne N’Dakpri was born in the United States, but her family is from Ivory Coast. She has been braiding hair since she was a little girl and has made money doing it since she was 16.
“Braiding is part of our culture,” she said.
Today, N’Dakpri manages Afro Touch in Gretna. The business, which offers natural hair braiding, weaving and dreadlocks, has been operating since 2000, she said.
Recently, she was informed that she needs a license in Louisiana to ply her trade. State officials say the license is necessary to protect the public.
Braiding without a cosmetology license is punishable by fines of up to $5,000 per incident. N’Dakpri has been fined and has trouble retaining employees amid fears that the state will shut her down.
But she says she can’t afford to close her business to obtain the hundreds of hours of training needed to obtain a cosmetology license. So, along with two other professional hair braiders, she is suing the State Board of Cosmetology in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court, arguing the “irrational licensing requirement” violates the state constitution.
“It is unconstitutional to license something as safe and common as hair braiding,” said Jaimie Cavanaugh, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based advocacy group that is supporting the braiders’ case. “Economic liberty – or the right to earn a living in the profession of one’s choosing – is a right protected by the Louisiana Constitution.”
From 1993 through 2012, every state added at least 15 low-income occupations to its list of jobs that require an occupational license, according to the Archbridge Institute, which opposes the practice. Louisiana led the way with 59, the institute says.
Twenty-seven states require no license for hair braiding, and those that do generally have less onerous requirements than Louisiana, the Institute for Justice says. The Louisiana cosmetology board requires at least 500 hours of instruction, which can be completed in about four months, the board says.
“The Louisiana Legislature determined the practice of cosmetology by qualified individuals is necessary to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the state of Louisiana,” Sheri Morris, the board’s attorney, said by email. “In order to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens, it is necessary for individuals offering cosmetology services to the public to be knowledgeable about sanitation. Permits and licenses are necessary for individuals who perform cosmetology and facilities where cosmetology is performed for the public, to maintain minimal requirements for knowledge and sanitation.”
The braiders’ attorneys concede the legislature granted the board the right to issue cosmetology permits. But they argue the board, which is “composed of self-interested members who benefit financially and otherwise from the creation and enforcement of the alternative hair design permit and other specialty permits,” has gone beyond its legal authority.
Of the more than 50 licensed cosmetology schools in Louisiana, only three claim to provide the training necessary for the “alternative hair design” permit that covers braiding, the plaintiffs say. They believe only one school actually offers the curriculum, and it’s based in Monroe, a four-plus-hour drive from N’Dakpri’s New Orleans-area home.
N’Dakpri isn’t interested in going to cosmetology school to learn how to give haircuts, or color, or use hair-straightening chemicals. She just wants to braid natural hair, as she has done practically her entire life.
“Most of our clientele have had their hair damaged by people who have this license,” she said. “We’re the ones repairing the damage.”