At East Falls salon, Muslim women relax, uncover in comfort

Note: This was one of my first articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I pitched the story with help from another reporter and went through several editing rounds to make it more concise and concentrated. The resulting article focuses explicitly on how this salon is a safe haven for Muslim women.

When hair stylist Hullema Reddick goes outside, she’s covered from head to toe in traditional Muslim garb, with nothing showing but her eyes. Inside her salon, Hstylze, it’s a different story.

There, when she is in the presence of only women, she can trade the hijab for jeans, jewelry, and makeup as she dyes and styles hair, helping women boost their confidence in an environment free of men. Admittedly, it’s been challenging growing a business built on beauty when potential clients can’t see what she looks like beneath her niqab (face covering).

Still, Reddick’s East Falls shop is thriving. She is booked solid until September, has garnered attention for her work, and boasts more than  31,000 Instagram followers (@Hstylze). She often goes by her nickname, “The Covered Colorist.”

“I think they’re more interested in the coloring, the fact that it’s a Muslim who’s coloring hair,” she said of her followers. “We can’t see her, but she’s putting out all this good work. It’s pretty different.”

Reddick’s shop is one of a growing number that serves women of all races and faiths, but it has become especially important to the city’s growing Muslim population, which has swelled to 200,000 in recent years. Some Muslim women believe men who are not related to them should not see them without their Islamic attire because the Quran tells women to guard their modesty, said Kayla Wheeler, a visiting scholar at Boston University who researches black Muslim fashion.

But the women still enjoy getting their hair colored and cut. “They still want to look pretty,” Wheeler said.

Salons like Hstylze provide the privacy that allows women to relax and uncover as they have their hair done without the risk of males entering their space.

“There’s nothing worse as a Muslim woman than a guy that comes in to the salon and starts selling CDs or a mailman that stays a little too long,” said Aliya Khabir, 38, of Hunting Park. “To be able to go to a salon where you can relax and have privacy is truly important.”

Mia McNeely, 34, is one of Reddick’s non-Muslim clients. She acknowledged that women in general don’t want to be seen by men when getting their hair done.

“I think that’s something that every woman worries about,” she said. “It’s not the most glamorous process.”

Sandra Baker, a Muslim client from Chester City, said going to Reddick’s shop was about “more than just getting my hair done.”

“The atmosphere … the people that come here. It’s a nice vibe,” Baker said.

That’s exactly how Reddick wants it.

“It’s exciting for me,” she said of her work.

A fresh look can change someone’s life, Reddick said, especially in cases of women who are depressed or abused.

Reddick said she is a former victim of domestic abuse and recognizes troubled women when they enter her salon. They’re usually shy and keep their heads down, she said.

“You have to do things to uplift them,” Reddick said. “One time, I had a lady … she just busted out crying. She was like, ‘I didn’t know I could look this beautiful.’ “

Reddick said she started crying, too, and the two women bonded.

A South Philadelphia native who now lives in East Oak Lane, Reddick has been a hair stylist for 25 years and an active member of the Islamic community for 12.

“She’s a rare breed,” said Baker, 47, who regularly travels more than 40 minutes to Reddick’s salon. There, she knows the door will be locked so men cannot enter, and she can let down her hair without worry. “It’s that great level of privacy in the salon. That’s a plus and one of the reasons we like going there.”

(Published on Philly.com on June 21, 2018 and in print)

Barber shop offers unique business model

Note: Going into this story, I didn’t know Claremont had put a moratorium on new hair salons/barber shops back in 2008. After interviewing the owner and learning how he was able to open a barber shop despite the moratorium, I scrapped my previous angle for this one.

It’s been 10 years since a street-level hair salon or barber shop was established in the Village—that is until The Statesman Boutique and Grooming Parlor opened its doors.

The city placed a moratorium on hair salons in the Village to protect the retail nature and vitality of the downtown core, according to a council agenda report.

Owner Dylan Johnson explained that 51 percent of his square footage is retail, making his business primarily a boutique and secondly, a men’s grooming parlor.

“In order to fulfill our square footage of retail, all our furniture and waiting area, all the mid-century, modern furniture is for sale,” he said. “If people want to pick up this living room set, they can. If they want to buy that wall unit, they can.”

Pointing to the low, clear glass coffee table in the center of the room, Mr. Johnson said it was one of three in the world, made in the 1960s—and had already sold.

His tattooed arm then motioned to two Herman Miller chairs beside the table, which are also collectable pieces from the ‘60s and each priced at $1,100. Both have already sold, too.

“Typically when you walk into a barber shop, every square foot of the establishment is used for services,” Mr. Johnson said. “I want people to come in and feel like they’re sitting in my living room. Plus, it allows me to fulfill my retail duties.”

He noted the city’s concerns that people might be upset he was able to open because other barber shops were denied, but explained that he brought forward a different concept that wasn’t just a hair salon.

“The city did me a favor,” he said.

Although The Statesman is the first business Mr. Johnson’s owned, he’s had his hair cutting license for 17 years. During a stint in Los Angeles, he worked with celebrities like Orange Is the New Black star Ruby Rose and did house calls in Beverly Hills.

The 36-year-old grew up in Chino and attended Pomona Cosmetology School, located at the intersection of Holt and Indian Hill. The Statesman is at  1 N. Indian Hill Blvd. #105.

“Being on Indian Hill is really full circle for me, and I finally feel like I belong,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s been like a homecoming.”

As for the name “Statesman,” Mr. Johnson said he was looking for something that would establish an identity and give people a certain image or feeling.

He was researching old military terms when he stumbled upon statesman, which he described as someone in the British navy who has 20-plus years experience, can mentor people and pass down information.

Mr. Johnson, who’s educated hairdressers in every major city in the US, had found the perfect name.

“It was something a little bit more elegant feeling and sounding, and I wanted that to translate through the brand,” he said.

The brand he’s talking about doesn’t stop with haircuts and retail.

Mr. Johnson plans to host educational events and wants to create a place where Claremonters can spend time and hang out when they get off work. He also hopes to build community.

“A lot of times you’ll have clients see each other, that run into each other in the Village but don’t ever have a conversation,” he said. “And now they’ve built a relationship and become friends here. I think that’s a beautiful thing about this kind of a business. You can bring people together.”

Mr. Johnson’s longtime friend Russell Varian has been instrumental in developing The Statesman brand.

Currently a bartender for Caffe Allegro’s pop-up events, Mr. Varian also serves complimentary drinks to Mr. Johnson’s clients under California Assembly Bill No. 1322, which allows barber shops to provide alcohol to clients without liquor licenses given that there’s no extra charge.

The law, which went into effect in 2017, allows clients to be offered up to 12 ounces of beer or six ounces of wine.

Mr. Varian plans on further utilizing that law and thinks the shop is already thriving.

“We’re in here all the time. There’s people walking through the door all day long, people trying to get walk-ins done,” he said. “[Dylan’s] booked up for appointments though. I have friends calling me in the morning trying to find out what his schedule’s like.”

Beth Garvin, 49, drove past The Statesman a few times, thought it was a cool place and looked the shop up on Facebook. She messaged Mr. Johnson about scheduling an appointment for her 17-year-old son, Jack, and said Mr. Johnson was very kind.

“This place has a great atmosphere,” Ms. Garvin said. “The store looks so high end, so I thought it would be more expensive. But it was very affordable. We’re definitely going back.”

Mr. Johnson described his prices as “very middle:” $30 for a haircut with a hot towel and straight razor finish, $20 for a beard trim and $30 for a full face shave.

“With our beard trims, it’s not a quick in-and-out service. None of our grooming services are very quick or rushed,” Mr. Johnson said. “You get a hot lather straight razor treatment every time you’re in the chair, whether it’s around the ears or back of the neck or on the beard or the cheeks or on the face.”

He said all his employees treat the straight razor like it’s an extension of their hand, and that’s how he wants it to be.

“I feel like I’m confident enough, passionate enough about it and attention to detail that I think the service here is superior,” Mr. Johnson said. “I guarantee you that when someone sits in this chair and stands up, they’ll feel like nothing they’ve ever experienced before.”

And although the business name specifies “men’s grooming,” Mr. Johnson said he has a lot of female clients with short hair.

“It’s not a gender issue. It’s more of a background of technique and styling hair. I don’t do long style women’s haircuts,” he said.

Mr. Johnson hasn’t had a day off since the middle of December and said creating The Statesman, which opened in February, was “really scary.”

“Taking a couple months off from cutting hair to build this place was terrifying. I don’t have savings. I don’t have a lot to fall back on,” he said. “I literally put everything I have physically and mentally into every part of this place.”

Going forward, Mr. Johnson cited entrepreneurship as something that keeps him from being content.

“You always want to push and push and push and have more ideas and keep it going,” he said. “My hope is that it becomes a place for friends and family to come together and share experiences.”

(Published on Claremont-Courier.com on April 12, 2018 and in print)

Collins Dining Hall Supervisor Reflects On Job, Working With Students

Note: Most of us students at The Claremont Colleges don’t know much about the workers on campus who aren’t our professors. So, I wrote this story in an effort to create community between dining hall workers and students at The Claremont Colleges.

While some people boast about knowing absurd amounts of sports or history trivia, Claremont McKenna College’s Collins Dining Hall supervisor Ezekiel Chavez prides himself on knowing many names of students and instructors. In fact, he claims he knows more names than any other dining hall worker.

Although the tall, dark-haired 40-year-old said he’s a “rookie” compared to other staff members who’ve been at Collins for 10-20 years, Chavez has been greeting students for almost three years now.

“Working at Collins, it’s a good atmosphere,” he said, smiling while still wearing his black hat from work with his straight hair tucked back. “That’s why you have people who have been there that long.”

Chavez, a Rancho Cucamonga native, wrestled in high school and attended Chaffey College for a few years before starting in hospitality management, where he’s been for the past 15 years. He’s also fluent in American Sign Language for his younger sister who is deaf.

Previously a general manager for Buffalo Wild Wings in Rancho Cucamonga, Chavez said the significant pay cut he took to come to CMC was worth it, noting the close proximity to his home in Montclair as well as the dental and medical benefits he receives.

“When you work at a retail shop, you don’t really get that kind of benefit,” he said. “You have to pay out of pocket for those things. Working for the school, you get so much more.”

As for the job itself, Chavez works 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — setting up breakfast, getting shifts covered if someone calls in sick, and reporting attendance after meals.

He said the Collins staff keeps track of how many students from each college eat at Collins to have an idea of how much food to provide the following year.

One recent day, for example, Collins had around 700 visitors.

“We have a projection of around 700 [people], so we know how much food to prepare for that day next year,” Chavez said.

Aside from these duties, he also prepares custom orders for students.

“There’s a lot of students who are from the South,” Chavez said. “They like Creole food, and we don’t serve too much of it. So maybe one day out of the week, we can accommodate that for them.”

Sometimes, though, students crave comfort foods not out of homesickness, but because they want to go into a test feeling good, and having strawberries and whipped cream for breakfast will do that.

As if on cue, a student stopped to confirm with Chavez about a special meal pickup at Collins that evening. Chavez’s response: “You got it!”

Not only is he accommodating to students — he’s also observant. Chavez said he notices a change in students’ attitudes at different points in the semester.

“In the beginning of the year, everybody is happy and perky. But around midterms and finals, people are a little more serious,” he said. “Even sometimes if you say hi, they’re so much in the zone that they don’t even realize you say hi to them.”

Generally, however, Chavez said 5C students are more respectful than customers at Buffalo Wild Wings.

“We had a lot of crazy people going into Buffalo Wild Wings,” he said. “You have to deal with profanity. You have to deal with obnoxious people, people spilling beers and getting drunk. Whereas, right here, people have a little bit more respect.”

Some of these respectful people are also professors whom Chavez has befriended. He describes them as “some of the best mathematicians in the world.”

“Just the connections that you make working at Collins are great,” Chavez said. “You’re surrounding yourself with people that have good ambitions and motivate and inspire you to do better.”

And although being a supervisor would usually require a college degree, Chavez said he got the job by having equivalent experience. But, landing the position was no easy feat.

Altogether, Chavez said it took about a year from the time he found the job posting on Craigslist to getting hired. While he didn’t seriously consider the job at first, Chavez, whose father is a Harvey Mudd College alum, was more eager to apply once he discovered the position was at The Claremont Colleges.

As for the future, Chavez said he plans to continue working at Collins.

“The quality of life is good,” he said. “So, why change something that’s good?”

(Published on tsl.news on April 6, 2018 and in print)

School resource officer brings experience, humor to the job

Note: Most students at my school were terrified of the school resource officer, whose job is similar to a school police officer. So, I wrote this article displaying one of her least-known but best attributes — humor — hoping that my peers would see her as a helpful human rather than a threat.

Yolo County Gang Task Force member, patrol officer, detective: Those are just some of the positions that Keirith Briesenick has held over the past 16 years, ultimately leading her to current role as the Davis Police Department’s school resource officer.

However, the Orange County native and UC Davis graduate didn’t always know that police work was her passion.

“I was an anthropology major,” Briesenick said. “(It) was really fun to study, but it doesn’t have a lot of practical application.”

Only after the former UC Davis softball player picked up a job at Blue Shield answering phones and met several co-workers who were attending a nighttime police academy was her interest piqued.

Briesenick applied for a job in the records division at the Davis Police Department in 1998 and was offered the position.

But as a former student-athlete in both high school and college, Briesenick didn’t really want a job that entailed sitting behind a desk all the time. She wanted to be active.

“I wanted to see what police work was really like, not just what you see on TV,” she said.

In 2000, Briesenick was sent to the police academy where she gained a plethora of skills. But it’s her sense of humor that has proved particularly valuable on the job.

Briesenick, whose colleagues and friends call her “KB,” recounted a traffic incident where her humor came in handy.

“I was waiting for traffic (while at) an intersection over by Holmes Junior High, and there was a vehicle going in front of me at the intersection. As he passed in front of me, I could see him on his cell phone talking. It was a contractor with his phone number plastered on the back of the truck.

“So instead of pulling him over, I just called the number. He answered and I told him, ‘Hi this is the police officer behind you. You can’t be driving and talking on your phone.’ And I see the brake lights come on and he pulls over,” she said, laughing.

Briesenick didn’t give the driver a ticket, but she believes he learned his lesson.

School district safety coordinator Marc Hicks has known KB since the beginning of her career and agrees that humor is one of her best traits.

“You know you see a lot of police officers, they deal with a lot of bad stuff, and I think that her sense of humor allows her to be pretty much human and not take everything so seriously,” Hicks said.

Another positive quality is Briesenick’s ability to get along with almost anyone, which was crucial to her time spent on the gang task force.

The Yolo County Gang Task Force brings together peace officers, probation officers, parole officers and prosecutors with a common objective of providing targeted intelligence gathering, enforcement, investigation and prosecution of criminal street gangs.

Briesenick worked on the task force for four years.

“I worked with a really fun group of people, and sometimes that’s what matters the most. It matters who you’re doing it (with),” she said.

That was true during Briesenick’s time as a detective as well. Then she worked with Sgt. Ariel Pineda for three years, handling a variety of criminal cases.

Pineda, who has been with the Davis Police Department since 2006, described his fellow detective as “good with different demographics and ethnicities” and “always courteous and considerate.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone when Briesenick was assigned the role of school resource officer.

“She’s very able to work with people, so she has (a lot of) different options,” Pineda said.

In this role, Briesenick’s day consists of going to meetings at Davis High School, cruising around the campus with supervisors as well as visiting other schools in the district and meeting individually with students. Although she loves the job, Briesenick acknowledges it’s not all fun and games.

“It’s hard because kids make mistakes and so having to arrest them or put them in a criminal justice system can be (kind of) harsh for a lot of kids,” she said. “I’m really glad that we do have a program at the Police Department that gives you one ‘freebie’ to get it off your record in case you mess up once.”

And after tackling every position in the department rotation, what’s next for the versatile officer?

“I’ll rotate back to patrol, and then I’ll probably promote to supervise other people,” she said.

(Published in the July 13, 2016 edition of The Davis Enterprise and online)