World Afro Day Creator: ‘It Started Out As A Crazy Dream’

Michelle De Leon initially wanted to rebel against a law that let American companies deny a job to people with dreadlocks – but World Afro Day has steadily grown into a record-breaking and fun celebration of black style

EMBRACING HERITAGE: Michelle De Leon embraces her daughter Estelle, who inspired her the mission she has taken to the UN

MICHELLE DE Leon says World Afro Day (or WAD) started out as a ‘crazy dream’ inspired by a US federal court ruling and her daughter.

A global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair, De Leon says she started WAD following a ban in the state of Alabama on dreadlocks in the workplace.

Moved to create something that redressed the balance, De Leon told Life & Style that it was the court case and watching her daughter celebrate her own hair in a private family moment that acted as the catalyst for the movement.

In 2016, when De Leon had the idea, there was no direction and no plan. Even finding a name that did the cause justice was a protracted endeavour.

But by 2017, WAD was endorsed by the Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“World Afro Day started out in my heart and in my mind as a crazy dream in which I wanted to see the world come together and celebrate Afro hair,” De Leon enthused.

“I mulled it over all throughout 2016, trialling different names, before settling on World Afro Day.

“My seven-year-old daughter was actually my inspiration. One day, she was singing her heart out celebrating her hair. I thought, ‘Wow, I never felt that good about my hair at her age’ – and I wanted every little child of African descent to feel that good about their hair, too.”

EDUCATION: World Afro Day has created a school lesson plan

De Leon admits that there were times when she felt like the prospect of bringing a celebration of Afro hair to a wider audience felt ‘too big’.

“The responsibility was enormous – Afro hair means so much to so many people. The global day just felt too big but the passion for it wouldn’t die,” she said.

“How could this could become a day, that could really unite us but also change the rest of the world’s ideas, too? Even having the right language to explain what the day was about, was a process.

“I began speaking to friends, family and others, who could come on this crazy ride with me. We needed a definition to communicate what we were doing. The explanation became: a global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair (culture and identity).”

De Leon was keen to make sure that a part of any celebration would be a world record for kids to celebrate Afro hair.

Garnering support from RecordSetter was a first step on the ladder. The likes of hairstylist Vernon Francois – whose clients include Lupita Nyong’o and Serena Williams – plus American professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig and two other Afro-academics all added their weight to the growing army of people wanting to get involved with WAD.

De Leon said: “I knew I wanted a date that would be significant to the whole world. The moment came, on September 15, 2016, when the state of Alabama in the US, passed a law allowing companies to deny jobs to people with dreadlocks.

“I was incensed – the rage boiled up inside of me. “How could a law be passed against Afro hair in the 21st century? The race was on, I wanted to put World Afro Day on September 15, 2017 to mark this dreadful law.”

She added: “My guests were lined up and consultant dermatologist, Dr Sharon Wong, along with Shirley McDonald, agreed to teach the World Record Largest Hair Education Lesson.

“Then we contacted a lady in South Africa, who had invented Swimma Caps for Afro hair. She decided to come at her own expense because she wanted to be part of the first one. All these people, were coming thousands of miles to take part in World Afro Day.

MISSION: De Leon has the backing of the UN

“Lastly, I had in the back of my mind that the UN were doing a decade of African Descent but no one really knew about it. What if they could back World Afro Day?

“I was working with the Natural Hair Weekly Team and Zena knew someone who worked at the UN, so she made a call. I sent an email and before we knew it the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was endorsing the first World Afro Day.”

De Leon hasn’t looked back since.

“Year one was a great success. As well as support from the UN, we had the University of Bradford and the London Mayor’s office, extensive national and international media coverage from ITV, Yahoo, BBC Radio, The Voice, Essence, Harper’s Bazaar, The Independent and NowThis.

“Plus support from global brands and celebrities, like the cast of Black-ish.”

Partnering with people who can help move the WAD agenda forward at a quicker pace also proved a key move for De Leon. She explained: “During 2018, we also hit another milestone, creating the WAD school lesson plan.

“This was guided by educational, expert Dr Jacqueline Harding. We released the lessons on our website and the first one was filmed by ITV News.

“I really enjoyed watching the kids engage with the lesson and make their own films, which was fantastic. They seemed to really enjoy it and the feedback was inspirational. This was really significant, that a white male teacher with no experience in Afro hair could teach the subject successfully.”

Each year, WAD hopes to organise awards celebrating Afro excellence in all areas of society; encouraging normalisation and aspiration towards Afro hair, culture and identity.

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