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Tennessee requires domestic violence training for cosmetologists. This hairdresser made it happen.

(Angelea/Washington Post Illustration)

More than a decade ago, a therapist told Susanne Post something that would change her life: She wasn’t at fault for the problems in her marriage. Instead, the therapist said, what she was experiencing was abuse.

“That was the catalyst that opened my eyes,” Post said. “As far as my story goes, my history as a survivor, I think I’m as passionate about domestic violence education as I am because it wasn’t until somebody actually pointed it out and held that mirror up to me that I was able to see what I was in.”

A Nashville-based salon owner and hairstylist of 28 years, Post, 48, says that beauty professionals have a special relationship with their clients, one that creates space for nonjudgmental conversations. With regular cuts and color as well as special services for milestones like engagements and weddings, stylists “see people go through seasons from a bird’s-eye view,” Post said. “Because of this, we are also in a unique position to see things like domestic violence.”

Thanks to Post’s advocacy work with her local YWCA, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the state, Tennessee legislators passed a law last year requiring all licensed beauty professionals to receive training to identify and respond to clients who may be experiencing domestic violence. The state is the latest to pass such legislation, which went into effect in January. Others, including Illinois, Arkansas and Washington, have already done so.

And Post — initially determined to educate hairstylists in her area — has become the face of a worldwide movement.

More than 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes, global study finds

In 2017, nearly a decade after that conversation with her therapist, Post had rebuilt her life with a successful business and happy family when she came across an article about the Illinois law, which mandated domestic violence education for licensed hairstylists.

“It almost gave me chills,” she said. “I felt moved to get involved.”

By then, she knew the statistics: 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Tennessee ranked fifth for the U.S. state with the highest rate of women murdered by men.

Post was familiar with her local YWCA’s work through clients and friends. She’d attended fundraisers and educational events over the years, all the while wondering what more she could do. After learning about Illinois’s program, she contacted their team, and they agreed they needed to create a similar program.

The organization had been looking for someone to connect them with the beauty industry and translate domestic violence training into their world, according to Michelle Mowery Johnson, senior director of communications and advocacy at YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee.

“Susanne was amazing because she brought that personal story as a survivor but also as a stylist behind the chair,” Mowery Johnson said. “We had all the domestic violence expertise and education we’ve done in the community for over 40 years, but she was the person who could help bring us into the beauty industry.”

In October 2017, they launched Shear Haven. For the initiative, Post traveled from salon to salon with a YWCA educator, who covered the basics of how abusers take away power and control from survivors, signs of domestic violence and how to respond in a salon setting. They also gave stylists the resources they needed to refer clients to local resources.

After receiving positive feedback from dozens of participants, Post said, she knew this needed to be more than a local initiative. She and her team began to reach out to state legislators in the hopes of passing a law similar to the one in Illinois.

In January 2020, they connected with state Rep. Sam Whitson (R) to pitch their idea for a bill. He agreed to take it on, along with state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D) as a co-sponsor. “They came up with this concept: Let’s educate these folks on what to look for so they have the means to help people seek help and assistance,” Whitson said. “The legislation is just one way of battling the scourge of domestic violence, and it’s really smart because hairdressers establish relationships with their clients so they can see changes in behavior and appearance.”

As they met with lawmakers and committees, though, one roadblock kept popping up: They wanted the education to be free and available online.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the bill was put on hold. “It was so deeply disappointing,” Post said.

That spring, rates of domestic violence across the world surged during shutdowns. In April, after stay-at-home orders were implemented, calls to the YWCA’s hotline went up by more than 50 percent.

The pandemic caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims with few options, abuse has become the new normal.

To safely reopen her salon, Post was one of tens of thousands of hairstylists who took an online disinfectant training from Barbicide, a salon supply company. As Post watched the video, she realized this could be the partner she’d been looking for: a company focused on safety with an online platform already up and running.

Post contacted Leslie Roste, national director of education for Barbicide, and she immediately agreed to collaborate — with one caveat. The video couldn’t just be for Tennesseans. Barbicide served a global community, and Roste wanted the training to be available for anyone who wanted it, no matter their location or connection to the beauty industry, she said.

Together, the YWCA team and Roste reviewed the video and added resources for survivors around the world from the United Nations.

In October 2020, they launched a 20-minute training video with a short quiz plus a certificate anyone could earn and display in their workspace or on social media.

According to Roste, more than 40,000 people had completed the training by January 2021. By then, Post and her team were ready to resubmit their plan to legislators. They wanted to require up to one hour of domestic violence training for every hairstylist, barber, cosmetologist, aesthetician, nail technician and natural hair braider who is licensed to work or in school in the state.

The law passed with bipartisan support. As of Jan. 1, stylists have four years to complete the training, while future beauty professionals will do so as part of their educational requirements.

Along with information on resources and hotlines, the training walks stylists through the nature of domestic violence and the cycle of abuse. Stylists are taught to look for potential red flags: a client whose partner always accompanies them to appointments or schedules their visits; bruising or hair loss; a client’s unwillingness to change their hair color or style because of a fear of going against their partner’s wishes.

“This legislation will absolutely help survivors of domestic violence,” said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence. “It’s always good when there are more people in the community to help. And frankly, there are probably some stylists who may be survivors, so it can also be empowering for them.”

The training is clear: It’s not a hairstylist’s job to play the role of a counselor or domestic violence advocate but to direct someone to local experts and resources when they’re ready. Fliers with information and a hotline number in bathrooms can also serve as a lifeline without a stylist saying a word.

For those working in other industries who may be interested in domestic violence education for their staff, Stewart recommends visiting Workplaces Respond, a national resource center for employers, survivors and their co-workers.

Looking forward, Post wants to keep the momentum going. She’s working with the YWCA’s Amend Together Initiative and Nashville Police Chief John Drake to design a program for barbers to help men talk about healthy masculinity and support those who may be abusers, survivors or witnesses.

“Barbershop conversations can be not only informative, but also persuasive and impactful,” Drake said. “Encouraging barbers to help educate their clients about domestic abuse and the warning signs is another crucial step for our community to further enhance the safety of women and girls.”

Post said it’s been incredible to see how people around the world have responded to this training.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “The more we can spread awareness around this issue the better.”

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