Mississippi Barriers to Opportunity Broken By Entrepreneurial Hair Braider

Melony Armstrong did not grow up financially disadvantaged, She didn’t suffer an accident that left her disabled. She didn’t make any poor decisions that ended her up in the criminal justice system.Hair-braider Melony Armstrong

An African-American girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, Armstrong went to college and had a successful career in the field of psychology. She was a model for living the American dream.

But when she decided to strike out on her own, Armstrong confronted enormous, institutional barriers to opportunity that she never expected — state and municipal bureaucracy so entrenched that it became nearly impossible for her to open and own a small business.

The barrier was “a direct result of how our state and local governments regulate what people do for work and how those barriers slam the door to opportunity for many people in  a very real way,” she told an audience in Washington, D.C., attending an AEI Vision Talk.

Armstrong, who grew up having her mother and grandmother braid her hair every weekend, part of a rich cultural heritage that dates back 3,000 years, wanted to become a professional hair braider and took the logical course of action in that direction — training under a master braider and practicing for six months on a mannequin.

“I dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and opening and running my own hair braiding business. The dream got my adrenaline pumping,” she said.

But when she finally felt ready to employ her new talents, the nightmare began. Armstrong found that the state Board of Cosmetology required that anyone who wanted to become a natural hair braider had to take 1,500 hours of cosmetology school and had to pay the state more than $10,000 for the license.

The requirements were “going to all be in an area that literally had nothing to do with hair braiding.”

To obtain a license to teach hair braiding, part of Armstrong’s long-term business plan, would require an additional 3,200 hours of classes.

“I could have become licensed in all of the following occupations in Mississippi. Here we go: emergency medical technician-basic, emergency medical technician-paramedic, ambulance driver, police officer, firefighter, real estate appraiser, and hunting education instructor,” she said. “Not just one of those occupations, but all of those occupations, I could have (done) them all and still had 600 hours left over.”

Working her way through the labyrinth of state government, Armstrong learned that the state Board of Cosmetology, which made up the licensing requirements and granted the licenses, was comprised of practicing cosmetologists.

“What this meant for cosmetology schools is that cosmetology schools would be guaranteed students, right? Once they were guaranteed students, then basically these students became captive customers, and so anyone wanting to do this, there was no way that you could get around it. You had to go to a cosmetology school, you had to take the training, and you had to pay for the training in order to become licensed.”

Armstong said she had to make a decision: either give up on her dreams or fight the status quo. “I decided to fight back.”

Getting wind of Armstrong’s predicament, the Institute for Justice took up her cause and filed a lawsuit on her behalf. This meant weekly, and sometimes thrice-weekly trips to Jackson, the state capital, which is seven hours round-trip from her hometown of Tupelo.

Years later and facing down some incredible odds, including trying to explain hair-braiding techniques to male lawmakers and being challenged at one point about whether hair braiding could raise the risk of HIV, which it cannot, the state legislature overturned the elaborate requirements, and the governor signed the new law. Now, the only requirements for hair braiders in Mississippi is to pay a fee, register with the state board of health, and abide by basic health and sanitation guidelines.

That was in 2005. Today, over 3,000 people are registered hair braiders in Mississippi, and Armstrong has taught hundreds of individuals how to braid hair through her school, Armstrong Academy. She has also opened up Melony Armstrong Coaching and Consulting.

“There only needed to be one tweak in the law, and that one tweak in the law has affected thousands of women in Mississippi,” she said, adding that regulatory hurdles have also been eased in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Utah as a result of the change in Mississippi.

So what is the lesson that Armstrong shares from her experience?

“I think we need to take a serious look at the regulatory walls that are barring entrepreneurs from making an honest living. … We owe it to our citizens to pay attention to these laws that do nothing but keep entrepreneurs out,” she said. “America was built on the backs of entrepreneurs. I think many people would agree that we need entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs made America great, and if we could do it in Mississippi, we can do it across the nation.”

The Talent Drain: Disincentives in The Federal Disability Program

On Jan. 18, 1979, Mike Zelley was heading home after a business meeting to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. He was driving his car in the early dark, and turned onto a highway ramp. His car hit a patch of black ice and slid toward the guard rail. It being Detroit in the dead of winter, the plow trucks had pushed the snow out of the road and up against the rails, essentially forming a ski ramp. Zelley’s car flew up the snow ramp, 40 feet into the air, and down over the embankment onto its front end.

Zelley’s neck was broken. He was paralyzed.Mike Zelley 1080

Despite life-saving measures, he was to live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. He thought his life was over.

“Then something miraculous happened, something that changed my life,” Zelley told an audience in Washington, D.C. A friend of his brother, who was living life in a wheelchair, mentioned that he was a successful stockbroker. Zelley had an epiphany.

“If he can have a job and raise a family and have a career, and make money, and if he can live independently, if he can do all that, I can do that,” Zelley said he realized. “That peer support was a direct change in my life, right then.”

Since then, Zelley has been paying it forward. After returning to his successful business following rehab, he went on to launch the Disability Network, a consumer-driven, private nonprofit serving 6,000 individuals with disabilities based in Flint, Mich.

But paying it forward has been more difficult than he anticipated, in part because of the barriers created by a federal assistance program that ends up trapping people with disabilities rather than helping them return to their once-productive lifestyles.

SSDI, which is paid out through Medicare, provides a monthly cash benefit to disabled individuals to help them defray costs associated with their disability, like the costs of buying pedal controls for a van or new wheels for a wheelchair, or other household accommodations that help disabled people live as close to an independent life as they can.

But if a disabled person makes more than the allotted cash benefit each month, federal policy views that individual’s employment as “sustainable gainful activity” — wage replacement — and cuts off SSDI.

“It’s a spider trap,” said Zelley noting that $1,000 a month in income is below the poverty level.

And the web is getting larger. Fifty-four million Americans have a disability. In Michigan alone, 500,000 working-age people with disabilities are not employed despite 43 percent of them having a college degree.

In all, only one half of 1 percent of people on disability go back to work after becoming disabled. That’s a monumental talent drain considering 85 percent of disabled people acquire their disability during their lifetime, they are not born disabled. That means a lot of work experience, education, and other abilities is left on the table, displaced from the workforce.

“What is wrong with this picture? Why are we keeping people? Why are we trapping them?” Zelley asked.

“What a tragic waste of talent and skills,” he said, noting that the private workforce could also do more to encourage employment. “An accommodation is something that we all need (whether disabled or not). It’s not just good for business, it makes (all of us) more effective and productive.”

“My hope today is that you will see the importance of using all the talent that we have that is sitting on the sidelines. I am not my disability. … People are not their disability.”

As for Zelley, despite many prayers that he be able to walk again, he cannot. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it.

Remembering once during Catholic services, when everyone stood for the gospel, he shifted his weight in his chair — something disabled people have to do to prevent pressure sores. The movement prompted the choir director to shout, “Holy Jesus, he’s going to walk.”

He won’t, but he said he wants to get more disabled “out of the spectator stands, off the bleachers, on the bench, beginning training, into the game.”

Sasse Vision Talks: America’s Political Parties Suffer a ‘Crisis of Political Vision’

College students are talking about robots and the role they will play in America’s future. The political parties are fighting over whether to make America Europe again or make America 1950 again.

No wonder young people are largely disinterested in the debate in Washington, concluded Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

“Neither of these (conversations) is very interesting,” Sasse said recently, telling an audience in Washington, D.C., that the major political parties in America would be considered failed enterprises if looked at from a business perspective.

“Both parties have a massive vision problem about what we need to accomplish in our time and place,” he said.  This problem is “a crisis of political vision that flows partly from the fact that we have two exhausted political parties right now. We have a conversation in Washington that is really stultifying relative to the vibrancy and vitality of the American people and relative to the magnitude of the challenges we face right now, and what really needs to be accomplished in our time,” Sasse said.

Sasse was speaking during the latest Vision Talks, a series of conversations convened by the American Enterprise Institute that puts together Washington policy insiders with social entrepreneurs, non-profits, and other enterprising organizations outside the Beltway.

Sasse described the other contributors to the most recent series of Vision Talks, including two men whose organizations help ex-inmates and disabled people find work, and a small business owner who challenged her state government to change the licensing requirements for hair braiders, as “heroic” in their efforts to live freely and independently while contributing to their communities.

These types of people and organizations are looking outside of Washington to create solutions that honor the dignity of all the natural rights of everybody, American ideals that are close to being extinguished if the political parties can’t change their respective directions, he said.

Noting a Pew research study that found that 203 of the 230 largest metro areas in the nation — containing 75 percent of the U.S. population — have a shrinking middle class, Sasse said America’s political parties aren’t up to the task of laying down a vision for the future because they look at the new information economy using the lens of politics relevant to the industrial era.

Republicans “are suffering from a declining customer base, because root core Republican voters are dying. The Democrats don’t have the same customer base problem, but they have a massive product problem because the Democrats are still trying to pretend that if you just expand 1965 entitlement programs and the chassis of the federal government from 50 and 51 years ago, that somehow this is only three tinkers away from being a working system. It’s not true. The Democrats are trying to sell central planning in the age of Uber,” Sasse said.

The presidential candidates aren’t explaining to young people, the post-industrialist up and comers, solutions to address job market prospects in a rapidly changing economy.

“Jobs that are routinize-able, if that’s a word, and predictable, those jobs are going to become more and more rapidly disintermediated and disrupted. We’re going to need to create a completely different kind of conversation than we’ve ever had before, and our politics are not really up to that level of disruptive conversation.”

Fortunately, Sasse said, all is not lost. America still has a lot to offer, and it’s up to the people to take the opportunity during this upheaval to form the future.

“The distinction between politics and culture is really important. There’s a lot that’s broken in our politics, but there’s a lot about our culture that’s still hopeful. and there’s a lot to dream about and lot to try to recover, and culture is well upstream of politics. Politics is downstream from culture.”

Watch the entirety of Sasse’s remarks in AEI’s Vision Talks.

How an Ex-Con Found His Self-Worth and Paid It Forward

Every once in a while, the security we feel is shattered by a hard truth, or an interaction with someone who takes us out of our comfort zone for better or worse. Bryan Kelley is one of those people.

Sentenced to life in prison for murdering a man in a drug deal gone bad, Kelley was released after 22 years. Why?

Could be what he discovered behind bars — a path to redemption and an opportunity not only for his own rehabilitation and recognition of self-worth, but also the ability to help numerous others as well.

Kelley took the lessons of self-actualization that he learned during his long days and nights incarcerated and figured out a way to implement them, becoming a leader in an entrepreneurship program that helps ex-offenders successfully re-enter society.  The Prison Entrepreneurship Program combines a rigorous classroom curriculum, one-on-one immersion training, and a web of real-world resources to deliver results that not only improve communities where felons return, but create healthy, productive, and transformative changes that enable these ex-cons to realize their self-value and live their accountability to others.

Kelley recently came to Washington, D.C., to tell his story for the AEI Vision Talks, a series of lectures by top scholars, political leaders, and policy-makers inside the Beltway as well as business owners, practitioners, and influencers around the nation. These lectures offer fresh perspectives on key areas of public debate and policy.

The discussions focus on practical solutions, based on real-life experiences. For Kelley, he has experiences that many people don’t wish on their enemies. It’s enough to make you shift in your seat when you’re an audience member at his lectures. But in searching for actionable solutions, Kelley found answers that turned around what could have been a meaningless life in prison into a positive impact that touches families of ex-prisoners, area businesses, and the larger community.

Watch Bryan Kelley’s Vision Talk and see if he can teach you anything. At the very least, it will make you look at life a little differently, or perhaps count your blessings.

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