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Stylist Latoya Bryant talks about why beauty shops are a safe space for black women while doing a braided weave for Christina White at Salon Chic, an Ashley Phosphate Road salon on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. A small group of women recently launched an initiative to visit black and Hispanic-owned beauty salons to encourage voter registration and civic engagement. Wade Spees/Staff

Latoya Bryant carefully wrapped the strands of dark brown hair around her fingers, weaving the hair back and forth, over and under, into a single tight braid.

As she worked, she talked. And for the first time that she can remember, the stylist at Salon Chic in North Charleston started talking to her client about voting.

"You know," Bryant said, moving a comb through Christina White's hair, "I didn't really think about how it wasn't that long ago that we didn't even have the right to vote, and you know, it's so important to let those voices — our voices — be heard."

"Mmhmm, mmhm. Let it be heard," White responded, keeping her head still as Bryant began work on another braid.

"Especially for the younger generation," she went on. "A lot of people complain about things, but then they don't vote to make change happen."

Standing a few feet away, 32-year-old Brittany Mathis watched the conversation unfold.

Months ago, Mathis' Soul to Sol Salon Project was just an idea. Now she was standing inside this African-American beauty salon with bold purple walls, watching women of color, like herself, talk about why their vote matters.

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Brittany Mathis is the creator of the Soul to Sol Salon Project, an initiative she  started to get women of color engaged in the voting process. Wade Spees/Staff Tuesday, May 15, 2018

All Mathis had to do was ask if she could hang a few posters and leave behind a stack of cards telling people how to use their phones to register to vote, update their voter information or request an absentee ballot. The conversation between Bryant and White took off shortly after that.

A similar discussion happened again when Mathis drove about 6 miles northeast to Divas Latina Hair Salon on Rivers Avenue.

Within minutes of Mathis talking about her goal to engage marginalized groups with the voting process, Maria Valente looked at her college-age daughter who was getting a haircut.

"Are you registered to vote?" she asked Isabella Valente.

"No," the 21-year-old said. 

"Well, you better add that to your to-do list. It's important," her mother fired back. "We are a minority, and we need more women in office representing us. Who knows? Maybe one day you will be our first Latina president."

Minority voters accounted for roughly 30 percent of South Carolina's estimated voting-age population in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Among South Carolina Democrats, black voters make up a historically high share of the overall turnout.

The minority vote was pivotal in Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential wins.

But since then, there has been a drop-off. In the 2016 election, the minority voter turnout retreated. Nationwide, black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election. In South Carolina, 63.2 percent of minority voters participated compared to 67.5 percent in 2012.

Mathis wants to reverse that trend. The salon-to-salon outreach effort grew just recently out of a need Mathis saw in her community to get women of color involved in civic engagement outside of black churches.

"Not all of us go to church, but we all get a haircut," she said. 

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A small group of women — Iskra Perez Salcedo (foreground, from left), Brittany Mathis, and Tamika Gadsden — discuss the importance of voting while visiting Divas Latina Hair Salon & Studio Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

From there, Mathis, whose full-time work is as executive director of Charleston Friends of the Library, enlisted help from Charleston activist Tamika Gadsden and election consultant Karen Brinson Bell to come up with a list of voting FAQs for the posters and other materials that would appeal to the black and Spanish-speaking communities.

The project officially began its work a few weeks ago, starting small with one or two salons in Summerville and North Charleston. But this week, Mathis and Gadsden brought the project's message of voting empowerment to at least five salons. They plan to identify more.

"Voting is a way to take back your humanity," said Gadsden, whose parents and grandparents grew up during the segregationist Jim Crow era.

"As an African-American woman, I can tell you that African-Americans in general have always had to be civically engaged because our very lives depend on it," she said.

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Tamika Gadsden is among a small group of women who recently launched an initiative to visit black and Hispanic-owned beauty salons to encourage voter engagement among minority communities. She says voting is a way to "take back your humanity." Wade Spees/Staff Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tiffany Gill, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware, said beauty salons have a long tradition of functioning as political and cultural centers, even soap boxes, within the black community.

Gill detailed the connection in her 2010 book "Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry."

"These beauty entrepreneurs, like Madam C.J. Walker, were explicit when they began their businesses that these would not just businesses, but that they would be involved in uplifting the race and, in particular, uplifting the lives of black women," Gill said, noting Walker wrote letters to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to make lynching a federal crime.

Time would only cement the role of beauty salons as political hubs.

During the civil rights movement, Charleston's own Bernice Robinson helped educate potential voters in her home beauty salon.

"She would be washing and styling someone's hair and putting them under the drier while walking them through the voting process and, in the middle of it all, she would get someone from the salon to run down to the courthouse to try and get them registered to vote," Gill said of Septima Clark's cousin.

As politics becomes increasingly partisan, Gill said her research indicates the beauty salon will remain a safe place for women to openly talk about their lives, their struggles and their politics.

"But it always takes someone like this young woman, Brittany, and like Bernice Robinson to recognize the political potential of these kinds of spaces. These shops fly under the radar as being a frivolous space where women to get their hair done and gossip, but therein lies their power," Gill said.

Soul to Sol now has the support of the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area, where Mathis is a volunteer. The Hispanic Business Association of Charleston and the local chapter of the ACLU are also interested in getting involved in the project, too. 

"For me, this is all about empowerment. I've been to different groups and events where black women have explained to me that they didn't vote because they thought their vote wouldn't matter," Mathis said. "But reminding people about the power of their vote reminds us all that we can make a difference in our community."

The founders of the Soul to Sol project envision taking their efforts statewide, focusing now on the November general election.

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Tamika Gadsden puts up a poster in the window of Alejandro's Peluqueria on Ashley Phosphate Road on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. They launched a nonpartisan initiative to visit black and Hispanic-owned beauty salons to encourage voter participation. Wade Spees/Staff

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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