Brooklyn hair stylist starts beauty school for impoverished Indian girls
When Brooklyn resident Heather Packer heard Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” her answer was to go to Rishikesh, India and teach impoverished young women how to be hair stylists and entrepreneurs.
Rishikesh is just 20 minutes from the sacred Ganges River, its banks filled with crowds of people, cows (and cow dung), beggars and dogs. Girls there are discouraged from getting an education and many are married off in their young teens.
Packer, 40, who has lived in the Prospect Heights neighborhood for 12 years, practices yoga and meditation. She launched a non-profit called Fearless Beauty (http://fearlessbeauty.org) and opened her school in 2015 in the Khushi Project Vocational Center where she had been volunteering for several years. There, the girls, many of whom had never held a pair of scissors, learned how to cut, style and color hair.
“I had been traveling to India for five years, visiting a teacher of yoga, philosophy and spirituality,” Packer told the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday. Packer spent three months in Rishikesh the first year, she said, along with teachers she brought in from the states. This year she made two trips, the first for a month, and the second for two weeks.
“I’m hoping to train some of the students to be teachers,” she said. “But it’s going to take a little while. They’re not ready.”
Packer tries to instill the idea that the girls, all born into the lowest caste, might have a degree of freedom of choice.
“All of the women in our program are of a caste that believes a woman should not be educated, and that she’s ready to be married when she’s thirteen,” Packer said. “They’ve never been invited to question things.”
She added in a statement, “In our program, we’re inviting them to possibly see things a little differently. Haircutting is an entryway into an education for these girls. It’s a vehicle to connect, but it’s also a vehicle for them to earn a living.”
Since its launch, Fearless Beauty has completed two classes of vocational training and graduated 15 students. The girls trained for three months and continue their education after graduation through a community haircutting program. Packer plans to expand the length of formal training to six months.
Not all of the girls choose to become hairdressers when their training is over. Freedom is still a foreign concept for most of the students, and five of the first ten students stopped their training to get married.
“They had no choice,” Packer said. “They were raised to think they needed to marry and have kids.”
A few of them, however, have the support of their families, who see their training as a way for them to contribute.
“Three of the students got married this year but their husbands are supportive,” she said.
Packer hopes to expand the program to other countries, perhaps in the Middle East or Asia.
“We’re open to people’s ideas,” she told the Eagle.
On Monday, Packer rallied some of the beauty industry’s names to raise funds for the school through a charity blowdry party, its third annual event.
Rodney Cutler, owner of Cutler Salons in Soho, where Packer works, hosted the bash — replete with VIP gift bags, cocktails and hors d‘oeuvres.
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