When Analise Harris began working as a special education teacher in Denver Public Schools, she wasn’t prepared for the inequity she’d witness in Colorado’s largest school district. One day in 2018, a young, Black, female student was suspended after refusing to take off a hoodie and a pink bandana she was wearing in class. The administration cited a dress code violation, but Harris—who was the girl’s teacher—realized the student was trying to cover her braids, which weren’t yet finished. The student had been withdrawing in class due to the embarrassment of having a bad hair day.

A year earlier, Harris had launched Curls on the Block as a nonprofit organization to empower the students she lovingly calls “curly girls.” Funding for the project came from winning DPS’ Imaginarium Design Challenge in 2016. But it was that particular incident in the classroom that inspired her to create after-school programming for students. Through the after-school curriculum, Harris teaches girls of all colors and hair types how to care for their locks, and in the process, pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).

Originally, Harris centered her curriculum around beauty and self-esteem. But Harris quickly realized that she could take it further. “I didn’t want this to just be an ‘I accept myself’ kind of thing,” Harris says. “That’s all great, but how could we push these girls further to connect with a career? If young Black girls are given a push in the right direction, they can do so much more. They can change their communities.”

The Curls on the Block curriculum consists of 10 sessions over the course of a semester in which students study both science and hair care. It may not seem like an obvious pairing, but Harris has become adept at combining the two: One of her favorite activities is teaching the girls how to make flaxseed hair gel from scratch, an undertaking that allows participants to use the scientific method to create a hair product they can use at home.

The amount of positive feedback Harris received from parents and teachers inspired her to start yet another project in 2017: the Miss Curly USA Pageant. The pageant is open to girls age three and up and consists of several titles delineated by age. Those who win are awarded a reign of one year, a trip to hair festivals like CurlFest, opportunities to be a brand ambassador for companies like International Spectrum Cosmetics, a photoshoot, and a cash prize.

Unlike traditional pageants, though, Harris has created a competition that goes beyond beauty. One of the primary aspects of the pageant is the entrepreneurial component: Contestants must present an idea, product, or service that both addresses the needs of the curly community and has a connection to STEAM principles. “I really wanted to avoid that ‘bikini contest’ feel that so many pageants have,” Harris says. “Instead, the girls can show off what really matters to them. They can compete in everything from cultural regalia to their Taekwondo outfit.”

According to Harris, a number of pageant participants and students in the program have gone on to be business owners, creatives, and activists in Denver, such as Trinity Birch—owner of popular braiding business Exotic Expressions—and Jada Dorsey, the 12-year-old founder of Selfie-ish, a new selfie museum in the Town Center at Aurora.

Regardless of the challenges that come with running a small nonprofit—extensive paperwork and a shortage of staff and volunteers, for example—Harris is excited about the future of Curls on the Block. Camp Curly, a weeklong summer camp that teaches young girls the science behind hair health, is scheduled to take place the week of July 18. The Miss Curly USA Pageant is also slated to take place this fall, in Orlando, Florida. “Seeing these girls flourish is really what keeps me going,” Harris says. “When they succeed, it makes all of the challenges worth it.”

Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and 5280.com.