Braiding as Both Art and Power

Brave Braids’ Art Show Encourages
Youth Empowerment and Entrepreneurship

April 15 from 5-7 pm
The Factory St. Pete
Details here

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Tedra’s Cultural Arts Braid Experience in Clearwater presents its first Kids Brave Braids Art Show on April 15 at The Factory St. Pete from 5 to 7 p.m. Hosted by the legendary Jai Hinson of Artz 4 Life, the event features performances by dance academy students, drumming and a hair show of student creations.

Valerie “Tedra” Rutledge founded the nonprofit educational project focused on teaching youth the skill and art of perfecting braid hairstyles. Having taught herself how to braid by the age of five, she has three decades of experience in the art of braiding and is a testimony to how the skill has helped her transform her life more than once.

“I taught myself the concept of braiding, the three-strand twist, at five years old… just braiding my baby doll’s hair, putting a bunch of beads in it. Then as I got older, it was just something that I would do for my friends, riding on the camp bus — then doing my mom’s friends’ hair.”

Rutledge says that by the time she was 13 years old, hair braiding was also putting money in her pocket. “It wasn’t much – I remember getting paid like $40 for a head of braids.” She adds that while it was just something that she loved to do, being able to braid also gave her social capital. “I was popular – I had a lot of friends from doing it.”

When a parent asked her to teach their child how to braid years later, she also realized it was a path toward economic power for youth. “Back in 2019, someone reached out to me about their 16-year-old daughter learning how to braid, and that kind of really started the process.”

Rutledge says she was surprised at how well her first student retained the information and notes that her skill level transformed from her early braids to her more practiced plaits.

“I was like, do you know what you can do? That you can actually make money from this? And she didn’t know. She was very surprised.” Rutledge told her that in the state of Florida, she could acquire her license at the age of 16 and work in a shop, which excited her young student.

When Rutledge gained access to a salon space in 2020, she wanted to utilize the space for more girls to learn how to braid. She saw herself in the youth that came to the space and soon realized she could not only equip them with a money-making skill they would have for the rest of their lives, but she could be an ear and an example for the young girls and teens.

“When I first started, it was free for everyone, and the very first class, I had eight or nine girls come in. I gave them their little kits, and we started braiding hair. We only started with one mannequin, so eight little [sets of] hands inside of one mannequin’s head. But we got it done – we made it work!”

Rutledge recalls feeling her own energy and passion for the art of braid start to maximize immediately.

“They were just so intrigued – you could feel the energy. Children start to teach you. They had so many questions, and I was able to answer them.”

Rutledge says as she built bonds with her students, it confirmed for her that she was on the right track, and she knew “I’m supposed to be doing this… I like doing this.”

Three years later, Rutledge has a space of her own on Ulmerton Road, and she’s become a passionate advocate for young girls. While the salon owner’s experience growing up “rough” between Clearwater and St. Pete has left traces of pain that slip out as she speaks, those childhood memories have also branded her with the desire to be an ear and an example of upward transformation for the girls she instructs.

Her experiences became a powerful incubator for her education project. Separated from her mother at the age of nine, she started getting into trouble.

“For three years, I was without my mother, and I was fighting, acting out. But because I was very, very, intelligent, I was very aware of why I was acting like this — because I wanted help. I wanted someone to hear me. So, I was able to identify my ‘whys’ even at a really, really young age.”

Rutledge notes that missing her mom meant she was carrying that energy to school. Today she encourages educators to take note of what they’re not seeing or aware of when dealing with students.

“It can be something as simple as that, and you’re thinking that this is a problem child, but they’re out here doing certain things because they’re just misunderstood. And there’s a lot of things that they have to get out.”

Once, when she was threatened with a 10-day suspension for fighting, Rutledge challenged the principal to take a closer look at her circumstances.

“I told the principal, you’re suspending me for 10 days, but you’re putting me back into the environment that created the problem, the environment that created these actions. And that was it – that’s how I became a [teacher’s assistant].” The principal agreed not to suspend her but rather keep her in the office.

Rutledge stresses that taking time to listen to the difficult family lives children are dealing with is crucial, and if given a chance, kids will tell adults outside the home what they’re going through. “[It was] because I was able to articulate myself. Let them speak! You don’t know what they’re going through.”

Today, she sees teaching the art of hair braiding as a way for youth to find positive ways to direct their energy and fully takes on her role as mentor and advocate.

“I feel that they need a mirror – children need to be able to talk to you and not only just express themselves, but they need the adult to be transparent with these children,” notes Rutledge.

She patiently and carefully instructs the girls, who range from kindergarten to high school – and in the comfortable atmosphere Rutledge creates, the young braiders are free to be creative and feel secure enough to consult her on their techniques without fear of being ridiculed or embarrassed.


Brave Braids Art Show
April 15 from 5 to 7 pm
The Factory St. Pete, 2622 Fairfield Ave. S.
You can find ticket information here.

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Originally published in The Weekly Challenger


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