Have you ever seen a social media post made by people you don’t know but you wish you did?
That’s how I felt when this brightly colored advert interrupted my daily mindless Facebook scroll.
Bomb, isn’t it? Upon further Facebook stalking, I discovered that the goal of the Organic Kombustion Music and Food Festival is to “[expose] a demographic with limited access to healthy lifestyle options from people who are a reflection of them.”
As someone who is (slowly) learning how to take ownership and care of her own body, I had to know the story behind the festival and get into the mind overseeing the event. A little digging led me to Kim Willis, whose inbox I promptly slid into and asked to interview. Thankfully, she agreed. On a Sunday afternoon, I found myself headed to her full-service salon in Montgomery, Kimistry Hair Lab.
Kim was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, where she attended city magnet schools until she transferred to Jefferson Davis in her junior year of high school. For her, growing up in the South was slow, but always peaceful. Her personality seems to reflect that peace. When I ask her who she has come to define as her people, she responds, “My people are the quote-unquote millennials, young professionals, and young black women.”
Kim’s occupational identity challenges everything I heard as a child about what could and couldn’t be done as livelihood. “I am a master cosmetologist, and what some would say, a professional creative. I create experiences and conscious events.” The idea of committing your life to creative pursuits is daunting, but here I am, sitting with a woman who eschewed all perceptions of what young adults should do to pursue what her inner self calls her to do.
“My people are the quote-unquote millennials, young professionals, and young black women.”
A love for connecting with people and a need to be hands-on brought Kim to her current work. She remembers herself as a child who craved tactile experiences so much that she would fidget with objects until she broke them. She knew then that she would have to do something with her hands as an adult.
“I knew I would do something creative, because I need an outlet, I need to get that out my system. It’s therapeutic.”
After her schooling in Montgomery, Kim moved to Atlanta to attend Paul Mitchell’s school, where she gained an appreciation for diverse workspaces and welcoming atmospheres. The experience she had there made her want to bring the same “come as you are” sensibility to the cosmetology world in Montgomery.
“I wanted to create a space where people could come in and if you want purple hair, no one’s gonna look at you like, ‘Girl, what?’ No, you can pretty much come in here and get what you need. That was my focus. That’s why we say “the lab,” because you get your formula here. It’s just for you. When you change a woman’s hair, you can change her life, how she feels about herself. That was dope to me.”
"I wanted to create a space where people could come in and if you want purple hair, no one’s gonna look at you like, ‘Girl, what?’ No, you can pretty much come in here and get what you need. That’s why we say “the lab,” because you get your formula here."
Kim’s ownership of her salon makes her a part of the fastest growing demographic of small business owners: black women. In a world where young black girls are threatened with suspension for wearing braids, being in Kim’s space is a welcome and affirming relief. The walls are covered with commissioned art by black artists in the Montgomery area like Erika Emortal and Sydney Foster. The floors, walls, and ceilings of the salon were painted by Kim herself. For us, by us.
“Growing up and going to the hair salons here, I never got the chance to see anything that was creative. There were always really talented hair stylists, but the environment was cookie cutter. I didn’t want that. I wanted something different, but I also understood that not everyone would feel it or understand it. I was okay with that, too, because it wasn’t for them.”
Kim sees her work in the areas of cosmetology and healthy living not as two separate entities, but parts of a larger theme of promoting holistic wellness to marginalized communities. In a period of time where black people are underserved in health care systems, more likely to live in food deserts, routinely exposed to traumatic experiences or images related to race, Kim’s work to spread knowledge about healthy living is more important than ever.
“I’m mostly concerned about health and awareness, and making things tangible for the demographic of people who don’t have that. There’s a large percentage of black people, especially in lower socioeconomic statuses, who don’t have access. Whether it’s beauty products, food, or your attitude about your day, if you’re in a community where you don’t see those things in front of you, then you’re not aware it’s even tangible to you.”
Kim feels that the smaller workshops and pop-up art shows she’s done in the past have prepared her to organize and execute the Organic Kombustion Festival on July 15 of this year. When she tells me what she has lined up, I believe it. For months, Kim has been recruiting vendors and performers in her network of young creatives. Fitness gurus, local eateries, artists, handmade soap makers, and natural juicers will all be out on the farm, sharing their knowledge and wares with the public. Local DJs and rappers will provide entertainment during the festival. The benefits of the festival go further than just the day of the event. All of the festival proceeds will go to Choose One or Lose One, a Montgomery organization headed by Rashad Provitt, which serves youth through mentoring in the West Montgomery area.
The festival will be held on Eat South Farm in downtown Montgomery on July 15, 2017, from 2-7PM.
"Whether it’s beauty products, food, or your attitude about your day, if you’re in a community where you don’t see those things in front of you, then you’re not aware it’s even tangible to you.”
From speaking with Kim, I learn very quickly that the schedule of someone who runs their own business is jam packed with responsibility. I ask Kim how she takes care of herself through all her work.
“I’m that kooky little crystal lady,” she laughs. “I meditate, smudge, and play with my crystals. I know when I need to decompress. I take time for myself, I slow down, and I don’t apologize for it. I have an addictive personality, so I try to obsess over healthy things.”
To Kim, being Southern is something she is proud of.
“It’s my accent, my soul. It’s overcoming segregation. It’s my family. It’s our rich heritage.”
We ended our conversation by discussing our greatest hopes for the region.
“I’ve been conflicted with this in recent months. My biggest hope is that people continue to evolve in love, acceptance, and understanding. I want people to be more conscious of how we take care of each other and ourselves. We need each other.”
"I want people to be more conscious of how we take care of each other and ourselves. We need each other.”
I have a million hopes for the South and the people who make their lives here. But in this moment, Kim Willis gives me hope.
To find out more about the Organic Kombustion festival and purchase tickets to attend, visit this page: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/organic-kombustion-tickets-33496342462