It started with one haircut – a small, simple gesture which only took a few minutes – and with this free service, Katie Steller forever impacted a life.
Back in 2013, the hairstylist and salon owner was driving around Minneapolis when an unhoused man caught her eye. Dozens, even hundreds of times, Katie had been idling at stoplights and witnessed men and women standing on the side of the road, with an “anything helps” sign or something similar.
“When you have nothing to give, you feel uncomfortable and don’t want to make eye contact. That discomfort makes you not want to acknowledge the person,” said Katie, owner of Steller Hair Company in Minneapolis. “We focus so much on the basic human needs of food and shelter, that oftentimes we forget about the basic human need of connection.”
She doesn’t often carry change, or a stash of food to share. But she does carry her shears, so she first started by offering a free haircut. “It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from, or where they’re going. At that moment, in front of me, they are a person, and they deserve to be respected and valued,” she said.
“I have these chairs. I have this skill. What if I just drove around…and used what I have to show up for my community?” she said.
Flash-forward to the summer of 2019. With a bright red chair loaded in the back of her car, Katie drove around the Twin Cities, identifying those with signs asking for help. She’d then offer a free cut, either at her salon, or right there on the corner. Not a typical sight on street corners, this caught attention. Suddenly she was offering more cuts. Then other stylists joined in. Within a few months, dozens of stylists started offering similar services. Before she knew it, Katie had unexpectedly started a movement.
Once a video of Katie cutting hair on the corner went viral, CNN called. That’s how we first encountered the Red Chair Project.
“Once the video went out, Cheryl Casey at 21st Century Bank contacted me,” said Katie. “They make sandwiches and hand them out around the neighborhood, and they asked if I ever wanted sandwiches to give out. I said, ‘Absolutely, but do you want to come with me?’”
When driving around the downtown area, Katie and our team member Cheryl talked about the woman who stands out on Washington, right across from our downtown branch. “I’d always ask her if she wanted a haircut,” said Katie. “Her name is Talesha, and we would always talk and laugh together. One time, I was driving by and asked if she wanted a haircut that day, and she actually said ‘yes.’” Out on the corner, cutting Talesha’s hair, “Our whole team was captivated by this act of kindness,” said Cheryl.
“From there, 21st Century Bank helped raise money and donations for this ‘Red Bag’ packing event and showed up with volunteers as well. We packed close to 200 bags,” said Katie, who would hand the bags out to the unhoused when offering cuts. Now this was a project we can get behind.
Here at 21st Century Bank, we work hard to supporting the areas we serve, as part of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Through the CRA, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) requires that banks, like ours that are federally insured, meet credit needs of the entire communities they serve, including low-and moderate-income neighborhoods.
“A community bank is really embedded in the community, and there should be an expectation on a community bank to have a great handle on what their community needs – and be ready to invest back into that,” said Sarah Nelson, Chief Operating Officer and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) at 21st Century Bank. In 2020, we dedicated dozens of volunteer hours and donated about $47, 226 to organizations that align with our CRA initiatives. And as we continue our mission in 2021, that number continues to grow.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, things were really ramping up for Katie and the Red Chair Project. She was in the process of planning a ‘Red Chair Road Trip,’ intending to drive from the Twin Cities to California, giving haircuts and gathering stories from the unhoused populations along the way. When COVID-19 hit, things changed quite a bit.
Instead of creating a docuseries of the road trip, she found herself figuring out how to run a business, her pre-existing hair salon, that’s under mandated closure – and she had to learn how to help her employees navigate unemployment. Katie was also trying to help find ways that salons could reopen safely, participating on a task force with the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology, the Office of Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Mayo Clinic to develop recommendations.
“Time just kind of stood still,” said Katie. “It was actually a pretty low time for me because I was just so passionate about the Red Chair Project.”
As salons stayed closed, Katie started noticing a shift in how stylists and haircuts were viewed. “During the pandemic people started to recognize that a haircut is more than just a haircut,” she said. “Salons are one of the few places you go where you’re expecting to be touched, talked to, and get a human connection. People started really missing that.”
As officials started to get a better understanding of the risks and things started opening back up, Katie went back to giving haircuts to unhoused people again and began listening to their COVID-19 experiences. “I really believe that Red Chair Project is a vessel, an avenue to connect with people in the community, learn more about them, and get firsthand information about where their needs are,” Katie said. “So many people want to give but don’t actually know what’s needed or how to go about doing it.”
Katie wanted to use the Steller Kindness Project to change that. She developed a new mission where she partners with shelters and churches as well as taking her Red Chair Project directly into encampments. “We make assumptions about unhoused people when it really could be any of us,” Katie says. “One of the women I met had a full-time job that she lost due to COVID-19. Then, she found herself unhoused and in an encampment with others in her situation.”
To meet the increased need, Katie brought in more stylists and began bringing in food to the encampments. This led to another important partnership for Steller Kindness Project.
This past year, Katie partnered with Yia Vang, chef at Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai to form Steller Union,” Katie said. Vang offered a “buy a meal, give a meal” program and together, Katie and the chef brought in volunteers twice a month to prepare meals that they’d deliver to encampments.
“We knew that what we were doing wasn’t financially sustainable,” said Katie. “I estimated that we were going to need an additional $250 dollars each time we prepared meals for the encampments.” While she would love to be able to continue funding the project herself, Katie realized that she needed to look at things from a different angle while she worked to obtain funds to support that initiative long-term.
“I knew that people were already giving food donations,” said Katie. “But any perishables were just going bad because there wasn’t ice to keep it stable.” To make existing support more sustainable, she’s looking for ways to collect and deliver water and ice to encampments, tackling not only hygiene and hydration, but also providing a way to keep food donations from spoiling.
“We really need restaurants in the area that are willing to donate ice, donations of water, and volunteers who can deliver it all to the encampments,” Katie said.
When asked why she has such a passion for helping others, Katie said it’s simple: “I believe when you have the ability to give, you have a responsibility to give. You can’t put a sparkly band-aid on the inequities and make them go away, but we can start lifting up the people who are making small, active changes. That inspires others to do it, too.”
And she’s right.
This movement that started out with just Katie and her assistant has made an impact. In 2019, more than 200 volunteers banded together to pack and distribute more than 600 “red bags” to the unhoused population and provide haircuts to nearly 100 people — not counting those haircuts Katie did herself. Even with a global pandemic throwing a big wrench into her plans, the Steller Kindness and Red Chair Projects have provided close to 120 haircuts since things opened back up in June 2020, with the help of 60 volunteers.
Katie’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Her salon has been tapped as one of the top five inspiring salons in America by North American Hairstyling Awards (NAHA), the most prestigious professional beauty competition in North America. Katie and her team will be heading to Las Vegas for the award ceremony in August.
“Even if we don’t win, it’s my hope that this can increase awareness around what we’re doing with the Steller Kindness and Red Chair Projects,” Katie says. “Then, I’m going to do everything I can to leverage that awareness to continue serving the community.”
If you’re interested in volunteering, or giving a tax-deductible donation, you can learn more about the Red Chair Project and get in touch on the Steller Kindness Project website.
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