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Obama Inaugural is a big moment for Estrella, too

Estrella Seals is getting ready for her big day at Barack Obama's inauguration.
Courtesy of WE WIN Institute, Inc.
Estrella Seals is getting ready for her big day at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

A different kind of Obama moment played out in a trendy beauty salon on St. Paul’s bustling University Avenue today.

An 11-year-old beauty named Estrella Seals walked into the Blessings Salon, a shy smile on her face, her dark, curly hair nearly bursting from its rubber bands.

She’d never been in a salon before, and in a way, she wanted to be back in familiar surroundings at Cherokee Heights Elementary on St. Paul’s West Side, where she’d be helping a best friend celebrate her birthday.

Only — you could see it in her eyes — this was special, too. 

African masks decorated the walls, gospel music slow-cooked in the background, and black women sat in salon chairs having their hair done and chattering about and congratulating … HER. 

What’s that about?
Estrella’s essay wins her trip to Inaugural
An essay Estrella wrote won the sixth-grader a trip to D.C. to see Barack Obama become the nation’s 44th president, a man who also happens to an African-American, like her. (“Mostly,” she says — not excluding mention of her Mexican, American Indian, German and Scotch-Irish heritage.)

The salon buzzed, with people looking her way and offering their best wishes.

“Congratulations, honey. Your mom must be proud,” salon manager Alana Carrington greeted her, offering a big hug, then whispering:  “Remember to pray thanks to God for this opportunity.”

“It’s great! This is a big thing,” smiled Rome Harris, a master barber working at the salon.

“Congratulations!” a client said.

Estrella (pronounced es-tray-ah)  marked  the occasion of going to D.C. by getting her first salon pampering:  a trim and a moisturizing treatment. Plus, she had her hair flat-ironed, which both she and I found fascinating. (It’s like a curling iron, only flat.) 

What better time for a coming-of-age moment?

“I want you to feel like a little princess,” said hair stylist Torih Gilespie, shampooing and massaging the girl’s scalp. Oooh, and maybe just a little makeup, too, Gilespie said, learning that Estrella was heading off to an afternoon TV interview. 

Estrella and Robbinsdale Cooper High School junior Jaleice Johnson fly to the Capitol Saturday, both first-prize winners of We Win Institute’s Black Excellence Contest. The contest was the idea of Titilayo “Titi” Bediako, executive director of We Win, a Minneapolis nonprofit founded to help children achieve academic and life success. About 140 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade used art or words to tell what black excellence meant to them.

Parents’ pride shines through
Her mom, Romee Seals, says she shed tears of happiness when she heard Estrella had won, admitting to “glossy eyes” even now when she talks about her daughter’s good fortune. Estrella’s father, Samuel Seals, is thrilled for her as well.

“This is a really, really good time for her to have something great happen to her. Sixth grade is an awkward time for girls. And she did it all herself,” Mom said. Seals said her daughter was overwhelmed by congratulations earlier in the week at a We Win Institute event honoring contest winners.

Her daughter told her: “I didn’t know people cared that much. It’s like I was somebody.” 

Times are hard economically for the family, with seven children and Romee Seals, out of a job. She’s worked in accounts payable positions in the past.

But teachers at school sent bags of clothing, and family members contributed $130 to pay for the salon treat, new wool socks and warm gloves, toiletries and maybe a clearance-priced fancy dress to wear to a junior inauguration ball. A cousin lent a suitcase with wheels.

Flight, accommodations and food are free, with Bediako accompanying both children, paid for by community donations and the institute.

“I’ve only went to Iowa and Wisconsin before,” Estrella said, admitting to a little timidity at flying.

She and Jaleice hope to read their essays to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison. (Ellison’s office provided inauguration tickets.)

What she’ll tell them, Estrella said, is something like this: “Black people should think about their future, instead of all the bad stuff and help each other out.”

I wanted to know: Did she think Obama could help with that?

“Yeah, I do,” she said, “because he’s like a really great example for our people, and he will change the world.”

Jaleice, who hopes to attend college at Stanford or the University of Southern California, says she’ll talk about the importance of “using your abilities the best you can to help your community.”

At the salon, stylist Gilespie finished using a hot electric iron to smooth the curl from Estrella’s hair. Makeup artist June Phillips dabbed foundation makeup on Estrella’s perfect oval face, brushed on plum eye shadow and metallic sprinkles.

“You’re gorgeous,” her mother said.  Estrella only smiled shyly.

But there is a final act. Salon members have passed the hat. They give her a T-shirt sporting a smiling Obama. They handed her a greeting card, penned with congratulations. Tucked inside are $40 cash and a word of comfort:  “Amen.”

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