The fish tank gurgles and arcade games flicker as Norah Ibekwe begins to squirm in her seat.
“Do you want juice and some cookies or something?” stylist Hepsiba Barar asks the girl, who is almost 2 years old.
Two chairs over, Sonja Corbin, owner of SC4Kids salon in East Austin, chuckles knowingly.
“Toddler rules. The youngest person rules the shop while they’re here,” Corbin says. “That’s kind of how it works. The teens (see the little ones fussing) and are like, ‘Ms. Sonja, oh my gosh.’ But you were once little, crying, getting your hair done, too.”
Norah eventually settles in for an episode of “Doc McStuffins” on the salon’s TV as Corbin, who has been nicknamed the “hair pediatrician,” begins detangling the long, curly tresses of her new client, Lillian Walker, 10.
Within the first few minutes of meeting, Corbin asks Lillian a question that’s the cornerstone of everything she’s built: “What do you like about your hair?”
Corbin, 37, has dedicated her career to helping kids, particularly African American and biracial girls, embrace and love their hair. In 2017, after almost a decade of working in salons in Round Rock, Pflugerville and North Austin, she opened SC4Kids. It’s a salon dedicated exclusively to children, as evidenced by the stuffed animal bin that hangs on the wall and books with titles like “I Love My Hair!” that adorn the shelves.
Corbin hopes to teach her clients that their natural hair should be embraced and valued, not changed. It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed in recent months by cities and states that have moved to protect people who choose to wear their hair in natural styles. Earlier this year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued new guidelines banning discrimination on the basis of hair at work or school; last month, California enacted a law prohibiting racial discrimination against people based on their natural hairstyle.
Corbin says she drew on her own childhood experiences as she worked to build her salon.
“I didn’t like getting my hair done as a kid, and when I did go to the salon, my first experience I didn’t say a word. I just sat there, and I cried after I left because I wanted to go so bad, and I just got there and didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say,” says Corbin, who moved to Texas in middle school because her parents were stationed at Fort Hood. “Then I was working at a salon where no one wanted to do the kids. When you’re the new stylist, everyone gives you the kids. My mom would say, ‘Maybe you’re just good at the kids.’ And I said, ‘Maybe I am.’”
Corbin makes a point to hire young people for her staff, frequently college students, who can bond with and mentor her clients. She says the salon is meant as a safe space where kids can be themselves and vent about anything, from the STAAR test to problems at home.
“If there’s something inappropriate said or something happens at the shop, I never shame them,” Corbin says. “I might send an email to the parent, but I never shame them. And I never talk over them, because I hated that as a kid, too. When you’re a kiddo, you feel like you don’t have a voice.”
Lailah Cruz, 9, has been seeing “Ms. Sonja” for as long as she can remember. She said her favorite thing about visiting the salon is that “it’s amazing.”
“I first came when I was like 4 or 3 and I cried,” Lailah says. “But I liked afterwards when my hair looked pretty. I just felt pretty.”
Lailah’s mom, Shanta Cruz, met Corbin when she was working at a salon in Pflugerville, where Cruz lives. Now, Cruz drives into Austin each month so that Lailah and her brother, Noah, 13, can go to the salon.
“There are so many times when they go into a beauty salon or a barbershop and they can’t be themselves. They can’t use their devices. They can’t cry if they’re uncomfortable. They’re not made to feel comfortable,” Cruz says. “Here, they can sit down and play games or read books. My kids are regulars.”
» RELATED: ‘The opportunity of a lifetime’: Once-homeless UT student is back in class nearly 50 years later
Corbin tells a story of reconnecting with one of her clients who hadn’t visited recently over pizza in the salon.
“I hadn’t seen her in a while, and we missed each other. She explained that her mom is trying to save up some money. I said, ‘It’s OK! Your hair looks great!’” she says. “We just had a little afternoon together. This is a place they can come and process how they’re feeling. You catch those intimate moments with them.”
On a recent morning in the salon, Corbin worked on her client Lillian’s hair while also educating Lillian’s mom, Willow Walker, about the importance of clarifying shampoo.
“I never knew the whole clarifying thing,” Walker says. “How did I not know this?”
Walker, who is white and whose husband is black, said that she appreciates the salon’s location within the Street-Jones Building on East 11th Street, part of the city’s African American Cultural Heritage District, which comprises 6 square miles of East Austin.
“I think it’s great where it’s located, because it’s close to the roots of the city,” Walker says.
Corbin says her dream to open this salon, which is a block away from Franklin Barbecue, became a reality in large part thanks to the Austin Revitalization Authority, which was looking to fill a space vacated by longtime salon owner Augustine Williams after she retired. The authority was established to encourage commercial, residential and cultural development that “promotes community well-being while respecting the people, institutions and history of East Austin and other underserved communities.”
Listen to tunes and the latest news and entertainment on Austin360 Radio:
Because one of the authority’s goals is to bring small businesses back to East Austin, it made sense to “pass the baton” to Corbin, says Greg Smith, president and CEO of the authority.
“We try to help businesses grow. There have been times we helped businesses that didn’t grow, and we had to cut those off. We needed to use our resources to help someone else,” Smith says. “Taking those resources and helping someone like Sonja, it worked. That’s why we’re here.”
After Williams retired, the authority held an appreciation dinner for her, at which Corbin recalls sitting with her and holding her hand. Williams died last year, and Corbin has been searching for an old photo of her working in her salon to hang on the wall of SC4Kids.
Understanding the East Austin community and the stylists who paved the way is important to Corbin, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the current and former members of the area salon scene, rattling off names of women like Ella Mae Pease, who ran House of Elegance on Navasota Street, and Minnie Mann of Minnie’s Beauty Salon. Her biggest influence has been Glover Harris, another longtime Austin stylist who is now, at 94, Corbin’s mentor.
“She told me, ‘A great hairstylist knows great hairstylists,’ so I had to know a lot of hairstylists in town if I was going to be great,” Corbin says. “I started doing my homework and learning everybody.”
Harris also inadvertently led Corbin to her husband. Harris suggested Corbin make extra money doing hair and makeup at a local mortuary, and Corbin reluctantly obliged.
“The first time I did it, she came with me,” Corbin says. “I was scared.”
At King-Tears Mortuary, Corbin met Stuart King, whom she married last year.
“It was wild, but it works,” she says. “His services are on Saturdays, and Saturdays are my busiest days. He wears black, and I wear black. He helps you with your last look, and I help you with your first look.”
» RELATED: Back to school: New book ‘Girl Activist’ features Austin woman
Corbin says because her job involves taking on a lot of other people’s energy, she frequently “checks her temperature” to make sure she’s giving her clients 100 percent.
“You need to wash your hands after each client. It’s like washing away energy and starting anew,” Corbin says. “You can’t come in here having a bad day, because they don’t care. They don’t want to see that. It’s not fair to them.”
Corbin estimates that the shop serves about 40 kids a week. Business has been so good that Corbin, with help of the Austin Revitalization Authority, plans to expand within the building by the end of the year. She dreams of offering birthday parties and spa days and parent nights out in the expanded space. She’d also love to eventually franchise her concept.
In addition, she’d like to build a broader clientele, saying she welcomes children of all races, genders and backgrounds and loves the potential for kids to learn about each other as they sit together in the salon. There will never be anything more gratifying, Corbin says, than showing kids how to love themselves through their hair.
“When they come in here terrified of hair and don’t like their hair and two or three months later they love their hair, and they come in owning it and they walk in and their confidence level is off the roof, it makes me so happy,” Corbin says. “That’s what I love — seeing them transform into confident little ladies, owning who they are. No hair added, no color added, just loving who they are.”