| REAL LIFE: IDA NELSON |

Ida’s Crusade

FIRST PRINTED IN THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2021 ISSUE

Abandoned as a baby by her parents and raised by grandparents and other family, Ida Nelson says she grew up feeling like few ever fought for her, yet always wishing someone had. When her grandmother died in 2013, Nelson, by then a mom herself, found herself reflecting on her own life.

“When I die, I want the world to be a different and better place because I existed in it,” she says. She decided to start with her own kids, teaching them “the world is not just about them, it’s about what you can do for others and make the world a better place.”

A deeply spiritual woman of five kids, including a 13-year-old bonus baby she took in to love last year, Nelson first got her feet wet in advocacy when Ashton, now 17, was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s. She threw herself into a fight for him “when school tried its best to label him everything but the genius that he is,” then became a liaison for other parents who couldn’t find their voices.

The pride in her crew is evident as she describes them: Kamaria Crowley, 22, who is about to become a civil and environmental engineer; Ashton Hawkins, a genius; London Goins, 13, who finished top of the class her first year in private school; Ava Hawkins, 11, her doppelganger who taught herself to read at 4; and Gus “Jett” Hawkins, future lobbyist and change maker. “He’s been fighting for what he wanted since he was born,” she says about Jett.

Nelson most recently became the face of a movement she hopes she can spread nationwide once her work in Illinois is done: prohibiting schools from issuing policies on hairstyles historically associated with race or ethnicity.

In Illinois, the new law that sprung from her crusade goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022, Senate Bill 817 — or better known as the Jett Hawkins Law. The crusade began when Jett, 4, was told by his school that his braids violated school dress code. 

“Our childhood is the segway into who we are going to be as people. I don’t take my job lightly at all, which is why I sprang into action when I perceived there to be a threat to my child’s ability to embrace himself culturally. I understood the threat to his mental health to be told at such a young age there was something about him that was unacceptable,” she says.

She says she channeled the energy of her role model, activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, to help her, making calls to shed light on the wrong. “I overstand the issues that come along with teaching children self-hatred because that’s what it is, self-hatred.”

She wants children to learn early what she learned late, that they are enough just as they are.

Now she is working with the Illinois State Board of Education to examine all school policies that might have discriminatory undertones. It’s time, she says, “to stop passing down biases and stop handing down trauma. We’re just trying to be, trying to be happy, trying to be loved, we’re trying to be accepted. All of us.”

Nelson would also like to see more education about Black culture in schools. She found herself learning a lot about the history of Black hair through her efforts this year. “For us, this is not just about hair. This is about our culture,” she says. “Blackness is not the enemy. Teaching people to embrace themselves and their culture only means good things for the rest of us.”

And, she hopes, more compassion and understanding for each other.

For other parents, she offers this advice: 

“Don’t take lightly the matters of your children’s hearts. Be an advocate for your children, listen to them, understand that things we might think are not a big deal are the biggest deal to children. Don’t suffer from adultism. Remember what it was like to be a child and what it felt like to be voiceless and understand you are the voice for your children. If you don’t know how to use your voice, reach out to someone who may be able to help you elevate and escalate your voices.”

FAST TALK

MOST HATED HOUSEHOLD CHORE:

“Dishes.”

GUILTY PLEASURE:

“Pepsi.”

Favorite dish to make the kids:

Shepherd’s pie or
shrimp tacos.

What does your favorite ice cream flavor say about you?

“That I am unique and unexpected.” (It’s Strawberry Sublime, the strawberry, cilantro, lime hemp-infused vegan and dairy-free treat she creates at her business, Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats.)

What is one thing that would surprise people about you?

I am actually very introverted and I have stage fright.

Why start an ice cream business:

“No one is unhappy with ice cream,” she says. It is how she and her children would bond even when they didn’t have money to do anything else. Then last year, as Chicago saw riots and suffered through the pandemic lockdown, she asked what could be her contribution. “The world is in chaos. What can I do to make it better? Ice cream was that first thought. Hey, I can bring happiness into the world by making delicious ice cream,” she says. Through her business, Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats, she donates to Black community organizations and dreams of building an ice cream shop where she grew up in North Lawndale where she grew up. She wants to hire teen moms, dislocated youth and senior citizens. She sees it as a way to empower people to build something for themselves, their families and their communities. “I really want to be a walking talking billboard for, we are all we need.”

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