Meeting people where they are: Jessica Scortt (MSW '21) launches the Self-i.s.h. Society

May 21, 2022

Next week, Jessica Scortt will open the doors of the Self-i.s.h. Society, a nonprofit that will operate as both a hair salon and resource hub in Oakland.

Her business description explains, "We believe that there is power in the comfort and communication that takes place in the hair salon. It is our goal to leverage that culture to normalize self-care from the inside out. By offering low-no cost services, we have the opportunity to break down barriers that historically divide people, and promote confidence and community. Our organization is rooted on the principle that Identity, Support, and Hope are essential to wholeness. You can't have 'Self' without the 'i.s.h.' Our business structure and services are designed to cultivate these three areas."

We spoke with her about her vision, the path that led her to this new project, and the power of building trust with clients and communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What set you on this path?

I have had a passion for social work for such a long time. I started my first job in the field when I was 15. My first job was acquired by Youth UpRising in East Oakland, so I have been doing this work my whole professional life and I have been so privileged to be a part of these amazing programs.

I also started doing hair young, and it was odd trying to figure out why I was talented in such different areas. For a long time, they seemed completely separate. But they always say that hair stylists are therapists, and once I got my bachelor's degree in social work from San Francisco State, I actually was equipped to connect people to resources. Things just happened organically. I have connected people for workshops, I've gotten people legal representation, housing, furniture... just everything, right here in my living room. And I realized that this is where my skills align, and that's where I got the vision for what we're launching now.

I'll be partnering with my friend Dan'iel, who I've been aligned with since Youth UpRising. We're both in the social work realm, and over the past 17 years we've both seen that these are some of the most crucial areas that the community can use support in.

I went back to school to get my masters so I could figure out how to get this off the ground, because it's not a traditional approach and there isn't really a business model for it. I opened my in-home salon behind me about seven years ago now, but being a business owner is nothing like opening a nonprofit. It has definitely been a learning process.

What brought you to UC Berkeley?

I heard about the accelerated [FlexMSW] program at Berkeley. And I have an amazing support system that reminded me, "you didn't think you were going to get your BA and you did it. You didn't think you were gonna get your cosmetology license and you did it. And you're running this business. You did all of these things, and you're doing so well." And I thought, "maybe I can do this, maybe this isn't just a dream."

To be completely transparent, I applied to Berkeley for my undergrad and I was rejected. And I took it to heart, I was very sad. So I told myself, if you get in this time, it's on. It means this is the time, this is not just a dream, like, we can do this. I got in, and now I'm committed to bringing this to fruition.

How do you see the relationship-building and trust-building aspects of hairstyling as an asset in connecting people to services?
Honestly, they're endless. For instance, I had a meeting with Roots Health Clinic recently, and they were talking about sensitive information that's hard to get from clients, like asking them about their insurance or their finances. And I'm like, "we talk about that, while they're getting their hair done." People open up so much. I have clients whose hair I have been doing since I was 17 years old. These connections are amazing; people consider us like family. I was born and raised in Oakland, as well. I'm part of the community. And I feel like that gets recognized a lot of the times when I'm encountering people.

The salon is a place that has been a community staple. It's a place of non-judgment, it's a place where you get up out of the chair feeling good about yourself. If you were feeling bad about yourself, you might not feel comfortable opening up to different things, but feeling good takes away some aspects of that vulnerability. It promotes confidence on so many levels; it allows room for different questions to be asked, different services, and different perspectives.

Tell us about the space you plan to open.

We're in the process of leasing a building in Oakland right off of Seminary and Foothill, which is a little bit of a rough area. The city helped acquire the property and develop it in 2018, It's a small plaza with a Walgreens, a coffee shop, a Metro PCS, a health center, and a restaurant. The owner has been working with the district city council person and they have very similar missions and commitments.

It used to be an eye exam place, so there's a showroom in the front, and then a waiting room and exam rooms. We'll use the storefront as the salon, in the back we'll have our case management, and the exam rooms are going to be our therapy offices. We will also add a wall to create a space for youth mentoring.

What other services do you plan to offer?

We will also have weekend workshops. The salon will be closed on Sundays, so we're going to open our doors to local entrepreneurs and community activities. We have a few people already signed up for financial literacy workshops, yoga class, healing circles, and we have somebody coming in teaching hair coloring. We're giving the community a space to come in and showcase what they're doing. And I'm really looking forward to the confidence that that's going to build in them and the relationships that it's going to build between community members, and it will help us build our own relationships with the community.

Who will you be partnering with?

Our goal is to host satellite offices for existing organizations, because we really wanted to find a way to support the community and there are some amazing organizations already doing things. If we can house those organizations and work with them, and steer our clients their way, then it's a win-win situation.

We have partnered with Sistaaz Heal Network, and local Berkeley Church, Our City Center. We are working on collaborations with Urban Peace Movement, Roots, Movement Strategy Council, Trinity Counseling Center, and more.

When do you plan to open?

Very soon! We have our grand opening planned for Memorial Day weekend. It's May 28 and 29 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Headshot of Jessica Scortt
Selfi.s.h. Society Grand Opening flyer: May 28-29, 1-4 pm, 5859 FoothillBlved #3 Oakland