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Black Barbershops Tackle Issues of Literacy


Black Barbershops Tackle Issues of Literacy

The black barbershop is a widely recognized cultural beacon for the African American community. But beyond providing the traditional atmosphere of comradery and even entrepreneurial opportunities, barbershops are beginning to tackle social issues that disproportionately affect black men.  For example, many barbers now are using their shops to improve black men’s healthby checking blood pressure and providing a forum to discuss public health issues such as diabetes.  More recently, barbershops have begun tackling a different issue:  literacy rates among young black boys.


The potential of barbershops to impact cultural change certainly isn’t lost on Alvin Irby, a former teacher in Harlem, New York. Irby’s initiative, Barbershop Books, seeks to provide young boys at barbershops with reading material. The idea was born back in 2008 when Irby noticed one of his first-grade students fidgeting on the couch of a barbershop and wished he could have given the boy a book. The student was reading below grade level, Irby recalled, and he could have benefitted from extra time reading.

National tests show that two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders, and four-fifths of those from low-income families, are not reading proficiently.  Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a milestone on a child’s path to high school graduation and later success because it marks the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  Students who have not mastered reading by that time are more likely to drop out of school and struggle throughout their lives.

By incorporating books into locations so deeply-rooted in black identity, Irby feels young boys will begin associating the books and reading with their identity. And thanks to $11,000 raised through an online fundraiser and an additional $10,000 from investors, Irby has been able to stock six New York barbershops with books.

Barbers’ efforts to address issues of literacy extend beyond New York. Courtney Holmes, a barber in Dubuque, Iowa, recently participated in the town’s annual Back to School Bash, providing children with free haircuts in exchange for a story read aloud. Holmes was joined by Caitlin Daniels, a grade-level reading coordinator from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.  And in Kansas City, the Turn The Page KC initiative has helped place books in 13 barbershops as part of a campaign to encourage fathers to read to their children.

For more information on this approach to improving literacy, check out the website Barbershop Books.