In the latest installment in the popular Barbershop series of films, the crew at Calvin’s barbershop on the South Side of Chicago find themselves thrust into a fight they didn’t want but needed to wage: namely, to rescue their neighborhood from decline.
When nearly 50 barbers saw the movie recently in Philadelphia, they not only saw themselves in it but also got a shout-out from the film’s director, Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who attended the screening.
That’s because the barbers will soon be engaged in a fight of their own: reconnecting their customers to civic life and, ultimately, to the voting booth. They are being trained for the task through the Sharp Insight program (fueled by a Knight News Challenge grant). The initiative, which kicked off in full force last year, is informed by the Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program. For years, YOACAP has sent volunteers to barbershops in Philadelphia’s African-American neighborhoods to distribute voter information and register voters.
“We found barbershops and hair salons to be good places to engage people because there were always men and women inside the shops that we could engage with, and they were there for a while,” says YOACAP Executive Director Woody Beale. “Since we had a history of this in the past we figured, why not build on what we have already?”
But rather than having outsiders parachute in to do the engaging, Sharp Insight is training the barbers to be the engagers.
“We’re taking it a step further,” Beale says. “We figure this will work better because the barbers will always be there.”
Besides, he adds, “they’re already doing social service work anyway, doing things like give free haircuts to kids with good grades or holding community discussions in the barbershop. This lets them do it with our support, making it more intentional and more structured.”
And more effective at reaching a group of people who have become detached from the whole political process. “We know black men don’t vote as much as white men, and they don’t vote as much as black women either,” Beale says. “We’re working this way” — through the barbers — “because they often have distrust of elected officials and the system.” (Some of that distrust may come from their disproportionate involvement with the criminal justice system, which also throws roadblocks into their path back to civic engagement: Sharp Insight’s Knight News Challenge grant application noted that research conducted in 2013 showed that 13 percent of all African-American men are unable to vote because of their past criminal records. Pennsylvania allows convicted felons to vote once they have been released from prison.)
The materials that the barbers will distribute to customers about civic engagement will be shaped by both what the barbers and the customers themselves say are the most important matters. “The barbers have given us a bunch of ideas about what their customers need,” says Beale. For instance, “they say they need jobs. We say they can learn about them by attending community meetings, connecting with elected officials, et cetera.
“We define civic engagement as small groups of people who are looking at issues of change in their neighborhoods. That may mean partnering with elected officials, meeting with elected officials or volunteering. This, we hope, will give more black men a voice, and once they find that they have a voice, they will go out to the polls and vote more.”
Sharp Insight outreach teams will drop in each month to back up the barbers with support and materials. “We will also produce marketing cards that will be handed out each month,” Beale says. “We’re collecting information from the men themselves about why they don’t vote from surveys in the shops. The information we collect will determine what goes into the marketing cards” and give the barbers a sense of how they are doing.
The effort goes well beyond this year’s headline-making elections. One of the things Sharp Insight aims to accomplish with this form of storefront social service is to replace misinformation with accurate information about civic life and politics. “It’s about connecting to the community, talking to elected officials and getting involved,” Beale says. “The more you’re involved with the community, the more you have the opportunity to better yourself and your community.”
Sharp Insight aims to train 60 to 70 Philly barbers to serve as civic engagement agents for their customers. The barbers are being trained to discuss the importance of civic participation with their customers and distribute nonpartisan materials concerning elections and voting. The educational and promotional materials will be rolled out starting in May, which will give the barbers six months to work on their patrons through the program as they cut their hair. And as they do, the Sharp Insight team will be keeping track of how those patrons are being reinserted into their communities and the electoral process as the November general election approaches.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.