More Than a Haircut: Barbershops Are Hubs for Social Change

Governments and nonprofits are increasingly looking to neighborhood barbers and hairdressers to help with problems at home and narrow gaps in education and health care.
by | January 13, 2017
(AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Earlier this month, Illinois enacted a first-of-its-kind law that forces all beauty professionals -- including barbers, hairstylists and nail technicians -- to take domestic violence training.

As of Jan. 1, beauty professionals must participate in an hour of instruction on how to recognize and respond to signs of domestic violence among their clients. The training is included in the 14-hour continuing education that all licensed beauty professionals have to complete every two years.

“The bill costs no money to the state and is not putting more of a burden on these professionals,” said Fran Hurley, an Illinois state representative who co-sponsored the legislation.

Why hairdressers?

“They’re a pretty nurturing group," said Kristie Paskvan, founder of Chicago Says No More, a domestic violence nonprofit that helped craft the Illinois bill. "After all, their job is to make sure that you look good and are happy. And many people see them more than they see their own doctor."

Rep. Hurley added that in her local beauty parlor, the bathroom has pamphlets that offer help dealing with domestic violence, and the owner is "always surprised by how many times she has to refill the stack."

Learning about someone's domestic struggles can leave confidants feeling helpless. That's where the training comes in.

“It’s about letting them know someone cares about them and [giving] them resources to empower themselves,” said Paskvan.

Illinois' bill reflects a larger national trend of salons and barbershops being used as hubs for social change.

In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu enlisted beauty professionals' help signing people up for health care last year. The city coached and encouraged hairstylists to talk to customers about the benefits of getting insured and to give them resources for enrollment assistance -- all while they got their hair cut. Twenty-three places participated, and the winner received a visit from the mayor.

About 700 miles north of New Orleans, a similar thing was happening in St. Louis. There, “navigators” -- people who help others sign up for insurance on HealthCare.gov -- did outreach at beauty parlors and barbershops.

And then there’s Barbershop Books, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the literacy of young African-American boys. The organization stocks barbershops in low-income, primarily black neighborhoods with crates of children’s books -- many of which have black characters. While kids wait for their cut, or watch their parents get one, barbers coax them into reading. Since launching in Harlem and Brooklyn, the program has expanded to nine other states.

In order to really reach black boys, founder Alvin Irby said the local barbershop made the most sense.

“Barbershops are an important part of the black community and the black culture," Irby told Governing in 2015. "In these communities, you pretty much use the same barbers, so over the years, barbers really become like a member of the family."