Barbershop Books spreads new literacy through age-old enclave
The national website of the Barbershop Books organization reports a startlingly distressing statistic: According to the United States Department of Education, says the group, 85 percent of African-American fourth-grade students are not proficient in reading.
Local activist D’Andre Jones read this statistic and, with the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus, was inspired to partner with the national organization to promote literacy among young African-American and Hispanic males in Northwest Arkansas.
“We want to bring this program to the southern part of the country, because there is very little push for programs that promote literacy in this form,” says Jones. “And we know that barbershops are a major conduit of information, historically, in the African American community.”
Barbershop Books, first developed in Harlem, N.Y., is a community-based program that works to create child-friendly reading opportunities in neighborhood barbershops.
“It’s a very effective program,” says Jones. “These young men are falling in love with reading. What happens is that it translates over into school progress. We know that literacy is an integral part of our lives, and this program promotes a lifelong love of reading.”
Jones says that the local program will be aimed at young boys, ages 4 to 8.
“One of the things that the NWA Democratic Black Caucus has consistently done is we have had a commitment to addressing educational inequities,” says Jones. “And since less than 5 percent of children’s books published in 2014 were about people of color, less then 2 percent of the teachers in the United States are black males and because of what has happened in our nation’s history, we thought it was
important to create this opportunity for brown and black young men ages 4 to 8 to benefit the Northwest Arkansas area.”
The local chapter of the organization kicked off the initiative with an event last Saturday at its pilot barber shop — Skillz Unlimited Barber Shop in Springdale, owned by Phil Mason.
“I just think it’s important, especially for the age groups of these kids, to feed their brains and give them an opportunity to read more instead of playing with their gadgets,” says Mason. Mason says that in his nearly 20 years in the business, seeing kids reading has become more and more rare. “I see more kids on their phones and tablets and devices, absolutely. I can count on one hand the kids that I’ve seen with a book.
“I think this will help with the literacy problem in the United States,” continues Mason. “Of course, one kid at a time. What better place than a barbershop, with male role models that the kids can read to?”
Mason says that his barbershop will have a designated reading room with a bookshelf full of books. One barber will have a station in the room, and the participating kids will have the option to read to themselves or out loud, to the barber.
“We’re working with the barbers to make sure that these students have incentives to read,” says Jones.
“An ice cream cone from Sonic, an action figure, points to earn a free haircut … We plan to be innovative with the incentive plan as well.”
Mason says that he
hopes he can help expand the program in the area.
“They’re using me as a pilot, and I’m in touch with a lot of barbers in the area,” he says. “Hopefully, we can get this program in every
barbershop in the Northwest Arkansas area, and then the state. It needs to be in every barbershop in the area, for sure.”
Jones says he is also looking for ways to expand into the Arkansas Delta and suggests that learning labs might be a goal in the near future.
“They would not only get the opportunity to read, but get the opportunity to do homework as well,” he says.
“The Northwest Arkansas community has welcomed this program with open arms,” says Jones. “I’m really excited about it, because we see what’s going on in the rest of the nation and other parts of the country, and for Northwest Arkansas to embrace this opportunity to work towards addressing educational inequities is phenomenal.”
Kedrick Green, 7, of Springdale reacts to the tickle of the clippers as he has his hair cut by Phillip Mason, owner of Skillz Unlimited Barber Shop, in the kids’ reading room in his barber shop in Springdale. The Barbershop Books room features a kid-sized barber chair as well as books and several chairs for sitting and reading.
D’Andre Jones of the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus pauses inside the children’s reading room at Skillz Unlimited Barber Shop in Springdale.