As we celebrate, engage and Read Where You Are today, you might see tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts already on “newsfeeds” with great photos of reading in barbershops. What you might not know, and I am proud to share, is how this all began – when the Department of Education starting chatting with barbers about how we can use all of our tools, scissors included, to cut the achievement gap. At a meeting earlier this year about the importance of summer literacy, a colleague smartly mentioned a need to engage everyone in the community. Our brainstorming left us with a long list, and a colleague specifically mentioned barbershops knowing the important role they play in communities across our country, and especially in communities of color. I immediately thought of a friend, who also happens to be a barbershop owner from Washington Heights in New York City who has made it his priority to give back to his clients, their families and the larger community. As we often do in meetings, I took my “next steps” and reached out to my friend, excited about what could be in store. My work at ED is rooted in who I am, as a student, mentor, tutor, Posse Scholar and American raised in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Having grown up around beauty salons and barbershops, I know what happens there and what’s been happening since has the potential to make a very big difference. In fact, my mother is a hair stylist and has worked in the field for decades.
On June 29, thanks to some truly remarkable small-business barbershop owners, staff from the Department listened and learned with a group of over twenty barbershop owners from around the country who happened to be in Washington, D.C. for an industry event, a hair battle. Our conversation was about how to understand how barbershops can do more to help the students and kids we all care about, how barbers as individuals could be empowered, and how barbers can make a difference.
The two hour meeting was one of the most powerful meetings in my career. These barbers walked us through all that they are doing both formally and informally on a daily basis to change the lives of young people living in their communities – offering free haircuts for good grades, coaching sports teams, mentoring and employing at-risk and disconnected youth, teaching classes in correctional facilities, hosting holiday parties, etc. They are acutely aware of the powerful and influential role they play in their communities, which are often low-income and communities of color.
Like the ED staff in the room, the barbershop owners were there to learn too. They needed to know key statistics, data points and free resources that they could share with their clients while they had them in their seats to drive home the importance of reading. They wanted to be introduced to the Administration’s Place-based work, and the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force efforts, so they had an idea of the federal infrastructure that existed in their communities already. They wanted to learn from other groups and communities to better understand where they might fit in.
One month later, I am in awe of how quickly an idea, a conversation and a few phone calls have become a truly inspired effort of barbershop owners committed to make a difference. They are joining our #readwhereyouare Day of Action and were some of the first to tweet and Instagram. I have spent most of my career behind the scenes, working on strategic partnerships, working predominately with the corporate and philanthropic sectors. Today, as these barbershop owners create more awareness and helping kids read as you read this blog post, I can say with certainty that what is ahead of us is going to be big and I remain inspired, excited, and eager to see how these men are going to change lives.
Danielle Goonan is a Special Assistant working on strategic partnerships in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education