Barbershop at the Library
In Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood, one program is offering young people a better path amid the violence and it all starts with a haircut.
“I’ve never seen so many acts of violence and it being so normal in my life,” Isaiah Brewer, 20, says as he sits in a circle of his peers in the city’s West Englewood Library. “We act like its cool, we act like it don’t matter,” he says. “We are betting on how many people get shot. We hear gunshots and we still keep cooking!”
Behind the group, hair clippers are buzzing and two barbers are busy at work. Barbershop at the Library offers teens and young adults a free haircut and a space to share their often difficult lives. Once a month, Isaiah and a handful of others discuss the challenges of growing up in one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods.
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“Even fast money ain’t easy because you can risk your life,” a young woman in the circle says remarking on the challenges of daily life. “Either you’re in jail or you dead,” she says. “That is the last two things you want.”
“Barbershop at the library is by far the greatest idea they have ever come up with at the library…"–Isaiah Brewer
Another younger person speaks up as the group switches topics to their goals. “My motivation is you know, choose another path to go down. Do what’s right," he says. "I would hate for my Mama to lose another child.”
“How does violence affect you all personally?” Adewole Abioye, the teen services representative, asks the group. Abioye started Barbershop at the Library in 2015 with a mission in mind as part a On The Table conversation, an initiative of The Chicago Community Trust.
“Kids were talking in a very honest open way and a lot of them had a lot to say and we realized wow this is really important, how this would look if we did this on a monthly basis,” he explains.
On The Table events aim to start conversations among Chicagoans from all backgrounds. The demand in Englewood was so strong that the barbershop talks were expanded.
“There is a lot of trauma that a lot of people deal with on a daily basis, whether its physical violence, whether its psychological violence, it’s happening,” he says. “That burden is weighing on them so how can we get them talk about these things in a very honest and open way?”
That is where Kenneth Clayton, who owns Longevity Barber Lounge, and fellow barber Darius Smith, known as “Red”—joined the partnership.
They brought their shears and a strategy to transform perceptions of the neighborhood.
“All over the United States you have urban communities like Englewood that have a negative stigma,” Clayton says. “The gangbanging, drug selling, the shooting. I just basically want to change that.”
Clayton says those changes can start in small ways, such as giving kids a fresh cut, helping to build their self-esteem. He insists on shirts and ties for his barbers and no displays of gang symbols or colors are allowed and says he hopes other will follow his lead in the city’s most difficult neighborhoods.
“Whoever you are, you have to be able to give back finances, labor, knowledge and wisdom,” he says. “Now if every individual did that, watch how this community change.”
The bonds between the barbers and these young people are getting stronger. Each haircut offers a chance to connect with adults who care enough to listen.
“A lot of them want to be heard and they want to know that their voice matters and I think we have created an environment where teens can come and literally say anything,” Abioye says. “Hopefully that will lead to something even greater.”