The swirling barbershop pole is an iconic staple in many African-American neighborhoods, and for Alvin Irby it perfectly symbolized a community gathering place to empower young black men. For Irby, it was the perfect place to create an impromptu library and encourage reading among kids.
“Barbershops are one of the only male-centered environments in many black communities, said Irby, a former elementary charter school teacher. “Right now there are less than 2 percent of teachers are African-American men. So we have a situation where millions of young black boys never see a black male engaging in reading at school. Then unfortunately a majority of black boys are raised by single parent mothers and so they get home and there’s no black males who are reading or encouraging them to read.”
Irby is the founder of Barbershop Books, an organization helping young African-American boys boost their reading skills. The group places books in side barbershops, targeting children ages four through eight with titles like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? And Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Education director for the Boys’ Club of New York, Irby said he was aiming to make reading fun for kids so that it became a natural part of their development.
“We have a situation right now where more than 85 percent of black boys in the U.S. are not proficient in reading,” he said. “If you are not proficient in reading in the 21st century, a whole world of possibilities are closed to you. In order to close the gap, they have to read for fun. But if they don’t identify as a reader they’re not reading for fun.”
Irby started by gathering $11,000 from an online fundraiser as well as an additional $10,000 in from investors, enabling him stock the initial six New York barbershops.
“This has the potential to scale and be a model for communities around the country to improve reading standards and lower crime,” said Adam Thomas, Barbershop Books board member. “I got drawn to Barbershop Books because I had an interest in the world of education, the executive director had experience, and I knew that reading was something that was important to me, so I would love to explore the actions of making that idea applied as opposed to intellectual.”
Barbershop Books first began as a pilot in the program in summer 2014 with the goal of mitigating kids’ limited access to engaging books, their exposure to culturally incompetent teachers and early childhood classrooms failing to incorporate black boys’ reading preferences. Its mission is to overcome these obstacles to keep kids reading and engaged in school and prepared to stay in the workforce as productive citizens.
“The issue of low literacy among black boys is too serious an issue to wait,” Irby said. “And the boys who are coming in here reading, when they’re waiting, or the girls who are coming in who are reading while their fathers or their brothers are getting their haircut, they can’t wait either. I’m doing any and everything I can to really to continue to work and build those strategic partnerships that are going to allow us to grow, both here in New York City and across the country.”
Photo by Barbershop Books Facebook page.