Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Many young black males don't see reading as part of their identity, one NYC educator believes. Haircut by haircut, he's trying to fix that.
There's a classic marketing theory that when you put two words or ideas together enough, consumers will form an implicit association—and even act. I say "peanut butter," you think, "jelly." I play French music in my grocery store, you buy a bottle of Burgundy. One is a trigger for the other.
Improbable, perhaps, that a chestnut from advertising would form the basis of an elegant and innovative literacy initiative. But when Alvin Irby was teaching kindergarten and first grade in Harlem and the Bronx, he saw that many of his students—especially African American boys—needed new associations around books. Statistically, those boys are the most reluctant when it comes to reading—and lag most in test scores.
"I'm developing this theory that a lot of young black males simply don't associate books with their identity," says Irby. "Fathers are missing from a lot of black children's early reading experiences. There aren't many black male teachers, either."
That's how Barbershop Books was born. Irby, now just a few weeks away from a master's degree in public administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, had a simple idea: Go to neighborhood barbershops that African American families visit on a regular basis. Set up a shelf of children's books specially selected to appeal to young boys (action-packed, culturally relatable, and led by male characters). Get the barbers to encourage boys to pick up "No, David!" or "Calling All Cars!" while they wait for their haircut, or even once they're in the chair.
Even if the book is a little above or below the kid's reading level, and even if there's not an adult sitting next to him as he reads, boys are still making an implicit link between reading and barbershops—which are cultural hubs in New York City's African American communities. The bit of encouragement from the barber, most often an older black man, is essential too.
"If I pair reading with barbershops, over time, when a kid sees a barbershop, they'll think about reading," says Irby. "That really has the potential to overcome this negative self-perception, this idea that black boys don't read."
And, crucially, Barbershop Books gets kids to read during out-of-school hours—an important part in closing the literacy gap for one of the nation's most vulnerable groups. According to 2013 data from KIDS COUNT, just 10 percent of African-American boys from low-income families are reading proficiently in fourth grade, compared to 25 percent of their white peers. Access to age-appropriate books tends to be lower in poorer neighborhoods. Children of color disproportionately receive under-resourced, ineffective instruction from public schools. And minority kids from low-income families suffer the most from a lack of out-of-school reading support. With low literacy linked to incarceration rates, the stakes are very, very high.
Jen Rinehart, Vice President of Research and Policy at the Afterschool Alliance, says Irby's identity-driven approach resonates with other learning achievement research she's seen. "If you think of yourself as reader, you're more inclined to read," she says. "And that should impact your performance."
So far, Irby has six barbershops set up in Harlem and Brooklyn. He's looking to expand to 25 by September, with the help of $5,000 that he and a team of other NYU students won for Barbershop Books, as finalists in UPenn's Fels Public Policy Challenge. He's looking for additional funding for the project while fielding calls from people in other cities who want books with their haircuts, too.
Eventually, though, Irby hopes to expand his work beyond barbershops and get all kinds of kids reading for fun in a range of settings. "Ultimately, I want to improve the lives of all children," he says.
Good thing. Young girls of color could use extra help, too.