Barbershops remain a bastion for black community

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Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Like many establishments of its kind, Lee’s Barbershop offers customers more than a cut and a shave. They can get news on the NFL, happenings in the community, advice on women, rumors about the mayor and updates on local artists. And like a growing number of black barbershops, Lee’s participates in potentially, life-saving health initiatives for its customers.

“The shop is definitely used as an outreach station to make the black community aware of services that will save their life,” says Arthur Lee, who has owned the establishment in Washington, D.C., for nearly 25 years. “Non-profits do things like high-blood pressure screening and HIV testing in front of the shop. We’ve been part of a condom program since about 2005. People who don’t even get their hair cut will come by and get (condoms)…because they’re free.”

Dr. Bill Releford knows that many black men frequent the barbershop way more than a doctor’s office. So he founded the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program in 2007, starting with his own barber in his own Los Angeles community. Now the program has gone national through a 50-city tour, and more than 25,000 men have been screened for diabetes and high blood pressure in more than 400 barbershops. Releford said his goal is to screen 500,000 men by 2012.

“We’ve received so many testimonials from men who have decided to change their behavior and adopt healthier lifestyles, to eat better and exercise,” he says. “Many men in the barbershop were diagnosed for the first time for high blood pressure and diabetes. Many have to be sent from the barbershop to the emergency room.”

Releford says seeing the health disparities “in living color, in my face” prompted him to launch the program. He was disenchanted with the messages from the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association, because neither group was getting through to black men nor seemed to try. “One size doesn’t fit all,” Releford says. “Typically, there’s no outreach program for African-American men. Most programs are for women, or for women and children. They’re the ones who are marketed to. There are no resources attached to men, and we aren’t marketed to.”

Even with the historical popularity of barbershops as gathering places and cultural institutions, there’s still a lot of work to do. For one thing, some brothers prefer the DIY mode for their heads. Kevin Brookins, a vice president with ComEd in Chicago, keeps his own ‘do in shape — with an occasional assist from his wife. But he says he goes to the barbershop “about once every five years to see what I’ve been missing.” Chris Cathcart, president of OneDiaspora[CQ] Group in Los Angeles, used to visit a shop every two weeks until he enrolled at Howard University and noticed that many upperclassmen “always had tight cuts; they never needed an edge or shape-up.” After learning that brothers were cutting their own hair, he brought a pair of clippers and hasn’t used a professional barber since.

“I miss it to this day,” Cathcart says. “You can’t really replicate that experience. It’s one of the few places where you can really let your defenses down, be yourself, bring things to the table, listen and learn, talk and teach. No other place can do that – not a religious setting, a bar or a gym. How often go you get eight or nine brothers all sitting together and exchanging ideas in a free-flowing environment?”

Harold Givens, a management consultant in Atlanta, says his barbershop is a haven for wide-ranging discussions on politics, women, kids and just about anything else. “There’s a question of the week, too,” he says, “which always generates a lot of dialogue. But Givens says health doesn’t come up much. David Squires, a journalist in Hampton, Va., says health only surfaces at his shop in specific circumstances. “If someone died, someone might say we need to take care of ourselves,” Squires says. “Or if someone is making a food run, someone might say we need to watch what we eat and cut back on all that fried food.”

But the results in Releford’s program are encouraging, as well as results in local versions around the country. A recent study published in Archives of Internal Medicine, found that when barbers in Texas checked their customers’ blood pressure on every visit, the men were far more likely to see a doctor and get high blood pressure under control. Releford is behind a push to establish a national “Black Barbershop Month,” similar to California’s official designation for May. “We’re well on our way with all the partners we’re developing around the country and the legislators coming on board,” he says. “We’ve reached out to all members of the Congressional Black Caucus to bring the program to their district.”

Chuck Johnson, an administrator with Detroit Public Schools, said he would prefer using retailers and doctors for his condoms and screenings. But he sees value in the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program and similar initiatives. “I don’t see how it can hurt,” he says. “It’s definitely something that can be beneficial, because that’s one place we go on a regular basis.”

And if Releford has his way, the shops will offer more than just grooming.