All hail the sanctuary that is the barbershop. Throughout the African diaspora, Black men habitually gather in these safe spaces to do something they can’t always do elsewhere: be themselves. It’s at a series of barber shops in Queens that State Assemblymember Khaleel M. Anderson chose to introduce his new Barber Shop Mental Health program.
“Mental health is heavily stigmatized in communities of color and among men,” said Anderson in a statement. “As a response to structural violence and intergenerational trauma, this game-changing new Barber Shop Mental Health & Wellness Program will help men of color, who not only patronize barber shops but rely on them for safe, non-judgmental, and culturally responsive socio-emotional support.”
This Tuesday, the series continued at the Sports Barber Shop on 145th Avenue (Rosedale, Queens). Owner Guy Desvarieux, 50, opened the shop more than 20 years ago as a young man on the verge of becoming a father. He said his profession allows him to interact with men and boys of all ages who open up about the pressures they face in their daily lives.
“As barbers, we cut hair, but we also talk to people. We’re not experts, but we try to give our best advice from life experiences,” said Desvarieux.
Desvarieux’s shop has all the tell-tale signs of a classic space. The floors are checkered black and white, a solitary air conditioner hangs over the entrance, giant mirrors and large glass windows frame the doorway, the front door is consistently ajar for walk-ins, waiting chairs line the left wall, and a row of black and metal recliner chairs line the right. In the background, TVs and the buzz of clippers are constant. The place is also filled with laughter and chatter. Fathers, sons, and other patrons with familiar faces flow in and out. Everyone is seemingly working or waiting.
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The program, in partnership with the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, finds local barbershops to spark conversation as well as provide resources that will help build the capacity of barbers and community members to safely and proactively address the well-being of their communities. Humberto R. Brown, director of Health Disparities Initiatives at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, recently helped guide a conversation about the relationship between barbers and customers being one of trust, with assemblymember Anderson’s staff, social workers, and various community organization members joining in.
The aim was to discuss the experiences of working-class families affected by structural violence and institutional racism by addressing their mental health and well-being.
“This is a great place to have these conversations because it creates a dialogue—a safe space without judgment,” said Paul Fisher, 36, a member of My Brother’s Keeper and a special education teacher at a Queens high school.
Once the ice was broken, the conversation inevitably turned to current events such as Jordan Neely’s death last week. Neely was a street performer struggling with homelessness. He had been shouting at people on a subway train in Manhattan when he was tackled by passengers and choked to death by an ex-Marine.
Some of the men were bothered that Neely was held down and restrained without a chance to fight back. Some felt that the choking had clearly gone too far since the main attacker was trained. Others spoke to the unbridled fear they now have of riding the subways, even as life-long New Yorkers who have dealt with threatening homeless individuals before.
“I didn’t see the recording, but I know what happened and it bothered me that they [were] holding his arms down…as a man, you should be able to defend yourself,” said Maurice Vanderhall, a member of the Community Capacity Development (CCD) organization in Woodside. “I’m the type of person that if I see something, I do something. And I don’t think I would have let that happen.”
The consensus was that the situation was a complex symptom of a mental health crisis in Black and brown communities that needs more community resources, family involvement, and systemic change in healthcare and schools to be solved. They offered short-term tactics and strategies for interacting with mentally ill individuals or family members that centered around action and empathy.
The stimulating evening wound down with barbers and customers sticking around to contribute to the conversation, eat food provided by Anderson’s office, and enjoy each other’s company.
Anderson hopes to get funding to continue engaging communities of color in these unique areas to help break mental health stigma and increase awareness by providing peer support, community-based resources, and clinical referral services for free.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.
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