Barbers as Civic Engagement Agents: Knight Funds a Proven Strategy

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April 19, 2016; NextCity

The use of barber shops and hair salons as sites for community outreach is a practice with long years of use in organizing and public health, and for years, the Philadelphia nonprofit Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YO-ACAP), an agency aligned with the Urban Affairs Coalition, has sent volunteers into barbershops in the city’s African-American neighborhoods to distribute voter information and to register voters. But this year, with support from a Knight News Challenge grant, YO-ACAP is building on its connections to local barbers, training about 60 to 70 of them to serve as “civic engagement agents” to better reach black males, “a group of people who have become detached from the whole political process.”

According to YO-ACAP executive director Woody Beale, “We know black men don’t vote as much as white men, and they don’t vote as much as black women, either.” The aim of the Knight-funded project, called Sharp Insights, is to broadly advance civic engagement among the city’s black men. But with a presidential election only about six months away, one specific goal is to provide nonpartisan information about voting and elections to encourage more community members to participate in the November general election.

Sharp Insights, described in the Next City article as “storefront social service,” is meant to both deliver information to and gather information from community members—the barbers as well as their customers. Beale notes, “The barbers have given us a bunch of ideas about what their customers need.”

In addition to training the barbers to talk about civic engagement and to connect people to community resources, Sharp Insights volunteers will check in with each barbershop every month and will continue to offer informational materials and to distribute and collect surveys about why local residents are not more engaged in civic and political processes; the survey results will be used to generate new materials. In some cases, this will mean countering misinformation or misperceptions that exist. In other cases, it may require educating people to understand that attending community meetings and reaching out to elected officials might help to create jobs or improve neighborhoods. As Beale explains,

We define civic engagement as small groups of people who are looking at issues of change in their neighborhoods. That may mean partnering with elected officials, meeting with elected officials or volunteering. This [project], we hope, will give more black men a voice, and once they find that they have a voice, they will go out to the polls and vote more often.

One of the things that is interesting about this Knight grant is its low-tech nature and the fact that it is not necessarily a new method but in long use by communities of color. Knight has been criticized in the past for its interest in “bright and shiny” technology-aided programs over proven ones.—Eileen Cunniffe