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Using the barbershop scene to get kids thinking about college

Sep 24, 2015

Alan McGee, 17, getting a trim from barber Rich Parker.
Credit Mercedes Mejia

The barbershop has long been a place for conversations about life, politics and neighborhood gossip.

Now, there’s a group in Detroit using that forum to get kids to think about college. The effort is dubbed the Barbershop Chats, and it's gaining recognition for the way it engages young African American boys and men.

At this September event, clippers buzz as a few high school guys sit and wait for their turn in the barber’s chair. Edmund Lewis, Jr. gives them a back-to-school pep talk. 

“This stuff is important, but you have to get in there and figure out your mission," Lewis says. "Figure out your personal vision, and also what the man above will have for you to do.”

Lewis began the Barbershop Chats a few years ago. He’s the founder and CEO of Minority Males for Higher Education, a Detroit-based nonprofit that gives young black boys and men the resources they need to get to college.

Edmund Lewis Jr., CEO, Minority Males for Higher Education.
Credit Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio

“Many of them lack mentors, [and] lack father figures at home," says Lewis. "I wanted to bring something that supports them overall, and give them an opportunity to hang out and have fun."

The goal of the Barbershop Chats is to engage these  kids in conversations about college, and the challenges they might be facing at home or in school.

Lewis brings in working professionals from the community to talk to the kids. At this chat, there’s a lawyer, a social worker and a pro basketball player. They’re talking about the role of fathers.

Shane Lawal, the pro basketball player, opens up about his childhood.

“One of the main reasons I am the way I am is because I don’t want to be like my father," he says. "It’s a big drive for why I do the thing I do. Because I’ve seen that the way he approached his life is very unsuccessful."

Lawal’s story is pretty familiar to 18-year-old Curtis Cox.

Cox says he doesn’t have a positive male role model at home. But he does have big brother - a mentor who brought him here for the first time.

“It’s nice," says Cox. "I see you have a lot of people that care about the youth, see what they want to do with their life. Ask a lot of questions. I haven’t been to a lot of places that ask that."

But this senior isn't sure what he wants to do when he graduates. “I just want to make my family proud,"  he says.

Detroit teens participate in the Barbershop Chats event.
Credit Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio

And the odds aren’t great for young men like Cox. According to the latest census, only 13% of Detroiters ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That's half the state average.

But programs like the Barbershop Chats hope to bridge that gap. Jalen Barney, a high school senior, says things were touch and go for him only a few years ago.

“I was 12, got suspended every other day, kept getting in trouble," Barney says. "He came in, I moved in with him. I switched schools…Everything has been just peachy ever since then, just good.”

Barney moved in with his uncle, who has been a positive role model for him.  Now, Barney says he's on a better path, and has plans to go to college.

Barney says he gets a lot of good from these chats. “Actually having talks with men of my community about life…problems that we are facing as individuals--well, men of course," Barney says. "And yeah, it’s good information.”  

Information is exactly what Edmund Lewis, Jr. wants to give these young men. About things like how to apply to college, and how to choose the right college.

But he also just wants to support them, and be a positive role model in their lives. And Lewis does it because he didn’t have a strong male figure encouraging him to go to college when he was a young man.

The Barbershop Chats are one way to give back, Lewis says. And he hopes these young men achieve success in life, whatever they choose to do after high school.

“Some of them don’t want to go to college--ok, so I understand that," Lewis says. "So what are you going to do if you are not going to college? What else is there to do? What’s your plan? A 4-year university may not be for you,  what about community college? What are the options?

"So you give them every opportunity and every resource for them to do everything but say no."

Since the Barbershop Chats began four years ago, Lewis has seen progress. One young man got his associates degree from Oakland Community College, and is now teaching English in Korea. Another has started a 4-year degree at Alabama State University. And another is interning at Tesla Automotive in San Francisco.