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This Former Teacher Is On A Mission To Help Young Boys Fall In Love With Reading One Barbershop At A Time

This Former Teacher Is On A Mission To Help Young Boys Fall In Love With Reading One Barbershop At A Time

 

Alvin Irby is a former teacher turned entrepreneur who founded Barbershop Books, a program that places books in barbershops as a way to encourage young Black boys to read in their spare time.

Irby tells Because of Them We Can that the idea for the program came about during the 2008-2009 school year when he was teaching first grade in Bronx, New York. 

"One day I was getting a haircut and one of my students came to the barbershop and was just sitting there doing nothing. He was getting antsy,” explains Irby. “He was my student so I knew his reading level, and all I kept thinking was ‘He should be practicing his reading right now.’"

Afterward, Irby says he went home and wrote a note to himself in a Google doc about the idea of more books being in barbershops. At the moment, he says he didn’t act on the idea and instead went back to teaching for several more years. Then, in 2013, he says he put his idea into action with the launch of a literacy organization called Reading Holiday Project where Barbershop Books is its first program.

The program, which is geared towards young boys ages 4-8, accepts book recommendations directly from the demographic they serve. With these recommendations in mind, Irby purchases these books in bulk at a discounted rate and then places them in the barbershops they serve across the country. Right now, he says, Barbershop Books is present in 120 barbershops in 37 cities. Over the next three to five years, he says his goal is to reach more than 800 barbershops in cities where there is a predominantly Black population.

“We’ve done evaluations and what we found is that between 90 to 100 percent of barbershops rarely saw boys reading prior to the program,” says Irby. “Now, over 80 percent of the barbershops see boys reading daily or almost every day.”

Irby explains that one of the distinct characteristics about their program is that they also provide in-person literacy training to barbers where they teach them how to support early literacy in young kids.

"I think it is really important that people understand that Barbershop Books is not trying to turn barbers into tutors though,” he says. “But it is really about cultivating, for Black boys in particular, their reading identity and helping them to develop a positive attitude towards books."

Irby clarifies that the main goal of the program is also not to simply increase the reading level of young kids, as some kids are already reading on an appropriate level. But, he says, the goal is to make reading a more fun and enjoyable activity so that young boys can eliminate the nervousness they sometimes feel when it comes to reading books.

“For a lot of young Black boys, they are walking around with reading trauma,” explains Irby. “They get anxious and start to feel bad when they see books and think about reading because of a traumatic experience they may have had. So our goal is to get rid of those experiences and cultivate a positive one.”

Eventually, Irby says, he plans to expand his program to target a more Latino audience and he plans to target young women with books placed in beauty shops. But for now, his focus remains on barbershops and emphasizes that the male centric space makes it a perfect place for young Black boys to be positively influenced by figures who look like them.

“While there are a lot of other places that kids are typically seen waiting, barbershops are the perfect place where you know there will be a male-centric aspect to the space,” he says. “And that aspect is key.”

To support Barbershop Books and its important mission, you can visit the site at barbershopbooks.org. From there you can either recommend a barbershop or sponsor a barbershop to be part of the program.  

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