BARBERSHOPS AND BEYOND

The Conscious Connect & Barbershop Books

With a common approach of recreating community spaces into literacy spots,  The Conscious Connect and Barbershop Books bring books into urban communities. Founded by Karlos L. Marshall and Moses B. Mbeseha, The Conscious Connect works to reimagine and redevelop underutilized spaces for the purposes of education, culture, health, and peace — so that zip codes do not define the success of children, youth, and families. Created by former teacher Alvin Irby, Barbershop Boys works to help Black boys ages 4-8 to identify as readers by connecting fun books to a male-centered space and by involving Black men in boys' early reading experiences.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Well, I'm thrilled to be joined by some real pioneers in literacy in leadership from Ohio.  You guys were talking about book deserts before book desert was a thing to talk about, before it was sort of a buzzword, or a word that is covered by popular media.  Karlos Marshall and Moses Mbeseha are joining us to talk about their work from Conscious Connect.  Thank you so much for joining us today. 

 

Karlos Marshall and Moses Mbeseha (Conscious Connect)

Thank you so much for having us, Molly.  We truly appreciate it.  

 

Molly Ness

Let me preface this to our listeners by saying you guys are super young.  If I looked correctly, you earned your bachelor’s degrees in 2013.  I'm not very good at math, but I know that means you’re a lot younger than I am, and you’ve done an unbelievable amount of work in a short time in a short life span.  So, tell us about how you got started with Conscious Connect. 

 

Karlos Marshall (Conscious Connect)

Yes, absolutely.  Yes, Moses and I, we first met at our undergraduate institution, which in in Wittenberg University located in Springfield, Ohio, which is my home town.  So, you know, we were very, very engaged, very active there on campus related to things of diversity, equity, and inclusion, social justice, both on campus, as well as off.  Then, you know, as soon as we graduated, you know, obviously me, being in my home town, I was still staying there in the area.  Moses was also staying in the area at the time.  We said how can we continue to foster this?  You know, one of the things that they taught us at our undergraduate institution was having light and passing it onto others.  So, that was something that was really critical to us.  So, we knew we wanted to start an organization roughly around the concept of, you know, education culture as well as working with the youth, but we didn’t really know what that would look like.  So, you know, we thought being in the urban context, what better way to go and get some ideas and hear the needs and wants and desires of the people that had been going into small businesses, particularly barbershops and beauty salons.  So, when we did that, at that time, and I still think it’s relevant today the things that begin to emerge quickly when we were discussing this with people respectable of whatever age they were, was the third-grade reading guarantee for obvious reasons.  So, what we did with that information is you know, we started to look at some innovative concepts, nationally, internationally, and we came across the work that was going on in New York over a guy that was putting books in barbershops.  So, we said how can we readily adapt that to our particular population?  Here, we operate in Southwest Ohio, both Springfield and Dayton, something that was very prevalent in conversations still to this day, and Dayton is food deserts.  But then, we across the work of Susan Neuman that was related to book deserts, so we said, hey, we’ve never heard this concept, but we see a correlation here as they’re almost synonymous in those neighborhoods.  So, for us, you know, we start to place these books in these barbershops and beauty salons, was the first organization, actually, nationally to an extent the conversation beyond barbershops to the beauty salons, because felt that the general equity piece was equally as important for, you know, children in families growing up in our neighborhoods.  And then, we also weren’t that sure that our books were also partially relevant.  So, that was also another distinguishing factor for us, and you know, 65 sole locations later predominately across the 50-mile radius, here we are, talking to you.

 

Molly Ness

In addition to their book distribution in salons and barbershops, Karlos and Moses explain some of their other programs.

 

Karlos Marshall (Conscious Connect)

That initial program that we were talking about in barbershops and beauty salons is known as The Root.  We also have another program that we run called Houses of Knowledge, more commonly referenced nationally as little libraries.  So, we have about 28 little libraries predominately still within that- that 50-mile radius between Springfield and Dayton, although we do have a couple of little libraries that we also operate in Cincinnati as well as Columbus.  So, that’s really where the largest share of our books are really distributed, through our Houses of Knowledge, they’re at everywhere, you know, from small businesses to churches to community centers to you know, residential houses.  I have one in front of my household.  So, that’s just really been great – preschools, daycares, elementary schools.  So, you know, we wanted to put the little libraries where we already had a heavy concentration of children and families.  And again, all of our programs are supplemental to one another, and with school districts, and libraries, are already going.  I think that’s important to know is that you know, we’re not trying to replace these services that already preexisting or even duplicate them, but they’re simply supplemental.  We also have a book bike that we call Words on Wheels.  So, we’re able to take that into often forgotten neighborhoods and communities.  So, events, like a popular bike, I think a lot of times you know, the children think that we’re delivering ice cream, but little do they know, we got something much better in store for them.  And, I think that’s also critical to bring in that imaginative component.  I think oftentimes we talk about culturally relevant and responsive text as you were alluding to, given the population that we’re working with, a lot of times, it’s almost always autobiography in nature.  So, expanding that imagination through Words on Wheels is, I think, a very exciting component for many people that interact with that, because it’s not every day that they’re going to see two young black men, such as Moses and myself, riding on this bike.  You know, another one of the programs that Moses can talk about more is our Reading Park initiative, which I think really gives a lot of people excited given it different partners and constituents that we have working on that particular project. 

 

Molly Ness

So, you’ve got such a holistic approach.  It’s not just: here are some books and you guys are on your merry way.  It’s really looking at: what is it going to take to bring kids in communities together in safe literacy-based areas?  So, amazing work with that.  You started to allude to it, but I'm hoping that you can expand a little bit about your impact.  I read on your website, which will be showcased on my website, that is endbookdeserts.com, that you’re setting the ambitious goal of ending book deserts in the state of Ohio by 2021.  So, talk to us about your contribution to that, what your impact is, and check in on where you are with that.

 

Karlos Marshall (Conscious Connect)

Oh yes, absolutely.  That’s a great question.  I figured originally that was kind of our goal was to kind of expand, you know, the kind of eradication of book deserts across the entire state, but as we begin to continue to talk more and more to stakeholders, as I said, I mean we’re in some of the largest cities, you know, whether that’s Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Springfield, in the state, but you know, I think more now, it’s about impact for us, rather than just breadth of working in output and outcomes, which is why we really decided to anchor ourselves down in the greater Miami Valley, region of Springfield, and Dayton, Ohio, you know, related to those works.  I mean I'm sure people that are following your podcast or are familiar with the equity gaps related to access to books, you know, some children in low-income areas only have an access to one age-appropriate book for every 300 individuals, or you know when middle income and affluent co-aged children have access to 13 age-appropriate books for every one child.  Although, we’re not quite at that number right now based on, as Moses mentioned, you know, the 20,000-plus books that we have placed out across those 28 little libraries.  That number for us right now is approximately five books for every one child, right.  So, not at quite every 13 books per one child, but we’re a long ways away from where we were where it was just one book for every 300.  So, we have been closing that seismic gap in a relatively short time period.  We want to eradicate that gap within our target areas in the greater Miami Valley region in Southwest Ohio before we will then expand to other communities within the state.  Also, related to culturally relevant books, depending on what studies you’re looking at as a reliable source, you know, some might indicate that it’s, you know, only 13% of books were culturally relevant or responsive that was published in the literary canon.  Some might suggest that it’s even under 10%.  But right now, even though we have a personal, you know, a personal responsibility we feel, to make sure that our books are culturally relevant and responsive, that number for us is 26% of the books that we put out, are culturally relevant, which is right around a quarter of the books.  Again, for us, if it was up to us, we would want that number to be 100%, but still, almost double the national average in terms of how those books are being published.  So, I think that’s also a critical component, because when you look at the international literacy associations when they look at children’s right to read, it isn’t just about book access.  One of their tenets of philosophy and their beliefs is the culturally relevant piece.  So, we definitely want to just caution people of saying they’re eradicating book deserts if it’s only about access, and not those other components related to the international literacy associations children’s right to read.

 

Molly Ness

So, I’ve obviously have heard those statistics before.  They are cited on my webpage.  Dr. Neuman brought them up in our first podcast.  But yet, every time I hear them, I still shake my head in outrage that in 2019, this is the reality.  And fortunately, outrage often leads to action, hence, this podcast featuring the work that you guys are doing.  So, for those people who have never heard about a book desert, and are totally new to this, and starting to recognize the problem, and want to take action in their communities, what advice might you give them?  Moses, what lessons have you learned along the way?  What advice would you give to the novices out there who are saying, “I want to get involved in ending book deserts?”

 

Moses Mbeseha (Conscious Connect)

Teamwork makes the dream work.  But really, you just kind of got to go at it and do it, you know.  When we started this, it was like $200 or something.  And, that came after months of trying to raise that $200.  It wasn’t like it just came out of pocket, the $200.  We didn’t have $200 in our pockets to do it all, or we probably would just have done that, you know, and that was five years ago.  So, you know, we started this with no money, and it was just really without equity, but just ambition and the drive to want to complete it.  You know, and I think this will kind of touch on our impact, you know, we work with a lot of key partners.  You know, we work, you know, directly with major school districts, like several school districts, we work with them directly.  You know, we work with a major library in the district.  So, being able to go to the table and have open conversations and have open ideas, and just you know, find ways for what you can facilitate out for this, right.  So, we just kind of see our programing as a way to improve on systems that already exist, right, as Karlos told you earlier, you know, we’re not trying to create new things.  We’re simply implementing best practices that we’ve seen around and just adapting them to our communities.  So, my advice to anybody is that if you have $1,000, donate it.  If you have $100, donate it.  If you have a lot of books in the house, you know, find an organization that will need them and give it to them.  There is a huge need, right.  There’s a lot of kids who need a reading tutor, so if you’re better at reading, maybe give yourself the time to go to a school and volunteer some time there.  So, there are a lot of opportunities.

 

Molly Ness

Next, I was joined by Alvin Irby, a former classroom teacher who started New York-based Barbershop Books.

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

So, I was teaching first grade in the Bronx and there was a barbershop across the street from the school where I taught.  So, one day I was getting a haircut in the barbershop and one of my first-grade students walked into the barbershop and kind of, you know, just plopped down on the couch that was in there.  And, he just kind of was doing nothing, you know, kind of going antsy, you know, his mind was kind of getting a little frustrated.  I mean the entire time that I was watching him I kept thinking to myself, you know, he should really be practicing his reading right now, and I wished I had a children’s book to give him, but I didn’t.  And so, it was really that kind of perfect storm of me being his teacher; me, kind of being in the barbershop and being a Black man and kind of understanding the cultural significance of the barbershop that inspired, you know, what is now Barbershop Books.  

 

Molly Ness

So actually, let me ask you to focus on that for a second.  Clearly, I am not a Black man, and so that culture is not something that’s familiar to me, and I know it is a center of your program.  Tell us a little bit about the culture of barbershops and why you see that as a perfect time to integrate literacy.  

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

Well, barbershops in many Black and Latino neighborhoods, but especially Black neighborhoods in particular, are cultural centers, especially for men, and you know, one of the interesting things about barbershops in Black neighborhoods is they’re often one of the few local businesses that are actually owned by people from the community.  And not just that, but you know, they happen to be one of the few places left where families from different socioeconomic levels interact.  You know, so if you, you know, have good health insurance, right, you don’t go to the same thing as a doctor as someone who, you know, doesn’t have good health insurance, right.  But, that’s not the case for the barbershop, right, or if you’re an executive, or a company, or a taxi driver, it doesn’t matter if you got to get a haircut, you know, you want to get a haircut from a great barber.  And so, in that way, you know, the barbershop creates this unique opportunity for you know, different types of people you know, different families, different children to interact.  And another thing that I think is kind of really important about why the barbershop is so kind of, you know, important for Black boys is that right now less than 2% of teachers K through 12, right, kindergarten through twelfth grade, are Black males.  So, less than 2%.  So, the majority of Black boys are raised by single mothers.  And so, we have a situation where there is a lack of you know, relevant, or Black male reading models at school and at home.  But, a lot of those same Black boys, they go to the barbershop once or twice a month.  And so, you know, Barbershop Books is kind of leveraging the cultural significance of the barbershop, and the relationships that barbers have with young boys to cultivate the reading identities of Black boys, and to create positive early reading experiences for them.  

 

Molly Ness

So, explain how your program works.  If I were to walk into a barbershop in one of these communities, what would I see, and how are you reaching kids?  

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

So, what you would think if you walked into a barbershop that participates in the Barbershop Books is a colorful, child-friendly bookshop.  When I say child-friendly, I mean it’s at a level that a child can engage or interact with the bookshelf without needing assistance from an adult.  You know, sometimes a regular bookshelf, you know, books may be high up or out of the reach of young children, but our bookshelf is close to the floor, bright and colorful so it kind of attracts children; it catches their eye.  And then, it’s kind of designed in a way that allows the book covers to be displayed, which is really important, especially for children who may not be as interested in reading as other children, you know, because there is very little about the spine of a book that makes a kid who really doesn’t like to read, want to get up and go and interact with a book, whereas you know, the way our books are displayed, you know, kids can see, you know, the covers, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, right, the No, David, and it catches their eye.  Also, I think in terms of the rule of the Barbershop Books, you know, I primarily ask of the barbers is that they make sure that the bookshelves are located in a prominent area where people are sitting and waiting, and that they invite children and family.  You know, we’re not interested in trying to turn barbers into children (inaudible), or teachers per se, but really you know, we just provide them with our basic children development, early literacy, kind of kids that they can use, and then just ask them to invite, you know, when children come in, parents come in, just let them know that this space is available for them.  

 

Molly Ness

Barbershop Books in partnership with Scholastic currently has reading spaces in 213 barbershops across 54 cities and 20 states.

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

Yes, we’ve been very fortunate to have been able to partner with a number of school districts, library systems, and also city governments who have expressed an interest in wanting to not just bring the Barbershop Books program to their area, but to work with us to increase out-of-school time reading and access to books for, you know, many boys of color.  Also, individuals have sponsored barbershops, you know, in their area, right.  So, a grandmother is like, I want to put this in my grandbaby’s barbershop, right.  So, they can literally just go to our website and write to our website’s sponsor, her local barbershop, and within ten-business days we ship our curated list of books, a colorful bookshelf, and a little window decal to let people in the community know that that particular barbershop is participating.

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

When the Barbershop Books program is implemented in ten or more barbershops within a certain area or neighborhood, we actually lead or facilitate a 90-minute early literacy workshop for barbers.  And, immediately following this workshop, we administer an evaluation, or a survey, to the barbers.  It asks, you know, lots of questions related to kind of their observation of boys and reading in their barbershops, and then that serves kind of our pre-surveyor pre-testament.  Six months later, we administer a poll survey, and what we look for is statistically significant change in the amount of reading the barbers see happening or taking place in their shops.  What we’ve found is that in general over 90% of barbers report, you know, never, or rarely seeing boys read in their barbershops prior to the Barbershop Books program.  And then, you know, in general we’ve seen that over 80% of the barbers after the program has been in operation for at least six months, report seeing boys read either daily or almost every day.  So, you know, we’re talking about almost no reading happening in barbershops prior to the Barbershop Books program, and over 80% barbers reporting seeing boys reading almost reading every day, or daily.  So, you know, it really has been you know, really impactful for those participating barbershops based on you know, what they’ve reported back to us.  

 

Molly Ness

You’re spot on in the idea that as well intentioned as people are, and as generous as people want to be with book donations, we’re a population that doesn’t naturally gravitate necessarily to reading.  We’ve got to hook them in with the most current, most popular, most engaging, brand new texts that are the most engaging, and really get them excited for reading, and continue to push them into diverse books that reflect their realities, their cultures, their interests.  

 

Alvin Irby (Barbershop Books)

And that’s the thing, it’s not always the books that adults think, right, like when Scholastic does this, you know, I think they do some kind of, you know, report, right, where they survey parents and children every few years.  And, one of the things that I found really interesting is that one of the questions asks parents and children: what do you look for when choosing a book?  And the number one thing that children said, right, was that they look for a book that will make them laugh.  What I found was very curious is that also when it comes to Black children, especially Black boys, the go-to titles that receive rewards, the go-to titles that were purchased by school districts and library systems, are often books about slavery, civil rights, or biographies.  And those books are only very, very important, but I personally don’t believe that their first book for any children, whether Black, White, or whatever they are, the first book that they read about a Black person should be them as a slave.  And so, I think that, you know, we also encounter people who are like, well, why don’t you ask for more books like this, and more books like that, and I tell people, oh these books were recommended by young Black boys.  These are the books they told us.  You know, so it’s really not about adults and what they want.  For us, it’s really about what are the titles going make a little child who is sitting in a chair, like waiting for a haircut, whether their parent is involved, whether the barber ends up saying anything or not, what are the titles that are going to make that child want to get up from his or her seat and go over and interact with the books?  

 

Molly Ness

To wrap up our time together I asked the founders of Conscious Connect and Barbershop Books about the books that have had the most profound impact in their lives. Alvin Irby started us off

 

Alvin Irby

In high school, I read Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands, and you know, he is a famous brain surgeon who, you know, the way he’s been acting lately, it seems like he needs brain surgery.  But anyway, what you know, in his book, you know, just reading about the obstacles and challenges that he encountered, you know, living in poverty, and his mom not really being a great reader and all these different things, but then, you know, the way in which he took agency, or in many ways his mom kind of forced agency on him by you know, kind of requiring him to read to his brothers and everything, it’s really, I don’t know.  I think for years you know, I didn’t know my first claim, right, until Grinnell College came here to visit, you know, during my senior year in high school.  You know, I never even really got out of the South until I ran the Junior Olympics, right, in Virginia Beach, you know, towards the end of high school.  And so for me, you know, seeing how this person you know, had been able to kind of like take advantage of the opportunities that came his way, and kind of take control of his life to do amazing things, kind of helped expand my realm of possibility.

 

Moses Mbeseha (Conscious Connect)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  It’s a book I read sometimes, mostly once a month, I read it a lot, it’s kind of like a bible to me.  It’s my center.  It allows me to dare to dream.  So, that’s the book that kind of tells me that I am on the right path, as well as I continue to do the right thing.