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Barbers join the fight for literacy in Wilmington

The Wilmington Public Library is trying something different to encourage kids to read.

 

The library is putting books in barbershops. It has partnered with a national literacy program called Barbershop Books which aims to help black boys ages 4 through 8 identify as readers. It also provides early literacy training to barbers.

So far, twenty Wilmington barbershops have been equipped with shelves of fun, culturally relevant paperback books.

“We’re trying to derail the illiteracy epidemic in our city,” said Wilmington Library director Jamar Rahming. “Because we have a high volume of kids who are in high school and middle school who can’t read, who are not reading at their desired grade level.”

"If we can make reading cool, if we can have that same swagger and coolness and freshness with literacy, then we can definitely enrich kids' lives." - Jamar Rahming, Wilmington Library

Rahming says the idea for the partnership came from the library mapping “assets” in the City of Wilmington. “What we discovered was that there were sixty barbershops in our service area. There were more barbershops than banks, than grocery stores, than any other entity in the service area. So it behooved us to figure out a way to marry our agenda with what’s going on in barbershops. ”

Rahming adds putting books in barbershops helps elevate their status. “Getting a haircut is a cool thing. So if we can make reading cool, if we can have that same swagger and coolness and freshness with literacy, then we can definitely enrich kids’ lives. Also we want reading to be associated with a black male presence— so having young black men with black barbers and reading, that also accomplished that objective too.”

Carl Shaw, manager of community engagement at the library, has conducted a baseline survey of how often reading is encouraged in the participating barbershops — and plans to follow up in a few months to gauge the program’s efficacy.

"I'm dealing with kids on a regular basis that are not up to level as far as reading is concerned." - Terrone Warren, teacher and barbershop owner

He also hopes kids will spread the program’s impact beyond the barbershops.

“Hopefully they’ll go home and if they have a little brother or a cousin or what have you, instead of picking up a video game, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I read this cool book at the barbershop, let’s read a book’,” he said. “Hopefully over time reading will become more of a value to the community.”

Terrone Warren owns Black Visionary Designers Barber Salon (BVD) on W. 8th St. — one of the twenty barber shops currently participating in the program. The barbershop hosts several community events each year, from a coat drive to a chess tournament. Warren also teaches math at Kuumba Academy, where he sees kids struggling to read daily.

“I’m dealing with kids on a regular basis that are not up to level as far as reading is concerned,” said Warren. “They’re on the first, second grade level but they’re in sixth, seventh grade. So that’s a major issue, and of course the more they read the better they’ll get. And the better society will be because they’ll be more educated and be successful people from that.”

Warren says it isn’t always easy, but encouraging reading in his shop seems to be working so far. “Most [kids] come in with their games. They’ve all got phones. Now you’ve got a small battle to say, ‘Put down the phone, read a book’,” he said. “Sometimes they just come over and just grab a book out of nowhere— they’ll see the colors, they’ll see the pictures.

"The main thing is that they get something, not just a haircut, but they leave with more as well." - Glenn Dudley, barber

“When they're waiting to get their hair cut, kids go into the book shelf and pull out a book and read it,” said Glenn Dudley, a barber at BVD. “I even gave a couple away. I said, 'Go ahead, take ‘em with you.' Anything positive that these kids can instill in their mind is what I’m for.”

Dudley says promoting literacy is just one of several ways BVD barbers work to positively influence the kids that come through their shop.

“The main thing is that they get something— not just a haircut— but they leave with more as well.”

Wilmington Public Library officials say they hope to eventually expand the Barbershop Books program to all sixty barbershops in the city.  The library is sponsoring the program with an early literacy grant through the Delaware Community Foundation.

 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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