Barbers are mentoring Philly students mid-haircut: ‘It’s like a therapy session’

Against the backdrop of the city’s gun violence crisis, students are able to open up with the safe-space ethos of the makeshift barbershop.

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Zymir Floyd posing for a photo

Zymir Floyd is a student at Simon Gratz High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Students at Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter took advantage of free haircuts from some of the best barbers in Philly on Monday.

But, for the men who volunteered their time and services, it was about more than the cuts; they hoped their anti-violence message would reach the youth and go beyond the barber chair.

“We hope being around them, talking to them, pouring into them, if we don’t do nothing when they leave us, they know that there is hope and there are people that care and there are Black men that care about Black boys,” said organizer Kaliek Hayes, who helped create the makeshift barbershop inside one of the classrooms.

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The barbershop is a safe space within the Black community, where Black men can get haircuts and have honest conversations without judgment about important topics that impact the Black community.

The Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YO-ACAP) is an anti-violence agency founded in Philadelphia. YO-ACAP created the Sharp Insight Barbers and partnered with ‘Barbers Against Violence’ to enlist area barbers to volunteer their services at local schools and utilize their barbershops to identify and mentor at-risk teens and those youth who may need resources.

Mount Airy barber Jahmeil Ragin cuts a student’s hair at a free barber event at Simon Gratz High School.
Mount Airy barber Jahmeil Ragin cuts a student’s hair at a free barber event at Simon Gratz High School. (Amanda Fitzpatrick/WHYY)

On Monday, 25 students received haircuts, including senior Zymir Floyd, who said that he and some other students don’t always get the opportunity to get haircuts where they live.

“We are in a low-income environment, so it’s really hard to get haircuts out here, so them doing it for free is a real big help,” said Floyd, who also felt it was a safe space to open up about issues he faces in the community.

“It’s great, you get to connect. It’s like a therapy session. You get to talk about whatever you’re going through to help you calm down,” said Floyd.

Inside the room, four barbers from different parts of town treated each student like a VIP client. Over the clippers buzzing and music playing in the background, you could also hear the dialogue between the barber and student.

“I survived the streets without going to jail. I got shot. My son is doing eight years in jail for not listening to me,” said South Philly barber Damond Young as he trimmed one student’s hair.

Young also addressed the recent rash of violence among teens in the city and decided to have a heart-to-heart conversation after one student told him that his dad didn’t care what he did, as long as he finished school.

“You got to care because… I would love for you to finish school, but I want y’all to live too, y’all [teens] are an endangered species. Y’all are dying at a rapid pace,” said Young, who cautioned the students about the dangers of gun violence, “There’s no reset to the streets. You don’t get to mess up, push a button, and start over. It’s not a video game. It’s real life.”

Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter
The Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YO-ACAP) provided haircuts to 25 at-risk teens at Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There were many tough conversations held on Monday. The young men not only received free hairstyles but also a free lesson about life through the eyes of men who admitted they, too, faced some challenges growing up.

Mount Airy barber Jahmeil Ragin opened up about his family tragedy.

Ragin said his younger brother was murdered in 2007 by someone they knew.

“He was a close friend. I was there, it was my little brother. It was just hard for me to deal with,” said Ragin.

Ragin’s personal experience helped him connect with students, which allowed him to offer advice about handling tragedy.

“The gentleman that I talked to said he lost a close friend too, something that we related to, and how to move forward,” said Ragin, who noted many students were hopeful about the future, but some they talked to were not.

“You have some that are optimistic, and you have others that deal with it differently. It’s hard for them to cope with some of the things that are going on in their lives.”

For many students across Philly, the threats are real.

“You could be walking minding your business, and someone could roll up on you and start attacking you out of nowhere and start shooting,” said student George Bell.

Bell graduates in June but says it hasn’t been easy for young Black students like him.

“It’s sad because it’s almost like every week, every day, it’s some type of violence or killings,” he said.

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George Bell and Aaron Weedon
Simon Gratz High School student George Bell (right) with his classmate, Aaron Weedon, whose younger brother, Devon Weedon, was shot to death on his way to school last March. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Floyd plays sports and plans to graduate in June. He cites his grandmother for helping to raise him and keep him on the right path, but he shares a similar experience as a young, Black teenager living in Philly.

“It’s scary, you know I might be walking down the street, and someone thinks I’m somebody else and kills me. I still got to push through and go to school every day you know,” said Floyd.

In Philadelphia, the School District of Philadelphia reported that 199 of their students were shot last school year, and 33 of those shootings were fatal. So far this school year, 70 students have been victims of gun violence, and seven have died.

Bell, like many Philly teens, is just trying to survive,

“You feel very uncomfortable in your own neighborhood. Just walking around as being a teenager as being a kid can be very sad sometimes and scary,” said Bell, who believes the city should do more to address the situation.

“In Philly, we should promote more sports. That way, the new generation coming up won’t see all of this negativity growing up,” said Bell, who believes the younger kids subjected to the violence have become desensitized.

“When you see that growing up, eventually you probably want to do that too,” Bell said.

In the last month, ‘The Barbers Against Violence’ partnership has volunteered at three schools and provided services for 80 students, which means 80 conversations that could save lives.

“You can see it, it’s palpable. They are enjoying what’s going on and they are opening up and it’s giving us a chance to really talk to them.  Once we get them in our program, we have a lot to offer,” said Hayes.

Barbers will stay in contact with the students they met at the event and invite them to join their organization as mentees.

The organization offers job training, life skills training, employment, and help with legal or family matters to reduce the city’s violence epidemic.

Hayes hopes to expand the program and would like to see more schools allow them to offer their services. “These barbers are sacrificing their time, we aren’t asking for anything. A lot of things that are happening start at the schools. If we can get to them there before a lot of it happens, we can make a difference,” said Hayes.

YO-ACAP is a program partner of the Urban Affairs Coalition, the city’s premier Black and brown-led non-profit organization, as part of a broader city anti-violence initiative that utilizes Community Expansion Grants.

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