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In Southwest Philadelphia, help comes with a haircut

August 30, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
The evening’s requests were familiar. The men were seated in a circle and each took a turn discussing his most pressing needs. One wanted his ID — a birth certificate and a social security card —so that he could get a job. Another needed a GED. Most were searching for a permanent but affordable place to call home.

“We come out in fellowship, as cheesy as that sounds,” said Joe Purnell, a community organizer and the executive director of Neighbors United Against Drugs (NUAD) in Southwest Philadelphia. The evening was designed by Purnell to help men become change agents in their own lives.  “We are not here to sell you dreams. The bulk of success will come from you,” Purnell warned them.

Participants vary but every Monday NUAD opens the doors to any man above the age of 18 with an invitation to eat, talk, seek help and get a haircut.

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s 2018 Southwest Philadelphia Community Plan, the neighborhoods NUAD serves have been devastated by “social and economic trauma” with high rates of incarceration, homelessness, predatory finance and foreclosures.

But Purnell prefers the men become the experts on their problems and they tell stories of coming from homes where their father wasn’t present, of childhoods with a single mother struggling with poverty, of adolescent years full of negative peer pressure, and of the gnawing feeling of being unloved. “All kinds of things emerge, and we help them to think about their value system,” said Purnell, who has been a community organizer since the 1970s.

And then each Monday evening session ends with a free haircut, as the men take a chair at the popup shop that is stationed on the sidewalk.

Using the barbershop as a tool for social change has been part of Purnell’s vision for years. “We designed this almost ten years ago,” Purnell explained, but he added that it was probably ahead of its time.

Traditionally in African American neighborhoods, the church has been seen one of the most viable community partners, but attendance by women far outweighs the number of active men. To reach men of color, it is the barbershop that draws a large and loyal male audience. But this isn’t a new role — just an under-recognized reality by traditional social service experts.

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According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, the barber shop and beauty salon serve as sanctuaries for African Americans: “Since the turn of the 19th century, beauty salons and barber shops have served as special places among African Americans. They have been places not only to get hair care services but locations where Black people could be vulnerable and talk about issues of importance in the community. There were spaces where customers played games such as chess, cards, and dominoes, while having conversations about local gossip, politics, and community affairs.”

Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in her 2004 book, Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, that at the grassroots level African Americans use community dialogue to jointly develop their collective political interests and the barbershop is a critical democratic space which also helps to strengthen community ties.

When the freshly coif men return to their neighborhoods from an evening at NUAD, others wonder where they’ve been and will want to check out what’s going on. It’s how word of mouth spreads the work of NUAD.

Purnell had run a similar program earlier. In 2014, the Southwest Globe Times newspaper wrote of NUAD’s efforts called “Gotta Make a Change: The Barbershop Project” which the paper called an “innovative anti-violence initiative.” It used the barbershop as a supportive environment, barbers as mentors and the customers as a support system.

Back then, finding the funds to scale the project proved daunting. However, one decade, one pandemic and a tragic year of gun violence later — and the lure of an haircut to pull in men looking for help is being reconsidered. Purnell said with homicides at a historic level — reaching 350 by August 25 — “people are paying more attention to the issues.”

Purnell was supposed to be like his dad, one of the few Black engineers working on ENIAC — the world’s first programmable computer — a project at the University of Pennsylvania.  Instead, at Howard University he got involved in marijuana and the 1968 revolutionary takeover of the school. “You couldn’t do all that and still graduate,” he said.

So instead of computer engineering, he turned to community improvement.

In the mid-1980s he became the executive director of the SW Task Force which offered supportive services to the neighborhood, but over time funding for programs like his dwindled. In the ’90s he was the executive director of NUAD, which provided free HIV testing, referral to Drug and Alcohol as well as mental health services and other social services and free HIV home test kits.

For most of his career, Purnell has focused on southwest Philadelphia — a majority Black (African and African American) area that includes Kingsessing, Paschall, Bartram Village, and Angora as well as parts of Grays Ferry.

He also values prevention and intervention over policing and prosecution.

This is why he won’t give up on his idea of linking the supportive environment of a barbershop with helping men make significant life changes.

One of the biggest problems for the men is navigating the city’s siloed and fragmented health and human services bureaucracy to find the help that they need when it is needed.  The Monday meetings help quell some of the frustration. At a recent Monday meeting former city councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and former state representative James R. Roebuck — both longtime politicians for west and southwest Philadelphia — were in attendance. Both were defeated in 2020, but still their long knowledge of the community could help provide resources.

Superior Court Judge Marie McLaughlin who grew up in southwest Philadelphia and is now running for the Supreme Court was also attendance. “As a judge you are part of the community, so I am always in the community,” McLaughlin said.

Quadir Robinson, the man who needed ID happily walked out with a time to return to NUAD’s office down the street for help with the paperwork, and the name of a benefactor who will help pay for his document fees.

And then he sat down for his haircut.

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