Inspiring Voter Turnout from the Barber’s Chair


Black men seeking a shave and a haircut in Philadelphia may soon get more than they bargained for from their local barbershop. A new project called Sharp Insight, started by the Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program, will recruit 50 local barbers and train them to share nonpartisan information with customers about how and where to vote. 

The goal is to increase voter turnout among the city’s black men by sparking an easy conversation between barbers and their patrons.

“Barbershops are trusted places in the African American community where black males talk about everything from sports, entertainment, relationships, and even politics,” Duerward Beale, the executive director of YOACAP, explains in a video. Sharp Insight will work with barbers “to cut through misinformation on elections, to educate black men, and to increase their civic engagement.”

The program will start with a survey of black men in the city’s barbershops to help the organizers better understand why they often don’t turn up at the polls or take a proactive role in local government. From there, barbers will participate in a paid training program before they start chatting up their clients about voting. The shop that distributes the most voting information to its clientele will be rewarded with a special radio promotion.

Voter turnout is abysmally low in the U.S., and it appears to be getting worse. During last November’s midterm elections, just 36.4 percent of the voting-eligible population showed up to the polls—the lowest turnout since 1942. The U.S. ranks 31st in its voter turnout among 34 developed, democratic countries, according to the Pew Research Center. While black voters turned out in record numbers in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections—exceeding that of whites in 2012 for the first time—those numbers dropped during the 2014 midterm elections. The turnout gap between black men and black women was 7.7 points, with men on the losing end of the equation.

In Philadelphia, voter turnout among black male residents has been on the decline since 2008, according to Beale. “[They] just have a mistrust of the system, of elected officials, because they feel like elected officials have an agenda,” Beale told The Guardian.

It’s not just apathy or mistrust that keeps Americans from voting—particularly voters of color. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states have steadily introduced a rash of severe voting restrictions that advocates argue are engineered to keep people of color out of the voting booth. Eliminating early voting and out-of-precinct voting, banning same-day registration, and strict voter I.D. laws are all preventing an increasing number of people from casting their ballot, according to voting rights experts.

This isn’t the first time barbershops have taken on an edifying role. In Los Angeles last year, doctor Ronald Victor reached out to black-owned barbershops to address high rates of hypertension among black men. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Victor trained barbers from 20 shops to screen their customers for high blood pressure in hopes of stemming the disorder’s deadly effects. In Dubuque, Iowa, barber Courtney Holmes is exchanging free haircuts for story time to encourage his youngest clients to read. 

While the legal battles against voting restrictions work their way through the courts, creative programs such as Sharp Insight may be one way to fill in the gaps. The program aims to reach more than 6,000 men through 25 affiliated barbershops, and organizers say those men may then disseminate voting information to more than 15,000 more people in their households and social groups.

This story was originally published on Take Part.

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