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More than a Haircut: A cut above the rest

“All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change.”

- Mark Twain

Anthony Davis, better known as Peculiar-I, is a "regular" at Toronto's J.C. Hair Salon & Barbers. For the past three years, the Jamaican-born musician has spent the first Saturday of every month at the west end barbershop. "It's good to be back," he says, during his most recent visit. "It feels like it's been too long." But unlike most, if not all, of the shop’s regular clientele, Peculiar-I never sits down for a trim or a hot shave when he’s back. Instead, he’d rather talk to both patrons and barbers about a subject close to his heart: fatherhood.

“We’ve got a large group here so let’s get started,” he says, raising his voice only to drown out the sounds of buzzing shears and blowing hair dryers. “Whatever we discuss here today, the bottom line is to strengthen the relationship between you and your children.”

As a member of a growing team of facilitators, Peculiar-I volunteers his time to The Barbershop Project: More than a Haircut. It’s a grassroots program with a simple mission: encourage black fathers to get involved in the lives of their children. Organized by Toronto’s Macaulay Child Development Centre, More Than a Haircut began as a one-day pilot project in February 2006 to address the growing concern regarding absentee fathers, particularly in Toronto’s Caribbean community. According to Statistics Canada, two out of three children raised in Canadian-Caribbean homes grow up without a father. Now in its fifth year, the program offers monthly sessions at four different barbershops in the Eglinton-Oakwood neighbourhood.

Themes discussed during each session include positive discipline, the importance of play, and managing relationships between estranged parents – issues Peculiar-I is always ready and eager to discuss.

“All of this gives me a sense of purpose and it definitely gives me a platform," he says. "It allows me to get more involved in the community, and it gives me something to look forward to every month.”

Why the barbershop?

Holding community-based programs in barbershops isn’t a novel idea. In fact, a number of studies have concluded that barbershops and salons, especially those within black communities, are venues where large numbers of black men and women tend to congregate and interact. One study in particular, Recruiting African-American Barbershops for Prostate Cancer Education, concluded that barbershops have held positions of “prominence” in black communities for decades, and are often characterized as “sanctuaries” where members of the community go to converse and debate about issues of importance to them. Moreover, barbershops and salons offer black men and women the opportunity for true fellowship, to be among themselves, and to be themselves without feeling threatened, scorned, or excluded.

Jo Charles, owner of J.C. Hair Salon & Barbers, has seen his shop attract large crowds on a daily basis. When he was approached by Macaulay Child Development Centre to use his place as a venue for sessions, the decision was easy, he says.

“All of this gives me peace of mind,” says Charles. “It even teaches me how to raise my kids, and all of us learn things that society doesn’t normally tell us. You can read all the books you want, but it’s real when you’re talking to people.”

In some cases, says Charles, the discussion hits so close to home that he cannot help but add his two cents, even in the midst of cutting a client’s hair.

“You get different ideas and different vibes from people,” he says. “People always bring out things that they themselves don’t know how to deal with. Every session you learn something new.”

Fathers need encouragement

The fathers who regularly attend the More than a Haircut sessions range in age and cultural background, says Lorraine Kirlew. But one thing they all have in common is the need to drop in and talk.

“These men are an asset to our community,” she says, “and we’ve given them a place to voice their concerns and somewhere to go where they’ll feel valued and empowered.”

Kirlew, a project coordinator and case manager at Macaulay Child Development Centre, is responsible for organizing each of the More than a Haircut sessions. She says the response from the many fathers in the community has been overwhelming.

“We’ve made a commitment to this neighbourhood,” she says. “We’ll be there every weekend because if we’re not, they’ll be asking for us.”

It’s never too late to learn

Sixty-year-old Spider has attended More than a Haircut sessions at J.C. Hair Salon & Barbers since the very beginning, and after only a few sessions, he says, his philosophy on parenting changed drastically.

“We often underestimate how smart our children really are, and as parents this is an obstacle we need to overcome,” he says. “Just because we were parented one way doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the right way.”

He also credits the sessions for making him “a good father and an even better grandfather.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he adds. “When somebody comes in here and hears something for the first time it sets their mind in motion, and if what they hear changes their mind’s direction, even a little bit, that’s a great thing because a little education has never hurt anyone.”

On a personal level, the benefits of showing up and participating at a session are endless, according to Peculiar-I. But, more importantly, the neighbourhood stands to benefit too.

“I can actually say there is a “community” at Eglinton and Oakwood, and before I was a part of The Barbershop Project I really couldn’t say that with any conviction,” he says.

At the end of the day, it’s all about sharing knowledge and providing peace of mind, says Peculiar-I. And as long as he is able to do so, he will continue to return to J.C. Hair Salon & Barbers on the first Saturday of every month.

“As a facilitator, I’m able to reach to the heart of my community and the hearts of my community reach to me,” he says. “The same thing they are giving me is the same thing I’m giving them: the pureness of my heart.”

Click here for more information about The Barbershop Project: More than a Haircut. And read our page on fathers' concerns after the birth of a new baby, and Dr. Pat on why fathers are important.


Joel Tiller