As a staple of Black culture in many communities, barbers have built immense trust among their clients and have long had their thumbs on the pulse of their neighborhoods.
In 2016, Lorenzo Lewis, a community leader from Little Rock, Arkansas, saw a way to utilize trust in barbershops to foster necessary mental health initiatives through the founding of The Confess Project. Since its inception, the Project has trained more than a thousand barbers across 40 cities in 15 states, equipped communities with necessary support and helped roughly one million people across the country with their mental wellness.
A Harvard research study confirmed barbers’ value in empowering the Black community
Lewis co-authored a Harvard research study that confirmed the valuable role of Black barbers in empowering and healing community members. Thirty-five barbers were reviewed in the study over an eight-month period. He said a key finding in the study signified the idea of a community-based public health approach to traumatic injury and death prevention.
“What was really confirmed was that [barbers] not only play a role when it comes to mental health but also even interpersonal community violence, as well as domestic violence,” Lewis told Blavity. “And, so that finding of knowing that they not only could be suicide prevention and mental health gatekeepers but they also can help reduce interpersonal community violence, that largely helps to reduce public safety issues within the community which will help better our public health and our health systems and community systems as well. That was what was really outstanding to me.”
Barbers are essential members of the Black community, but aside from that, the idea of targeting barbers and barbershops specifically to provide them with mental health advocacy training was related to the level of physical trust most men have in them.
“Barbers share intimate space with Black men,” Lewis said. “A sharp razor blade or an electric object, clippers close to their face and that’s probably the only time I would think a lot of men would have their guard down and not feel as defensive or feel apprehensive about something. We have to take advantage of that intimate personal space to talk about mental health and wellbeing.”
Barbershops are a microcosm of many communities in one. Given Black men’s general commitment to their barbers, one may have left their old community but still find themselves back in their old stomping grounds for a time-honored haircut. And, so it’s one of the rare places where people who might not normally share space can commune.
“I don’t know if there is anywhere in Black America where you really can find that amount of life experiences in one place in an uncontrolled environment,” Lewis said. “No matter class or where people really are in life, they will at some point visit their barber in a community setting where they might not naturally go depending on their journey in life. I don’t know if there’s another hub in Black America that can actually do that.”
The Confess Project was inspired in part by Lewis’ upbringing
Lewis was born in a prison and has always been keenly aware of mental health in the community.
“I was born in a prison – my mother was incarcerated – I was away from my mother and father due to their own issues with things,” Lewis said. “I faced my own incarceration at the age of 17. Those instances really molded me to want to get better. The judge gave me a second try at life when I could have been convicted of a felony.”
Lewis used his second chance to help juvenile offenders and got involved with mental health advocacy. Coupling his passion with his experiences growing up around his aunt’s beauty shop allowed him to understand the value of such spaces on a non-superficial level.
“When I really reflect back on that, it really played a big part of my psyche of how I connected mentorship and leadership and also accountability,” Lewis said. “Those areas really stand out, but also watching my aunt playing a role in the community – from feeding our homeless neighbors to grooming people’s hair for little to nothing if they didn’t have it. It was really knowing that the village existed. That’s what really made me recognize what The Confess Project could do because of these experiences as a young person.”
Black communities are often disenfranchised when it comes to mental health resources
While Black and brown communities tend to place a stigma around mental health and tools for mental wellness, Lewis said this is primarily due to a lack of information as opposed to a disregard for mental wellness.
“It’s a huge deficit in education on what mental health is and how it plays in our everyday lives,” Lewis said. “I think we really need to explain that someone’s mood can really affect the community’s outcome.”
It remains an issue in low-income communities, especially for young, Black boys and men because of environmental expectations of how they should interact with the world.
“Those psycho-social ways of thinking through challenges can really affect how young Black men see themselves, how they communicate, how they show up to places every day. I do believe that there’s a huge environmental behavioral issue with the idea that you have to be tough, strong, if you can’t fight then you’re weak. There’s a relearning process around masculinity and vulnerability that needs to be put out better.”
The impact of the work is shown through community building
The Confess Project uses a four-tier model of access, advocacy, research and innovation to build out its programs. This is also the means by which they develop barber training.
“We train the barbers to be advocates, not experts,” Lewis said. “Behind this training, we have connected them with therapists, healthcare providers and nonprofit organizations. Through this, we are transforming a community of advocates.”
With roughly one million people reached, the true impact of this work is the community building that comes from it all. Through this outreach, Lewis’ biggest hope for the mental health of Black boys and men is that barriers will finally be removed in the areas of mental health support.
“I feel that after six years of our work, we’re finally reaching the place where we’re removing the barriers to stigma and shame,” Lewis said.
Visit TheConfessProject.com if you are interested in supporting or becoming involved.