Can Barbershops Help Close The Reading Achievement Gap? Only If We Support This Innovative Organization

Here are the facts: over 85 percent of black boys in the U.S. aren’t reading on grade level. A lot of these boys live in reading deserts — where there are as many as 300 children per one age-appropriate book. And black men, an integral part of the learning process, are all too often absent from these boys’ lives (only 2 percent of black men are teachers).

Enter Barbershop Books. The organization — dreamed up in 2008 by educator Alvin Irby and founded earlier this year thanks in part to an Indiegogo campaign — seeks to close the reading achievement gap for black boys by bringing age-appropriate and culturally-relevant books to barbershops across the nation.

That’s right, barbershops. The reasoning behind the interesting location is pretty simple: as Irving told TODAY in July, “Just one or two trips a month to the barber can have a significant impact on their reading skills.” And it’s about more than just access. Barbershops are male-dominated environments, which means kids get to interact with male role models who think reading is worthwhile.

So what does it look like, in practice? For starters, each title in each barbershop’s 15-book library is intentionally chosen to be culturally relevant, age-appropriate, and gender responsive. As the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has shown — young readers long to feel represented by their reading material.

Initially, Irby geared his selections toward readers between the ages of four and eight, but, as he told TODAY, he’s seen children of all ages—teens too—pick up the books and start reading. Some have even asked to take the books home with them.

Irby sees big things on the horizon for the initiative. “This has helped kids in my area have a positive attitude about reading,” he said, “but I ultimately want to improve the lives of all children around the world.”

Right now, Barbershop Books’ trademark book slings can be found in 10 barbershops around New York City. But the program is growing, book by book, shop by shop.

*For another initiative aiming to help readers find books they connect with, check out Rainbow Boxes — which pairs LGBTQI-centric books with teens.*