CGI America, the U.S.-focused division of the Clinton Global Initiative, addresses significant domestic challenges through Commitments to Action.
CGI America recently held its annual conference out of which several big ideas in education emerged. Once a week over the last several weeks, BE Smart explored one of the big ideas that resulted in a CGI Commitment to Action. This post is our final installment in the series.
As an avid reader, of all the CGI Commitments to Action I’ve written about, I may be most excited about the work of Barbershop Books. An initiative of Reading Holiday Project Inc., created by Alvin Irby, Barbershop Books is setting up child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops in 11 cities across the U.S. for boys age 4 to 8.
Irby, a former public school first-grade teacher and education director at the Boys’ Club of New York, says the program isn’t about improving boys’ reading skills.
“It’s about connecting books and reading to a male-centered space and getting black boys to identify as readers,” says Irby, who has a master’s in public administration from NYU.
Reading for Pleasure
Irby himself wasn’t a reader as a child. “I didn’t see reading for pleasure modeled in my immediate environment,” he says.
Yet he sensed that something was missing when, after a year of sophomore high school English, he’d only learned that his teacher thought OJ was innocent.
Sensing that there was more, young Irby asked to be switched into an advanced English class—where he began reading whole novels and writing reports. “It started making me think about the roles that individuals have to play in their own educational advancement,” he says.
Irby sat down with a dictionary and read The Great Gatsby and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, having never read an entire novel before. But he didn’t stop there. The young man surveyed close to 200 of his peers and found that almost none were reading outside of school assignments. The idea of reading for pleasure had been lost.
There’s more I could say about how Irby ran for student council president on the platform of developing a reading incentive program for his high school—but the real point is these early involvements in literacy helped to lay the foundation and inform Irby’s decision to develop his literacy program.
Reading Spaces for Boys
In 2013 Irby founded Barbershop Books.
“At first I thought we might try to get men reading,” he says. He spent 50 to 60 hours with books from early readers to adult books like the New Jim Crow, just observing to see who in barbershops gravitated to the books.
The children were the clear winners.
“So we decided to target them, because we wanted to get the highest social return on our investment.”
Irby sees the reading spaces as nothing short of transformative.
“People need to see what’s possible. If someone’s experience is limited their realm of possibility is also limited. Barbershop Books is all about a father coming into the barbershop and seeing another father reading with his son. He can’t continue to see that and his realm of possibility remain the same,” Irby says. “Once that changes, the beliefs you hold and the actions you take begin to change.”
Books for Black Boys
Irby is in the process of securing additional partnerships, but is working with Too Small to Fail in a related CGI Commitment to distribute copies of the book At the Farmer’s Market through the reading spaces of Barbershop Books.
Because of partnerships with Scholastic and Kidkraft, which manufactures the bookshelf for the reading nooks, Barbershop Books is open to individuals in a community as well as school districts or libraries to sponsor reading spaces in barbershops anywhere in the U.S.
The cost? Only $175 for 30 children’s books (two sets of 15), an attractive bookshelf, and stickers that read, “I am a reader.” There is also a subscription option so barbers can receive three new books every month.
“We have a list of curated, age-appropriate, culturally relevant books—books that reluctant readers will want to read,” Irby says.
The former schoolteacher has thought a great deal about the kinds of books that attract and engage children—and they’re not the ones a lot of people may think they are.
“The books don’t have to be Afro-centric; the characters don’t have to all be black. A lot of the books written for black children are not actually written for black children,” Irby confides. “They’re written for black-conscious parents, librarians, or teachers. Half of the books written for black children—if they were left to their own devices they wouldn’t even pick up those books.
“That doesn’t mean those books are not important. It just means that they’re only going to reach those kids whose parents are engaged or whose teachers are actively seeking out these titles.”
Irby goes on. “A lot of the books published about black people are geared to an oppression narrative, whether it’s slavery, or overcoming some kind of oppression or about ‘my nappy black hair’ or ‘my beautiful black skin.’”
Irby insists that those types of books are important, but notes that so many books written for black children are so serious.
A professional standup comedian who’s worked on stages in New York and LA, Irby asks, “Where are the humor books for boys of color? Boys like humor,” he says, stating that “humor is the one thing that is often guaranteed to engage boys of color.”
That’s one reason why Irby has written his own laugh-out-loud children’s book, Gross Greg—about a boy who—wait for it—eats his boogers!
“Gross Greg combines the two things I’m passionate about—comedy and education,” Irby says. And your 7-year-old will not be able to put it down.