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Woody Beale's Sharp Insight

Cheat Sheet

The dearth of black voter turnout

  • Voter turnout is lower among African-Americans (40.6% in 2014) than whites (45.8%)
  • Turnout for young voters (ages 18 to 24) was an abysmal 23% in 2014
  • In 2012, African-American women had a 9% voter turnout advantage over African-American men
  • In Pennsylvania, even with a felony conviction, voting rights are restored to you upon release and those serving time for misdemeanor offenses may vote by absentee ballot from prison
  • 45 barbers have already signed on to Sharp Insight’s program. These barbers could connect with 6,000 potential voters, who in turn will talk with another 12,000
  • Philadelphia has 36,000 “missing” black men—men who are incarcerated or died early. This is the third highest total in the country

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Cutting Along the Color Line

Sharp Insight uses barbers to get out the black vote

To Woody Beale, a trip to his barbershop is as much about community as haircut. He has gone to the same Olney barber for years, a place where he shares updates about his mom and offers advice for his barber’s son, where men of his community bond over the great and small issues of the day. This social convening, Beale notes, is why some refer to barbershops as “the black man’s country club.”

A barbershop can also be a place of powerful change. As director of the Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program, Beale has used barbershops to spread the word among men of color about getting tested for STDs, through a combination of outreach and flyers. Now, Beale is hoping to harness that same power to bear on one of the core issues keeping men of color from accessing systems of power in Philadelphia—voting.

“Men are there,” says Beale. “They’re not going anywhere; they have to wait. It’s a captive audience.”

Through his work with YOACAP, Beale is dedicated to addressing issues facing black men and teens in Philadelphia. And he has long been troubled by the fact that they vote in rates lower than white men and almost three times lower than black women.

“Barbershops are trusted spaces in the African American community, where black men talk about everything from sports and entertainment to marriage and politics,” Beale wrote in a proposal for the program that would become known as Sharp Insight. “Some researchers refer to them as the ‘black man’s country club.’”

Beale had insight into why: Black men distrust elected officials and a political system in which they are disproportionately incarcerated, and many are under the false impression that you are ineligible to vote if you have a felony conviction. (In Pennsylvania, even with a felony conviction, voting rights are restored to you upon release and those serving time for misdemeanor offenses may vote by absentee ballot from prison).

Furthermore, as City Lab put it, “local government agencies have done…a lousy job of ensuring that disadvantaged and disenfranchised populations have what they need to vote.” This is why a  coalition of voting rights groups successfully sued the state of Pennsylvania in 2012 for failing to provide information about elections and registration materials to low income and largely minority residents.

But what to do about it, Beale wasn’t sure.  

One day in 2000, he was sitting in his barbershop and listening to all the conversations going on around him, which ranged from the personal to the political, when the answer came to him: He  could tap into the tradition of barber shops being a hub of communication and knowledge sharing for men of color.

“Barbershops are trusted spaces in the African American community, where black men talk about everything from sports and entertainment to marriage and politics,” Beale wrote in a proposal for the program that would become known as Sharp Insight. Indeed, the role of barber shops in black male public life is widely acknowledged and written about; even the Obama campaign used them to galvanize voters.

Beale started Sharp Insight with a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, to train barbers to become “information disseminators” in their communities, drawing on the informal ways they already fill this role and offering them formal tools to channel that energy towards targeted issues like knowledge of elected officials, under what conditions felons can still vote and the positions of different candidates.

“They will be disseminating information in a non-partisan way,” says Beale. “The point is not to persuade for any particular candidate but rather to simply get them more engaged and help men connect the dots between the issues and challenges in their lives and their elected officials.”

With the help of outreach worker Latasha Stone and several others, Beale has been recruiting barbers for the program since October. They identified neighborhoods around the city in which voter turnout among men of color was particularly low, sent out 300 letters to barber shops in those areas, used radio and social media, and then hit the streets.

Stone says they have about 45 barbers currently signed on, and hope to recruit between five and 30 more.

Stone says at first she was trepidatious about asking barbers to join the program because politics can be so controversial. But once barbers realized that they could do what they already do but for a broader purpose, Stone says they jumped on board. She says many were excited to be trained in how to talk to people about important political issues, rather than just listening while customers talk at them.

“There has been overwhelming support,” Stone says. “They say, ‘Wow, somebody finally realized what barbers really do and why barbers are important to the community.’”

“We’re looking at having men who are more engaged and men who are more informed,” says Beale. “But we’re trying to see these things in their actions as well, not just their knowledge. We’re trying to get men to change their behavior.”

Beale hopes to have recruited all interested barbers by the end of the month. They will then start a three-part training that will focus on how to talk and share information in a neutral way; how not to get frustrated; how to get out of situations where clients are talking about specific candidates; how to deflect; how to listen; and more. Then going forward, each month will have a theme and talking points on that theme—in the form of an issue or question and several action steps—will be sent to each barber to spread to his customers.  

Themes might range from voter indecision with accompanying resources about places to go to find out information about candidates, or the question of who is eligible to vote if they’ve been incarcerated and a number to call to check their status, or a month on knowing your city and state officials. Beale says all these themes are drawn from information collected both formally and informally during the recruitment process, during which barbers helped Sharp Insight staff identify important areas of confusion, misinformation, and disengagement. Once barbers are trained, they will also be supported to have these hard conversations by four outreach workers who will rotate through participating barbershops on different days of the week offering support and further resources.

Beale estimates that the barbers in the program could reach 6,000 potential voters, who in turn will talk with another 12,000. Ultimately, he  wants to change not just how men of color think about voting and civic engagement, but how they act more broadly in their communities.

He hopes they will begin not just to vote more, but also to participate more in community and political meetings, to be visible and powerful. Philadelphia has the third highest number of “missing” black men—black men taken away from their communities by incarceration or early death. The causes of this are systemic and deep; solutions must begin holistically from inside communities of color.

“We’re looking at having men who are more engaged and men who are more informed,” says Beale. “But we’re trying to see these things in their actions as well, not just their knowledge. We’re trying to get men to change their behavior.”

Header Photo: Flickr/Riza Nugraha

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