An uncommon bond: Black-owned barbershops help promote cardiovascular health in the region

Health, specifically cardiovascular health, continues to quietly impact lives in the Black community. It is true that cardiovascular disease affects Americans from all backgrounds, but Black men are disproportionately affected. According to the Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics released annually by The American Heart Association, about half of all Black males have some form of cardiovascular disease.

The aforementioned is not helped by the fact that there is somewhat of a distrust of healthcare systems by many in the Black community. The refusal to discuss cardiovascular health or seek treatment that could keep one’s health from spiraling out of control serves as a catalyst for the general distrust of healthcare systems, which may be influenced by past events.

In Medical Apartheid, a landmark study of America’s long history of the unfavorable medical experimentation and treatment of those in the Black community, Harriet A. Washington, author and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction recipient, conveyed the heightened wariness of the Black community of medical institutions, calling this sentiment of distrust “not base-less.”

And our region is not immune.

From 1960 to 1971, about 100 Black men, women and children, unbeknownst to them, were exposed to large amounts of radiation in secret experiments conducted at the University of Cincinnati Hospital, where it is reported that some died within a few hours. In these experiments conducted by Dr. Eugene L. Saenger, patients were allegedly not given palliatives to prevent the side effects of radiation, including nausea and vomiting.

Health outreach by Black-owned barbershops helps overcome medical distrust

For many, visiting a barbershop on a Saturday afternoon and getting a haircut is more than just something that they have to do — it’s an experience where tradition is mixed with the hip and new.

It has long been known that Black-owned barbershops are more than just a place to visit before a job interview or when you are getting ready to hit the club on a Saturday night. In a country where institutionalized racism has traditionally been the norm, Black-owned barbershops have continually served as an oasis to many who feel disenfranchised.

Men of all ages come in to receive a fresh hair cut or shave, and while in the shop, conversations of all kinds occur.

Even with the advancement of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, these community establishments have come to be a place where folks can express themselves freely, talk about current events, swap stories and, more importantly, are fast becoming an avenue for people to become healthier.

There are health outreach programs all over the country, prompted by insurance companies and the community, that aim to address health disparities that make racial minorities more prone to certain cardiovascular disease. The aforementioned are betting that, by meeting their target population where they are, they can better inform about preventive care that can help fend off the ill-effects of circumstance.

In Aurora, Colo., the Colorado Black Health Collaborative's Barbershop/Salon Health Outreach Program is answering the call. The community-based initiative aims to help decrease the disproportionate rate of hypertension and other health problems within the Black community by promoting healthy lifestyles in barbershop clients. Alongside them, the nationwide Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program, a barbershop-based health promotion program, is gaining momentum in other communities.

These types of collaborations are filling a niche for many different reasons. In a 2017 TED Talk, Joseph Ravenell, an internist at New York University’s Langone Health, conveyed that the presence of a heightened level of trust between Black men and their barber — more so than with their own primary doctor — may be a contributing factor to success. In addition, he goes on to express the need to turn barbershops into a stable place where Black men can access basic healthcare.

Cincinnati barbers taking up the call

This sentiment reaches locally to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, where many Black men are struggling with their health in silence. Although no formal efforts are currently in place to link local organizations with the Black-owned community through barbershops, the desire is there.

Dr. Kenneth Davis, a physician at University Hospital, belives that partnering with Black-owned barbershops would be an innovative way for the region to target this hard-to-reach population.

“I think it's a good idea,” Davis says. “In many other areas of the country, targeting Black men in this manner (via Black-owned barbershops) has proven effective.”

Thembi Pierson, a barber at DJ’s on Walnut Street downtown, mirrors Davis’ words. "I think it's important — every Black male is going to experience (a Black-owned barbershop) sooner or later. They're going to go in and get the vibe.”

Pierson goes on to explain how he is attempting to bring back the allure of Black barbershops as a place where you can discuss politics, religion, sports, education and, among other issues, health. “I want to be more involved in the community as I continue to grow as a barber. I have worked in the past with the Ronald McDonald House and targeting the urban community when I sat on a health and wellness committee at the University of North Carolina in 2013. Then, I was a barber at NoGrease Exclusive in Charlotte. I would never be opposed to doing something to help better my people and people of all races.”

The Center for Closing the Health Gap, an organization that leads the effort to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities in Greater Cincinnati through advocacy, education and community outreach, has taken up the call locally and reached out to groups in the Black community.

“Partnering with barbershops in the region has definitely been a strategy of ours,” says Renee Mahaffey Harris, chief operating officer for The Center for Closing the Health Gap. “In partnership with Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, we have been working with barbershops in in the region to spread our message.”Renee Mahaffey Harris, COO for The Center for Closing the Health Gap (Provided)

With last year’s announcement of the University of Kentucky's medical program’s planned expansion to Northern Kentucky in partnership with Northern Kentucky University and St. Elizabeth Hospital, this may be a perfect opportunity for organizations in the region to partner with Black-owned barbershops and help undo and prevent future health concerns.

Upper Kutz, which opened in Covington last year, is one of the newest Black-owned barbershops in the area that's taking on the charge to be a positive place for community engagement.

Wale Giwa, owner of Upper Kutz and a Covington native, wants his new space to be used for advancement — not only for barbers but also for health professionals who want to capitalize on the shop’s captive audience.

“I want to create a safe space for men to discuss important issues,” Giwa says on the day of my visit, just audible over the whine of hair clippers, low banter of the customers and squeak of sneakers against the floor. “I see that cardiovascular health is an important issue too. I am not opposed to coordinating with local institutions that are aiming to address cardiovascular health. I see it as a great first step to coordinate an effort that targets the captive audiences found in the area’s Black-owned barbershops.”Katherine D. Simpson, nurse practitioner (Provided)

Katherine D. Simpson, a nurse practitioner at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, formerly served as president of the Northern Kentucky Heart Association. Originally from Northern Kentucky and with a nursing career that spans more than three decades, she weighed in on the issue.

“A lot of times, people wait until it’s too late to get a simple check-up. We feel our body telling us something, for years, that something is wrong and yet, we still ignore it. Partnering with local barbershops that are actively involved in health promotion and general wellbeing is one way to support individual health and healthy communities."

Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky may need to borrow a page from the playbook that many communities around the country are following as well as following the suggestions of many in the local community. Investing more in linking community health promotion with Black-owned barbershops may help us all breathe a bit easier.

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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.