East New York

‘Guns Down, Clippers Up’: East NY barber shapes careers for at-risk youth

June 11, 2019 Paul Stremple
Calique Ewing (left) commutes from Far Rockaway to East New York to study at the barber school. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

In the back of a brick building on Blake Avenue in East New York, the sounds of buzzing clippers and good-natured banter fill the room on most mornings.

The place isn’t a barbershop, though, it’s a school—part of a program designed to help local youth embark on new careers as barbers.

The center is run by Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit dedicated to youth in low-income New York City neighborhoods. The program — Good Shepherd’s Barber School — was started by Sandra West, who oversees job training at the organization’s Academic and Career Enrichment program.

Since its inception last year, more than 20 apprentices have completed the training under the tutelage of master barber Christopher Workman, who also works as a mentor at Good Shepherds.

Some of the students have been previously involved with Good Shepherd’s Juvenile Justice program, which focuses on at-risk youth, but it’s also open to members of the community, ages 17-24, looking to make a positive change, regardless of their background, says West.

On a whiteboard, slogans like “Guns Down, Clippers Up” betray the seriousness of what some students face outside the classroom, but positive reinforcements like “Keep Your Head High” and “Know Ya Worth” are written alongside a gentle reminder that “All Cuts Are Free” but “Tips Are Appreciated.”

The barbers-in-training work at schools, senior centers and more. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple
The barbers-in-training work at schools, senior centers and more. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

The curriculum starts out academic, with Workman teaching students the health and safety knowledge needed to acquire a barber’s license from New York State. Once those basics are learned, the class starts cutting hair in the shop at Blake Avenue, offering free cuts to anyone who wants to drop in. Sometimes, even members of the Good Shepherd staff will stop by for a quick shape-up.

Training runs Monday through Wednesday from morning to mid-afternoon, but at least once each week, the apprentices from Good Shepherd’s grooming school are out in the community with their instructor, giving haircuts across Brooklyn. Whether its a senior housing center in East New York, a grade school in Bedford-Stuyvesant or a church event in Brownsville, the team makes an effort to give back while practicing their skills.

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A recent trip to a Bed-Stuy elementary school Workman put together had his barbers cutting students’ hair, provided that the kids picked a book and read it while the barber worked. At the senior facilities, residents are happy for the once- or twice-a-month visits, snapping photos of each other as they get their hair cut, chatting with Workman and filling him in on their families and friends.

This spring’s class started with around five apprentices, but what Workman tactfully refers to as “real life situations” — anything from family obligations to court dates — have kept many from continuing with the program.

Still, Workman is always optimistic, ready to meet students where they are. If they are committed to succeeding, it’s clear he’s in it with them, all the way.

“I’d rather have one student who takes it seriously than a bunch who aren’t really about it,” said Workman.

Calique Ewing, one of the young barbers associated with the program, has been able to regularly attend most of the events, commuting from Far Rockaway to the center in East New York to work on his barber skills under Workman’s guidance. When he’s not cutting hair for free in the program, he’s working for pay where he can in shops from Brownsville to as far as Staten Island.

Christopher Workman, the master barber in charge of the program. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple
Christopher Workman, master barber. Eagle photo by Paul Stremple

When students graduate from the program in June, they’ll be placed in nearby barbershops where they can continue as apprentices out in the world. West, the program director, has worked to forge those local connections, visiting licensed barbershops in the community and convincing them the benefits of taking on the young barbers, she said. The work is competitive, with barbers often paying steep fees for chairs during prime hours, so students are often faced with slower days as they build up their clientele.

But graduation doesn’t immediately guarantee success. From the first cycle of apprentices, West says 13 are still working in barber shops throughout Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem.

Deleon Jones was one of Workman’s pupil’s last year, in the first class of Good Shepherd apprentice barbers. He wants to keep working as a barber, but still needs to build up a regular clientele that can support him full time. For now, he cuts his friends hair and takes jobs at shops where he can, working another job outside of barbering for a regular paycheck.

It’s more than just the time in a shop, Workman stresses, and program focuses on the values of professionalism, preparedness and responsibility that will serve students in whatever capacity they need. Of course, he still wants to see his students make it as master barbers one day.

“Even if you don’t use it right now,” he says, “It’s a skill you can take for life.”

Paul Stremple is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Brooklyn. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.

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