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Building Trust, Styling Hair, Saving Lives

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Stephen Thomas w/ group of stylists
Dr. Stephen Thomas with a group of certified health advocates from the Health Advocates in Reach and Research (HAIR) program at the "What Barbers and Stylists Say to Scientists: No Research on Us Without Us" workshop held on December 9, 2019.

If Fred Spry has a moment to talk to you about his barbershop, he will. You'll come away from the conversation with his business card and an appreciation for how Black barbers and stylists can help advance the health of their communities. 

That's because, in addition to being a savvy master barber and shop owner, Spry is a certified health advocate with the Maryland Center for Health Equity’s Health Advocates in Reach and Research (HAIR) program—along with 21 other barbers and stylists across the Washington, D.C. area.

Spry talks to his clients about the importance of preventive health care, from flu shots to colon cancer screenings, which many in the Black community avoid due in part to a long-standing distrust of the medical profession. Breaking through this distrust, which stems from the long shadow of historical atrocities like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, can happen more easily when messengers are trustworthy and hold community credibility. In Black communities in America, Black barbers and stylists occupy these positions of trust.

"I think the program is a wonderful way of sharing health information because it gives the facts to us, the barbers, those who people trust," said Spry. “I think by allowing us to have the proper materials and education, we can better reach our clients and the community.”

Funded by the Cigna Foundation and the NIH-National Institute on Minority Health and  Health Disparities, the HAIR program has helped bridge the gap between health care professionals and the Black community by capitalizing on the established trust between barbers, stylists and their clients since 2014.

In December, Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE), convened participating barbers, stylists and scientists for the workshop "What Barbers and Stylists Say to Scientists: No Research on Us Without Us." He designed the workshop as a way to raise awareness that barbershop health campaigns have become mainstream options for community-engaged research.

The workshop featured M-CHE-led human-centered design activities to help participants brainstorm innovative strategies to improve the participation of African Americans in biomedical clinical trials. 

Omar Neal, the former Mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, served as the master of ceremonies and as a “truth-teller,” ensuring the workshop respected the sacrifice of those who have suffered abuse in the name of science.

The workshop also brought together key stakeholders, academic researchers, UMD graduate and undergraduate students, software entrepreneurs, funders, patient advocates, cancer survivors, and community/thought leaders from across the country dedicated to building trust across the African American community. 

“We now know more than we ever have about how to prevent and manage chronic disease. Now is the time to implement what we know works, and that includes building partnerships across multiple academic disciplines as well as the public and private business sectors," said Dr. Thomas, who is also a professor of health policy and management at the School of Public Health. 

"Being able to have everyone in the same place and starting to establish a community-academic partnership is really fantastic," said Natasha Williams, an attendee and a family science doctoral candidate at the School of Public Health.

Williams attended both to support her academic interest in community-engaged research and connect HAIR with her volunteer work at the Confess Project, a local non-profit that focuses on mental health advocacy in the Black community, she explained. Lorenzo Lewis, the founder of the Confess Project, was one of the workshop speakers.

Dr. Quincy Mills, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, who plans to collaborate with Dr. Thomas, agreed.

"This event is essential in thinking about the ways the health community and the barber industry can come together to think about the health and safety of the Black community," he said.  

Mills literally wrote the book on Black barbershops - "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America," in which he explores the lineage between nineteenth-century barbershops and the bustling enterprises of today.

"Barbershops are places that have been, in some ways, private spaces in a public sphere. They are places that Black men have historically seen as refugees to escape white surveillance and find a sense of safety and home," said Mills. “It's challenging for health professionals to break into that private space, but it's also essential." 

Kathy Wiedener, a representative from Advancing Cancer Treatment (ACT), a philanthropic initiative that encourages patients to pursue clinical trials as the first-line option in their cancer treatment (ACT was an event co-sponsor) reflected on the challenges that remain. 

"For being such a major city, the number of people who participate in clinical trials [in the Metropolitan Washington D.C.] is really small. Without clinical trials, there wouldn't be any progress in cancer treatment," Wiedener explained. 

Funded in part by ACT and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the December 9 workshop included focus groups with barbers, stylists, scientists and opinion leaders, which helped identify best practices for successful engagement and document expected barriers as the HAIR project expands across the Metropolitan Washington D.C region.

"We want to understand how to get people involved in caring about clinical trials and how to overcome any barriers to participation," said Amelia Jamison, a focus group facilitator, along with SPH Associate Professors Craig Fryer and Kevin Roy. 

University of Maryland researchers and HAIR health advocates are part of a large and growing network of scientists, academics, barbers and other community advocates working to improve the health of vulnerable communities through the unique environments of Black barbershops and salons. 

Other event speakers included Dr. Laura Linnan, director of the Carolina Collaborative for Research on Work and Health and a professor and dean at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health; Dr. Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Katie Stoll, executive director of the Genetic Support Foundation; Kevin Yates, a cancer survivor; Andrew Suggs, founder of Live Chair; Michael Brown, vice president of the National Association Black Barbers & Salons for Health and Robert Gold, founder of GoMo Health.

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