How Barbers And Stylists Are Saving Lives In This Brooklyn Community

Salon owners Nelson Urraca and Hermione Fraser of Brooklyn
By Tiffani Greenaway
It was 25 years ago, and just a few months before he died from complications from AIDS, that tennis champion Arthur Ashe created the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He realized that African Americans were dying from preventable diseases like HIV/AIDS, and others, and to change that, he had a vision to get health information to the heart of African American communities. That is how 'Barber Shop Talk With Brothers' was created.
In partnership with the SUNY Downstate Medical Center's School of Public Health, ‘Barbershop Talk With Brothers’ teaches men and women in barber’s chairs in Central Brooklyn about their general health, and how their sexual health can impact others. Women can get information about their health and risk at their local salons with their wash and set. The program creates a safe space for people to have conversations that can only be had with people they really trust—the ones who do our hair.

“You can reach everyone you want to reach in the community at the barber shop or the salon,” says Brignel Camilien, who coordinates the program. “It’s the perfect venue to reach people without mistrust.”

Barbers and stylists in the 9 shops currently enrolled in this phase of the program receive training to have health conversations with their clients and basically serve as a conduit for health knowledge within the community. They are not paid, so it’s done purely for the love and preservation of the community that they do this work. And it’s working.
Hermione Fraser, owner of Hermie’s salon in Brooklyn, in business for 40 years, says,
“Working with the Institute has been a promising experience for my clients because they learn what to ask when they go to the doctor. I also get a lot of knowledge. The Breast Cancer Awareness Session was the most memorable because I had a client who attended the session and got tested after. She then found out she had breast cancer and was able to get ahead of it. Today, she’s doing okay.”
Nelson Urraca, 30-year owner of Nelson’s Barbershop, sums up his relationship with the Institute in three words, "knowledgeable, joyful, and hopeful." While Elaine Richards, owner of Royal Ambiance Salon says that the most important program that the institute has provided thus far would be the HIV/AIDS program. "The experience influenced the young people the most because they have become more cautious when having sex because they understand more now,” she explains. 

The Institute's newest initiative, ‘Ready, Set, PrEPare,’ shares information about Gilead Science's Truvada, a Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drug. While it’s not 100% effective, Truvada is a once daily prescription medicine that works to reduce the risk of HIV-1 infection when used with safer sex practices, like condoms. The drug can help prevent HIV infection in people who don’t have it, but are at increased risk like sex workers and people with partners who are HIV-positive or people who engage in high-risk behaviors, such as using IV drugs. The Center for Disease Control reports that by taking PrEP every day, a person can lower their risk of contracting HIV from sex by more than 90%.

Brignel says the program’s goal is to educate 300 people by getting them to enroll in bi-weekly text reminders about their risk and HIV prevention. It's an initiative that is sorely needed given the HIV infection rate for black women is over 20 times higher than for white women, and of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, more than 498,400 are Black.
Through grants, generous donations, and an annual Black Tie and Sneakers Gala, the Arthur Ashe Institute For Urban Health is able to continue this very important work that is currently being replicated in other communities. Hopefully, 'Barbershop Talk With Brothers' will one day be in a community near you.

How often do you get tested for HIV?

Tiffani Greenaway is the wife and mom behind MyMommyVents, a New York city parenting blog. Her tips have been seen on Yahoo Parenting, Mommy Noire, and Fit Pregnancy. Find more of Tiffani's work at mymommyvents.com.



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