Alvin Irby is a teacher and comedian on a mission to place children’s books in barbershops throughout the United States, starting in Harlem.
Listen to This Episode
- Barbershop Books: barbershopbooks.org
- Facebook: barbershopbooks
- Twitter: @BarbershopBooks
- Instagram: @barbershopbooks
- Alvin Irby | “The funniest teacher I know.”: alvinirby.com
- Alvin’s videos: alvinirby.com/videos
- Facebook: alvinirbycomedy
- Twitter: @AlvinIrby
- Alvin’s comedy album: “They Know Too Much” on iTunes
- “I crochet in the subway and I don’t care what people think (ft. Alvin Irby)”. Video of Alvin crocheting on the NYC subway, as discussed in this episode.
- “7 Things You Should Know about Barbershop Books”
- “HuffPost Honor Roll: Barbershop Outreach Gets Black Boys Reading”. “A former NYC teacher is changing the perspective of young black boys on reading.”
- Today.com: “How Barbershop Books is getting young boys excited about reading”. The Today Show featured Barbershop Books on their website.
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.
Alvin Irby is a man of many talents who lives in Harlem, New York. Until recently, he was probably best known for his day job as a kindergarten and first grade teacher, or for his role as a standup comedian in the New York comedy scene. Now he’s making a name for himself as the founder of the Reading Holiday Project, a nonprofit organization that encourages black and Latino youth to read. His first program is Barbershop Books, which works with barbershops throughout New York City to create reading spaces for children. Alvin and I talked not long ago about Barbershop Books, his fondness for crocheting, and other things he has going on. I’ll play that conversation in a moment.
I’ve talked before on The Plural of You about third places, which are places other than home or work where people can gather to socialize.1 Different groups of us tend to favor different third places. For example, Adam Greenfield’s park benches in San Francisco, Ian Acker’s sober gym in Salt Lake City, and the Harrison Street skate spot in Kansas City. In the same sense, barbershops double as community centers in cities across the United States.
Social scientists have found that the presence of barbershops in urban neighborhoods often correlates with increased social resilience, meaning they generally lead to more frequent social interactions and make residents better equipped to confront some of the problems they face.2 Countless leaders and organizations have attempted to use barbershops in the past, either to launch education campaigns or to rally support for their causes, but with varying degrees of success. Alvin Irby wasn’t the first person to realize that barbershops are influential places, but he is among the first to see their potential as places where children can go to learn. This could have a tremendous effect on many people’s lives in the long run.
I’ve admired Alvin’s work for a few months now. He’s getting a lot of attention lately, and I highly recommend that you follow what he’s doing. He’s someone that I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in the future. Here’s Alvin Irby, founder and Director of the Reading Holiday Project.
Interview with Alvin Irby
JM: Hey, Alvin!
AI: Hey! How are you?
JM: I’m great. How are you?
AI: I’m doing alright. It’s…man. It’s been crazy, man.
JM: Why do you say that?
AI: Just a lot going on. I gotta get more volunteers to delegate stuff.
JM: What’s going on today?
AI: I had a meeting—well, several meetings, then I’m having to pick up stuff. Also, because I was near some of the barbershops, I went into one of the barbershops to straighten up stuff. It’s a lot of different things going on, but in a good way.
JM: Oh, of course. Good problems to have.
AI: Yeah, yeah.
This weekend, the end of this weekend, I’m going to be heading to Iowa to interview. I’m a finalist for an alumni service award from my alma mater that’s $25,000.
JM: Who’s your alma mater?
AI: Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa.
JM: Okay, so how do you make time for all this stuff, man? I saw you crocheting on the subway, you’re in comedy shows, you’re going to DC tomorrow. How do you make time for all of this?
AI: I’m no longer going to DC because New York 1 invited me to come in and do an interview in the studio at the New York 1 studio since they selected me as the New Yorker of the Week.
JM: Oh, congratulations.
AI: Yeah. How do I get it all done? All I can say is I went to Grinnell. A lot of people I knew at Grinnell were doing a million different things at once. Being surrounded by lots of people just like that—it just became a norm. I kind of always—even before Grinnell, I was doing a million different things. I guess that’s just how I roll every day. I’m just trying to get my Paul Robeson on, you know? [laughs]
JM: [laughs] That’s great, man.
I think I read back in April you were almost finished with your Master’s [degree] in Public Administration.
AI: Yeah. I graduated from NYU this May. Before that, I did a Master’s in Education at Bank Street College of Education here in New York City.
JM: Good for you.
AI: Yeah, all finished.
JM: What are you looking to do?
AI: Pay my loans. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] You and everybody else.
AI: When I graduated from NYU, I chose not to apply to jobs because I wanted to work solely on growing Barbershop Books.
JM: How long were you a teacher?
AI: I was a teacher for four years. I was an assistant teacher full-time for a year at the Bank Street School for Children. I taught first-grade in the Bronx at PS 69 for two years, and then I taught kindergarten as a founding kindergarten teacher at Kip Infinity Elementary School in Harlem. After a year at Kip, I took a position as an education director at the Boys’ Club of New York in East Harlem.
While there, I decided that I wanted to get formal management experience. I literally went from teaching kindergarten to managing a staff of sixteen. It was quite a change, and it was amazing. I really enjoyed the experience. I really enjoy working with the young people as well as leading professional development for my staff, but I felt that I would benefit from having formal management training. That’s when I decided that I wanted to go to NYU Wagner to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration.
I decided to leave the Boys’ Club after two years to go to grad school full time. Part of my decision to go full-time also was influenced by my desire to create Barbershop Books, and to start my own nonprofit. Literally before I even left, I contacted a logoist I know, who is a famous logoist. He created the Reading Holiday Project logo, which is the name of the nonprofit that I founded: Reading Holiday Project, Incorporated.
JM: Could you explain the purpose of the Reading Holiday Project? I know Barbershop Books is your first program. What all do you have going on?
AI: Right now, Barbershop Books is pretty much all that we have going on. The idea initially was really that I would create an umbrella literacy organization, because the issue of closing the reading achievement gap can’t be solved with any one program or any one initiative. It’s really going to take a host of collaboration and a holistic way of addressing the diverse challenges that boys of color face.
Reading Holiday Project was the name of the nonprofit that I founded. The idea for the name really came from an experience I had while studying abroad in London, when I discovered that a holiday meant to take a break. They don’t say “I’m going on vacation.” They say “I’m going on holiday.” What I decided is I wanted kids to take a little break to read.
JM: Oh, I like that.
AI: I want them to just take a little reading holiday. I read a few marketing books and branding books, and I realized that I couldn’t call the program in the barbershops the same name as the organization because it didn’t really capture the essence of what was happening in barbershops. I kind of used some of my creative exercises for brainstorming to come up with the name Barbershop Books. I think that was one of the best decisions that I made is really giving Barbershop Books its own separate and unique identity, creating reading spaces—child-friendly reading spaces—in barbershops.
JM: What specific problems are you looking to address with the Barbershop Books project?
AI: One has to do with addressing the issue of boys not identifying as readers. I think there are a few reasons why boys, especially boys of color—black boys, Latino boys—why many of them don’t identify as readers.
One, I think it has to do with a lack of relevant reading models. When I say relevant reading models, I’m particularly talking about black male reading models or, in the case of Latinos, adult Latino male reading models. When it comes to black boys and black men in the classroom, less than two percent of teachers in the United States are black males. When you get down to the early grades, K-3, which is really the critical period for reading acquisition, it’s well below one percent. We have a situation where millions of black boys across the United States never encounter black males engaging with them in reading in school.
Then, when we get to the home and community situation, we have a situation where a majority of black boys are raised by single-parent mothers. Many of the black men that may be present aren’t necessarily involved in boys’ early reading experiences. Now we have a situation where, not only are black men not involved in their early reading experiences in school, but they’re not involved at home or in the community.
So many people—when I talk to people, people want to know, “Why aren’t black boys reading?” or “What can we do to help black boys read?” The question that I feel like is really most important is really the question “Why should black boys read?” I don’t mean that in a literal sense because we know boys need to read, and everybody needs to learn how to go to college and to pursue other subjects. The question I’m asking really has to do with what social, cultural, or environmental cues or factors are present to lead black boys or Latino boys to the idea that reading is something they should do.
Things don’t just come out of thin air, and what I would argue is that many boys don’t have a reason to read. They haven’t been given, or nothing in their immediate environment is giving them signals that reading is something they should be doing. I’m not just talking about people telling them because all of their teachers tell them they should read, but what does it mean for a black boy to never see an adult, black man reading or engaging them in reading. What are the implications of that? I think that the implications are the more than 85 percent of black boys who are not proficient in reading in 2015.
That’s one thing, just a lack of relevant reading models; also, a lack of engaging books. When I say engaging books, I’m talking about books that are culturally relevant. I’m talking about books that are age-appropriate, and also books that are gender-responsive. A lot of the books that boys love and enjoy reading aren’t necessarily the books that are used for instructional purposes in classrooms. It would be a very rare occurrence for a kindergarten teacher to use a book about trucks or Transformers or something like that for instructional purposes. They definitely will let boys read books like that during their free choice time or even during their independent reading time.
I think that those kind of implicit [biases] against books that boys would like ends up sending signals to boys that what they think or their preferences for books aren’t really valued in the school setting. I don’t think that’s something necessarily that’s purposeful or that teachers set out to do that kind of thing, but I think that because a lot of the teachers are women, who are teaching boys from kindergarten to third grade, many of them have a bias against the books that the boys generally enjoy reading.
JM: Was there a moment when you were planning Barbershop Books when you thought to yourself, ‘You know, this might could work?’
AI: I think the moment when I got the idea, I thought that it had potential before I had even tried anything out [or] tested anything out. I was in the Bronx after school, getting a haircut at a barbershop that was across the street from PS 69 in Soundview.
While getting a haircut, one of my first grade students walks in and plops down. He’s staring out the window with a bored look on his face, and then he starts getting antsy and jumping around, running around. His mom is really frustrated. The whole time, I’m watching this going down and just thinking to myself, ‘He really should be practicing his reading right now. I know what his reading scores are, I know what his reading level is. He should practicing.’ I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, I wish I had a fun children’s book with me that I could give him to read while he’s waiting on his haircut.’
After that, I said, “This is something someone should do. Someone should create reading spaces in barbershops.” This was back in 2009 or 2010. I said to myself, “I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t know that I have the experience both as an educator or as an nonprofit leader to really convince people that they should give me money to make this happen.” I wrote a little one-pager about the program, and I saved it in my Google Docs or I emailed it to myself. I kept it there until 2013, when I left the Boys’ Club and decided to go to NYU Wagner. I took it out and I looked at it, and I decided this is what I’m going to do. This is how I’m going to use my graduate school program to help me bring it fruition.
JM: Good for you, man. That’s great.
What have you been able to accomplish so far since you started this?
AI: Last summer, I launched a small crowdfunding campaign and raised around $2,600. That money allowed me to purchase materials to pilot the program I piloted reading spaces in six barbershops in New York City. Over the last year, I’ve been monitoring them, talking to barbers, parents, observing the spaces, and just trying to learn how it’s being used or not being used, and also to create a model that’s replicable and scaleable. This year, working with a team of students from NYU, we won $5,000 as finalists in a public policy competition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fields Institute.
Also, there’s been quite a bit of publicity recently: The Atlantic CityLab published an article about Barbershops Books; Governing magazine; BBC; NBC4 here in New York City just recently aired a segment about Barbershop Books. It’s just really exciting. I’m in conversations right now with individuals from fatherhood.gov, who work with over 200 barbershops across the United States, working on fatherhood initiatives. I’m talking to them and hoping to collaborate with them.
I’m also talking to just a variety of people. I’m talking to librarians, I’m talking to local government officials, I’m talking to parents, I’m talking to barbers, barbershop owners. I really want to make this program as easy as possible to replicate but also maintaining high-quality in terms of ensuring that the books that are in the reading spaces and the way that it’s being implemented really resonates with young boys of color in a way that will help them identify as a reader and also to just read more for fun.
JM: What’s the process like for setting up a reading space? Do people come to you and say, “Hey, can you set this up for me?” How does that work?
AI: It really is a combination. Some people told me about some of the barbershops that we piloted in. Others, me and a volunteer graduate student from Columbia, we just hit the pavement. We walked around, had conversations with barbershop owners, explained what we were trying to do. From there, we set it up. We would come back and monitor the spaces regularly, replacing missing and damaged books. We expected and budgeted for certain books to be permanently borrowed.
JM: Oh, that’s smart.
AI: When you’re choosing books that boys really love to read, some of them might accidentally pick it up and forget to put it back. In our mind, those are considered donations to the community. A boy somewhere is reading a book that we put in our space. The way it’s set up currently is for them to be permanent fixture in the barbershop that will be there for all the customers and especially the youngest clientele to use while they’re waiting on their haircut.
Last week, I went into Fig’s Barbershop, and there was a daughter waiting with her father. He was waiting to get a haircut. He started reading of the books with his daughter while he was waiting for his haircut. Although boys of color are our target audience, anyone who comes into a barbershop can pick up one of the books. There really aren’t any restrictions in that regard.
JM: Was your childhood similar to the children that you’re serving now? Can you relate to what they’re going through?
AI: I grew up and was raised by a single-parent mother. In that respect, I can relate to a lot of young boys of color who are living with and being raised by single-parent mothers.
My mom was an elementary school teacher, so there was a certain expectation from my mom about me learning to read. What I would say is I actually had a very strong repulsion, distaste, or disdain—you could think of a million different adjectives for how I felt about books that [weren’t] positive at all.
My mom, seeing that I wasn’t reading as well as she believed that I should be reading, she used to make me come in from playing outside and do reading lessons with her. That made me just hate reading even more. [laughs] It wasn’t even like she was using fun books like the books I’m choosing for my reading spaces. These were dry, basal text-like books with these boring, short stories. It just made me hate it. Over time, between that and her sending me to summer school so that I could get even more help with my reading, I definitely became proficient at reading.
It wasn’t until high school that I really began to fall in love with reading, so much so that during my junior year for a science fair project, I surveyed over 200 of my classmates to find out what their reading behavior and habits were like. I discovered that a majority of my peers didn’t read unless it was required for class. They literally indicated that they didn’t read anything. I, just having developed this love for reading, I found that to be problematic. I decided to run for student council president, and the platform that I ran on was that I was going to create a reading incentive program for my high school.
What I did is, that summer after my junior year, I became the student council president. That summer, I wrote a grant proposal outlining the program and how it would work. It was called It Takes Two. Students had to write two paragraphs that they felt other students should read. I wrote a $810 grant proposal and set up a meeting with the community relations manager at the Barnes & Noble in Little Rock, Arkansas. Barnes & Noble in Little Rock gave me a $810 grant to implement a reading incentive program at my high school during my senior year in high school.
I didn’t think anything of it, really. I was just trying to help other high school students to like reading more. Then I went off to college to Grinnell.
JM: Why do you think reading was important to you to an extent that you wanted to start a project about it in high school?
AI: There were some experiences that started to make me conscious of educational inequalities. I was in regular classes pretty much all of my freshman and sophomore years. I remember being in a regular English class my sophomore year where we were reading short stories and doing spelling lessons in tenth grade in Arkansas. I remember having nearly a 100 percent A, and I remember thinking, ‘No one should have a 100. This is ridiculous.’ I just knew something was wrong.
I went to my counselor and I said, “Can you please switch me into any other type of class? I’ve been in this class an entire semester, and all I’ve learned is that my teacher thinks O.J. [Simpson] is innocent. I was like, “I should be learning more.” Anyway, she switched me into a pre-AP class, which was a pre advanced placement class for sophomores.
The first semester ended and the second semester started. I walked into this new class, and the first day I remember thinking to myself, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’ My school was almost entirely black and Latino, but in this advanced class, it got really diverse. I was like, “Is there a separate entrance? Where are they hiding them? What’s going on in this school?” That was something that jumped out at me.
Then the teacher starts pulling out this thick paper that had all of these book titles. I was like, “Why is she giving us all of these book titles?” She was like, “I would like for you all to choose two books that you’re going to read this semester, and you’re going to write reports about them.” I remember thinking to myself, ‘Two whole books? Like, the whole thing?’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘Whoa. Is this still tenth grade?’ How can there be such a huge difference in terms of expectations between this regular English class and this pre-AP class?
For me, that really opened up my mind. It was kind of—reading and the differences around what was expected in terms of reading that really started to make me be like, ‘Reading is really important.’ I really felt like, after doing the survey the next year and finding out that many of my peers weren’t reading, I decided I needed to do something.
I definitely can relate to a lot of the young boys that don’t like reading. Maybe it’s for different reasons or whatever, but I definitely can relate and understand why many of them really don’t see reading as something that they should be doing. Kids just want to be grown. They just want to be grown. If none of the grown people in their lives are reading regularly, then a lot of kids just conclude, “Well, that’s not something we do in my family” or “That’s not something that I do.”
JM: That’s an excellent way to put it because I never thought of it that way. That makes a lot of sense, though.
What else do you do outside of Barbershop Books? I talked earlier about the video of you crocheting on the subway. That left a big impact on me because that was a good video.
JM: You’re involved in comedy, too! There’s all these things you’re doing.
AI: Real talk: crocheting may be one of the most significant and influential factors in my life.
JM: Oh, how do you mean?
AI: I started crocheting when I was seven, and I was good at it. Because I was so good at it, I kept doing it to the point where I didn’t care what other people thought. I think that there’s something very powerful and transformative about learning at a very young age that you can do something well; also, learning that it’s okay to be different and it’s okay to be good at something. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are afraid to do things because they are afraid to fail or they are afraid of what people will think, and so they don’t do things. They could be the best person to have ever even done that thing.
For me, crocheting really gave me a lot of self-confidence to just not be pressured by what people thought or what they might want me to do. Part of it just had to do with me being so good at it and seeing how respected my talent. There are lots of things that I may not necessarily just love, but I can still respect people who are excellent at that thing, whatever it is: whether it’s surfing or table tennis, or whatever it is. Even if I don’t do it, I can still respect the talent. I feel like seeing that at a young age and how people respect it, even if they thought it was weird or whatever, it had a significant influence on me that stuck with me.
I’m also, like you said, a professional comedian. I perform standup several times a week. I’ve been doing standup comedy since August of 2009.
JM: What do you see in the future of all of these things you have going on, including Barbershop Books?
AI: Honestly, I just want to see reading spaces and children’s books find their way into every single barbershop across the United States that serves young boys. Once those reading spaces get created, then I would like to turn all of those barbershops into book distribution sites.
Right now, in some communities, they are book deserts. There’s a researcher, an education researcher from NYU named Susan Newman. She did a study where she found that, in some low-income communities, there’s as few as one age-appropriate books for every 300 children. When you have book deserts colliding with a lack of relevant reading models, it turns into a serious and unfortunate situation across the United States.
If I can make it so that young boys of color, every time they’re visiting the barbershop, they can take a free book home, Barbershop Books could literally triple, quadruple the home libraries of some children in a year. A lot of young boys of color, especially black boys, they visit the barbershop—if they have a low haircut, at least once a month. Some of them go twice a month.
There’s research from the U.S. Department of Ed that shows that students who read for fun just once or twice a month have significantly higher reading scores than students who indicate hardly ever or never reading for fun. Those one to two trips to the barbershop per month have a significant impact on boys’ reading.
JM: Well, good for you, man.
What is the best way for listeners to help you either with your project or maybe help address the problems that you’re addressing in their areas?
AI: One is book access. Getting engaging books into the hands and homes of young boys of color is essential. There was a study done in 27 countries, including the U.S. What they found is that just having more books in the home, regardless of parents’ level of education, regardless of their income—just having more books in the home lead to higher educational attainment of the children. What that tells me is that, if we can just get more books into the home, it can have a significant impact.
My thing is, I don’t think that’s the only solution. I think the boys of color and reading and kids living in poverty, they need a lot of help. I don’t think there’s just any one [solution], but how can people help? Increasing boys’ access, and home is a great place to start. Barbershop Books is a great way to help improve boys’ access. We currently purchase books from Scholastic’s FACE Program, which is a family and community engagement program that sells books to nonprofits and schools at a 60 to 80 percent discount. I’m looking to hopefully get Scholastic or other publishers to become sponsors, to give us books so that we can have an even greater impact.
That’s one thing, they can donate. Right now, we’re not accepting book donations because we don’t want people going out and paying retail price that we can get at a significant discount. People can recommend books. If they go to barbershopbooks.org and they click on the Get Involved tab, they can make a donation there. They can recommend a book. They can also recommend a barbershop.
Another and final way they can get involved is by sponsoring a reading space in their local barbershop. It costs only $500 to sponsor a reading space. We’ll ship out all of the things they need to the barbershop. All that we ask is that they have a local literacy advocate. We have a form, they’re all on the website, that they fill out. That’s just the person who will agree to help maintain the space. Those are pretty much the main ways.
Our website is barbershopbooks.org. You can find us on Twitter @barbershopbooks. We’re also on Instagram @barbershopbooks. You can also find us on Facebook, barbershopbooks. If they want more information about me or want to learn more about my comedy or my background and educational experiences, they can find more information about me at alvinirby.com.
This has been great. I’m really excited that I was able to come and speak with you today.
JM: Yeah, me too! Did you have anything else you wanted to add?
AI: Barbershop Books has kind of sparked a national movement to put children’s books in barbershops. Over the last few months, I’ve seen four or five programs pop up across the country that are putting children’s books in barbershops. This summer alone, two school districts that I know of have implemented programs that put children’s books in barbershops: the school district in Houston, Texas started a program; and also the school district in Jackson, Mississippi started a program where they put children’s books in barbershops. Both of those instances resulted from people reading and learning about Barbershop Books. They’re not even connected to us in any type of official capacity.
JM: Well, I’m proud of you, man, and I’m honored that you made time to talk with me.
AI: Alright. Cool, man. Have a wonderful, wonderful evening.
JM: You too, Alvin, I appreciate it.
AI: Alright, no problem.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
One final note: Grinnell College selected Alvin for the $25,000 alumni award shortly after we recorded this conversation. Congratulations, Alvin! You really deserve it.
This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in toasty Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
Visit PluralofYou.org for transcripts, show notes, and other resources. You can keep up with The Plural of You on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram at PluralofYou.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
Chances are that, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably an organ donor…or you’ve at least considered it. If you haven’t yet, you should look into signing up. As of this episode, there’s a green widget on the lower right corner of organdonor.gov that can show you on how to register for organ donation in your state, assuming you live in the United States. Think of it as a life insurance policy for someone in need, someone like you who would certainly appreciate your act of generosity.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.
- The concept of third places originates from The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg. (Back to citation.)
- There are several books and articles on barbershops in black culture, including Cracks in the Pavement: Social Change and Resilience in Poor Neighborhoods by Martín Sánchez-Jankowski. The argument about resilience is based on this article by Wood and Brunson. (Back to citation.)