Willie Lightfoot: Early Learning Happens Everywhere – Including the Barbershop - Early Learning Nation

Willie Lightfoot: Early Learning Happens Everywhere – Including the Barbershop

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

Willie Lightfoot is a Rochester (NY) City Councilmember. He’s also a longtime barber. And it’s in both roles that he has made an impact on early learning. As Lightfoot explains, the time when a child waits for a haircut makes for an outstanding opportunity to read. It’s just one of the lessons one can take from Lightfoot’s chair, including his common reminder to be positive.


Chris Riback:                 Councilmember Lightfoot. Thank you so much for joining us at the ELN Studio.

Willie Lightfoot:            Thank you for having me.

Chris Riback:                 Glad to have you. What in the world does a barber shop have to do with helping address early childhood learning or reducing violence or doing anything other than helping some of us look better than we have a right to?

Willie Lightfoot:            Right. I think barbershops historically have been places of trust, places of… that mostly oftentimes they transcend generations. People normally don’t change their spiritual leader, their doctor and their barber or beautician. So-

Chris Riback:                 Not necessarily in that order.

Willie Lightfoot:            Right, right. I mean, oftentimes we as barbers, we tend to be the first interaction that young people have in the rites of passage of becoming a young man or a young woman, if you will. And so we have that relationship. And we live in an environment where everything is about relationships. And so I think barbers and beauticians play a huge role in every community in the world and the impact they have on early learning and on people’s first interactions with having relationship building and being able to talk to individuals within the community.

Chris Riback:                 Really describe that for me. Make it tangible. I’m a two year old boy, I’m a four year old girl, and I come in. And what happens? What’s the experience like for me?

Willie Lightfoot:            Well, I mean, first of all, getting your first haircut is a very memorable moment for not only the child, but also for the family and the parent. And so I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve filled out first haircut certificates for families, for a kid, one, two years old, that’s getting their first haircut. So that interaction is huge, and-

Chris Riback:                 That builds the trust, I would assume.

Willie Lightfoot:            Absolutely.

Chris Riback:                 How do you use that opportunity to advance childhood learning?

Willie Lightfoot:            So what we’ve done in Rochester, through the last administration, we created a program where we were doing books, Storytime with Styles, for kids. We have books in every shop or participating shops where children and families, when they came in, they were allowed to take a book for free from the library.

Chris Riback:                 Almost like a library.

Willie Lightfoot:            Absolutely. So while they’re there waiting for a haircut. We’ve had opportunities where parents are reading to their children while they’re waiting, which is huge when it comes to early learning, having that experience of being read to, and in an environment that’s outside of the classroom. It’s in the community. So you’re getting so much in that experience. You’re getting interaction with your community. You’re getting the experience of working with your family member in the outside environment, outside of your home, and/or outside of the classroom, which just has a tremendous impact on development.

Chris Riback:                 How powerful, because it also must send the message that reading is not just a school thing. It’s not work. It’s part of what you do in everyday life. It’s what you do when you’re with your mom or dad. It’s what you do when you go to the barber. Reading is just part of life and learning is just part of life.

Willie Lightfoot:            Absolutely. And also when we look at the barbershops and your first initial question was how they impact not only early learning, but violence and things of that nature.

Chris Riback:                 Yes, yes.

Willie Lightfoot:            And so we are also utilizing barbershops and salons to deal with healthcare disparities, also to put out information around violence within our community. We opened up the first barbershop in the Rochester City School District. We were able to go in and mentor young people. We give them a haircut for free. We’re mentoring them. We’re talking to them about issues that they’re going through throughout society and different things that are coming up in their lives, which is giving them alternatives to making bad decisions and choices. Because we as entrepreneurs and business owners are allowing ourselves to interact with them on a positive note to hopefully curve some of the violence within our community. And also created a program called Cut the Violence, where we go out and do free haircuts, toys, gifts, connect parents and families with resources within the community.

Chris Riback:                 Yes. I’ve gotten to read a bit about some of the incredible work that you’ve done. I know that it’s an important passion of yours. How do you connect those two passions? How do you connect advancing early learning with violence that could occur at later stages in a child’s life?

Willie Lightfoot:            All roads lead back to education, period. Every role leads back to education. So the more that we can impact the child’s life, the earlier that we can impact that child’s life in a positive way, the better chance they have at becoming a productive citizen in our community. And so with the barber shop, that’s just one tool of many, I believe, that helps to reach them a very early stage in their life. Because again, most families are bringing that young man to the barbershop at a very young age, and then they tend to keep coming back. So there is someone that you’re going to have interaction with maybe twice a month, sometimes once a week, depending on their ability to be able to afford to cut.

And by us doing free haircut, we’re taking that barrier away of how often you can come, because we’re allowing… doing this for free. So we’re interjecting that early learning into them, not just about things that they would normally learn in school, but about life skills, which is very important, especially in regards to this generation, which tends to be the Google generation, which they’re not really getting the life skills, one-on-one, hands-on that our generation received.

Chris Riback:                 To close, Councilmember, and I realize this might not be specific to early childhood learning, but I bet with you everything connects, what does it mean to do it anyway?

Willie Lightfoot:            Regardless of the situations in our community, regardless of how dim things often sometimes can look… I’m in a very challenging community that my barbershop is in and that I represent. Oftentimes, things get dim and you often think that nothing’s making a difference. You’re not making a change. You’re not moving the needle. And sometimes that can get discouraging. And so do it anyway is saying, hey, regardless of how it may look like, regardless of what the headlines say, regardless of what you may feel from time to time, that the positive and the love and the positive things that are inside of you, do them anyway. Because ultimately, they’re making a difference in our community that oftentimes we can’t quantify or qualify how many lives we’re saving by being positive, regardless of sometimes the over-negative that we’re seeing in our community.

So just do it anyway. Be positive anyway, regardless of what is happening around us when we turn the television on, when we read the news, and of course when we’re in the barbershop having conversations. Oftentimes negativity seems to overshadow the positive, so I always tell folks, “Do it anyway. Be positive regardless of what others are doing.”

Chris Riback:                 Councilmember Lightfoot, I had the opportunity to read about you before this. I’ve now gotten to talk with you. You did it anyway, didn’t you?

Willie Lightfoot:            Yes. And continue.

Chris Riback:                 I know you will. Thank you. Thank you for what you do for your community. Thank you for joining us in the ELN Studio.

Willie Lightfoot:            Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

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