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By Mona Dougani
Walk into Reggie Winston’s barbershop, and you’ll know immediately that you’ll get more than just a haircut.
A small studio set up in the back left corner of the shop pipes soft R&B music that pulses underneath the buzzing of electric clippers, the chop-chop of scissors, the whir of blow dryers, and the occasional chatter.
Clients of all ages are greeted with a smile as they come in, and kids pick out Hot Wheels cars and toy dinosaurs to take home. House rules listed on the wall remind you that you’re more than just a client: You’re family.
Located in Raleigh and founded in 2014, the Bar Ber Shop, named to highlight the bar inside the shop, creates leaders, according to Winston, who’s the owner and brains behind the operation.
Winston has mentored people that start their own barbershops, he said.
“Here, we don’t just pay,” Winston said. “We want to help shape and build people up by starting on the inside of that person. ‘Today, we groom the character of tomorrow’s leaders.’ That’s been our motto.”
In addition to providing traditional services and encouraging future entrepreneurs, Winston jumps at any opportunity to serve his community. He has partnered with organizations such as the American Heart Association, Wake County Public School System and Wake County Public Health Center to host blood pressure checks, to host screenings for sexually transmitted infections and HIV, food drives and more at his shop.
Shots at the shop?
So when Winston heard that on June 2, President Joe Biden’s administration announced partnerships with 1,000 Black-owned barbershops across the nation to host vaccine clinics, with the goal of 70 percent of the population vaccinated by July 4, he was in support of the initiative.
With some conditions.
The Bar Ber Shop is not one of the shops the Biden administration partnered with, but Winston is open to holding vaccine clinics.
“If they say, ‘Reggie, we want to come and really educate people on what the vaccine is, how it works, and offer it to them if they want.’ I’m cool with it,” Winston said. “I don’t want them to force my customers or force my barbers to influence the customers to get the vaccine, [but] if they wanted to make it available here, I’m all cool for it.”
Winston expects his customers and employees to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, he said, but he does not plan on making vaccines a requirement to enter or to work at his shop. He understands why some people might not want a vaccine yet.
“There’s going to be a lot of trust that’s needed to be rebuilt for low income and minorities,” Winston said. “I know, my mother, she was born in the 60s, she has older sisters that have been through some things.
“I’ve seen some things, that’s just one generation ago. We’ve learned a lot from that last generation, and there is going to be some hesitancy.”
Addressing those on the fence
In March, the administration of vaccines was lower in communities of color in the state, with Black North Carolinians accounting for 21 percent of the population and COVID-19 cases, but only roughly 16 percent of the population that was vaccinated.
As of June 14, the total number of Black North Carolinians vaccinated was 640,950, or 18 percent of the population, overall, an increased proportion of the population since March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services vaccine dashboard.
Winston and other barbers across North Carolina could help increase vaccination numbers.
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, barber shops not only provide traditional hair services, but are often places where Black people congregate to discuss important community issues.
“Outside of a pastor or a faith leader we’re [the] number one influencers or impactors in our community,” Winston explained. “A lot of people can’t tell their faith leader everything that they’re dealing with or have experienced, but they feel like they can tell that to us and our advice go[es] a long way.”
‘We have those conversations.’
Winston grew up in Zebulon and Wendell with five siblings and a fierce drive, knowing what it’s like to rely on others for help.
“US Foods service was my dream job. And it was my dream job because I grew up really, really in poverty, right?” he recalled. “Five kids, low income, government assistance, everything, you know, pretty much everything in school.”
After high school, Winston worked 60 to 70 hours a week at a food distribution company but decided a decade ago to pick up the clippers.
He hasn’t looked back.
Since the vaccines have been rolled out, Winston has shared what he knows about vaccines with his clients and listened to their mix of positive and negative responses.
“The people in my chair, and the people that I actually see and speak to, we have those conversations,” Winston said. “‘I’ll ask, ‘Have you done it? Are you considering it? What are your thoughts on it?’ I can’t change the person’s mind, I can just only give them my story.”
Sharing his story has propelled some clients to join the vaccination effort.
“It definitely happens without even having to tell them to do it,” Winston said. “‘Reggie, did you take the vaccine?’ ‘Yeah, I’m feeling good. I can’t wait.’ Some people start thinking, ‘I do want to go out. Yeah, Reggie did it so [can I].’”
‘We are essential’
On June 10, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that his administration had set up a $4 million lottery program to encourage more North Carolinians to get vaccinated. Winston said he thought the chance to win $1 million in one of four drawings this summer might move some of those not vaccinated off the fence, but he said time will tell.
Though Winston personally jumped at his first chance to get the vaccine, when thinking about the Biden administration initiative he wishes the federal and state governments had seen the value of barbers sooner in the pandemic.
“I think if they’re going to push that in North Carolina, they should do something to really help take care of the barbers, or the barber shops that are getting involved and not just only rely on them when they need us to give something,” he said. “We are essential. Take care of the barbers and stylists, don’t just ask them for help, give them some funding or some grant money or whatever to stay in business and be able to continue to make change in the community.”
At the end of the day, Winston has two dreams in mind: To be the best husband and someday have children of his own that he can nurture, while also empowering the community. At the Bar Ber Shop, he does just that.