Barbershop tours bring suburban lawmakers to inner city
There's hair on the floor, and the scent of chemicals permeates the air.
A suburban politician moves among the smocked customers and busy barbers at Blades Barbershop on Chicago's far Southeast Side. He's got a message you don't hear often from those whose livelihood depends on winning over voters.
"I'm from Barrington, and I don't need your vote," Republican state Sen. Dan Duffy recalls telling some of the barbershop's customers on his visit this fall. "But I'm here because I vote on legislation that impacts your community. I want you to ask me questions."
And they do.
Blades Barbershop is one of the unlikely places where some politicians are learning about the needs of black communities and educating residents there about who Republicans, as well as Democrats, are — in hopes of developing a more engaged electorate.
The nonpartisan Young Government organization, run by Jeffery Coleman of Chicago, organizes the tours. The group's aim? "Making both Republican and Democratic powers recognize newly energized and better educated groups of young educated voters."
The group, which formed in 2008 and, according to Coleman, has grown to a network of more than 6,000, organized a string of recent tours to give area residents the chance to pepper elected officials with questions about the most pressing needs of their neighborhoods. On their home turf.
That includes school equity. Discontinued after-school programs. Regulations hurting small businesses. A lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables at local grocery stores.
"In a barbershop, these topics come up all the time," said Damion "Slim" Moore, the owner of Blades.
But he added that customers, without regular access to elected officials, "are losing faith in politics — period."
By bringing lawmakers — many of whom don't even represent the areas they are visiting — into black neighborhoods in Chicago, Young Government is seeking to change that.
"Barbershops provide not just haircuts," said Coleman, whose father, Percy, is a 34th Ward Chicago alderman. "But in African-American communities, they're sanctuaries ... where the real conversation starts."
Among the lawmakers who have taken the tours are Democratic Congressman Danny Davis of Chicago, former Democratic Comptroller Dan Hynes of Orland Park and Barrington's Duffy.
Duffy, unopposed in the March 20 primary election, will face Democrat Amanda Howland of Lake Zurich in November.
A resident of Lake Barrington who grew up on Chicago's South Side, Duffy is fully aware that his district in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties doesn't even come close to representing Blades or any of the other barbershops he visited.
Some of the people Duffy encounters have heard of his fight against the spread of red-light cameras. Others want to know why they don't see their schools improving, or they tell him that they feel their vote is being taken for granted.
From Duffy's perspective, the tour's been educational, too.
He says he's learned that a number of people feel that Republicans have "just written off" the black community as voting solidly Democratic.
During one of his first shop visits, he was hit with a simple question: "Why do you care?"
"If people are going to win statewide offices, then they need that (support)," Duffy responded. "To do that, you need to be receiving votes and building relationships in the African-American community."
Keith Price, an alderman from South suburban Harvey who has been a Young Government member since 2009, says having lawmakers visit communities' "home turf" will only pay dividends in the future.
"I think it's very important. It gives candidates or just elected officials the opportunity to hear directly from some of the other areas. And that type of information — they can know what other communities are really wanting or striving for. If someone gets in certain spots they can always remember they have that dialogue in that community."
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