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D.C. Barbershop Program Teaches About Life

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A new barbering school known as "54th and Cutz" is working with young men in some of Northeast D.C.'s most troubled neighborhoods.
Kavitha Cardoza
A new barbering school known as "54th and Cutz" is working with young men in some of Northeast D.C.'s most troubled neighborhoods.

A new barbering school "54th and Cutz" is part of an effort to teach new skills to young people involved in the District’s juvenile justice system. The school, which is in a public housing community in one of Northeast D.C.’s most violence-plagued areas, is also helping boys become strong men.

Andre Watson, 17, is one of five students learning how to become a barber. His friend Russell Gaskins is also learning the trade. Gaskins says he began getting into trouble early, in pre-K.

"Bringing knives to school, stabbing kids -- I was just a troubled child because I had a messed up family background," says Watson.

For Watson, that escalated as he got older into carrying guns, robbing cards and even assaulting police officers.

Such a history of violence might bother some employers, but Troy Dorsey, one of the barbering instructors, explains why he is more sympathetic.

"A lot of these guys, me included, didn't grow up in a home where there was a male," says Dorsey. "Or if there was a male, he wasn't a productive male. So when you get a chance to see someone who gets up to work everyday it gives you something to model yourself on. Because deep down all these guys want that, they just don't know how."

Teaching New Skills

The non-profit Sasha Bruce Youthwork coordinates the $65,000 city-financed effort. Students get paid $8.15 an hour to learn how to barber. These students offer free haircuts to residents in the area, as well as in a homeless shelter and nursing home. They complete 700 hours of training, approximately half of what they need to get their barber's license. 

Gaskins is mastering cutting techniques, including fades, shape-ups and temple tapers. He says he's also learning much more.

"How to come to school everyday, about following direction, what to do when you mess up -- don't panic," explains Gaskins.

A Sense of Community

Marcus Turner has been coming to the All For One Barbershop in northeast D.C. for 14 years. He says it's like being among a "community of uncles."

"It's just a sense of spirit, its always been positive, it's a sense of togetherness," says Turner.

Turner says the most important lesson he's learned in a barbershop is how to disagree without fighting.

"When you argue in a barbershop, you know these are still my friends," he says. "You're not arguing with a dominating attitude, but gaining some understanding of what the other person is saying."

Back at 54th and Cutz, Gaskins packs up his kit bag with combs, clippers and coveralls. Gaskins says he sees barbering as a form of artwork.

"Everybody's got their own hairline that distinguishes who they are," Gaskins says. "And when you spend time and effort into making their hair look good and when you look at the expression on their face how they like it. You like 'I did a good job.'"

Gaskins smiles as he says his last customer gave him a $20 tip on a free haircut.

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